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Salt Lake Buddhist Temple
Congregation poses outside of the original Salt Lake Buddhist Temple in 1937, the primary gathering place for Japanese Americans. Chiyoko Terashima (second row, second from right) was about 22 years old and newly married at the time the photo was taken

SALT LAKE CITY — Chiyoko Terashima's constant smile disappeared as she stared at the floor, contemplating what her long life would have been like without a local Buddhist temple.

The temple was where she worshipped, met her friends, danced, met her husband and married, brought her children for cultural and religious instruction, saw them married, attended funerals of her friends and family, and until last year helped organize the distinctive festivals and celebrations that attracted local Japanese Americans and others.

"Life would have been very lonesome because there would have been no place to meet everyone," said Terashima, who at 97 years is the oldest member of Utah's oldest Buddhist congregation, which celebrates its centennial on Saturday.

The Salt Lake temple, which sits in the shadow of the Salt Palace in what is left of old Japantown, has been the gathering place for generations of Japanese Americans here and largely the birthplace of Buddhism in Utah. Since the first Jodo Shinshu Buddhist congregation was organized 100 years ago, more than 20 Buddhist congregations practicing various forms of the Asian religion now exist in Utah, contributing to the state's increasingly diverse religious landscape.

"The significance of this centennial celebration is to let people in Utah know there has been a diverse religious community here for quite a long time," said Rev. Jerry Hirano, a native Utahn who now heads the Jodo Shinshu congregations in Utah. "People are usually surprised to hear that Buddhist temples have been here and in Ogden and Honeyville for 100 years."

Culture clash

The seeds of today's Buddhist community were planted by Japanese immigrants who came in large numbers to United States following federal restrictions on Chinese immigration in the late 1800s. Those who made their way to Utah were attracted by mining, railroad and agricultural jobs, and by the business opportunities that naturally sprang up to serve the growing Asian communities.

Sekizo and Masayo Terashima arrived from Hiroshima in 1912 and opened a noodle house for Japanese clientele who settled near Magna to work at Kennecott's Garfield smelter. That same year, a Buddhist minister was dispatched to Ogden from San Francisco to conduct a memorial service for deceased Japanese immigrants and organize the first Buddhist temple in Utah, according to two histories of the church in Utah.

Chiyoko, born in Magna, was 5 years old when her family moved to Salt Lake. The temple had relocated to the capital city, as well, and was just a few blocks from the West Side Hotel, which the Terashimas operated.

"I remember my father walking to the temple with his hammer to help with the repairs," Terashima recalls.

While other Buddhist branches operated in Ogden, Syracuse, Honeyville, Corrine and Carbon County, the temple in Salt Lake served as the hub of Japanese culture and the heart of the city's active Japantown. Across the street from the temple was Eagle Laundry, a reliable source of employment for newly arrived immigrants and those out of work, until they got on their feet financially.

Organizations for women and youth were set up through the temple. The temple sponsored baseball, bowling and basketball leagues, Boy Scout troops for boys and a Campfire Girls charter. A school was established where the second generation, or Nisei (pronounced NEE-say), could learn the Japanese language, history and culture.

While the Nisei respected their elders and the sacrifices they made to build the community, the younger set were Americans and embraced western culture, sparking occasional generational clashes.

"We wanted to have dances, but some of the elders objected to the close dancing," Terashima recalled.

The dispute was settled when the leaders acknowledged the youth were going to go dancing anyway at someplace in town, so they might as well support it and rent out halls for the dances.

"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.

Adam Cooter and Pamela Miller and their two daughters, ages 5 and 7, are among the new worshippers who are filling the pews at the Jodo Shinshu temple. When their children started asking them why they didn't attend church, the couple decided to visit several faith traditions as a family and then decide.

Their first stop was the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple and they haven't gone anywhere since.

"Rev. Hirano gave a speech that seemed like he was talking to just us. He said to search for truth and look into other churches. But when he said that (Buddhism) would not claim it was the only true religion that did it for me," Cooter said.

Miller said that with a shrine in their home and the children reciting the Golden Chain — which reminds Buddhists of the interdependence they share with all sentient beings — every night before bed, they are all gradually assimilating into their lives the religious teachings and cultural norms of the Judo Shinshu sect.

"It has helped me to calm down, take a step back and think about how my actions affect others," she said.

Among those participating in Saturday's festivities is Michael Zimmerman, a former Utah Supreme Court Justice who converted to Zen Buddhism in 1998 and is now a priest in the local Zen congregation. He will be giving the keynote address.

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He said the celebration can be seen as bridge from a time when Buddhism was uniquely Asian to today when more Americans are becoming Buddhists. "In my congregation there are no Asians and no one was born Buddhist," he said. "There is an interesting dynamic there, especially in a state where conversion is a tradition."

Over the next century, Hirano hopes for a unique American form of Buddhism to evolve. He said Buddhism has historically adopted cultural norms in the countries where it has spread, from India to China to Japan and in various countries in southeast Asia.

"Instead of Americans thinking Buddhist is Asian," he said, "They will think of it as American."

If you go…

What: Centennial celebration of Buddhism in Utah

When: Saturday 10 a.m. service, 2 p.m. workshops

Where: Salt Palace Convetion Center

Cost: Free

Email: mbrown@desnews.com