In the communities where Rissho Kosei-kai's dissemination among Americans is advancing,
it has adopted an approach that suits American traits and is exploring methods that are appropriate to the locality.
The seeds for Rissho Kosei-kai in America were sown by Japanese women who had joined Rissho Kosei-kai in Japan and, later, after the Second World War, moved to the United States as the brides of American servicemen. Rissho Kosei-kai served the function of an "ethnic church" for these Japanese in a strange land. To this day, native Japanese and persons of Japanese descent make up the core of most Rissho Kosei-kai Dharma centers and chapters.
Recently, however, local Americans have come to be central in certain strong footholds, namely Oklahoma City and San Antonio, Texas. In these cities, the membership is more than 80 percent non-Japanese Americans. I surveyed the Rissho Kosei-kai membership in areas in and around both Oklahoma City and San Antonio in September 2008, where Rissho Kosei-kai has its Dharma centers. I wanted to find out from this survey how it became possible to disseminate to local Americans in these areas. What dissemination approaches were being used to make it suitable for Americans? Also, what sorts of changes do the people in the congregations, who have accepted the Rissho Kosei-kai faith, see in themselves? I wanted to hear the voices in these locales.
The primary reason there are strong Rissho Kosei-kai footholds in Oklahoma City and San Antonio is that there are military bases in both places. The women who had married American servicemen began disseminating when they moved to their husbands' new postings. But it was not easy for Rissho Kosei-kai to shed the image of being an "ethnic church." Also, the core congregations of Japanese gradually became aged, and their faith was not passed on smoothly to the next generation.
However, in 1997 Rissho Kosei-kai put together a nationwide American dissemination caravan, traveling to the Rissho Kosei-kai locations and disseminating in English. It was a plus that neither Oklahoma City nor San Antonio is a place with a strong Japanese-American community. Yet, fortunately, there are Japanese members residing there who have a high proficiency in English and therefore can act as bridges between American and Japanese cultures. American members are today far more numerous than Japanese members, and the congregations are segregated, meeting on different days: the Japanese meet on the monthly memorial days, and the Americans meet for Sunday services. On the memorial days, the Japanese members offer the sutra readings and take part in hoza, a group counseling session based on the Buddhist teachings; after that they eat Japanese food they have brought from home and enjoy conversing in Japanese. It seems that their needs for an "ethnic church" go beyond the religious aspect. I got the sense that the American members, on the other hand, were generally seeking an intellectual understanding of Buddhism and were fascinated by the study of the Lotus Sutra.
America is an ethnically diverse country, and so there is no such thing as a monolithic "American." Even the people of Oklahoma City and San Antonio differ from each other. Most of the members of the Dharma Center of Oklahoma are Caucasians, many of whom are in their fifties and sixties. In San Antonio, members are from diverse ethnic backgrounds - Hispanic, Caucasian, African-American, and Asian - and are of diverse age groups as well. Comparing the two groups, the Oklahoma Dharma center has more people seeking an intellectual understanding of Buddhism, but in San Antonio the hoza sessions are of greater interest, whose topics have a more practical application. Although ancestral appreciation, one of the pillars of the practice of Rissho Kosei-kai teaching, is not well understood by Americans generally, it is better accepted in the Dharma center in San Antonio - where there are many Hispanics and which is an historically Catholic city (Catholics celebrate a Day of the Dead) - than in the Oklahoma Dharma center.
In both cities, the people who have become involved with Rissho Kosei-kai are interested in spirituality, even though they are uncomfortable with organized religion. For instance, one member said she had felt that there was an atmosphere of compulsion in organized religion. According to the American members, the Dharma centers have a "comfortable family feeling" that is open and exhibits an ambience of acceptance of all people. In addition to their Sunday services, both locations offered study sessions for the basic teachings of Buddhism and for the Lotus Sutra, as well as meditation.
In 2008 the sangha in Oklahoma City was elevated from a chapter to a Dharma center, and in 2009 Rev. Kris Ladusau became the first person born in America to be made a Rissho Kosei-kai minister. The person who has worked with Rev. Ladusau to carry out dissemination among local Americans is Rev. Yasuko Hildebrand, a Japanese woman who in 2001 became the first chapter leader of the Dharma center when it was built in Oklahoma City, and later its first minister. Rev. Hildebrand studied in America as a young woman and has since lived there for more than forty years. She joined Rissho Kosei-kai in America. She prefers jazz to enka (traditional Japanese popular music), and is an open, forward-looking person who is always considering new ways of thinking and new approaches to adopt. She had the idea that because there are limits to how much a Japanese person could disseminate among Americans, it would be best to have an American, speaking the same language and sharing the same culture, disseminate among Americans. Rev. Hildebrand is very proficient in English and understands both Japanese and American culture. Rev. Ladusau has studied martial arts in Japan, has an understanding of Japanese feeling, and ingenuity in making an Eastern concept into a Western one. Together they came up with a new experiment in the spirit of giving it a try, and if it didn't work out, reapproaching it.
Rev. Hildebrand says that while there are three points that cannot be changed - that the Eternal Buddha Shakyamuni is the object of our worship, that the Lotus Sutra must be the scripture, that its interpretations must be based on those of Founder Nikkyo Niwano and President Nichiko Niwano - everything else can be adapted to how things are done in America. Japan is a vertical society, whereas America is a horizontal one. Rev. Hildebrand says that the type of instruction from the top, "do this, do that," that is given in Japan is not suitable for Americans.
Rev. Ladusau and Rev. Hildebrand set about figuring out an approach that would suit the American mind. The Americans who come to Rissho Kosei-kai are people who have left the Christian community and are seeking something spiritual and who also have an interest in Buddhism. They are attracted to the fact that they will be able to study the Lotus Sutra and practice Buddhism.
The Dharma Center of Oklahoma engenders an open attitude, an ambience that is welcoming to all, and a positive and comfortable atmosphere. Members say that the Dharma center is a very safe place and full of good, positive energy.
After people join Rissho Kosei-kai in Japan, they install a home altar. It is difficult, however, for Americans to understand ancestral appreciation. As it is not intuitive to them, any practice of it should start from an understanding of its meaning. Furthermore, Rev. Ladusau and Rev. Hildebrand have added meditation, which Americans like. Because many people are interested in spirituality, at the suggestion of the members there is a weekly "movie night," when a spiritual film is shown, followed by a discussion. When it is time for services, the roles of chanting leader, assistant chanting leaders, and the like are not assigned as a duty, but, instead, the people who want to do them voluntarily sign up for them under an honor system. The members also treasure the opportunity to coteach. It is in this regard that members who anticipate receiving an image of the Eternal Buddha Shakyamuni give a lecture on basic Buddhism.
In Rissho Kosei-kai we say that hoza is thought to be at the core of members' practice. In Japan one listens in silence to what the hoza leader has to say. Americans tend to offer advice from their own personal experiences. So it is crucial that the hoza is summed up with the leader's advice, firmly based on the teachings, after suggestions have been exchanged among the participants. Also, a Japanese can accept the reasoning that individuals are responsible for their own trouble, but that is not easy for Americans to accept. Instead of putting something negatively, Americans want to make it positive, framing it so as to say that changing oneself is following the teaching of the Lotus Sutra and is in keeping with respecting the buddha-nature in others.
So then, after putting into practice the teachings of Rissho Kosei-kai, how do the American members perceive their self-reform? Mr. A says, "I used to be more anxious. I was more irritable" and "As a result of the teaching that 'suffering happens, changes happen,' I'm able to accept things more easily." Ms. B says, "In Buddhism it is taught that everything changes, nothing remains the same. Knowing this, I no longer get upset when something happens." About self-reform, another says, "I've become calm. I've become more able to take things in stride. I have a considerate heart now, and I can help others. Since joining Rissho Kosei-kai, I have learned how to dig in and confront the problems that face me and to figure out what the cause of a problem is and what to do about it," and the members say unanimously, "Since joining Rissho Kosei-kai, I've become compassionate toward people. I've stopped judging people. Where I had been short-tempered, I've become much more patient. After hearing the Buddhist teaching that everything changes, nothing remains the same (all things are impermanent), I no longer get upset when unfavorable things happen."
The American members of Rissho Kosei-kai are people who feel uncomfortable in the extremely competitive society that is part of America, and they have looked hard at themselves. I sensed that many of them were looking for an intellectual understanding of Buddhism, but I also felt that there were some who, if you looked into their hearts, had experienced problems in the family when they were children or had suffered some mental or emotional trauma. For those people, Rissho Kosei-kai offers a warm atmosphere and a friendly, safe space.
The reason dissemination by Americans is making progress at the Dharma center in Oklahoma City is that there is a flexible sense that a type of dissemination with a local feel is unfolding, based on American traits but still abiding by the points of Rissho Kosei-kai that must be observed. Rather than insisting on the Japanese style of instruction that is derived from Japan's vertical society, the Dharma center leaders have adopted a manner that is comfortable for Americans, and moreover they have promoted hands-on dissemination, that is, helping each member to realize what is happening to him or her in the light of the teachings and thus leading all of them to self-reform. Among those who are involved with Rissho Kosei-kai are many people who had been involved previously with other Buddhist organizations. As a particular feature of Rissho Kosei-kai, I make special mention that it isn't enough simply for you to understand the teachings intellectually; you need to know how to carry yourself and put the teachings into practice in your daily life.
In that way Rissho Kosei-kai started to get a sense of how to carry out dissemination work among people born in North America. Here, Rissho Kosei-kai is attractive to people who distrust organized religion yet are interested in spirituality. In the communities where Rissho Kosei-kai's dissemination among Americans is advancing, it has adopted an approach that suits American traits and is exploring methods that are appropriate to the locality. In the early stages of dissemination, its development depends on what sort of people the Buddhist organization can attract, and at the present stage it appears that the Dharma centers have developed to the extent all members are well acquainted and the needs of each member are readily and carefully met. For that reason American members are becoming established, and one can appreciate the fact that they are contributing in their own way to the Dharma centers as well. Furthermore, Americans tend to move around the country comparatively easily, and while that can be a blow for the Dharma center to which they belonged, it is also an opportunity for Rissho Kosei-kai to gain a new foothold elsewhere. As for Rissho Kosei-kai's future expansion, it can be expected that a larger number of people over more regions - diverse in age and social backgrounds - will become members, but undoubtedly there will be new problems that must be surmounted with each stage. However, that will certainly be a touchstone for the universalization of the faith of Rissho Kosei-kai in the world.
Masako Watanabe, PhD, is a professor in the Faculty of Sociology and Social Work at Meiji Gakuin University, Tokyo. She also serves as a director of the Japanese Association for Religious Studies and the International Institute for the Study of Religions. Her academic interest centers on sociology of religion, sociology of immigration, and studies in life history. She is currently promoting studies of dissemination of Japanese religions in different cultures.
This article was originally published in the July-September 2011 issue of Dharma World.