Unique Buddhist temple in Ontario faces uncertain future

by Richard Cockle, The Oregonian, July 05, 2009

ONTARIO, OR (USA) -- A unique Buddhist temple with roots in a dark chapter of World War II faces an uncertain future, along with this Snake River town's once-thriving Japanese American community.

<< Richard Cockle/The Oregonian
The Rev. Joshin Dennis Fujimoto leads a Buddhist congregation in Ontario that is seeing its membership dwindle. The congregation's temple, finished in 1957, has an ornate golden altar.

On some Sundays, only about 60 people attend services at the Idaho-Oregon Buddhist Temple. Most are in their 70s and 80s, and a half-dozen are 90 or older.

"The backbone of our people is dwindling," said the Rev. Joshin Dennis Fujimoto, 57, spiritual leader of the Shin Buddhist membership. "These are major concerns."

The single-story brick temple, with carved wooden doors and a golden altar, traces its origins to the suspicion that fell on Japanese Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Two months later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the infamous Executive Order 9066 ordering the West Coast's 123,000 Japanese Americans -- including 4,500 in Oregon -- to move inland. Many were forced into quick, pennies-on-the-dollar sales of farms, businesses and homes.

With little more than what they could carry, they resettled in 10 internment camps, 18 isolation areas or a scattering of "free zones" -- including Ontario and nearby Weiser, Idaho.

Across the Snake River in Idaho, "No Japs Allowed" signs were common, and then-Gov. Chase Clark was outspokenly anti-Japanese.

But in Ontario, "this area welcomed them to work and develop businesses and build families," said City Councilman John Gaskill, interim director of the Four Rivers Cultural Center, a museum, art gallery and performing arts theater where exhibits include a traditional Japanese garden and plans for a tea room this fall.

The area's Japanese American population ballooned practically overnight from 157 at the start of the war to 1,500, according to figures from the War Relocation Authority.

Today, Japanese Americans comprise about 1.5 percent of Malheur County's 31,000 residents, five times the state average, according to Charles Rynerson, an analyst for Portland State University's Center for Population Research and Census.

Cathy Ysuda, executive director of the Treasure Valley Community College Foundation and a member of the Japanese American Citizen League's board, is among Ontario residents with relatives who were interned during the war. Her grandparents were compelled to walk away from a successful Portland produce stand.

Her father, born in Portland, and her mother, born in Hood River, were teens then. Their families were housed initially in horse stalls at fairgrounds near Portland. Her father's family was then sent to the grim Tule Lake Relocation Center in California and her mother's to the wind-blown Minidoka Relocation Center east of Twin Falls, Idaho.

Some "probably never really got over it," said Ysuda, 53. "The conditions were bad; bitterly cold in the winter and blistering hot in the summer."

Fujimoto, the temple leader, had three uncles and an aunt who were sent to camps. His U.S.-born father, meanwhile, spent the war years in Japan, where he'd gone to study for the Buddhist ministry. Authorities restricted his travel but didn't detain him, Fujimoto said. Fujimoto's parents met and married in Japan, and Fujimoto was born in Tokyo, celebrating his first birthday on a ship to America.

After the war, many second-generation Japanese Americans, or nisei, stayed in the Ontario area to farm. A temporary Buddhist temple was built west of town in 1946. Six years later, the existing temple site was dedicated by the Buddhist lord abbot of Kyoto, Japan, and construction was completed in 1957.

"We still have members today who tell me stories of sand and bricks being carried in wheelbarrows," said Fujimoto, who grew up near Sacramento and worked 20 years as a sculptor and artist before becoming a Buddhist minister in 2004. The temple's altar ranks beside one in Seattle as the Northwest's most ornate.

But membership has declined from 240 in 1996.

Japanese Americans "go off to college, and then they don't come back to Ontario," said lifelong resident Mary Ann Shimojima, 63. While early Japanese Americans farmed, later generations often went into business, education or health care, said John Breidenbach, executive director of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce.

Fujimoto noted that Shin Buddhists don't proselytize. "We see other religions doing that. It seems so pushy." Plus, he said, some Japanese Americans forsake Buddhism as a statement that they are American. Some marry outside the faith. Still others "lose interest in the relevance of Buddhist practice in their lives."

On the bright side, about 10 percent of those who attend adult dharma services is Caucasian, Fujimoto said.

In addition, he said, Buddhism deals with difficulty and suffering. He thinks of people as waves in a sea that is the source of all life. Life, then, must be treated as something precious.

"Every single moment is so significant," he said. "Everything becomes of the highest concern."

We Need Your Help to Train the
Buddhist AI Chat Bot
(Neural Operator for Responsible Buddhist Understanding)

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your name in the payment slip. Thank you.

Dear Friends in the Dharma,

We seek your generous support to help us train NORBU, the word's first Buddhist AI Chat Bot.

Here are some ways you can contribute to this noble cause:

One-time Donation or Loan: A single contribution, regardless of its size, will go a long way in helping us reach our goal and make the Buddhist LLM a beacon of wisdom for all.

How will your donation / loan be used? Download the NORBU White Paper for details.

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your purpose of payment (loan or donation) in the payment slip. Thank you.

Once payment is banked in, please send the payment slip via email to: editor@buddhistchannel.tv. Your donation/loan will be published and publicly acknowledged on the Buddhist Channel.

Spread the Word: Share this initiative with your friends, family and fellow Dharma enthusiasts. Join "Friends of Norbu" at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/norbuchatbot. Together, we can build a stronger community and create a positive impact on a global scale.

Volunteer: If you possess expertise in AI, natural language processing, Dharma knowledge in terms of Buddhist sutras in various languages or related fields, and wish to lend your skills, please contact us. Your knowledge and passion could be invaluable to our project's success.

Your support is part of a collective effort to preserve and disseminate the profound teachings of Buddhism. By contributing to the NORBU, you become a "virtual Bodhisattva" to make Buddhist wisdom more accessible to seekers worldwide.

Thank you for helping to make NORBU a wise and compassionate Buddhist Chatbot!

May you be blessed with inner peace and wisdom,

With deepest gratitude,

Kooi F. Lim
On behalf of The Buddhist Channel Team

Note: To date, we have received the following contributions for NORBU:
US$ 75 from Gary Gach (Loan)
US$ 50 from Chong Sim Keong
MYR 300 from Wilson Tee
MYR 500 from Lim Yan Pok
MYR 50 from Oon Yeoh
MYR 200 from Ooi Poh Tin
MYR 300 from Lai Swee Pin
MYR 100 from Ong Hooi Sian
MYR 1,000 from Fam Sin Nin
MYR 500 from Oh teik Bin
MYR 300 from Yeoh Ai Guat
MYR 300 from Yong Lily
MYR 50 from Bandar Utama Buddhist Society
MYR 1,000 from Chiam Swee Ann
MYR 1,000 from Lye Veei Chiew
MYR 1,000 from Por Yong Tong
MYR 80 from Lee Wai Yee
MYR 500 from Pek Chee Hen
MYR 300 from Hor Tuck Loon
MYR 1,000 from Wise Payments Malaysia Sdn Bhd
MYR 200 from Teo Yen Hua
MYR 500 from Ng Wee Keat
MYR 10,000 from Chang Quai Hung, Jackie (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from K. C. Lim & Agnes (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from Juin & Jooky Tan (Loan)
MYR 100 from Poh Boon Fong (on behalf of SXI Buddhist Students Society)
MYR 10,000 from Fam Shan-Shan (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from John Fam (Loan)
MYR 500 from Phang Cheng Kar
MYR 100 from Lee Suat Yee
MYR 500 from Teo Chwee Hoon (on behalf of Lai Siow Kee)
MYR 200 from Mak Yuen Chau

We express our deep gratitude for the support and generosity.

If you have any enquiries, please write to: editor@buddhistchannel.tv