Storied buddhist shrine finds new home

By Graeme Morton, Calgary Herald, May 10, 2009

Calgary, Canada -- A beautiful piece of southern Alberta spiritual history has found a new, permanent home.

The shrine from the former Japanese Buddhist temple in Raymond, the first and largest of its kind in Western Canada, was officially welcomed into the Glenbow Museum's Art of Asia gallery during a blessing ceremony last Sunday.

It's the culmination of a dream for Dr. Leslie Kawamura, the Numata Chair in Buddhist Studies at the University of Calgary, who bought the shrine when the Raymond temple closed in June 2006, and has donated it to the museum.

"The people at the Glen-bow have done a magnificent job in creating a beautiful home for the shrine with its lighting and placement," says Kawamura. "It's a very peaceful, quiet setting. I plan to visit it when I can and I hope many other people will use it as a place for contemplation and meditation."

A number of small, Jodo Shinshu-tradition Buddhist temples in southern Alberta towns such as Raymond, Taber, Picture Butte, Rosemary and Coaldale have closed in recent years. Their congregations have amalgamated into a new temple in Lethbridge, which opened April 26.

The Raymond temple and Kawamura are inextricably linked. It opened in 1929 to serve a small community of Japanese immigrants who came to farm in the dusty, hardscrabble era before widespread irrigation. Kawamura was born in Raymond in 1935 and his father Yutetsu served as Buddhist minister for all area temples.

"He and my mother came from Japan with just one request--he wanted to serve a community so poor that they couldn't pay him," Kawamura recalls. "He arrived in Raymond in a tux and my mom in an evening gown to be welcomed by these poor, ragged farmers."

Southern Alberta's Japanese population swollen during the Second World War after many Japanese were forcibly moved from their homes in British Columbia by the Canadian government. The shrine, built in Kyoto, Japan, in the early 1930s, came to Raymond in 1946 as a gift from the Japanese community in Royston, B. C. The small-town temples played crucial roles for Japanese Buddhists, many of whom toiled on remote farms.

"They were really the lifeline-- they were the social, cultural, entertainment and language centres as well as being a religious home," he says.

Kawamura notes strong bonds developed between the small Buddhist communities and the large Mormon population in southern Alberta.

"The Mormon merchants were always very gracious in extending credit to the Buddhists during the tough farming years," Kawamura says. Kawamura spent his school years in Picture Butte before moving to California to study philosophy. He remembers struggling as a boy with his identity as a visible minority in a sea of white, Anglo-Saxon faces.

"Nobody wants to be the odd kid in the crowd. I wasn't very happy being either Japanese or Buddhist as a kid," he recalls before finding a broader, cultural world as a college student in the San Francisco Bay area.

Kawamura followed in his father's footsteps and served as Buddhist minister for the half-dozen southern Alberta temples before opting for an academic career. He joined the religious studies department at the University of Calgary in 1976, where he continues to teach. Kawamura lauds the work of Beth Carter, the Glenbow's curator of indigenous studies, in bringing the shrine's transfer to Calgary to reality.

"She had a great passion for this project. I don't know if we would have been able to do it without Beth's encouragement and guidance," says Kawamura, who had stored the shrine for more than two years.

Carter says the Raymond shrine is a welcome addition to the museum on multiple levels.

"There's an important historical component for Japanese settlement in southern Alberta, a religious element for the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist community and it's also a very striking artistic piece in its own right," says Carter.

Carter says it's common to see museum patrons using the Asian gallery, located on Level 2, as a quiet oasis for spiritual thought and personal meditation.

"We hope that the Raymond shrine can be used for some special spiritual and community occasions in the future," she says.

Kawamura said last Sunday's blessing ceremony was an emotional moment for many older southern Alberta Buddhists who made the trek to the Glenbow.

"This was their shrine, and it still is in many ways. Many of them were married in front of it or they held a funeral for a loved one there," says Kawamura.