The history of Buddhism in America is an open secret, covered over by ignorance, neglect, and the pervasive dust of racial bias. Scott A. Mitchell’s remarkable book, The Making of American Buddhism, offers a new narrative of this history, drawing on the lives and practices of Japanese American Shin Buddhists in the 20th century. Prof. Mitchell’s important scholarship documents this community’s efforts to resist organized discrimination and racism, to survive illegal imprisonment in wartime internment camps, forging an American Buddhism, and generously sharing the treasures of their traditions with teachers and practitioners in the wider society.
Prof. Mitchell is currently the dean of Berkeley, California’s Institute of Buddhist Studies. His academic interests in Buddhist modernism, Buddhism in Western contexts, and Pure Land traditions dovetail in this book. In an extensive introduction exploring Buddhist modernism and the development of Asian American studies, Prof. Mitchell confronts the “two-stream” narrative of Buddhism’s evolution in the US:
Do we follow the stream of intellectuals, Orientalists, and converts credited with making “American Buddhism”? Or do we tell the story of immigrants and their descendants, often referred to as “Buddhists in America”? In sum, the two-streams meta-narrative highlights mutual exclusivity at the cost of interrelated reciprocity, and dubiously suggests a white Buddhist lineage over and against a mass of unrelated and inward-looking Asians. (Mitchell 2023, 8)
Prof. Mitchell argues against a series of “reductive binaries that have largely defined the study of Buddhism in North America.” (Mitchell 2023) These binary narratives include ethnic/convert, traditional/modern, and authentic/inauthentic. The “master” narrative privileges an exoticism of Beat Zen, characterized by figures such as Alan Watts, Gary Snyder, and Jack Kerouac. But there is another story that underscores the complexity and creativity of an emerging American Buddhism evident in Asian American communities.
Along with incisive scholarship critiquing the gaps and missteps of previous cultural histories of Buddhism in the West, at the book’s heart is archival work that highlights Berkeley Bussei, a Shin Buddhist magazine published annually by the Berkeley Buddhist Temple’s Young Buddhist Association from 1939–60. Jodo Shinshu, founded by Shinran in the 13th century, is the largest branch of Buddhism in Japan. In the 1880s, Shin migrated to Hawai‘i with Japanese agricultural workers. In 1899, the first two Shin ministers arrived in San Francisco to support the developing immigrant Japanese community, leading to what is now the Buddhist Churches of America. The Berkeley Buddhist Temple was dedicated in 1921, at its present site on Channing Way. Located so near the University of California, from the start the temple has always been a center for Buddhist studies and for a dynamic Japanese American community.
This dynamism is reflected in the pages of Berkeley Bussei, and in the many seminars and conferences organized by Shin community members, ministers, and scholars. In the years on both sides of World War II, Nisei Buddhists (second-generation ethnic Japanese) made the case for an “American” identity that included their religious tradition. Along the way, they began the work of planting seeds in the wider culture for modernist Buddhism as a rational religion of peace.
Prof. Mitchell makes a strong point of recognizing the behind-the-scenes work of laypeople, many of them women, making these activities possible. He honors women such as Jane Imamura, Kimi Hisatune, and many others—women, and men, who did the necessary work, hidden and uncredited, to support their temples and faith. These dedicated Nisei Buddhists forged the infrastructure of a new manifestation of the Buddha’s way. In many instances, their physical support made possible the work of more wisely-known exemplars. Speaking of D. T. Suzuki, Prof. Mitchell writes:
Suzuki was buoyed by the Nisei Buddhist community, who attended his lectures and considered themselves among his students. And Nisei Buddhists picked him up at the airport (Imamura), gave him a place to stay (the Okamuras), facilitated financial transactions (Yamaoka), and attended to his personal affairs (Mihoko Okamura). This labor—the labor of Japanese Americans and women made things possible. . . . what became possible was American Buddhism. (Mitchell 2023)
President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, just a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, called for the internment of at least 125,000 people of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of them US citizens. Japanese Buddhists were particularly targeted by US government agencies, which viewed Buddhism as inconsistent with American values.*
For most families, internment lasted from early 1942 to the end of the war, but the traumas of incarceration, deprivation, and the loss of livelihood and property lasted much longer. Only in 1950 did Berkeley Bussei resume publication in a world that was significantly changed. And it is here that Japanese American voices are heard taking a new stance. Prof. Mitchell comments on an important article in that 1950 Bussei, “Outlook on American Buddhism” by Yukio Kamamoto. Prof. Mitchell writes that the development of a strong Buddhist faith among Japanese Americans “is necessary to promote Buddhism in America, and such a project is necessary not just for Buddhists, but for Buddhism to make any meaningful contribution to American culture.” (Mitchell 2023)
Seventy-three years after Kawamoto’s article, Buddhism undeniably has a place in American society. It is an ever-shifting place, relative to the diversity of practices, culture, and communities in the US; also, relative to the tides of commodification and consumerism that affect every aspect of contemporary lives. The implicit and explicit mission of Japanese American immigrants and their children has been to root the Buddha tree here in the West. They have wonderfully succeeded at this, and yet, for the most part, their histories and contributions have gone unacknowledged. As I said at the top, these histories have been hidden in plain sight.
The strength of Prof. Mitchell’s book is that it begins with the words and accounts of grassroots Shin Buddhists creating a quotidian practice infused by modernism which we can now call an American Buddhism. At the same time, Prof. Mitchell writes about the evolving discourse of Asian American studies, departing from Orientalist narratives to arrive at a more open ground of inclusivity, recognizing all the real ancestors of American Buddhism.
For practitioners and scholars alike, The Making of American Buddhism is an important book. Of course, the journey Prof. Mitchell describes is marked by all “the messiness of lived religion”—contradiction, discrimination and racism, faith, despair, injustice, redemption, and cultural survival. As Prof. Mitchell observes in the epilogue, “The Jodo Shinshu Buddhists at the heart of this book made possible the present. And we, in the now, are collectively making the future.” (Mitchell 2023)
* The story of Buddhist survival during wartime internment is well told in Duncan Williams’ 2019 book American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War.
Hozan Alan Senauke
Mitchell, Scott A. 2023. The Making of American Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.