On July 5, 2015 we will be honoring the past Bishops of the Buddhist Churches of America with our annual Bishop’s Memorial Service. This year the service will also include the presentation of Certificates of Recognition from the Office of the Bishop to our temple centenarians, Mrs. Chiyoko Fukumoto and Mrs. Kimiko Suyemasa. Looking back 100 years, we find that 1915 was a year when the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Sangha in America was already facing great challenges.
There was general concern about Japan as a rising power competing with US interests, as it grew increasing assertive following its victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). There was also a growing a movement among white farmers and labor groups resentful of Japanese workers. These factors contributed to rising discrimination against Japanese immigrants, particularly in California. In October of 1906, the San Francisco City Board of Education moved to refuse Japanese students admission into public schools. Then in 1913, the California Alien Land Law was adopted, prohibiting Japanese immigrants from owning agricultural land or possessing long-term leases.
Meanwhile in Europe a new and horrific kind of warfare was taking shape. Advances in military technology resulted in staggering causalities with trench warfare and poison gas weapons used by all major combatants. Reports of terrible human rights abuses against the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire were appearing regularly in newspapers. This targeting of an ethic minority perceived to be sympathetic to the enemy for mass deportations to prison camps and other human rights abuses was a grave injustice that would be repeated two decades later by both sides during the Second World War.
In the midst of these alarming events, Bishop Koyu Uchida of the Buddhist Mission of North America (later the Buddhist Churches of America) had the vision to convene the first international gathering of Buddhists in the United States. The World Buddhist Conference was held from August 2 through 8, 1915 during the celebration of the Opening of the Panama Canal at the International Exhibition in San Francisco. Buddhist thinkers from the Territory of Hawaii, India, Ceylon, Burma, England, Mexico, Japan, and the United States gathered to address a wide range of issues facing the world.
At a time of escalating mistrust and hostility between nations and among ethnic communities, this was a diverse gathering of representatives from around the world who shared a common belief that through spreading the compassionate teachings of the Buddha, there was hope that the societies of the world could change course from confrontation and cruelty to compassion and understanding. To that end, the delegates to the Conference adopted the following four-point resolution:
- As global ambassadors of Japanese Buddhism with the intention of introducing the essence of Eastern Civilization to the world and fostering harmonious interactions between the East and the West, we aspire for the realization of lasting peace in the world in keeping with the great mind of the Buddha.
- Recognizing that to promote friendship between the peoples of Japan and America, it is necessary to widely share the teachings of the Buddha among the American people, we aspire for cooperation between the Buddhists of Japan and America.
- We aspire to correct the mistaken view that propagating Buddhism among Japanese people living in America has resulted in anti-Japanese exclusion policies. Furthermore, we regret that this misperception has led to misunderstandings between the citizens of Japan and the United States.
- The Great War in Europe is an unprecedented incident in human history and the level of misery increases daily as the war unfolds. For this reason, we who follow the Buddha’s sacred teaching of compassionate love urgently wish for an end to the war. Therefore, in the name of the World Buddhist Conference, we as Buddhists with the deepest respect and affection for His Excellency the President of the United States of America, humbly appeal to him to use his influence to guide all belligerent nations to cease hostilities in a spirit of human benevolence and restore peaceful diplomatic relations.
(Japanese version published in the Tokyo Asahi Shimbun Newspaper on September 22, 1915, my translation)
The aspiration to promote peace and understanding through the Buddhadharma expressed in this resolution echoes the words of Shinran Shonin, written over six centuries before that time: “May there be peace in the world, and may the Buddha’s teaching spread!” (Collected Works of Shinran, p. 560)
Immediately following the Conference, Bishop Koyu Uchida along with Revs. Mokusen Hioki and Sogen Yamagami from the Soto Zen School travelled cross-country by rail to present the resolution to President Woodrow Wilson during a private meeting at the White House. In 1915, President Wilson was still pursing a policy of neutrality, which kept the United States out of the war until 1917. The ability of these pioneering ministers to arrange a meeting with the President of the United States in the midst of an international crisis shows the extent to which they embodied the Buddhist ideal of working tirelessly to guide all people from suffering to a life of peace and harmony.
Namo Amida Butsu