100 years of Buddha Dharma in Canada


The Buddha was born in India. But, here was once a boy who found the Buddha, right here where the prairie grass grows. How is that possible?  

The answer started one day when, as that boy, I roamed my grandfather’s farm. I liked to dig in the Wolf Pasture in the early morning, my bare feet wet from the prairie grass. The pasture’s name reflected the time when the wolves used to den up among the gullies riven by small streams. Tipi rings witnessed that others had been here before, ancient others.
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I lay in the grass, feeling the earth breathe. The waving prairie grass bore a lesson. I would later call this Dharma. This was a place of no place, the addressless. In the future this would be called sukha vati, the Happiness Place. On this morning there was a sense of deep connection. This would, in my more mature years, be named sangha, community. 
When I became a young man, Buddha roared into my life right out of books written by Albert Schweitzer. The Iliff School of Theology in Denver Colorado had received a large number of books by this great being (maha satva).  Cataloging these titles was my first step in becoming a Buddhist priest of The Japanese Pure Land tradition.  The message of Reverence for Life moved me deeply. Albert Schweitzer, too, had a happiness place--his hospital in Africa. He too had an awakening, on the wild Ogowe River. Schweitzer commented later that he had been thinking of Buddha. This happened deep in the African wildness, an addressless place. 

The books were eventually cataloged, and well read. It was time to visit the Denver Buddhist Temple. The early part of the morning was called Dharma School, but it was not exactly “school.” It seemed chaotic with children running around freely. Old people sat in a groups laughing. The minister, Sensei Tsunoda, wandered about smiling in all directions. This took place in the main hall (hondo) in front of a beautiful shrine that glistened with lanterns and lotuses. It spoke in the lavish artistic tradition of Japanese Shin Buddhism. There were classrooms in the temple, but no one seemed interested. They stayed right there in front of the statue of Amida Buddha, the Infinitely Awake. 

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Tri-State Buddhist Church of Denver - April 13, 1958 Credit: Denver Post

Eventually a gong began to sound a deep slow cadence. The minister had invited the gong to speak. There was a scurrying of feet as chairs were set up by the men. The women brought out service materials. The gong gradually faded, a quiet lingering tone. 

Then the children came parading in, to take their seats in the front rows. The elders sat in the rows on the right. Sensei Tsunoda, now in his robes, started the Triple Refuge in the Buddha, Dharma (teachings) and Sangha, a chant from the time of the Buddha. There followed a reading from the letters by Shinran, the founder of Shin Buddhism.  

Then the Sensei intoned the first lines of the sutra (scripture) for the morning. It was the Twelve Gratitudes, Junirai in Japanese. The minister and the elders chanted the sutra by heart.  It ends with a wonderful scene in which the earth was so happy that flowers sprang forth in array. The sky, in its joy, sent a refreshing rain of sweet green tea.

As the minister gave his Japanese Dharma talk, I looked around at the objects of beauty in the hondo (meeting hall). The walls were covered in art work. Scrolls hung from hooks bearing the likeness of important people. There, too, were scrolls of calligraphy for the names of the Buddha, embedded in haiku.  A brush-stroked picture showed the Buddha sitting before animals teaching Dharma. Origami cranes decorated the speaker’s stand, where Sensei next spoke in English about the importance of interdependence. 

The service finished with silent meditation (seiza), followed by chanting Namo Amida Buddha, Gratitude to the Infinite Awake.  Then everyone offered incense into a large pot with a lion on top. And there was lunch, chop sticks and all.  

These were typical experiences found in any Shin Buddhist Temple. They are still in evidence today in 2015 when about 60 Shin Buddhist Temples exist in the US, and 12 in Canada. These groups have been in North America for over 100 years. The first Buddhist temples built in Canada were Shin Buddhist Temples. 

Life in these places is full of sangha. It sometimes involves keeping the temple in shape with hours of scrubbing and polishing. It means funerals, Buddha’s Birthday, study groups, memorials and special services, like Obon dancing in Japanese costumes. Obon is a time when the lines between life and death disappear.

Amazingly, I finally became a Sensei myself. I served for 25 years on the prairies in Alberta and Manitoba. I am now retired, a mere wrinkle in time.  Still, the vision of my boyhood happiness place has never faded. This Buddhist life has been a journey from beginning to beginning. 

By Sensei Fredrich Louis Ulrich
Manitoba Buddhist Temple

September 16, 2016