A centennial of gathering and worship: First Buddhist temple in Utah celebrates 100th birthday

Published: Friday, Sept. 14 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

"They decided it was better to know where we were going to dance," she said.

Surviving the war

Unlike many of their congregants, the ministers who headed the temple here and elsewhere in Utah were trained and educated, fulfilling many roles in addition to being the Buddhist community's spiritual leader.

"They took over the physical maintenance, administrative duties as well as the ministerial duties of the local churches. They drove the bus to pick up children from the rural areas for Sunday School and Japanese School. They wrote letters for the illiterate mine workers. Ministers provided the only counseling available," reads a centennial history. "They continued to teach love and compassion in spite of the prevalent discrimination."

That discrimination in a largely Christian Caucasian community hit a peak in World War II, when shortly after declaring war against Japan the federal government ordered citizens of Japanese descent living on the West coast to internment camps, one of which was near Delta, Utah. The headquarters for the Judo Shinshu movement in America was moved from San Francisco to the Topaz camp in Utah, where they changed their organization's name to the Buddhist Churches of America to appear less conspicuous.

Leaders of the Utah Japanese Buddhist community were also interned. The wife of imprisoned Rev. Chonen Terakawa, herself an ordained minister, oversaw the Salt Lake temple in her husband's absence.

While other Japanese already living in Utah didn't have to abandon their homes and livelihoods and live at Topaz, they kept a low profile during the war years. "We couldn't gather in groups of six or more except in the temple," Terashima said.

Following World War II and the release of the internees, the temple remained the gathering place for Japanese Americans of all faiths — particularly those who came from Topaz and camps in Wyoming and Idaho with nowhere else to go and begin their new lives.

The inclusiveness is in keeping with Buddhist tradition of kindness extended to all and an embracing of goodness and truth from all faiths, said Hirano.

"In Buddhism, many different paths lead to the truth," he said.

American Buddhism

Hirano grew up in Utah, across the street from the local chapel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints where many of his friends attended church. "I had two sets of friends: the Mormons in my neighborhood and my friends that I would meet with at the temple," he said.

Hirano attended the original temple, which was replaced with a newer, more functional facility in 1962, where the current temple is located at 211 W. 100 South.

His non-Buddhist friends knew little to nothing about Hirano's faith — and what they did know were inaccurate stereotypes of idol worshippers or martial arts warriors.

But that would change with an influx of immigrants from southeast Asia who brought with them to America and the Wasatch Front their own unique forms of Buddhism. An up-to-date count of all Buddhist sects in Utah doesn't exist, but according to the Association of Religion Data Archives, in 2010 there were 17 various Buddhist congregations that reported more than 8,600 adherents. The BCA estimates about 800 members in Utah.

While it is still a gathering place for Japanese Americans, those meeting at the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple for weekly meditation or family service on Sunday morning represent a cross section of the Wasatch Front's population.

“About half of my congregation now is not Japanese American,” said Hirano, dressed in a black satin robe and sitting before the intricate gold altars and shrines of the temple, which symbolize the virtues of truth, enlightenment, impermanence, kindness and humility.

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