Today I begin reprinting “A Phrase A Day,” a small book of 31 quotes from Nichiren’s writing paired with explanatory text from Nichiren Shu priests in America in 1986. You can download a PDF copy of the book here.
When first introduced to Nichiren Shonin and the Lotus Sutra and Namu-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, I wondered why such a wonderful teaching was so little-known in America. Now, many many years later, I realize my puzzlement was really naivete exacerbated by my life experiences as a Caucasian male child of Protestant Christians, economically comfortable if not rich, secure in the knowledge that the system will protect my rights.
That was certainly not the experience of the five families of Japanese immigrants and the children of immigrants who formed the Sacramento Nichiren Buddhist Church in 1931 at the height of the Japanese nationalism that eventually led to the War in the Pacific. The Gohonzon Mandala that hangs behind the statue of Nichiren on the altar most likely came from Kokuchūkai (Pillar of the Nation), a Nichirenist ultranationalist group connected to Tanaka Chigaku.
In the 1930s there was no Nichiren Buddhism without Japanese heritage. When World War II came and all of the Japanese in Sacramento were rounded up and shipped to distant camps, there were no church members left behind.
In 1986, when “A Phrase A Day” was published by the Nichiren Shu Overseas Propagation Promotion Association, the focus of propagation remained the descendants of Japanese immigrants.
Rev. Shingaku Oikawa, president of the Nichiren Shu Overseas Propagation Promotion Association, writes in the Preface:
I established Myokakuji Betsuin Temple, a Nichiren Buddhist temple, in San Jose, California, U.S.A. five years ago. At that time, I made several trips to the U.S.A. visiting various Buddhist temples in America, including non-Nichiren temples, in order to grasp the real situation of their activities. I was greatly impressed to see generally beautiful temple buildings in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other cities with ministers engaged in active missionary work. I learned, however, that they had one problem in common: a generation change in membership. Young members hardly understand Japanese. Consequently, more and more of them stay away from Buddhist temples, where Japanese is the means of communication and propagation. Aged, non-English speaking ministers are incapable of attracting young members. As the first- and second-generation members die, there are hardly any young members ready to take their place.
The ropes binding Nichiren Buddhism to Japanese culture and heritage have loosened over the years. In 2015, as part of a reorganization of Nichiren Shu propagation efforts, the headquarters in Tokyo issue guidelines that specified that propagation points (e.g. churches) must “have an open propagation policy towards any person regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation.”
While the Sacramento Nichiren Buddhist Church still celebrates its Japanese heritage with Japanese Food Bazaars and Mochi sales, this Caucasian child of Protestant Christians has never felt in any way less a member of the church. I was welcomed warmly on the first day I attended services, as have other non-Japanese newcomers.
The limit on Nichiren Buddhism’s propagation in 1931 and even in 1986 has been if not removed at least made less limiting. Nichiren Buddhism today is not lessened by its expansion regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. Nichiren Buddhism today embraces all of the Eternal Shakyamuni’s children. This surely is the ultimate goal of Nichiren Shonin.