The Challenge of Bringing Nichiren Buddhism to America

by Ryuei Michael McCormick

This is the text of the talk I gave at the American Academy of Religions in September 2003. It was given on a panel whose theme was The Challenge of Asian Religions in America. In many ways, it is a condensed version of the article Buddhism in America. 
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, Ryuei.

The Challenge of Bringing Nichiren Buddhism to America

From the very beginning Buddhism has had a missionary imperative. Shakyamuni Buddha himself, out of his compassion for others, sent his monks into the world to teach the Dharma. In the Lotus Sutra the imperative is also clear. Nichiren himself literally took up the banner of the Lotus Sutra. He is often depicted as a street-corner evangelist in Kamakura, beating a drum and proclaiming the good news of the Lotus Sutra with a banner behind him displaying Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, "Devotion to the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Sutra." The effort to propagate Nichiren's interpretation of the Lotus Sutra overseas began when Nichiji, one of Nichiren's six major disciples, traveled to China in 1295. The Nichiren Shu considers him the “patron saint” of foreign missionaries. One of the major turning points in the history of Nichiren Buddhism was the missionary effort of the monk Nichizo to Kyoto. Nichizo was the half-brother of Nichiro, another of the six major disciples of Nichiren. On his deathbed, Nichiren Shonin commissioned Nichizo with the task of converting the emperor in Kyoto to the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching. Nichizo endured three short exiles in his efforts to win recognition for the practice of Namu Myoho Renge Kyo until the Emperor Godaigo granted him permission to teach and establish the Myokenji Temple in Kyoto. From that time until the Edo period, most of the major developments in the history of Nichiren Buddhism occurred in Kyoto.

Unfortunately, however, it was almost 600 years from the time of Nichizo and Nichiji until Nichiren Buddhism finally succeeded in establishing congregations and temples overseas. In 1892, Rev. Asahi Nichimyo founded the Nichiren Shu Overseas Propagation Association. In 1902, the first Nichiren Shu temple in Hawaii was built at Kapapala. In 1914, the first Nichiren Shu temple in the continental US was established in Los Angeles by Rev. Nichimyo's disciple, Rev. Kanjo Asahi. In 1933, the Nichiren Order of North America was established. However, it was not until the 1990s that Nichiren Shu temples outside of Japan truly began to open their doors to those who were not ethnic Japanese. Given the evangelical imperative of Buddhism itself, and Nichiren Buddhism in particular, why did it take roughly 600 years from the time of Nichiji for Nichiren Buddhism to spread outside Japan, and almost 700 years before the temples opened their doors to non-Japanese devotees of the Lotus Sutra?

History reveals many of these reasons. In the early 17th century, the Tokugawa Shogunate, in an effort to eliminate Christianity from Japan, set up the danka system, whereby everyone in Japan had to register as a parishioner at his or her local temple. A system of temple regulations was also set up, totally subordinating the Buddhist temples to the bureaucracy. Buddhists were no longer permitted to debate their doctrines, to proselytize, or to make any innovations. The temples were supported by their parishioners and in return they would register them and perform funerals and memorial services for them. In effect, Buddhism in Japan had been eviscerated. As Yoshio Tamura put it: "The Buddhist establishment as a whole was corrupted and tamed by its feudal masters." (p. 133, Japanese Buddhism: A Cultural History) The one exception was the hard-line Fuju Fuse school of Nichiren Buddhism, but that was soon wiped out and its adherents forced underground.

In 1868 the Tokugawa Shogunate fell and the emperor was returned to power in the Meiji Restoration. The new government was determined to abolish all rivals to Imperialist Shinto. Part of this was a violent suppression of Buddhism, peaking in 1871. The government destroyed Buddhist temples and laicized many of the clergy. Soon after, the government repealed the laws that forbid Buddhist clergy to marry, eat meat, and wear secular clothes. These changes were resisted at first, but they eventually led to the widespread practice of priests marrying and leaving their temples to their sons. The danka system continued under the Meiji government, but it had become a family funeral and memorial business run by a thoroughly secularized clergy.

Because of these unfortunate developments, by the time Japanese Buddhism began to spread to the United States, what was spreading was little more than an overseas extension of the danka system for the benefit of Japanese immigrants who viewed the temples as nothing more than bastions of Japanese culture in the midst of alien and even hostile societies. The missionary imperative and universal outlook of Buddhism and the Lotus Sutra had succumbed to the atrophying effects of the Tokugawa's totalitarianism and the Meiji's suppression and eventual secularization. Japanese Buddhism had become very insular both in Japan and abroad. It should be said, however, that the missionary priests were making great sacrifices by leaving the relative prosperity and comfort of the Japanese temples in order to lead an impoverished and uncertain life ministering to the needs of overseas Japanese in lands where Buddhists ministers were neither needed nor wanted by the mainstream population.

The first Japanese immigrants to Hawaii and North America were in a precarious position. They were faced with a vociferously racist culture that greeted them with contempt, hatred, and even fear as they struggled to deal with nearly insurmountable barriers of language and culture. This culminated on February 19, 1942, when more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans were forced into internment camps during World War II. Aside from the tremendous harm done to the Japanese-Americans themselves, these internments also led to the looting and, in some cases, even the loss of Japanese Buddhist temples. That Japanese-Americans were able to establish and maintain their temples in the face of all these challenges is a testimony to their fortitude and courage. Nevertheless, the experience of being interned during World War II caused the Japanese to become especially wary of reaching out to the larger population. More than ever, the temples became places of refuge for the Japanese-Americans and community centers for the preservation and celebration of Japanese language and culture. Even in temples and churches that did attract members from outside their own group there was often a tension between the needs of the core ethnic membership and converts who were seeking Buddhism but not Japanese culture.

The example of Shunryu Suzuki is instructive. Suzuki Roshi became the resident priest of the Soto Zen temple Sokoji in San Francisco in 1959. He opened the doors of the temple to the wider community, but the original Japanese-American congregation made him choose between closing the doors again or leaving the temple and taking his non-Japanese followers with him. Suzuki chose the latter and founded Tassajara and the San Francisco Zen Center. Today, the San Francisco Zen Center is at the hub of a thriving Zen community. Sokoji, however, barely has enough members left to make holding weekly services worthwhile. The older generation of Japanese-Americans has passed away, and the younger generations have either moved away, or have left Japanese Buddhism behind in their assimilation to the mainstream culture. This story highlights the problems that all Japanese Buddhist temples have to face. If they cannot reconcile the needs of their founding members with the needs of the mainstream culture, they will eventually face extinction as the older generation passes away and the younger generations assimilate. To survive, these temples must reach out to the mainstream community. But the transition is difficult, and it is not easy to reconcile the ethnic Buddhism of faith, devotion, and traditional culture with the contemplative and intellectual Buddhism that Americans interested in Buddhism often seek.

In short, the conservative and inward looking Buddhism which is the legacy of Edo and Meiji period Japan was not prepared to propagate Buddhism outside the boundaries of its rigidly defined constituency. Even when priests desired to spread Nichiren Buddhism more widely, they were given little or no support from their own temple members who did not want any of the scrutiny or negative attention that a missionary effort might bring to them nor were they given much support from Japan. In addition, there were huge barriers of language, culture, and worldview that made it very difficult to share Buddhism with others, particularly the highly devotional and therefore culturally contextualized Buddhism of the Lotus Sutra. The situation has been changing over the past ten years however. Several temples now have a sizable non-Japanese membership and there are even Sanghas of non-Japanese members who are in the process of creating new temples. This is occurring in North America, Western Europe, India, Malaysia, and many other places. There are three major reasons for this.

The first reason is the appearance of motivated and adaptable ministers from Japan with enough mastery of English to enable them to communicate with both non-Japanese and the younger generations of Japanese-Americans, both of whom rarely speak Japanese. No more are they ministers of a parochial Japanese faith to an overseas ethnic minority; they are now international citizens with a mission to share the universal teaching of the Buddha Dharma to all people. Because of them, the temples have been able to accommodate new members from a broader spectrum of society, adapt to their needs, and thereby change and grow.

The second reason is the growing interest in more mainstream forms of traditional Nichiren Buddhism. This interest has arisen among two very different groups of people. One group consists of those who have discovered Nichiren Buddhism primarily through the outreach efforts of the Nichiren Shu, such as open houses at temples, appearances at events like Tricycle magazine's annual "Change Your Mind Day," and the publication of books like Introduction to the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren: Leader of Buddhist Reformation and the seven volume series Writings of Nichiren Shonin. Their interest may range from a simple general interest in Buddhism to a particular interest in the Lotus Sutra and/or Nichiren's teachings. The other group of people consists of those who have been previously exposed to some form of Nichiren Buddhism, and who, for various reasons, have become dissatisfied with their former affiliations. In the Nichiren Shu these people discover teachings and practices which are more consistent with what is found in the writings of Nichiren and in the Lotus Sutra, a more democratic and financially accountable structure both locally and in the national organization, and a much more open and less sectarian atmosphere which nevertheless stays true to the teachings of Nichiren and the Lotus Sutra.

Finally, the Nichiren Shu has begun ordaining non-Japanese ministers from around the world who can carry on the work of teaching Nichiren Buddhism in their own countries. These ministers are the disciples of the more forward looking Japanese ministers. They have received a lot of support and training from Japan. They have been commissioned to create the kind of Buddhism that will be most appropriate in their home countries. In this respect, they can be compared with the 8th century Japanese monk Saicho. He initially relied on books to study T'ien-t'ai teachings in Japan, but he eventually was able to travel to China to study T'ien-t'ai at its source. His teachers in China entrusted him with the mission of taking T'ien-t'ai Buddhism back to Japan and adapting it to the needs of the Japanese people. This was the origin of the Tendai School, which eventually became one of the pillars of Japanese Buddhism. Even the mass movements of Kamakuran Buddhism, which are still so influential today, were themselves initiated by former Tendai monks such as Honen, Shinran, Dogen, and Nichiren.

This is an exciting but delicate time for Nichiren Buddhism in the United States and, in fact, around the world. Like Nichiji or Nichizo, Nichiren ministers from Japan are traveling around the world in order to share the Lotus Sutra and the practice of Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. In the United States, the temples are in a transition from being ethnic enclaves to Buddhist temples whose doors are open to all those who seek the Dharma. Finally, men and women from outside Japan are being trained and ordained and put in charge of temples in their home countries. They are being entrusted with the crucial task of transforming Nichiren Buddhism from a parochial and feudal school of Japanese Buddhism to a worldwide religious movement.



Shakyamuni Buddha told his first 60 disciples: “Go now and wander for the welfare and happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, welfare and happiness of gods and men. Teach the Dhamma that is good in the beginning, good in the middle and good in the end, with the meaning and the letter.” (Vinaya)


In chapter 23, the Lotus Sutra says “After my passage into extinction, within the last five hundred years, broadly proclaim and propagate it in Jambudvipa, never allowing it to be cut off...” (p. 301) The Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters used for “broadly proclaim and propagate” is kosen rufu and that word has often been taken by Nichiren Buddhists of many different schools as a both a rallying cry for the sharing of the Lotus Sutra and even as a synonym for world peace.


 In “The Selection of the Time”, one of his five major writings, Nichiren stated: “ there any doubt about the spread of the Lotus Sutra, the true teaching of the Buddha, all over Japan and the world...” (p. 58)

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2004.

More articles by Ryuei

Home | Buddhas | Discuss | Gohonzon | Gosho | HonmonButsuryushu | Independent | Inmates | Kempon | Kishimojin | LotusSutra | Nichiren | Nipponzan | NShoshu | NichirenShu | Pilgrimage | Queers | RisshoKoseiKai | Reiyukai | Ryuei & Dharmajim | SGI | Shichimen | Stupas | Sutra Library | Tales | Tendai | Theravada | Tibetan | WebRings | Women | Zen | Misc. | What'sNew? is hosted by Nichiren's Coffeehouse
and maintained by Pia Trans of for the Rev. Ryuei. is home to,,,, and more!