"The Last Missionary to Leave the Temple Should Turn off the Light": Sociological Remarks on the Decline of Japanese "Immigrant" Buddhism in Brazil

By Usarski, Frank | Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

"The Last Missionary to Leave the Temple Should Turn off the Light": Sociological Remarks on the Decline of Japanese "Immigrant" Buddhism in Brazil


Usarski, Frank, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies


Empirical data indicate that the so-called "Buddhism of yellow color" that is predominantly associated with Japanese "immigrant" Buddhism, is constantly in decline in terms of "explicit" adherents. After some methodological observations, this article gives an overview of the relevant statistical data. The last part discusses possible reasons for these negative dynamics, referring to causes within Buddhist institutions, the ethnic community, and at the level of the individual.

KEYWORDS: Japanese immigration - ethnic Buddhism - preservation of tradition - acculturation

UNLIKE Western countries such as Germany, where Buddhism was introduced from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards through the efforts of a handful of occidental protagonists especially interested in Theravada Buddhism (USARSKI 1989), the history of Buddhism in Brazil was initiated with the arrival of the first Japanese (mostly of rural origin) in the port of Santos in 1908. For many decades thereafter, Japanese immigrant Buddhism, not exclusively (NAKAMAKI 2002) but predominantly in the form of Amida Buddhism, continued to be the only expression of Buddhism in the so-called largest Catholic country in the world. Moreover, at the beginning of the 1960s the traditional Soto Zen temple Busshinji, in the city of São Paulo, became the first and primary source for a small circle of non-Japanese pioneers interested in the practice of zazen (ROCHA 2006, 78). The same institution was for some time the spiritual home of perhaps the symbolic figure of the Brazilian branch of "conversion Buddhism," Cláudia Souza de Murayama, alias "Monja Coen" (USARSKI 2006). Finally, in order to evaluate the influence of Japanese immigration on Brazilian Buddhism in general, one must not forget the high proportion of Pure Land and Nichiren Buddhist temples and centers within about three hundred Buddhist entities in Brazil, while keeping in mind that the Brazilian field has become as pluralistic as that of other countries (see FIGURE 1).

Problematization

Headlines such as "Buddhism is leaving the temples,"1 flanked by repeatedly published "news" in the Brazilian media regarding a supposed "boom" of the Brazilian sangha,2 suggest that, after decades of relative encapsulation, traditional Japanese Buddhism has successfully gone through a process of acculturation and turned into a "trendy" religion. This optimistic image was severely challenged by an article published on 19 January 2001 by the weekly magazine Isto é whose title "Don't let Buddhism disappear from Brazil" did not fit at all with previous reports about the almost inevitable advance of Buddhism. According to the article, the urgent issue, at least among representatives of traditional Japanese Buddhists institutions, was not how to respond to a dramatic increase of conversions or to overcrowded sessions, retreats, and workshops, but to declining communities and internal difficulties such as the lack of staff in certain local temples.

While many readers might have been taken by surprise by these "revelations," the Isto é report is not only in tune with similar statements from within traditional Japanese Buddhist communities, but also in line with the results of empirical research on the subject. One example for a pessimistic "emic" evaluation of the current situation of Japanese Buddhism is the statement of an official of the Comunidade Budista Nichirenshu of São Paulo, who, in 1995, had already emphasized that "There are many, both within and outside the Japanese community, who think that Buddhism is only for older people, and that monks fulfill their functions only in terms of funeral rites" (FEDERAÇÃO DAS SEITAS BUDISTAS DO BRASIL 1995, 42). And in 2004 a leading Jodo Shinshu minister of São Paulo added that

When it comes to religious practice, one can easily notice that the descendents of immigrants are not very interested in what is happening in a Buddhist temple. They are more concerned with integrating themselves into Brazilian society than in maintaining the traditions of their ancestors. …

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