Missionaries of the Buddhist Faith

On September 1, 1899, Dr. Shuye Sonoda and Rev. Kakuryo Nishijima, the first two missionaries of the Jodo Shinshu (Pure Land) Sect of Japanese Buddhism to be sent to North America, arrived in San Francisco at the request of the newly formed Young Men’s Buddhist Association. According to the official history of the Buddhist Churches of America, upon their arrival,

they checked into the Occidental Hotel. News . . . must have reached the American public since reporters from the “San Francisco Chronicle” asked for interviews. On September 12, 1899, an article appeared in that paper with the headline “They Teach The Buddhist Faith.”

Following is the text of the September 12 article:

Two Buddhist priests from Japan, Dr. Shuye Sonoda and the Rev. Kakuryo Nishijima, have come to San Francisco to minister to the spiritual wants of their countrymen and at the same time to undertake the work of converting the Christians of this city to their faith. On Wednesday they will open a Buddhist mission at 807 Polk Street. Here religious services will be held every Sabbath, for they are willing to conform to the national day of worship, and from this as a center it is proposed to circulate printed tracts which shall set forth the merits and beauties of the ancient Buddhist faith, as compared to the doctrines of Christianity. Last evening Dr. Sonoda, who holds the degree of doctor of philosophy from the Imperial University of Japan, candidly stated his intentions and hopes.

“Our primary object is to instruct the Japanese who are here,” he said earnestly, “but that is not our goal, but merely a preliminary step, which we shall follow with the circulation of pamphlets among Americans, setting forth the meaning of Buddhism. We believe that we are governed only by law, not by any personified God. We have within us the highest guidance, the Kharma. Before people can comprehend the truth they must be freed from delusion. God is not the creator, but the created. We ourselves create God. He is not a real existence, but a figment of the human imagination. We discover our true nature; we ourselves are Buddha. Buddha and we are not heterogeneous, but only represent differences in degree. We ought not to ask benefits for our external being. We should seek the highest development of our inner nature, and we must remove our own imperfections, relying on no other power. I firmly believe that Buddhism is a better moral guide than Christianity. Our plan here is first to establish a church, then an evening school for our own people, and as we become more proficient in English, to communicate with those among Americans who wish to investigate Buddhism.”

Both Dr. Sonoda and his assistant, Mr. Nishijima, are sons of Buddhist priests. They belong to that branch of their religion which is known as the Shin-shu, or “true sect,” and is the most powerful in Japan, having the largest and most elegant temple, called the Western, or Honguwangi.

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