Buddhist head temple consecrated

By Christine Morente, Mercury News, May 19, 2008

Japanese order's 1st female leader is cheered at site bought from nuns

Redwood City, CA (USA) -- Her Holiness Shinso Ito was the picture of quiet dignity as her followers cheered - and gleefully took her picture at a respectful distance.

When she walked past, they bowed - a sign of reverence for Shinnyo-en's first female leader.

The 66-year-old's task Sunday morning was to consecrate the Japanese Buddhist order's new U.S. Head Temple in Redwood City.

The site was once owned by the Mount Alverno Sisters of St. Francis, a Roman Catholic order. After 40 years on the 24-acre property, the sisters could no longer afford to keep it.

"This was once our home, our temple," said Sister Patricia Rayburn to about 3,000 people who traveled from parts of South and Central America, Asia, and the United States to witness the temple's opening. "This will be blessed and consecrated to be your home and your temple. Together, we set aside this place for a purpose. Everyone can discover and bring out their true self - and bring peace and harmony to our world."

On the day the renovated main worship hall was revealed, the reclining Buddha gleamed gold. Sunlight streamed through the stained glass depicting the life of the Buddha, while the original church windows glowed.

On opposite walls were the statues of St. Francis of Assisi and Prince Shotoku. The images face each other in mutual respect, mirror images of peace.

Ito said the Catholic saint is an iconic figure for protecting the environment and has a reverence for people. Shotoku was a prince in ancient Japan who created a society based on the principles of Mahayana Buddhism, one where people could take care of each other rather than be in conflict.

On the altar, Ito gracefully created spiritual purifications. The spicy fragrance of incense floated throughout, and the congregation chanted in Japanese, prayer beads in their palms.

Ito spoke of enhancing the sacred site and each other.

"When we act for the sake of others, it gives rise to joy," Ito said in Japanese. "Mutual understanding is a result of our efforts to expand the practice of loving kindness and altruism, starting with those around us. I believe that such efforts will ultimately lead to lasting peace in the world."

Ito's father, Shinjo Ito, was the founder of Shinnyo-en. She was born in Tachikawa, Japan, and became devoted to Buddhism as a youth.

At 29 years old, she finished the Shinnyo Dharma training and received the rank of Buddhist Great Master. In 1989, she was chosen to lead the order that now has about a million members worldwide.

The Rev. Mark Pinto, spokesman for the temple, said four training centers in the United States opened in the last six to eight months.

The Redwood City site's reach extends from Sacramento to San Jose. The closest temple is in Los Angeles. For 16 years, the order was based in Burlingame. With about 1,200 members, it outgrew the spot.

The Sisters of St. Francis say they sold the property to the group because they wanted to make sure the land continued to be used for "peace and harmony." They did not want to see the church razed for housing.

"On one level, it was hard because we knew that we could not carry on," Rayburn said. "But knowing that we were passing it on to the Shinnyo-en made it easier."

Rayburn said the nuns have since moved their retreat center to Brewster Avenue in Redwood City.

Ginger Garofalo, a former nun with the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart in Los Angeles, is now a Buddhist.

She said she's been empowered by Ito's strength when the Catholic Church has been obstinate in allowing women to hold more important roles.

"In the Catholic Church, women have not been allowed in positions of pope and bishop," Garofalo said. "It's interesting to see . . . how this woman leads a powerful movement, and how women have such a dynamic part in it."