- American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War by Duncan Ryūken Williams
American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War by Duncan Ryūken Williams is the story of the experiences of American Buddhists during World War II. While numerous scholars have studied the wartime discrimination, dislocation, dispossession, and confinement of Japanese, Williams illuminates the role that Buddhism played in not only identifying Japanese suspects, but also in sustaining the Japanese community during the war. Subsequently, Buddhism was transformed into what Williams describes as a new American Buddhism, revealing the possibility of being both Buddhist and American during a period of tenuous national loyalties. [End Page 195]
In this extensively researched account, Williams details the history of Buddhism in Japanese communities both in Hawai‘i and on the mainland, which civil and military officials deemed suspect as they promoted a fundamentally white and Christian nation that ironically enshrined religious freedom in the First Amendment. However, in the decades preceding the attack on Pearl Harbor, many white Americans considered Buddhism incompatible with being a loyal American. Thus, prior to the war, officials had investigated Buddhism as a threat to U.S. national security, conducted extensive surveillance of Buddhist temples and Shintō shrines, and put Buddhist priests on registries of potentially subversive Japanese to be immediately apprehended with the outbreak of war. These preparations became a reality, as the first person officials detained was Bishop Gikyō Kuchiba, leader of the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist sect in Hawai‘i, with other Buddhist priests soon to follow. Following the mass incarceration of Japanese in America with the issuance of Executive Order 9066, officials also closed Buddhist temples across the country and sent Buddhist priests, along with their congregations, to incarceration centers across America.
Despite the fact that their embrace of Buddhism was considered one of many factors that led to their incarceration, many inmates turned to Buddhism to sustain them during the war. Williams provides detailed insight into the Sangha or Buddhist communities, first in the assembly centers that gave birth to what he calls “horse stable Buddhism,” and later in the incarceration centers (p. 99). Williams illuminates the transformation of Buddhism arguing that it was consistent with the evolution of Buddhism in its roughly 2,500-year history in that, “wartime incarceration brought the question of whether Buddhism could survive in America to a head, dramatically accelerating the natural process of cultural adaptation” (p. 122). For example, the Young Buddhist Association (YBA) became a community-building organization that sponsored many social activities including baseball, dances, and pageants that embraced elements of American culture.
The relocation process itself also ironically helped to strengthen ties between Buddhist sects and create new opportunities for interfaith cooperation with other religions. Although priests of every sect corresponded with the members of their prewar temples, who were spread across many different camps, encouraging them to maintain their particular sect’s teachings and rituals, in many War Relocation Authority (WRA) centers, Buddhist often formed “parallel congregations,” whereby they gathered in one space, but held their own distinctive services and meetings (p. 131). They also agreed to joint services at key moments in the Buddhist ritual calendar such as Hanamatsuri (the Buddha’s birthday), Obon (the summer ancestral festival), and Ohigan ceremonies at the spring and autumn equinox. This concentration of [End Page 196] Buddhist sects also resulted in interfaith collaborations with Christian groups that Williams contends emerged “organically” as they each attempted to work together to better the conditions for the camp’s populations (p. 135). As Williams extensively details this intersect and interfaith cooperation, it would be interesting to determine how, if at all, traditional Buddhist doctrinal teachings in each sect were transformed or supplemented by these new ideas and experiences that emerged in the incarceration centers.
As Buddhism continued to flourish and adapt in the various incarceration centers, Williams argues how it also became a motivating factor...