Arizona Buddhist Temple

This profile was last updated in 2004

Part I: Introduction

The Arizona Buddhist Temple in Phoenix, Arizona has a relatively long history compared to other Buddhist communities in the Phoenix Salt River Valley.[1] The Arizona Buddhist Temple is a Jôdo Shinshû Buddhist institution originally serving the Japanese American community in the Phoenix metropolitan area.[2] The temple broke ground in 1936 thus permanently establishing the Arizona Buddhist Temple and Buddhism in Arizona. Naturally, their history begins long before this date with Japanese immigrant families and Jôdo Shinshû Senseis, or Reverends, helping to initiate and establish the nascent Jôdo Shinshû Buddhist sangha in Arizona.

While Pure Land Buddhist ideology originates in 2nd century BCE India with burgeoning Mahayana Buddhist thought, Jôdo Shinshû, the true teachings of the Pure Land, was established by Shinran (1173-1263) in 12th century Japan. Jôdo Shinshû is one of many different Pure Land Buddhist sects with most of its adherents in Japan. Jôdo Shinshû teaches that most human beings cannot attain enlightenment in this world due to mappô, the declining age of the Buddha’s teachings. Therefore, despite one’s own efforts such as chanting, meditation, study, etc., most humans cannot achieve enlightenment through their own efforts and/or practice. According to Jôdo Shinshû, enlightenment is achieved through being reborn into the Western Pure Land where sentient beings escape this world and encounter a paradise-like place creating the perfect environment to become enlightened and subsequently become a bodhisattva.

Thus far, research about Jôdo Shinshû communities in the United States has predominantly focused on the national Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) in San Francisco and satellite churches in California. In many ways, the Arizona Buddhist Temple is an extension of California’s Jôdo Shinshû history because many Arizona Japanese Americans came to Arizona through California. Yet, the Arizona Temple has a unique story to tell and has a sangha, a Buddhist community, eager to share.
This project is primarily designed to record the Arizona Buddhist Temple’s historical narrative. Although the Issei, first generation of Japanese immigrants to the United States, have passed on, the Nissei, the second generation, have rich stories harking back to the founding of the Arizona Temple. The goal of this project is to record these stories for historical and academic purposes. Thus, the following is an introduction to the Arizona Buddhist Temple with hopes that this research will inspire and provide the primary data for more in-depth and analytical projects about Buddhism in the United States.

Pre-Temple: 1933 – 1936

The Arizona Buddhist Temple is documented as starting in 1933 upon the arrival of Reverend Seki. However, in actuality, the communities’ history precedes this date but meager information is known or recorded about this part of the temple’s history. Rev. Seki came to the Phoenix metropolitan area from a Los Angeles Jōdo Shinshū community upon an Arizona farmer’s, Hirisho Yamamoto, invitation. Prior to Rev. Seki, there were multiple attempts to invite a permanent Sensei to the Phoenix area, but all previous attempts had failed.[3] Rev. Seki and his wife stayed with the Yamamoto family in Glendale, Arizona and performed ministerial duties with very little pay. According to one Nisei, the reason why Rev. Seki stayed is because the Yamamotos “made the minister part of the family.”[4] Rev. Seki was devoted to a poor Japanese immigrant sangha to the extent that he forfeited his own independence and livelihood exemplifying, to some extent, the sacrifice involved in serving the Phoenix Jōdo Shinshū sangha. Senseis are remembered as being “poor.” Rev. Seki is a quintessential example of the sacrifice Jōdo Shinshū Sensei’s exhibited when ministering to sanghas in the United States in the first half of the 20th century.[5]
Before building the temple, the Phoenix Jōdo Shinshū sangha met in Hitoshi and Shiku Yamamoto’s barn in Glendale. Of course, the Yamamoto’s did not own the land or the barn but rented them due to the Arizona Alien Land Law that prevented all Japanese immigrants from owning land and/or property. Adult services and other events, such as Obon a yearly festival, were held in the Yamamoto’s barn while children’s Sunday school was conducted in the Yamamoto’s home. Rev. Seki led the adult services on Sunday evenings which consisted of chanting, singing hymns, and a Dharma talk. Rev. Seki also taught Sunday school for the children. The children were taught songs and chants, such as Junirai. In addition, the Nisei recall attending church sponsored picnics and other social events as children. Both the adult services and children’s Sunday school were conducted in Japanese.

Along with the initiation of the first Jōdo Shinshū Buddhist Church, Shiku Yamamoto was involved in starting a woman’s organization called Fujinkai. Shiku is remembered as “a real fireball; she kept things going.”[6] Many of the Issei Buddhist women participated in this organization. The Fujinkai was in charge of preparing the food for Obon and other related activities. Today the Fujinkai is an active temple organization with an aging Nisei and Sansei membership. Currently the Fujinkai is the primary fundraising force for the temple, organizing dinners, rummage sales, craft sales, and recently they published a for profit cook book. As reported by the temple in September, 2004, “currently Fujinkai provides all the fund raising for the Temple.”[7] Throughout the history of the temple, the Fujinkai has been a necessary element of preservation and prosperity for the Arizona Jōdo Shinshū sangha.

The Arizona Buddhist Church: 1936 – 1941

The construction of the Arizona Buddhist Church is primarily the fruit of years of financial sacrifice and community organization by the Arizona Issei. These Issei are fondly and respectfully called the charter members. After saving and collecting enough money to purchase land to begin the construction of their Buddhist temple, the Alien Land Law barred the Issei from buying land. Therefore, they had to purchase the land in the name of their Nisei children who, as trustees, were permitted to own land. While the Alien Land Law was intended to forbid Issei ownership of land, the Issei found loop holes and obstructed any malicious legal intent. The Issei were tirelessly devoted to the construction and maintenance of the church as one Nisei women describes: ‘I still remember my father saying, “Even if you miss a meal, I have to pay my dues for the church”.’[8] The church was officially dedicated on May 21, 1936 and included about 100 Japanese American members.[9] The church was located on five acres of land on the South East corner of Indian School Road and 43rd Avenue directly north of the present temple’s location. Today the temple owns a smaller plot of land where the temple, residential quarters, and the classrooms are today. The first church included a hondō, worship hall, and residential quarters for the Sensei and his family in one building.

The church also represented the permanent presence of Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism in Arizona. Outside the immediate Arizona community, the BCA 75 Year History remarks that “This dedication also marked the first major extension of Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism away from the costal states.”[10] May 21, 1936 is a historical day for the local Phoenix Jōdo Shinshū sangha as well as the larger national Jōdo Shinshū sangha. The Arizona Buddhist Temple was originally titled the Arizona Buddhist Church. It is not surprising that the Arizona Jōdo Shinshū sangha would call them selves a “church” and not a “temple” because during this time period other communities in California, such as San Francisco, also called themselves a “church”. Later, in 1944, the national Jōdo Shinshū organization would follow this trend by changing their name from the Buddhist Mission of North America to the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA).

An important part of any Jōdo Shinshū temple or church is the obutsudan, Buddhist altar. The Arizona Buddhist Temple’s obutsudan once again exemplifies the Issei’s exceptional commitment and sacrifice to their sangha. The original obutsudan was an Issei handmade creation that, unfortunately, was later destroyed. In addition, the charter members handmade the benches used during Sunday services.

When the Nisei were teenagers, in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, the temple offered Junior Young Buddhist Association or Jr. YBA. Jr. YBA was a youth group for Buddhist youth organizing social events such as movies and parties. When the Nisei were college age, the temple sponsored a group for them called Senior YBA. Senior YBA organized social events for the Nisei and, as one Nisei women recalls, would attend Jōdo Shinshū conferences.[11]

World War II and the Relocation Camps: 1941 – 1945

On May 3rd of 1942, an order from the Western Defense Command was posted in Los Angeles saying: “Instructions to all Persons of Japanese Ancestry Living in the Following Areas.”[12] The notice goes on to delineate which areas of Los Angeles must pack only what they can carry and relocate to Assembly Centers. Meanwhile, relocation camps were being prepared in Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Arkansas, Idaho, and California. Similar instructions were given in Arizona and those living in the military zones were required to take only what they could carry and relocate to the above referenced camps.

Not all Japanese Americans were relocated, but because the Arizona Buddhist Church was located in a military zone and all Sensei’s were relocated, the church closed during the relocation period. During this period, those not relocated continued to practice Buddhism but only within the confines of their home. In reference to practicing Buddhism publicly as a sangha, one Nisei woman responded, “You didn’t dare do anything.”[13] Another Nisei woman recalls that during the relocation years, there were no Japanese Language School or temple activities but at home they continued to practice Buddhism. She recalls that they had a family butsudan and her father would chant and then give a short talk. Buddhist practice in the public realm stopped during the relocation period but Buddhist practice remained a priority in the home.

In the relocation camps, Buddhist practiced also continued. Buddhist practice continued through children’s Sunday school and adult services. A Nisei man remembers that the California Buddhist League was the primary instigator in starting Jōdo Shinshū services in one of the Arizona camps. They established the services by memory because they had no Sensei to assist them.

Post World War II 1945 – Present

After the military zone restrictions were lifted and the Japanese Americans were released from the relocation camps, the Arizona Buddhist Church reopened. In September, 1945, Rev. Ryuei Masuoka reopened the church.[14] When he reopened the church he also resumed services and Sunday school classes. Like Rev. Seki, Rev. Masuoka earned a living by receiving donations from the Arizona Jōdo Shinshū sangha. Therefore, because most Japanese Americans were released from the camps with out jobs and income, the post war period is a testament to the communities’ dedication to the church through financial donations and is a testament to the sacrifice of Sensei’s during this time period. The Japanese American community struggled; but, through the assistance of their community and the church, Arizona Japanese Americans were able to resettle and establish successful businesses and careers.

Post-World War II, the Arizona Buddhist Church served as temporary housing for many itinerant and homeless Japanese Americans until they found employment and homes. “Pre fab (s)”[15] homes were built on church grounds to hold families and single adults. One Nisei man lived on the temple grounds with his parents and his wife. After his parents were able to move out, they left the home for him and his wife and they remained for one additional year. The larger Japanese American community also helped displaced Japanese Americans by allowing them to live on their land. One Nisei woman recalls, “Well some of the farms provided housing too…He had a regular little camp there.”[16]
On March 13, 1957 the church was accidentally burned down to the ground.[17] The fire was catastrophic, destroying the piano, the handmade butsudan, and the handmade service benches. Until a new church could be constructed, a barrack from the Gila River Relocation Camp was used to conduct services in.[18] The replacement church broke ground in 1961. Along with a new hondō, a separate home was built directly north of the church for the Sensei and his family. Today the home is used as an office and for temple activities while the Sensei and his family live off temple grounds. In addition to building the church and the living quarters, classrooms were built on the north end of the property. All three structures exist today and are used for a variety of functions and activities. With the building of a new church, an organ was purchased and the obutsudan from the struggling Mesa Buddhist Church was transported to the new Phoenix church.[19]
After the construction of the new temple, residential quarters, and the classrooms, a number of new programs and activities were initiated. For example, for twenty five years, a Nisei woman taught Japanese dance at the temple. In addition, in the early 1990’s the temple began offering taiko drumming for all ages. While the temple does not offer Japanese dancing anymore, taiko drumming is an active group performing at various festivals and events. Youth today also are involved in the Junior YBA but there is no organized group for college students. The Junior YBA is primarily a social venue for the temple’s youth but they also attend Jōdo Shinshū conferences throughout the United States.

As the temple has grown, changes have accompanied the growth. As mentioned earlier, the Arizona Buddhist Church recently changed its name in the late 1990’s to the Arizona Buddhist Temple. Some temple members were adamant in changing the name because “church” had a Christian connotation. Others did not mind that “church” shared that connotation and as one Nisei man stated, “We didn’t know the difference between the designation church and temple.”[20]

Another significant change is the change from Japanese to English. Before the relocation period everything, except a few songs, was in Japanese. Board meetings, locally and nationally, records, and the services were all conducted in Japanese. One Nisei man recalls acting as a translator during services and other religious events before the War, evidence that some sangha members were not proficient in Japanese. The change to English was a national change that was officially initiated in the Topaz relocation camp in Utah; however, the change was enacted gradually over many years. The Arizona Buddhist Church followed suit.

In addition to changing services from Japanese to English, Rev. Aoki added mediation to the Sunday service in the late 1970’s. This seems to be a direct response to the non-Japanese American interest in Buddhism. According to one Nisei gentleman, meditation was added because: “The addition of meditation came after the American public began to be interested in meditation, especially in the Zen School of Buddhism. And we added it gradually, at first it was just a short minute or two. Even today it’s only about two minutes long.”[21] Initially, Rev. Aoki would instruct the sangha before service mediation in breathing, while, today, service mediation is not preceded by instruction or comment of any kind.[22]

A typical service today begins with the Sensei or a trained sangha member ringing the kanshō, or the calling bell.[23] After the bell has been rung with a wooden mallet in the pattern of 7-5-3, the Sensei leads the sangha in Gasshō. Gasshō is led by the Sensei saying “Namo Amida Butsu” three times in succession with the sangha following with flat, open palms placed together finishing with a small bow. Gasshō is followed by mediation lasting two to three minutes. Mediation begins and ends with the Sensei hitting the daikin, a large inverted bell. Seated mediation is practiced in folding chairs with no given instructions or uniform position. Following the ringing of the daikin, the service leader leads the sangha in a call and response taking refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha and concludes with Gasshō. Next Sensei leads the sangha in sutra chanting. Up to this point, the sangha has remained seated, but following the chanting, the sangha stands to sing a gatha, hymn, led by the organist. After the song, the sangha is seated and the Sensei gives a Dharma talk relating Buddhism to every day issues. Concluding with Gasshō, next the sangha stands to sing another gatha. After the sangha is seated, the service leader shares the temple’s announcements and welcomes first time visitors. After the conclusion of the announcements, the service concludes with a gatha again led by the organist.[24] Often during the Sunday services the community will also read a Buddhist creed from the service book led by the service leader.

After the service, there is an adult discussion group that meets in the front of the hondō and children’s Sunday school is taught in the classrooms. The adult discussion group is open to visitors. Often, the visitors use this opportunity to ask questions about Buddhism and Jōdo Shinshū. Today Sunday school is taught by volunteer teachers, which in the past have consisted of both men and women. A Superintendent position was created in the late 1950’s to over see children’s Sunday school; therefore, Sunday school has been functioning independent of the temple’s governing board. After the adult discussion group, the temple offers monthly Shotsuki services. Led by the Sensei, these services are in memory of those whose date of passing falls in that month. Often, families who are not regular service attendees will attend the Shotsuki service.

Today, the Arizona Buddhist Temple is maintaining a consistent membership base but has a large, aging Nisei population. According to the 2002 BCA records, there are 104 members of the Arizona Buddhist Temple.[25] The sangha consists primarily of Japanese Americans but also includes Euro-Americans and African Americans. The temple has an energized group of middle aged members who are looking to extend their reach through community activities, such as the Interfaith Council and community service, and education opportunities, such as Buddhist conferences. While the temple is small compared to some of its California counterparts, the temple is maintaining its membership but looks forward to growing compared to the possibility of declining with the passing of the aging Nisei population.

As the Arizona Buddhist Temple approaches their 75th anniversary, they can look back and enjoy a history of solidarity and perseverance. The sangha has persevered through obstacles that were afflicted and accidental. The Arizona Buddhist Temple in the next 25 years, before their centennial celebration, will face many significant changes. They will see the passing of the cornerstone Nisei generation thus creating a smaller but more youthful sangha. They will most likely continue to see demographic changes as the American public becomes more intrigued with Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism. They will face decisions regarding service changes such as whether or not to chant in English. As the next 25 years progress, I suspect that many changes will occur along with changing demographics, but I also suspect that many traditions will persist as the temple remains a cultural and religious haven for those of Japanese decent living in Arizona. Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism in Arizona is a religious and cultural group that is adapting and preserving traditions simultaneously depending on the sanghas’ needs and future goals.

—Brenda E. Whitlock, Pluralism Project Student Affiliate (Arizona State University)


[1] This project, “Arizona Buddhist Temple (1993 -present): A Historical Narrative (2004),” is part of a larger master thesis project. ↩︎
[2] The Arizona Buddhist Temple was formerly titled the Arizona Buddhist Church. Therefore, I will use “temple” and “church” interchangeably depending on the context. Most Jōdo Shinshū Buddhists, old and young, in conversation, call their institution a “church”. ↩︎
[3] Nisei Group Interview, interview by author, 18 July 2004, Phoenix, Arizona: 24. ↩︎
[4] Group Interview, 25. ↩︎
[5] Group Interview 10. ↩︎
[6] Group Interview, 23. ↩︎
[7] Arizona Buddhist Temple, The Prajna. Phoenix: privately printed, September 2004: 3. ↩︎
[8] Group Interview, 9. ↩︎
[9] Ryo Munekata ed. Buddhist Churches of America. Vol. I: 75 Year History, 1899-1974. (Chicago: Norbart, Inc., 1974), 353. ↩︎
[10] Ibid. ↩︎
[11] Group Interview, 21. ↩︎
[12] BCA, 63. ↩︎
[13] Group Interview, 32. ↩︎
[14] BCA, 354.↩︎
[15] Group Interview, 35. ↩︎
[16] Group Interview, 36.↩︎
[17] BCA, 354. ↩︎
[18] BCA, 355. ↩︎
[19] BCA, 354. ↩︎
[20] Group Interview, 37. ↩︎
[21] Group Interview, 48. ↩︎
[22] Group Interview, 49. ↩︎
[23] Russell Hamada, Masao Kodani. Traditions of Jodoshinshu Hongwanji-Ha (Senshin Buddhist Temple: Pureland Publications, 1995): 21. ↩︎
[24] During the service, the sangha follows the Shin Buddhist Service Book for the call and responses, sutra chanting, and for some of the gathas. Shin Buddhist Service Book, Department of Buddhist Education, ed. (San Francisco: Buddhist Churches of America, 1994). ↩︎
[25] Annual Report of Buddhist Churches of America, 2002 Annual Report: 25. ↩︎