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The Savior Down the Street: Hokke-shu Buddhist Temple 

Wednesday, Nov 25 2015

In the front parlor of a large one-story pre-earthquake Edwardian in the Western Addition, I sit on a folding chair squeezed next to a piano, while an elderly gentleman, flown in from Japan for the purpose, sits a few rows in front of me, chanting in a language that I can't understand. That's OK — neither can some of the people sitting with me, and they come here every week.

If it is a religion — and many say it is not — Buddhism is a very "big tent" faith. One brand is Nichiren Buddhism, based on the teachings of a 13th-century Japanese monk. (This church, the Hokke-shu Buddhist church, follows a subset of Nichiren Buddhism).

It's in front of an altar with a statue of Nichiren, set up at the other end of the parlor, that the elderly man in orange robes is sitting in an ornate chair, issuing throaty growls that echo off the wooden walls and floor.

Some words I can catch: "Namu myoho renge kyo." There are multiple ways to translate this phrase into English, but it is Nichiren's central mantra, the daimoku. Chanting it enough times opens the door to the ultimate phase of being: enlightenment.

The elderly man chanting, Nisso Sugaharu, is an archbishop, present for the inauguration of the new priest. (Thanks to visa issues, since Sept. 11 the church has had to find a new priest every two to three years, when the "old" priest's visa runs out). After he has finished, a young man in purple robes takes his place and starts to chant. The men and women around me, mostly Japanese-Americans over 50, beat small, handheld drums. There is a pause — then applause. The new priest, Joryu — or "Joe," as he asked me to call him — is now officially installed.

The history here is auspicious. Sugaharu served as priest in the 1970s before he returned to Japan and achieved great stature in the church, says Kiyomi Takeda, whose grandparents were part of the circle of families that founded this church in 1968, after their prior Buddhist church in Japantown failed to meet their needs. (They weren't strict enough.)

The Japanese he utters while chanting is not "normal" Japanese; it's "devotional" Japanese, says Kiyomi's mother, Susan Tanaka. "Sometimes, I don't understand quite what's going on," says Tanaka, who nonetheless has been coming here for almost 50 years. Others come from Union City, Concord, and elsewhere in the Bay Area.

The reason is in front of Nisso and Joryu when they chant, on all sides of Nichiren: Inscribed on stone and inked on wood are the names of her grandparents and other former members of the church, for whom the chanting goes on.

The Savior Down the Street

THE TRADITION, Mission Minyan

THE VISION, Shri Swaminarayan Mandir

THE REVIVAL, Rock of Ages Baptist Church

THE MYSTERY, Immaculate Conception Chapel


About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.


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