Civil rights and Buddhist modernity
Although Buddhists were firmly enmeshed in that ethnic ecosystem, they were not insular to issues of social justice, which represented a new chapter of an outward looking Buddhist modernity. Housing was one of the most contested terrains of the Civil Rights Movement in California, and Los Angeles in particular, as the real estate industry and conservative supporters sought to overturn the landmark Rumford Fair Housing Act though a ballot initiative, Proposition 14, in 1964. A few months before the election, BCA ministers met in Gardena, the longtime home to a sizeable Nikkei community adjacent to Black neighborhoods. There, they discussed the usual administrative business but remarkably passed a resolution that framed housing rights as a Buddhist issue. “We Buddhists ... believe in basic human rights and equal justice for all peoples regardless of race, creed, or color,” they stated, ultimately “urging our members to vote against Proposition 14” (BCA Ministers Association 1964, 1). A following editorial by a lay person argued that passage “poses a real and direct threat to all members of minority groups,” “would legalize racial discrimination,” and “could unleash racebaiters and bigots to campaign against Japanese Americans” (Izumizaki 1964, 2). California voters overwhelmingly passed the proposition - which higher courts later ruled unconstitutional - but Shin Buddhists’ commitment to social action continued well into the 1960s.
Nikkei Angelenos settled into conditional acceptance due to both civil rights activism and reconfigurations of race relations within the context of the Cold War (Brooks 2009, C.I. Cheng 2013). “Japan, America’s treacherous wartime foe, was now its special ally in East Asia,” according to Scott Kurashige (2008, 51), “and there was propaganda value inherent in portraying the Nisei as model American citizens (ibid). This discourse shift was part of a larger effort by the popular press, scholars, and policymakers to hail Japanese Americans as a “model minority.” This rhetorical sleight of hand blunted radical critiques of inequality engendered by the Black freedom struggle by shifting attention away from structural inequality to alleged cultural traits compatible with capitalist society. Model minority logic ignored enduring poverty faced by many Asian Americans, the traumatic legacies of the wartime experiences (manifested in alcoholism and substance abuse), and continued anti-Asian sentiment, which only grew deeper as the United States became more entangled in Southeast Asia (Hsu 2017). The intersecting ideologies of an emerging social rebellion against structures of racial and class oppression, and the racialization of Japanese Americans that legitimized that oppression, informed how Shin Buddhists saw the role of the temple for themselves in and larger society.
In 1965, the Watts neighborhood went ablaze, an outpouring of rage against police brutality against African Americans and disinvestment from the urban core. A stone’s throw away from the uprising was Senshin, whose location was a result of a deeper history of segregation. Senshin’s proximity to Watts and the kinetic Black Power Movement hastened an animated debate about socially engaged Buddhism in the pages of the BCA’s English-language publication, The American Buddhist. An editorial by Cyril Zimmerman (1965, 2), presumably a non-Japanese American follower, lamented how Buddhist churches “appear conformist, rooted in the status quo,” but optimistically contended that “Buddhism could revolutionize America.” A rejoinder hazarded against suggesting that Buddhists could only enact social change through outright protest, noting that the history of American Shinshü was one of survival in the face of prejudice. He also observed that Shin Buddhists lived the dharma teachings of interdependence through their activism in the JACL or through shaping society as teachers or physicians (Sasai 1965, 2). Similar responses emphasized that Buddhists should craft their own social change through “demonstrate[ing] peace not by carrying signs in the streets but by showing how peace works in our relations with others” (Wilson 1966, 2). A generation of young Sansei, or third-generation, Japanese Americans heeded the call of social action in ways that blended both protest and service, which took inspiration from Black Power and Buddhism.
Buddhists were both shaped by and shaped the Asian American Movement—a vast network of working-class people, artists, students, and others who sought to uncover the buried histories of Asian Americans, while organizing communities to address issues that ranged from healthcare to labor to anticolonial solidarity with other Third World people (Louie and Omatsu 2001). Gardena Buddhist Church hosted the eminent activist and historian Yuji Ichioka, who taught Asian American history' courses (Yuji Ichioka Papers). Meanwhile, Revs. Arthur
Takemoto, John Doami, and Masao Kodani endorsed a powerful statement by the anti-war organization Asian Americans for Peace that labeled America’s wars in Southeast Asia “morally bankrupt” (Asian Americans for Peace 1970, 15).
Above all, Senshin Buddhist Church, due to its geographical location in the cradle of Black activism and guidance by Kodani, a Sansei Angeleno, provided a pivotal space for Movement activists and artists to flourish. According to historian Masumi Izumi (2010, 50), Senshin “[took] on the aspect of a dojo, a space where people practiced and pursued their spiritual paths ... [which] attracted interest from a number of young Japanese Americans, mainly Sansei who were experiencing racial awakening inspired by the Civil Kights and Black Power movements and were looking for their own ways toward liberation.” That desire for spiritual and political liberation drew Sansei activists to Senshin where they organized Movement activities such as the first support meeting for parents whose children were victims of the drug abuse problem in the Japanese American community. The arts flourished at Senshin through the creation Kinnara, an ensemble dedicated to traditional Japanese taiko drumming, the formation of a classical Buddhist court music troupe, and the work of Movement troubadour Nobuko Miyamoto (Izumi 2010). Senshin helped young Japanese Americans rehabilitate ethnic and religious identities that the pressures to assimilate had snatched from them. Ironically, given the landscape of the nexus of politics and culture in Los Angeles, Buddhist modernity included efforts to bring Buddhism into the realm of social change and recover and affirm traditions from the past.