Book Review: The Creation of American Buddhism

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on

The history of Buddhism in America is an open secret, shrouded in ignorance, neglect, and the ever-present dust of racial prejudice. Scott A. Mitchell's remarkable book, The Creation of American Buddhism, offers a new retelling of this history, drawing on the lives and practices of Japanese-American Shin Buddhists in the XNUMXth century. Professor Mitchell's important research documents the efforts of this community to resist organized discrimination and racism, to survive illegal imprisonment in wartime internment camps, to forge an American Buddhism, and to generously share the treasures of their traditions with teachers and practitioners in society at large.

Professor Mitchell is currently Dean of the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, California. His academic interests in Buddhist modernism, Buddhism in Western contexts, and Pure Land traditions come together in this book. In a detailed introduction exploring Buddhist modernism and the development of Asian-American studies, Professor Mitchell confronts the “twin-track” narrative of the evolution of Buddhism in the United States:

Are we following the stream of intellectuals, Orientalists, and converts credited with “American Buddhism”? Or do we tell the story of immigrants and their descendants, often referred to as “Buddhists in America”? In summary, the dual-stream meta-narrative highlights mutual exclusivity at the cost of interdependent reciprocity, and dubiously suggests a white Buddhist lineage facing a mass of unrelated, withdrawn Asians- same. (Mitchell 2023, 8)


Professor Mitchell takes issue with a series of “reductive binaries that have largely defined the study of Buddhism in North America”. (Mitchell 2023) These binary narratives include ethnic/converted, traditional/modern, and authentic/inauthentic. The “master” narrative favors an exoticism of Beat Zen, characterized by figures such as Alan Watts, Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac. But there is another story that underscores the complexity and creativity of an emerging American Buddhism, evident in Asian American communities.

Along with incisive research critiquing the shortcomings and missteps of earlier cultural histories of Buddhism in the West, the heart of the book is archival work that sheds light on Berkeley Bussei, a Shin Buddhist magazine published annually by the Young Buddhist Association of the Berkeley Buddhist Temple from 1939 to 1960. The Jodo Shinshu, founded by Shinran in the 1880th century, is the largest branch of Buddhism in Japan. In the 1899s, Shin emigrated to Hawaii with Japanese farm workers. In 1921, the first two Shin ministers arrived in San Francisco to support the growing Japanese immigrant community, leading to what are now the Buddhist Churches of America. The Berkeley Buddhist Temple was dedicated in XNUMX, at its present site on Channing Way. Located near the University of California, the temple has always been a center of Buddhist studies and a vibrant community of Japanese descent.

This dynamism is reflected in the pages of Berkeley Bussei, and in the many seminars and conferences organized by members of the Shin community, ministers and scholars. Over the years on both sides of World War II, Nisei (second-generation Japanese) Buddhists argued for an "American" identity that included their religious tradition. Along the way, they began to plant seeds in the larger culture of Modernist Buddhism as a rational religion of peace.

Professor Mitchell makes a point of acknowledging the behind-the-scenes work of lay people, many of them women, who make these activities possible. It honors women such as Jane Imamura, Kimi Hisatune, and many others, women and men who have done the necessary hidden and uncredited work to support their temples and their faith. These devoted Nisei Buddhists have forged the infrastructure for a new manifestation of the Buddha's way. In many cases, their physical support made possible the work of more wisely known models. Speaking of DT Suzuki, Professor Mitchell writes:

Suzuki was supported by the Nisei Buddhist community, who attended his lectures and considered themselves one of his students. And the Nisei Buddhists picked him up from the airport (Imamura), gave him accommodation (the Okamuras), facilitated financial transactions (Yamaoka) and took care of his personal affairs (Mihoko Okamura). This work – the work of Japanese Americans and women made it possible. . . . what has become possible is American Buddhism. (Mitchell 2023)

Professor Scott A. Mitchell. Taken from

President Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, just months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, called for the internment of at least 125 people of Japanese descent, two-thirds of whom were US citizens. Japanese Buddhists were particularly targeted by US government agencies, which viewed Buddhism as incompatible with American values.*

For most families, internment lasted from early 1942 until the end of the war, but the trauma of incarceration, deprivation, and loss of livelihood and property lasted much longer. . It was not until 1950 that Berkeley Bussei resume publishing in a world that has changed dramatically. And here are the voices of Japanese Americans taking a new stand. Professor Mitchell comments on an important article that appeared in the 1950s. bussei, “Perspectives on American Buddhism” by Yukio Kamamoto. Professor Mitchell writes that the development of a strong Buddhist faith among Japanese Americans "is necessary to promote Buddhism in America, and such a project is necessary not only for Buddhists, but also for Buddhism to bring a significant contribution to American culture. (Mitchell 2023)

Seventy-three years after Kawamoto's article, Buddhism undeniably has its place in American society. It is an ever-changing place, relative to the diversity of practices, culture and communities in the United States; also, in relation to the tides of commodification and consumption that affect all aspects of contemporary life. The implicit and explicit mission of Japanese American immigrants and their children has been to root the Buddha tree here in the West. They've done it wonderfully, and yet, for the most part, their history and their contributions have gone unrecognized. As I said above, these stories have been hidden in plain sight.

Hozan Alan Senauke. From

The strength of Professor Mitchell's book is that it begins with the words and stories of basic Shin Buddhists creating a daily practice steeped in modernism that we can now call American Buddhism. At the same time, Professor Mitchell writes about the changing discourse of Asian American Studies, moving away from Orientalist narratives to a more open ground of inclusion, acknowledging all true ancestors of American Buddhism.

For practitioners and scholars alike, The Creation of American Buddhism is an important book. Of course, the journey described by Professor Mitchell is marked by all “the mess of lived religion”: contradiction, discrimination and racism, faith, despair, injustice, redemption and cultural survival. As Professor Mitchell observes in the epilogue: “The Jodo Shinshu Buddhists at the heart of this book have made the present possible. And we, in the present, are collectively building the future. (Mitchell 2023)

* The story of Buddhist survival during wartime internment is well told in Duncan Williams' 2019 book. American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in World War II.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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