“American Buddhism” can mean a lot of different things, from silent retreats geared toward tech CEOs to longstanding congregations embedded in Asian immigrant communities. And ’twas ever thus: Historian Michael K. Masatsugu tells the story of how two different kinds of Buddhism came together, sometimes clashing, in 1950s California.
Starting in the late nineteenth century, Masatsugu writes, Japanese immigrant laborers brought their Buddhist faith to the United States. A majority of them were Jōdo Shinshū Buddhists, following a tradition that stresses the experience of ordinary laypeople rather than monastics.
For many Japanese-Americans, that faith was an important part of building an ethnic American identity. Faced with both racist discrimination and calls to convert to Protestantism, the immigrant communities worked to incorporate Buddhism into broader U.S. society.
By the 1910s, Masatsugu writes, ceremonies that had been organized around a lunar calendar in Japan were held on Sundays to conform to the religious schedule of a majority-Christian nation. Buddhists built temples in European-American architectural styles, including an elaborate brick building with a Roman façade built to house Buddhist institutions in San Francisco. Worshipers sat on temple pews rather than floor mats, listened to Buddhist religious songs accompanied by pipe organ, and addressed their priests as “reverends.” When World War II brought a wave of anti-Japanese racism, the North American Buddhist mission renamed itself Buddhist Churches of America, adopted an official English-language policy, and demanded loyalty oaths from its membership.
After World War II, a growing number of white Americans converted to Zen Buddhism as popularized by Japanese writer Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. In the 1950s, many of these white converts congregated in the Bay Area. The self-taught psychology and religion writer Alan Watts was a particularly visible Zen enthusiast.
Masatusugu notes that Watts is also a good example of the Orientalist viewpoints of many converts, who looked at Buddhism as an exotic antidote to the dogmatism and hierarchical values of mainstream, white, Christian society. Watts wrote that Zen had “no doctrinal teaching, no study of scriptures, no formal program of spiritual development”—and maintained that position even when contradicted by Japanese Zen practitioners.
In the 1950s, Buddhist Churches of America organized conferences and study groups that brought Japanese-American Jōdo Shinshū Buddhists and white Zen converts together. Participants praised these efforts as fruitful cross-cultural dialogue, but Masatusugu writes that they also led to increasing tension. The Zen converts criticized Sunday temple services and the Jōdo Shinshū practice of devotional recitations as being too similar to Christian practices. One white writer declared that the Beat Generation was “not looking for a popularized watered-down version of Buddhism.”
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Japanese-American writers responded by defending the temple-based community. As one Jōdo Shinshū priest wrote, the sect’s teachings “made difficult truths intelligible to minds of various capacities.”
A second-generation Buddhist named Taitetsu Unno wrote a critique of the Beat Buddhist vision, arguing the Beats failed to deeply engage with Buddhist teachings. Unno put it this way: “The earnest seek to go beyond this world of transiency and impermanence and realize their roots in a stable reality that is the ground of life. But so often they seek it in the wrong places.”