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Arizona Buddhist Temple Celebrates 90th Anniversary

On the weekend of Nov. 18, the Arizona Buddhist Temple celebrated its 90th anniversary in Phoenix, which included BCA Bishop Rev. Marvin Harada as well as special guests Rev. Michael Endo and Supervising Minister Rev. Gregory Gibbs and his wife Kyoko. 


The weekend’s festivities were a commemoration of the Sangha’s growth and prosperity over nine decades that involved a storytelling workshop that explored the history of the temple and culminated with a Kieshiki service and luncheon the following day. 


Nearly two dozen temple members had their official Buddhist names bestowed upon them, ranging in age from children as young as 6 months to long-standing temple members in their 80s.  


The temple was founded by Rev. Hozen Seki in July 1933 on the Yamamoto farm where Nisei farmers had informally gathered their families together to chant “Junirai” and hold makeshift Obon dances in orange groves. 


Unable to purchase land or pay a minister an equitable salary, the Nisei founders initially struggled for years to establish an official temple until Rev. Seki moved across state lines to bring Jodo Shinshu Buddhism to the valley. 


In all honesty, we have really defied the odds. A long-lasting Buddhist Sangha in Arizona was never a guarantee when it was founded. The fact that it's still going strong nine decades after its establishment is truly a testament to not only the Sangha members that came before us, but every single one of us today …. It has not been easy. There have been challenges, but we’ve been able to meet them. We’ve reopened after the temple’s closing during World War II, when most of the members were relocated to mass detention camps. We’ve rebuilt the temple after a massive fire reduced the old one to ash. We’ve held services in repurposed Gila River barracks and trailer parks in times of crises, erased walls of vandalism and graffiti, and streamed online services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nine decades later, the Sangha members born from those humble origins still remain, and through their hard work, they have grown their temple into the longest standing Jodo Shinshu Buddhist institution in the state of Arizona. 


As I reflect on my own childhood at the temple, as well as my time as a minister's assistant, my first thought on the 90th anniversary is simply one of gratitude. Gratitude toward each and every individual who has played a role in the temple’s history. 


In all honesty, we have really defied the odds. A long-lasting Buddhist Sangha in Arizona was never a guarantee when it was founded. The fact that it's still going strong nine decades after its establishment is truly a testament to not only the Sangha members that came before us, but every single one of us today. 


It has not been easy. There have been challenges, but we’ve been able to meet them. We’ve reopened after the temple’s closing during World War II, when most of the members were relocated to mass detention camps. We’ve rebuilt the temple after a massive fire reduced the old one to ash. We’ve held services in repurposed Gila River barracks and trailer parks in times of crises, erased walls of vandalism and graffiti, and streamed online services during the COVID-19 pandemic.


We’ve made something like 20,000 pounds of mochi, largely by hand, and largely in the same way that they were making it in the 1970s. We’ve dressed our Hanamido and Onaijin with South Mountain flowers for more than seven decades. 


We’ve sent Sangha members to Japan year after year, to pay their respects to the Hongwanji-ha in Kyoto, to take part in naming ceremonies, and to bring back the experiences to share. We’ve guided scores of students and educators through the remains of the Gila River camps and shared our stories of internment. We’ve hosted thousands of curious visitors from the coast for workshops, conferences and seminars and perhaps most impressively, we’ve fed them.


We’ve had 18 ministers in our history, and we’ve sent three more temple members through Tokudo ordination, and two more through Kyoshi. Together, they have likely given around 6,000 Dharma messages throughout this time, some in Japanese, others in English, always for someone who is willing to listen. 


We’ve written original taiko songs and transported our compositions from coast-to-coast. We’ve stripped old wine casks into makeshift drums to teach new generations of musicians how to keep traditions alive. We’ve founded new schools and styles in classical Japanese dance, adding our own flair in forms of ribbon poles and the rhythms of the Beach Boys to an art that transcends the existence of Buddhism on this continent. We’ve held an Obon festival nearly every year that the temple has existed, some in orange groves, some in watermelon fields, some over Zoom and some on the backs of truck flatbeds. 


We’ve sung, we’ve chanted and we’ve danced together. And we’ve been here to cry with one another after losing people we’ve loved, but also to celebrate the new beginnings of families and the times that we’ve shared with each other. 


With every moment listed, we have said the Buddha’s name in gratitude, but this is not the only constant. There can be no temple without a Sangha, and there can be no Sangha without each and every one of you. 



The singular experiences shared there are unique, irreplaceable, and could not take place exactly as they did without the community and its members that define it. We are all threads of a tapestry that we have been weaving together for nearly a century. 


We didn’t start it, but we do participate in determining where it goes from here. Certainly, nothing in life lasts forever and this includes our temple, but it’s been a tremendous ride and the story is nowhere near the end.


Our Arizona temple President Kris Nakashima, put it best by stating:  “The fact that we have been in Arizona for 90 years is actually not that long a time in the grand scheme of things. We have to remember that In truth our Jodo Shinshu tradition is at least 800 years old since it started in Japan, and Buddhism as whole dates back to at least 2,500 years to India and Nepal. Quite frankly, we are only in our first 90 years, not even in the triple digits yet. We still have a long way to go.”


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