Buddhist Center Still Draws Diverse Group

By Lauren Melnick, Columbia Spectator, November 4, 2005

Rev. Kenjitsu Nakagaki Leads Eighth Decade of New York Buddhist Center on Riverside

New York, USA -- The two weekly-designated “greeters” flanking the entrance to New York Buddhist Church’s Sunday Dhama service and welcoming all who enter only reflect Resident Minister Rev. Kenjitsu Nakagaki’s efforts to extend the appeal of Shin Buddhism beyond the Japanese-American population that commonly practices it.

“My mission is to use this temple as a way of introducing Buddhism to the public and to offer a way to learn about it on both an introductory and scholarly level,” said Nakagaki, who also served as the former president of the Buddhist Council of New York and is also the Buddhism adviser at Columbia’s United Campus Ministries.

A community presence since the 1930s, the New York Buddhist Church at 331 Riverside Dr. and W. 105th St. offers a spiritual alternative to the Judeo-Christian institutions of Harlem and Morningside Heights. Due to its welcoming and open atmosphere, the church has attracted a diverse array of members in recent years, including Ilario Fusaro, a native Italian now living in Morningside Heights.

“When I was in college, I traveled in India, visited monasteries, and really came to like Buddhism,” said Fusaro. “I felt that the Roman Catholic Church was missing the actual practice behind their religion. I wanted that, so I looked elsewhere.”

NYBC is a temple of Jodo Shinshu (Shin) Buddhism, which follows the teachings of Pure Land School Buddhism. The school was established by Shinran Shonin in 13th century Japan with the intent of liberalizing Buddhist tradition and practices.

The Morningside fixture, founded by Rev. Hozen Seki in 1938, originally served as the only center for Shin Buddhism in New York City. While the city now has approximately 80 Buddhist temples, NYBC remains only one of two Shin Buddhist temples in the New York area.

In 1994, Nakagaki was appointed to NYBC after former minister Rev. Kan passed away, which had left the temple without a minister for years.

“Rev. Kan was a complete opposite in personality to Rev. Nakagaki. He was solemn, serious, and unsmiling,” said Steve Whitley, who came across NYBC 22 years ago while bringing his dog to the veterinarian. “Nakagaki is open, smiles, tells jokes, and reaches out to the community, New York, and beyond. With Kan there were often no services or very few people actually attended. Nakagaki has brought so many people in during his time here, and there are often new faces in the group each week.”

The interest in the church can be ascribed to the welcoming nature of its members and Nakagaki himself. Neighborhood resident Laura Stillwell, who has attended NYBC for three years, said, “What I really like about Rev. Nakagaki is that he is warm, informal, humbling, and down to earth. He doesn’t speak at us, but speaks to us. That equality is key.”

The Sunday Dharma Service, which is given in both English and Japanese, consists of silent meditation, sutra chanting, Nembutsu Sumadha recitation, and an informal sermon by Nakagaki. The sangha congregation consists of approximately 50 regular attendants who range in age, as well as race. While there is a contingent of Morningside residents that attend, many of the sangha members come from Queens, Westchester, and New Jersey.

Many of the elderly Japanese-American members hail originally from the west coast where Shin Buddhism is much more prevalent than in the northeast. Some have been coming for over 50 years and attended the NYBC when it was located on 94th St. through the mid 1960s.

“It’s convenient that Rev. Nakagaki is bilingual,” said June Kan, an elderly long term sangha member who reflected on the changing face of Buddhism. “It’s different here [in the northeast]. In California and on the West Coast families are fifth or sixth generation Buddhists. Here, Christians are coming. I think this is because in Buddhism there are no strict rules, no prayer or worship like in the other traditions. This alternative helps people find meaning to life.”

“I like the feeling of belonging,” said Carol Elk, during the church’s potluck reception after a Sunday Dharma Service. “I lived in Japan for three years, was raised Catholic, and attended mass. When I moved to New York, a Japanese Buddhist friend of mine introduced me to this church, and I’ve been coming ever since. This place really fills the Japanese connection in my life that I missed.”

The American Buddhist Study Center, housed in the same Riverside building, strives to educate the local public about the Buddhist tradition. The center’s programs include monthly book discussion groups, lectures, and Japanese cultural events that relate to Buddhism. The center was founded in 1951 by NYBC’s Rev. Hozen Seki, and it is the only Pure Land Jodo Shinshu study center of Buddhism on the East Coast.

Although NYBC is one of the few neighborhood venues to engage in Shin Buddhism, Columbia’s history is tinted with Indo-Tibetan traditions. Prior to the creation of the University’s religion department, graduate student Theos Bernard pioneered Indian and Tibetan studies at Columbia University in the 1930s. The first American to be initiated into the rites of Tibetan Buddhism, his dissertation, “Hatha Yoga: The Report of a Personal Experience,” served to introduce the practices of yoga to an American audience.

The Columbia Buddhist Meditation Group is another option for practicing Buddhists or those interested in meditation. According to Buzzy Cohen, CC ’07, president of CBM, the sessions vary from silent meditation to guided meditations, chanting, chakra meditation, and metta practice depending on the interests of who attends.

“We also try to bring in outside meditation teachers to instruct us on meditative practices and cosponsor like-minded events,” Cohen said. “Our big event of the year is our spring weekend retreat to the Garrison Institute in Garrison, N.Y. Activities include meditation sessions, yoga, teachings, and walks around the beautiful grounds.”