Q&A

Fantastic presentation, Scott. One question: when can we preorder the book? And, thank you for making me understand better how I came to Buddhism through white writers like Kerouac and Watts but never heard of the American Shin Buddhists who nurtured them until 30 years later.

Ann G.

A book proposal is currently under peer review, so hopefully I’ll get good news soon.

Part of the thing about Watt’s is that he’s a tricky character, because Watt’s was like a gateway drug for a lot of people into Buddhism, myself included. I still have “The way of Zen” or some collection of essays that Alan Watts wrote on my bookshelf in my office that I think somebody gave me in the mid 90s because they knew that I had an interest in religion. And I think that it’s important to recognize —I think that many of us have to come to terms with Alan Watts, and we have to recognize that he’s part of our collective religious consciousness even though we can also be critical of his particular take on Buddhism.

I give him some jabs in my talk for a rhetorical purposes — I don’t want to make the false claim that he wouldn’t have been writing about this stuff without the Imamuras. His first book on Zen, for example, came out when he’s still in England in the 1930s, and if you think about that it’s kind of ridiculous because he writes his first book on Zen without doing any research and that’s what gets him a professorship at the American Academy for Asian studies in San Francisco. But I think that his stature is elevated once he gets into California and then he creates these networks that Jōdo Shinshū Buddhists are a part of which would then allow for folks like Gary Snyder to come along. Snyder was very good friends with the Imamuras for their entire lives, and so I think that there’s a really strong case for somebody like Snyder and Jack Kerouac who popularized Buddhism among the Beat poets and whatnot to note the absence of Jōdo Shinshū in that conversation and Japanese Americans. — Dr. Scott Mitchell

Thanks so much for the fascinating talk, Scott! I was wondering about the transnational component that you mentioned and this “pan-Pacific Buddhist world” and to what degree local developments in Berkeley are in dialogue with issues in mid-century Nishi Honganji, and tensions or dialogue between headquarters and American branches.

Justin S.

This is something that I’m still working on and I think it’s very, very complicated, particularly in the early 1950s. If you look at the first few volumes of the Bussei in the 1950s, there’s a lot of folks who are nisei Japanese Americans and are going to Japan to study. Some of them are going to Ryukoku University; some of them are going to Tokyo University. And some are just going as tourists. It also seems clear that some of them are there as part of the Allied Occupation Forces in Japan after World War II. So I think that there’s a lot of complicated issues going on and I’m still trying to work out the best way to present some of that material.

Simultaneously there’s also scholars from Japan coming over so Lama Tata is a figure that I’d love to know more about. He’s one example. There’re a couple of other scholars from Japanese universities who come to the United States. There’s an essay that I think is in the pre-war Bussei which is actually a reprinting of an essay that is making reference to a pretty obscure debate within Ohtani from the 1920s, so there’s definitely lots of interesting connections going on back and forth between Japan and Berkeley. And one of the things I’m still trying to work out for the book is how much to focus on that. Michael Masatsugu calls this the “pan-Pacific Buddhist world” — he talks about these networks that create a sort of shared imaginary so to speak, while being attentive to local circumstances. So, in the post war period in Asia, you have the rising nationalist movements during the decolonial period – plus the CIA involvement — so there are many interesting things happening. Similar things are happening in United States — similar discourses around Buddhism being a religion of world peace and anti-atomic war and so on, but there’s also clearly a uniquely American debate going on which centers around racism and identity and how Japanese American Buddhists can fit into the body politic. How much of that gets filtered back to Honganji? I don’t know, that’s a really good question and I think that would be another project, but I would love to do collaboratively with people who have access to those resources and languages. — Dr. Scott Mitchell

Who would you point to as the leading Shin Buddhist teachers and writers today who bridge mainstream interest in Buddhism in the U.S. with the felt sense and experience of Shin faith and the Nembutsu?

Patricia I.

Just last Friday, the IBS hosted a lecture with Kenneth Tanaka in honor of Taitetsu Unno, the late Taitetsu Unno, and so the first person I go to, of course, is Taitetsu Unno’s son Mark Unno. Mark Unno is a noted scholar as well as a Jōdo Shinshū priest who I think is very much in touch with the spirit of this question. Jeff Wilson is another person I know who has written of that bridge. I know that Jeff’s written for Tricycle and whatnot, which I think is one way to talk about bridging that divide, so I would love to hear other people’s suggestions. — Dr. Scott Mitchell

To what extent do you think the debates within the Shin community about the relationship between “original” Buddhism and Shin Buddhism, that is Amida and Sakyamuni, are reflective of and indebted to similar debates that took place in Japan in Shinshu in the first half of the twentieth century. Attempts were made in Japanese Shin to explain the relationship with the historical Buddha both textually (Akegarasu Haya, for example) and artistically (Kobe Nishhonganji Betsuin, particularly the altar, for example). Do you consider these trans-Pacific dimensions in your work on this topic?

Richard J.

Yes, this is one of the challenges of this project. As I said before, I started off interested in just reading the Bussei, and then noticing all of these connections. My impulse is to keep following all of those threads, and then I fear I’m never going to actually write the book. I’m just going to follow historic lines of influence. I do think that there is some sort of relationship between these debates in the United States and what’s going on in the first half of the 20th century in Japan, I think a lot more than previous scholarship has really paid much attention to, and I think part of it just has to do with the silo effect that happens in academia, where folks like me focus on America and we don’t always do these sort of cross cultural, for lack of a better word, studies to really unpack these things, but I do see evidence. As mentioned, there was a reprinting of an article that was originally published in Japan in the Bussei on a highly technical doctrinal debate, which to me is evidence that the American Shin Buddhists are very much aware of the conversations that are happening in Japan.

I’d also point out that all of the first wave of ministers who served in Shin temples in North America, they were all getting educated in Japanese Buddhist universities or in the Tokyo imperial university, and so they must have been exposed to these kinds of conversations before coming to the United States and they would have brought that that with them. So, it seems weird to me to think that they wouldn’t. If you have somebody who graduates from Ryukoku in 1900 immersed in some of the turn of the 20th century debates that are going on, how would they not have that awareness when they come to the United States? Maybe it doesn’t manifest in an obvious way, which is one of the things that is a challenge, I think, for this kind of study; it’s the finding the less obvious ways that Shin ideas or practices manifest themselves, so one of the slides I had was on this idea of gassho. This essay nowhere mentions what gassho is ritually—that it’s the saying of the name. So if you don’t know to look for that as an example of a Shin Buddhist practice, you might overlook it. This is one of the one of the challenges that I’m working with. And finally I’ll add that I’m also going through the Japanese language sections of the Bussei – the pre-war volumes and the first three or four years of the 1950s all had a Japanese section. I’m going through and trying to see what’s going on in those essays and see if the discourses line up with the English language material. It’s very, very difficult because, especially in the pre-war volumes it’s all handwritten Kanji which is what it is, but thank you. — Dr. Scott Mitchell

I didn’t know Jodo Shinshu was that popular outside Japan. So when you say American buddhists now are they mostly Jodo shinshu duddhists?or Theravada Buddhists? or there are many different sects like in Japan?

Imari S.

Yes, as far as the overall diversity of American Buddhism goes, it’s extraordinarily diverse. Anecdotally, people like to say that every kind of Buddhism in Asia has a presence in North America — I don’t know if that’s true and I’m not quite sure how to quantify that, but there’s certainly a lot of diversity. I think one of the one of the things to remember however is that the number of self-identified Buddhists in the United States still in the amounts to about 1%, so it’s a very small but extraordinarily diverse minority. Dr. Scott Mitchell

I am a sansei in British Columbia, and you hit on a very important fact. Growing up as a Jodo Shinshu buddhist, our temple was as much a cultural focal point for generations of family friends to meet and carry on Japanese traditions such as obon odori and mochi-tsuki as it was a religious centre. However, my question is where do you stand on what is lost and what is gained when sanskrit chants and japanese gathas are translated and ‘anglo-cized’? What is gained when Sanskrit chance and Japanese got those are translated and Anglo sized.

J.M.

I don’t know if I can answer that question but I’ll give it a shot.

First and foremost, I’ll say that I don’t feel as though it is my role as a scholar to make a judgment about whether or not a religious community does X or Y, I think that’s a process the community itself needs to go through, and as that develops in response to changes and desires and whatnot. Having said that, I also agree with the late Leslie Kawamura who was a professor in Canada at the University of Calgary I believe. He was also a Shin priest. He’s quoted in an essay about Jōdo Shinshū music. The ethnographers that were interviewing him asked him about chanting in another language and he says something that I will not try to replicate, but he essentially says that the point of chanting is not to chant in such a way that you understand what’s being said, but that the point of chanting is to chant. I’m of the opinion that there’s a certain affective or emotional or subjective experience in doing ritual, that is, the point, so to speak, of practice and whether it’s in Sanskrit or classical Japanese or English or French, etc. is not as important as the actual act of doing it. That’s my response to that. — Dr. Scott Mitchell

Thank you so much for introducing us to your new project. I’m very excited about this work! This is similar to Justin Stein’s quesiton.  With this focus on the publications of Shin Buddhists in the U.S., I wonder if you’ve also looked at Shin Buddhist publications in Japan around the same time period? I’m curious what these Jodo shin  periodicals/publications in Japan might tell us about how the Shin missonary efforts were talked about in Japan, and what they might they tell us about some of the nuances seen in the way Shin Buddhism is expressed in the sources you introduced to us today.

Eric H.S.

That’s a really great question, and like I said before, I’m trying to write a book that’s focused on a particular topic and obviously, it has relevance to other fields. This is a challenge because I very much want to get into these issues that are being raised. I’d be really curious as to what Nishi is writing about in the pre-war period, knowing how much missionary work they were doing around the world, not just in North America, but in other parts of the Japanese empire —I would be curious to know how that was framed. I fear it’s a little bit beyond the scope of my current project though it’s also the kind of thing that I would love to do in the future, particularly as a collaborative project. I feel as though given my academic strengths on this side of the Pacific — but yes, I would be very interested if anybody else might have sources particularly from the pre-war period as well as the post-war period, although again, I think that that would be a different context.

Some of the stuff the Japanese Americans who go to Japan and write about their experiences in Japan and the post war Bussei will speak to how terrible it is in Japan will speak to how because of the war cities are in ruin and Buddhism is declining and they have this rhetoric of things being in decline. So it would be actually quite interesting to see how Japanese Buddhist in the post war period are talking about Buddhism. At the same time, the Japanese Americans are in the country as well, and that’s a whole other project I imagine. — Dr. Scott Mitchell

I love how you read archival sources to think about how invisible labor and community are crucial for the existence of Buddhism, such as who served the pies or who made them, or who was in the room even if they weren’t mentioned. Could you share more about your methods and approaches, or any other details you’ve found, for researching community building in American Buddhist history? Will there be more about this in your book?

Nancy L.

Thank you, though I don’t know if I’ll ever know the answer that question of “what kind of pie”.

There’s a couple different ways of approaching it. On the one hand I’m I feel as though I’m very much indebted to some of my graduate training, which was ethnographic in nature and so I’ve spent a lot of time within living communities, and so, when you do that, then you begin to see the whole community in a way that you might not see if you just look at texts. And so, from that point of view, the first thing to do is some speculative imagining of what was going on when you’re reading the historical documents because we don’t have direct access to that.

This goes back to what I was saying about that essay about gassho. I read this essay where somebody in 1939 is talking about making sure you say gassho before every meeting, and my immediate thought was “oh that’s how that started” because that’s something that Jōdo Shinshū Buddhists in America always do — they say gassho before every single meeting. I don’t know if that’s where it started but you begin to see the genesis of contemporary practice in this historical document. This is one of the ways that I’m approaching it. I’m also trying to supplement the Bussei with other historical documents so fortunately at IBS we were gifted a collection of the Imamuras’ documents that pertain directly to their time in Berkeley, and so I have a lot of rough drafts of things that Imamura wrote before they were published in the Bussei. For example, I have reports that he wrote for the BCA on temple activities which can start to flesh out some of those questions. I’m also supplementing it with memoirs, I mentioned Jane Imamura’s memoir and her mother’s — they both had memoirs which are another really helpful way to sort of get at some of the behind-the-scenes work, and I definitely want to include a lot more of that material in the book.

I’m going to go back to Ann G.’s question about when you can order the book, and this is in some in some ways contingent upon Covid and UCLA. I had plans to spend a significant part of last summer at the BCA archive at UCLA and instead I spent it here in my dining room! So hopefully you know I can fill out some more of those details with other archival material that are sort of around the edges. Again, the reports that Rev. Imamura wrote are really interesting to me. They’re really boring to read! But they’re really interesting because they do provide context of what this general meeting was about, and who was debating and why, and those kinds of questions. The difficulty is definitely trying to figure out the pie and to figure out the things that are just are not in the records or aren’t kept, and I think that’s where the memoirs come in handy and other documents like that. — Dr. Scott Mitchell

Very impressive presentation and got interest in your view to Shin. I was born in Japan and grew with parents of Jodo-Shin Buddism, however I do not have much educational knowledge about Shin. My question is what of Shin has struck you most and what will be next challenge on Shin. In other word, if you would have any particular even personal experience, it is when and how?

Yasutaka K.

That’s a great question. I’m going to channel the words of David Matsumoto who was one of my teachers and is also the current President of the Institute of Buddhist Studies. David Matsumoto says that Shinran is the most interesting person he’s ever met. And I like that response because it speaks to his appreciation not just for Shinran as a historical figure, but as a religious thinker. That’s one of the things that I find interesting about Shinshū — it is the way in which certain Buddhist ideas are articulated or problematized, or sort of pushed to a logical extreme almost within the context or within the conversation of the long view of Mahayana history. That’s the intellectual answer, although the real answer is that when I first came into contact on a personal level with Jōdo Shinshū it felt like ‘coming home’ in a way that no other Buddhist tradition has had. It’s not something that I can articulate in a very of coherent way.

As far as the future — I get a little squeamish when people ask me about the future. I think about how I was supposed to give a talk last summer about the future of American Buddhism, and I had been invited to give that talk before the pandemic, so I spent a good amount of time saying how nobody predicted this unless you were an epidemiologist, so I think it can be challenging to really predict the future in a reasonable way. I have hope for what Jōdo Shinshū might contribute and what we might be able to learn from Asian American Buddhists, from Jōdo Shinshū Buddhists. I have hope that we’ll be able to actually listen in a way in the future that we have not been able to in the past. — Dr. Scott Mitchell

What are the roles of mothers to their daughters in terms of transmitting a certain kind of relationship with the Jōdo Shinshū — do you see that coming through the records that are available to you? Do people talk about the daughters coming in to take over once their mothers have retired or passed on and is there is an alive discussion at this time?

Jessica M.

That’s a really great question, and I don’t know I don’t know if I can answer the question about the contemporary scene. I feel like that’s a different question, and in terms of the historical material, there’s actually one chapter that I’m working on has to do with what is referred to in the Bussei as the “nisei problem”. The nisei problem is basically racism, it’s nisei authors talking about how they’re being discriminated against and can’t get jobs they can’t, you know, join unions and housing problems. And also one of the problems that nisei face is they can’t find wives. So, I write about how that very way of framing the “nisei problem” in hetero-normative gendered language is in and of itself a problem because it obscures the other half of the equation — it obscures the issue that this is not really the nisei problem, but rather it’s the nisei man problem, the male nisei problem.

It raises that question of are women having a similar problem? And I start this part of the book off by pointing out that there’s some very quintessentially 1950s era gender normative stuff in the Bussei, which is depressing, quite frankly. Both because of the way it perpetuates certain gender stereotypes, but also because of the way it obscures what was happening behind the scenes. And so that’s definitely something that I want to talk about in the book, and I’m still thinking about the best way to approach that material. But I think that Jane Imamura and her mother are really good places to go to for this kind of lineage because they very much embody that. Shinobu Matsuura is this person who literally opens her home to allow for this weird collection of her daughter and her husband to translate sutras, and all of these Alan Watts characters — all these other guys to come in and do all of this stuff.

And then she’s the one who takes it upon herself to go to Japan and get the image that’s in the naijin of the of the Berkeley temple. That’s foundational stuff, and her daughter does a lot of the same stuff. Jane was a frequent contributor to the Bussei, so this is where I wanted to get to Jessie Starling’s work with bōmori and sort of think about how even though there’s aspects of the Bussei which are very, very gender normative and problematic in some ways, there’s also this other stuff where you can see that Jane and her mother were taking on leadership roles within the religious community. I want to unpack that. And, finally, I also want to look at the way in which different kinds of labour are devalued. Most of the early volumes of the Bussei will list the editor and the copy editors and the typists – and most of the typists happened to be women. And I think it becomes this standard practice to say “that’s women’s work” and we’re going to devalue it, not take it seriously. And part of what I want to argue is that we need to take that seriously because if they didn’t have typists then we wouldn’t have the Bussei. Alan Watts is nobody without an editor, none of this happens without somebody else’s labour and that’s as much a part of the story, as you know, the by lines and the crazy things that Alan Watts talks about. Those are the things that I absolutely want to draw out. — Dr. Scott Mitchell