The Future of Jodo Shinshu in the West

Amid declining membership, a shortage of ministers, temples shuttered by the pandemic and other woes, Jodo Shinshu temples in the West face enormous challenges. What’s in store for the future?

To answer that question, three bishops representing the U.S. mainland, Canada and Hawaii, discussed their thoughts in an online forum last week hosted by the Buddhist Churches of America‘s (BCA) Center for Buddhist Education.

BCA Bishop Marvin Harada spoke of how previous generations of Shin Buddhist followers in America weathered economic hardship, two World Wars, forced internment in concentration camps, racial prejudice and discrimination. Now current temple members face a global pandemic that caused, among other things, the cancellation of temple services and many activities, forcing drastic change.

“How we proceed from here might be our most crucial period for Shin Buddhism,” Bishop Harada said. “Will we adapt to the changing times and grow? Or will we wither away until we are just a school of Buddhism that once was?”

Already signs of decline abound. In BCA, the number of members dropped by 28 percent in the past 10 years, according to Rev. Harada. Canada and Hawaii experienced similar trends. “If we lose 28 percent every ten years, we’ll be gone in a few decades,” he said. Even in Japan, temple membership is declining. BCA’s parent organization, the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha denomination (commonly called Nishi Honganji), expects in the future to close a third of their 10,000 temples. “I don’t think we can look to the Hongwanji for support,” he said.

Hawaii bishop Eric Matsumoto added: “Another question is, Jodo Shinshu as a teaching may be around, but will we as an organization still be around?”

Canada bishop Tatsuya Aoki recalled first visiting Canada from Japan as a 20 year old student. His uncle, who was serving as a local minister, told him the Shin temples there would only last another ten years. It’s been several years since, but challenges remain.

In Hawaii, other Japanese Buddhist denominations also see sinking memberships, said Hawaii bishop Eric Matsumoto. A bright spot is a relatively recent arrival, Shinnyo-en, a form of esoteric Buddhism, which sponsors a lantern floating memorial ceremony on Memorial Day weekend, attracting as many as 40,000 people.

Bishop Harada finds hope in history. Whenever Buddhism entered a new country, it eventually grew and flourished to become a major religion. He predicted the same would be true in the West.  However it may take another “100 or 200 years,” he said.

The trio agreed social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, can play a big role in spreading Shin Buddhism, publicizing events and connecting with potential new members. However, those channels have not been fully tapped.

Bishop Aoki said, “We are not trained or good at marketing or promotions.” Bishop Matsumoto admitted he wasn’t tech savvy and had to rely on others for help. “We could do much better,” he said. They made a general appeal for help.

The history and development of Jodo Shinshu temples in the West are closely tied to immigration from Japan and Japanese-American communites. The first temples were founded and built by Japanese immigrants. Now some people feel that identity needs to be discarded and made more Western. Bishop Aoki recounted how at a meeting, one temple member complained they needed to be more “Canadianized,” “Westernized” and less Japanese. Yet, the temple hosting the meeting served a dinner of sushi, teriyaki chicken, and chow mein. Evening entertainment consisted of karaoke, shigin (Japanese poetry reading), and Japanese dance.

Bishop Harada said: “We can maintain our Japanese American community, and also Japanese culture, that has much connection to Buddhism and Shin Buddhism, while at the same time, reaching out and becoming more diverse and more inclusive and sharing this universal teaching. This universal teaching connects with people of Japanese American ancestry and it connect with people of all ancestries. We can do both.”

Historically temples hosted cultural activities such as Japanese tea ceremony and flower arranging, as well as youth activities such as basketball and scouting, all of which have served as “gateways” bringing in new people. Offering meditation classes also can serve as a gateway, especially because in popular cultural, Buddhism is equated with mediation, Bishop Harada said.

A major challenge is attracting new members. Young people may ask, what are the benefits? Currently there’s no clear answer, Bishop Aoki said. By contrast, he explained how joining a yoga studio for a year provides unlimited lessons. When asking someone to become a member, Bishop Aoki  remembers being  told, “I’m not quite there yet.”

Jodo Shinshu teachings are important in helping people understand their lives and providing spirituality, they agreed. But the message and connection to daily life must be better clarified and made more understandable. “Shinshu must demonstrate exactly, specifically, how it will contribute in a practical way to the lives of American people,” Bishop Matsumoto said.

“What resonates with people?” Bishop Harada said. “Practical application of Buddhism to their everyday lives. How to deal with the stress, anxiety, and problems of life that we all face as human beings.”

Bishop Harada said Shinshu must address important questions such as, “How can I live a meaningful life?” and “How do I live a fulfilled life?” If the teachings don’t resonate with people, visitors won’t return. Also, ministers must not bore people or put them to sleep.

Care must be taken so Amida Buddha doesn’t appear to be a god or deity, and so Jodo Shinshu doesn’t appear to be like Christianity, Bishop Harada said. In referring to Amida, he suggested using phrases such as “Immeasurable Light,” “Light of Dharma,” or “Light of Wisdom.” And then there’s the term “Pure Land.” Bishop Harada said: “If we only refer to Pure Land as after we die, then how is that different than Christian heaven to the newcomer? But if we explain the Pure Land as a metaphor for the world of truth or Enlightenment, then I think that distinguishes it from the notion of heaven.”

A viewer commented how she was turned off by Christian terms used in Shinshu such as “minister,” “church,” and “fellowship.” The use of “Buddhist church” and other English terms originated during World War II as a way of making Shinshu more Western when Japanese Americans faced harassment and discrimination. More recently, the Buddhist Churches of Canada changed its name to “Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temples of Canada.”

According to Bishop Matsumoto: “In our Western World, we need to be a little more proactive and engaged and not so passive. We should be more visible, and accessible, while still remaining humble, open, respectful and expressing our deep warmth for friends and fellow practitioners.” Shin Buddhism is an important teaching with a universal message, he said. As professor Alfred Bloom once said, “The best kept secret of Buddhism is Shin Buddhism in America.”

Understanding Shinshu for oneself is utmost important to propagate the teachings, Bishop Harada said. Citing professor Takamaro Shigaraki, he explained, “There is no propagation without first seeking the path,” which refers to the close relationship between “seeking the path” (Japanese: gudō (求道)) and “transmitting the path” (Japanese: dendō (伝道 )).

Buddhist education programs are key, Bishop Harada said. In addition to the traditional study of Shinshu texts and writings such as Tannishō, Shoshinge and the Sutra on the Buddha of Infinite Life, classes on new subjects such as Buddhism and movies, workplace issues and comparative religion could be taught by ministers, minister assistants, and even, laypeople who have studied in depth.

Consequently, not only ministers, but laypeople could share their thoughts and explain to others the importance of the dharma in their life, naturally becoming cheerleaders for Shinshu. Bishop Harada gave an example of when Apple’s iPad first came out, he saw random people in a coffee shop gather around a new buyer, wanting to see the device and asking questions, which the customer happily answered.

“I thought, Apple doesn’t even need sales people,” he said, “because every Apple customer is a sales person for Apple.”

That’s how Bishop Harada sees Shin Buddhism really growing in the west—”when each and every Shin Buddhist becomes a person who transmits the Dharma through their thoughts, through their words, and through their actions.”

Reiterating how we must act in this crucial time in Shinshu’s history, Bishop Harada said: “Personally I am up to the challenge. And I hope each and every one of you are as well.”


-Rev. Ken Yamada, editor, Shinshu Center of America