American Sutra – Buddhism as Threat in the United States

After Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment exploded. Along with general suspicion toward Japanese Americans, those who practiced Buddhism were often specifically targeted. Even before the smoke had cleared at Pearl Harbor, the American government was already rounding up Buddhist leaders for detention. With Buddhist communities under surveillance and anti-Japanese attitudes reaching a boiling point, some Japanese American Buddhists even contemplated converting to Christianity in hopes this would save them from being sent to American concentration camps.

Today, Buddhism is seen favorably by most Americans as a peaceful religion. However, this wasn’t the case in the early twentieth century. Americans in the early 1900s were warned by newspapers and individual leaders in the Christian community that Buddhism was cruel to animals, degrading toward women, and led by debaucherous priests. These unsavory sentiments led some Buddhists to consciously present their faith to be more compatible with Christian tastes by saying, like Christianity, they had a god. 

In Duncan Ryuken Williams’ new book, American Sutra. A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War, he details this bigotry against Buddhists during World War II. The book also explains how the Japanese American community, though forcibly dispossessed of their property and imprisoned in concentration camps, fought for their religious freedom, and how this gave rise to a new type American Buddhism. Williams writes that born out of the struggle to gain liberty from the concentration camps and the longing to practice religion freely “the (US) constitution became a new scripture for Buddhists in America, one that would protect their freedom to practice the Dharma in the land of liberty they called home.”

Williams, a Soto Zen Buddhist priest and Director of the University of Southern California Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture, uses internment camp newsletters, newly translated letters and diaries, and interviews with camp survivors and Japanese American WWII veterans to explain how, even in the face of suspicion and prejudice, their faith strengthened and helped them persevere. Published by Belknap Press, American Sutra also asks the question that’s still as pertinent now in the US as it was in 1941: Is a non-Christian person of color as American as a white Christian? Williams seeks answers by examining the history of Buddhist migration to the US and the roots of Buddhism being seen as a security threat to the US. The book concludes with a poignant story of an incarcerated Buddhist priest conducting the ritual practice of copying and burying a Buddhist sutra (scripture) in hopes of bringing forth the salvation of future generations of Japanese American Buddhists.

On Saturday, February 23, see Duncan Ryuken Williams speak about American Sutra while exploring questions of faith, identity, and resilience in the face of dislocation, loss, and uncertainty. His talk will be followed by comments and discussion with Brian Niiya (Content Director, Densho), Naomi Hirahara (award-winning author and historian), and Valerie Matsumoto (UCLA Aratani Chair on the Japanese American Incarceration, Redress, and Community). Reception and book signing will follow. This program is free, but RSVPs are recommended using this link.

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