Many of the buildings on the streets of Boyle Heights look similar, either painted in vibrant colors or decorated with murals. Store windows typically announce sales in both Spanish and English.
Two buildings stand out from the others, with distinctive facades and welcome signs in Japanese. They are the only two Buddhist temples in Boyle Heights — Los Angeles Minobusan Beikoku Betsuin and Rissho Kosei-kai Buddhist Church of Los Angeles.
Historically, it would have been common to see Japanese businesses, as well as residents of Japanese origin, on the streets of Boyle Heights. But today, with the population about 97 percent Hispanic, it is uncommon.
Many Japanese immigrant residents were forced into Manzanar and other relocation centers during World War II, and most did not return to Boyle Heights after the war. However, some very important cultural icons remain.
The temples both have low memberships and little connection to the neighboring community. Most members have been attending since the temples were founded, or are children or grandchildren of the first members. Only a few local residents are members.
The buildings have changed very little over the years. Upon entering the temples, a visitor sees portraits of the founders and Japanese writing depicting their beliefs along the walls. The altars at the front hold burning incense and the gongs used during the services.
Few local members
But few Boyle Heights residents walk through their doors.
As the demographics of Boyle Heights have changed, Buddhism’s presence in the community has declined
Rissho Kosei-kai, located at 2707 East First Street, is a non-monastic organization, meaning it has no monks, nuns or priests. About 10 to 20 members attend the Sunday services, held in English. The weekday services in Japanese attract even fewer members.
James Hodgekin, the English director at Rissho Kosei-kai, defines Buddhism as an accepting and non-discriminatory.
“We don’t address what happens after you die,” he explains. “We don’t address who made the universe. We are here to help people stop their suffering. We help people solve their problems. It’s almost like a religious family counseling.”
Betty Lininger has been a member of Rissho Kosei-kai since it opened in 1959. She says Boyle Heights was chosen as the location because “it was a Japanese [style] building, and, it was very close to Little Tokyo.” Rissho Kosei-kai Buddhism started in Japan in 1938.
Different branches of Buddhism have different rituals. At Rissho Kosei-kai, the hour-long service includes the chanting of the Lotus Sutra, a scripture supposedly written by Buddha; other readings; and a talk from the minister.
During the service, the minister, director and two members go up to the altar and sound the gongs as they chant from the Sutra. Other members follow along, chanting while holding beads.
After the service, many attend Hoza, a gathering during which members come together and discuss personal matters, almost like a support group.
Dates from the 1200s
The Los Angeles Minobusan Beikoku Betsuin, at 2801 East Fourth Street, represents a more traditional branch of Buddhism, Nichiren Shu.
Nichiren Shu dates to the early 1200s. Members also observe the Lotus Sutra. But they chant their mantra in front of a scroll called the Gohonzon, originally inscribed by the founder, Nichiren Shonen.
The Rev. Join Inoue, minster at the Nichiren Shu temple, says it is not always easy to find a Nichiren Shu temple, which is why a lot of his members come to worship from far away.
“They don’t find the same religious group in Orange County,” he says. “That’s why they come here.” (Most members of Rissho Kossei-kai also come from outside the community.)
Richard Kano started attending Rissho Kossei-kai early last year. A Japanese-American from East Los Angeles, he says he had always been curious about it.
“It’s changed me so much,” he says. ‘I look at things a lot differently now. I have a certain gratitude that I never had before.”
The temples stay involved with the Japanese-American community by getting together to discuss festivals. In Boyle Heights, Rissho-Kossei-kai donates funds to First Street Elementary School, and its members volunteer at the Keiro Retirement Home, another landmark from Boyle Heights’ Japanese history.
Open to all
While the temples aren’t widely known in the predominantly Latino community, directors from both temples say they are very welcoming to whoever wants to come.
The temples are trying to accommodate Spanish-speaking community members. Both temples occasionally offer services in Spanish. But it can be hard for temple members who do not speak Spanish to communicate with
Boyle Heights residents who speak only Spanish.
“Hispanic people who usually come to our temple only speak Spanish and not English. So it gets complicated, and that’s why they don’t stay,” Inoue says.
Hodgekin conducted the first Spanish–language service at Rissho-Kossei-kai earlier this year. But a service isn’t offered regularly in Spanish because the temple lacks a Spanish-Japanese translator who can come regularly. Rissho-Kossei-kai offers classes in Spanish to teach the Lotus Sutra, the important scriptures read during Buddhist services.
Hodgekin says his temple’s board has been active in the Japanese community all over Southern California. But now, he says, “we have to focus on our local community and to change into a ‘local church.”