Canadian Buddhists Celebrate 100 Years

By Ashoke Dasgupta

Winnipeg Free Press
September 3, 2005

The 100th Anniversary of Shin Buddhism in this country was celebrated on August 28 at the Manitoba Buddhist Temple, 825 Winnipeg Avenue. It was built in 1946 by Japanese-Canadian Buddhists on release from internment working Manitoban beet fields.

After a solemn and colourful service attended by the temple’s 200-odd members, 14 Canadians entered the Way of the Buddha, each receiving a Buddhist name on the occasion. “Our forefathers suffered much from economic hardships and discrimination, but maintained their faith despite adversity,” pointed out Jim Hisanaga, President, Buddhist Churches of Canada.

Bishop Orai Fujikawa said, “We may not be satisfied with the way our lives go because we are creatures of illusion. However, Buddhist teachings enable us to realize the interconnectedness of all life, and the finite nature of human existence, with courage and joy. They also help us overcome violence and environmental degradation.”

Born near Buddha’s birthplace, MLA Bidhu Jha congratulated the assembly on behalf of the Premier and people of Manitoba.

Shin is a sect of Buddhism started by Shinran (1173-1263) in Japan, and similar celebrations were held at Toronto, Vancouver and Lethbridge. All were attended by Gomonshu Otani, his wife and an entourage from Kyoto. Otani is a direct descendant of Shinran and related to the Japanese emperor.

The first Buddhist temple in Canada was built in 1905 near Steveston, BC. Shin Buddhism has since expanded to a total of 17 temples under the aegis of the
Buddhist Churches of Canada. The mother temple at Kyoto, Japan, oversees about 30,000 temples in that country.

There are about 40 Shin Temples in the contiguous USA, 60 in Hawaii and 40 in South Amer
ica. Sensei (teacher or elder) Fredrich Ulrich reflects that many non-Asians are turning to Buddhism because of the growing influence of extreme fundamentalism in many religious communities, their heightened politicization, and the increasing violence in the name of religion in modern times.

Born of Cherokee-German lineage in Nebraska, Ulrich studied at Methodist and Buddhist seminaries. It was his hero Albert Schweitzer, who respected all life, and his First Nations spirituality that led him in the direction of Buddhism. Ulrich was the first non-Asian to be ordained into the Shin priesthood in this country at a 1984 ceremony in Calgary.

The Enlightened One
Siddhartha Gautama, later to be known as “Buddha” or “The Enlightened One,” was born a warrior prince around 563BC at Lumbini, near the Indo-Nepali border. His mother was a lifelong virgin called Maya, which may mean “love” or “illusion,” depending on the context. Gautama married Yashodhara, and they had a son, Rahula.

Evincing a keen intellect and thirst for knowledge, Gautama went on three fateful journeys. On each of them he saw a sight that troubled him greatly: a frail old man, an invalid wracked with pain, and a funeral procession. Pondering age, disease and death, the universal lot of humanity, and increasingly dissatisfied with his unreal life at court, Gautama went on a fourth trip. This time he encountered a monk in orange robes who radiated happiness.

Concluding that ignorance, craving and hatred bind us to the cycles of birth and rebirth Gautama kissed his wife and son goodbye, traveling to famous gurus or spiritual masters for his edification. One night, under a Bodhi Tree, he had a flash of illumination in which the origins of evil, the cause of all suffering, and the way to overcome both, became clear to him. His first sermon was preached at Varanasi, India, and he passed away in Kushinagara at 80.

There are an estimated 500 Buddhists in India, Japan, Nepal, Tibet, Burma, Kampuchea, Sri Lanka, Korea and elsewhere, including a growing number in Europe and North America.

Friendly Manitoba
When Japanese-Canadians were rounded up in this country during World War II, about a thousand of them were brought to Manitoba with promises of jobs at fair wages, housing, and the preservation of family units. They endured racial, cultural and religious persecution. When the war ended, many Manitobans desired their departure from the province, but other voices were raised in favour of their staying, including that of the Winnipeg Free Press.

When, in 1946, it was decided that they should stay in Manitoba, the Japanese-Canadians began to build the temple at Winnipeg Avenue with their own hands.

In 1947, an advertisement was published in this newspaper announcing the Fall Obon Service, a celebration of unity with generations of the past.

Ashoke Dasgupta is a Winnipeg writer
[An edited version of this article appeared in the Saturday Winnipeg Free Press of September 3, 2005]