Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Parallels Between North American and Brazilian Buddhism

I just finished this fascinating article about Buddhism in Brazil. If you want to read in it full, you have to find it in volume 1 on the page I linked to. The author, Cristina Moreira da Rocha, writes of the history and development of Buddhism (primarily Zen Buddhism) in Brazil, beginning with the arrival of Japanese immigrant laborers in 1908 up to the present day diversity of approaches Buddhism and Buddhist communities. What I have been struck with is how many parallels there are to the North American Buddhist story.

1. The initial arrival through Asian immigrant communities. Although the establishment of Buddhist institutions appears to have been delayed in Brazil - "In 1932, Joodo Shinshuu established the first Brazilian Buddhist temple in Cafelândia in São Paulo State. - like in North America, Buddhism was almost exclusively the territory of Asian immigrants and their children in the beginning.

2. Oppression of citizens and immigrants of Japanese descent during World War II. While both Canada and the U.S. has shameful policies towards the Japanese members of their nations, including internment camps, Brazilian policies were maybe not as harsh, but still followed along the lines of viewing those of Japanese descent as potential enemies.

Among the Brazilian policies were the following: "During World War II, Japanese schools were closed, Japanese language newspapers were prohibited (there were four Japanese daily newspapers published in São Paulo with a total circulation of around fifty thousand[17]), and speaking Japanese in public and private (including houses of worship) was banned."

3. The increase of Buddhist "missionaries" and teachers arriving during the 1950's. As in North America, Brazil experienced an increase level of Buddhists coming to the country specifically to teach and spread the word about Buddhism. "The schools of Nishi Hongwanji, Higashi Hongwanji (Joodo Shinshuu), Joodo Shu, Nichiren, and Sootoo Zenshuu sent missionaries to Brazil in the early 1950s." However, unlike in North America, where many of these teachers ended up working with primarily non-Asian convert groups, the Buddhist missionaries in Brazil almost exclusively worked within the Japanese-Brazilian community.

4. The issue of whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy. "Furthermore ... one has to be aware that for most Brazilians, Buddhism is more a "philosophy," a "way of life" than a religion. Zen Buddhism is often viewed as a meditation technique that helps to relieve stress. " A few things to ponder about this quote. First, is the author lumping the opinions of all Brazilian Buddhists into a general statement, or is she committing the common error here in North America by "convert" Buddhists of simply making statements about their communities, and forgetting about the views of those in predominately Asian-American and Asian-Canadian Buddhist communities? Second, how much of this view is the influence of North American and/or English language Buddhist publications that have been translated and are being used by Brazilian Buddhists?

Take a look at this fascinating story, for example, of the Brazilian woman who became the leader of Busshinji, a zen temple in Sao Paulo that was founded in the 1950s by the Japanese-Brazilian community:

Claudia Dias de Souza Batista was ordained in Los Angeles under Maezumi Rooshi in 1980 (when she received the Buddhist name of Koen) and lived in a monastery in Nagoya for six years thereafter. Koen took the abbess position at Busshinji and soon started enforcing all of the activities more strictly than they had been before. One Brazilian of non-Japanese origin practitioner observed:

When Moriyama was in charge of the temple, he tried to adapt Japanese Zen to Brazilian culture. It was more flexible. With Koen, as she recently arrived from Japan, she tries to maintain the patterns and rules by which she lived in Japan. She tries to impose everything, the rhythm, behavior and discipline of the Japanese practice. She is very inflexible (Cida, 40 years old, astrologer).

What makes this case more interesting is that traditionally, the Japanese-Brazilian community maintained some diacritical cultural traits preserved and away from Brazilian society (among them were the language and the religion) for the maintenance of its ethnic identity.(35) Although second and third generations have started assimilating into Brazilian culture (36) and are quite integrated into the country today, the abbess position in the only Zen Buddhist temple in São Paulo is not one that the community can leave in the hands of a "foreigner." How, then, did a Brazilian nun get the highest position in a Buddhist sect, and furthermore, how could she have been accepted by the Japanese-Brazilian community?

What's even more interesting is that her predecessor, Moriyama Rooshi, studied with Shunryu Suzuki in San Francisco during the 1960's and caused a lot of stir when he arrived in Sao Paulo because his approach to teaching went against what the Japanese-Brazilians of the temple wanted, and attracted a number of non-Japanese Brazilians, who previously were not part of the temple sangha.

5. A certain level of Christian influence. "Because of the prevailing Roman Catholic environment, much of the terminology used in speaking of Buddhism in Brazil is Roman Catholic in origin. For instance, rituals such as funerals are called "missas" (masses); the abbot is called "bispo" (bishop); and there are mentions of "paraíso" (heaven), "inferno" (hell), and "rezar" (to pray)." Here in North America, you also have the use of the terms like "heaven" and "hell." There's the Buddhist Churches of America. And I know that some Buddhist monasteries in North America have studied Christian monastic models as a way to develop a Buddhist monastic tradition here. I'm sure there are other examples of this kind of overlap as well, but these are a few good examples of it.


Adam said...

Very Cool! I often forget about our Western Neighbors south of the equator. I didn't really think about Brazilian Buddhists. Thanks!

Arun said...

Thanks for this post! Just this evening I was talking with a Brazilian woman of Japanese heritage who practices meditation in Sāo Paulo!

One issue that confuses (and annoys) me is how the author occasionally uses the term “Brazilian” in opposition with “Japanese”—I am not sure if the author means “non-Japanese Brazilian” or maybe “Brazilians who aren’t traditional Japanese” or yet another meaning.

There is much to share about Buddhism in Brazil, so I am very glad for your post. I seem to be meeting ever more Brazilian Buddhists, so that must say something as to the state of Buddhism over there!

Nathan said...

Hi Arun,

The article is almost 10 years old now, so I can imagine there has been a continued increase in practitioners down there. And yes, the author's terms aren't so clear to me all the time either.