By May, Katie on October 26, 2013.
A small southern Alberta town’s early acceptance of Japanese culture helped shape Buddhism in Canada, making this region a hub of religious growth.
Raymond was the centre of the Canadian Buddhist movement after the Second World War, according to University of Lethbridge religious studies professor John Harding, whose upcoming work will focus on the modernization of Buddhism from a global perspective.
He underscored the local connection during a recent presentation to an audience of about 30 people at the Galt Museum, coinciding with the museum’s Religion in the Bible Belt exhibit.
The first Buddhists moved to Canada from Japan in 1905, settling in the Vancouver area. But in 1929, the town of Raymond became home to the first Buddhist temple east of the Rocky Mountains. It became a sanctuary for Jodo Shinshu cultural artifacts from Japan and welcomed hundreds of new Buddhist followers during the Second World War, when the Canadian government’s policies on internment and forced relocation brought hundreds of Japanese people to southern Alberta.
“That forced relocation was such a large influx of people that is what catapulted this temple to the position of being, at least for a time, the centre of Buddhism in Canada,” said Harding, adding that if not for the forced relocation, the Vancouver area would have likely remained the primary spot for Canadian Buddhists.
As it was, the Raymond Buddhist Church – a former school house and Mormon meeting place that LDS followers had outgrown – went on to serve as the headquarters for the Buddhist Federation of Canada in 1946 and before the building was sold in 2006, leaders there made “cutting edge” decisions that affected Buddhist communities throughout Canada, such as amalgamating local Buddhist communities and building a new temple in Lethbridge in 2009.
Now, influential Buddhist leaders in Canada hail mainly from large cities with immigrant populations from China and southeast Asia, Harding said, but it’s important not to forget that the Japanese Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition formed its Canadian roots in rural Alberta.
“This local community was clearly very important and influential for the development and growth of Buddhism in Canada. But that’s less the case now, so it’s also easier to overlook it or to lose sight of it, and many scholars of Buddhism didn’t realize just how influential that community was,” Harding said.
“Buddhism is more popular than ever, but this community that was part of that early immigration, they’re not in that dominant position they had been for more than half of the history of Buddhism in Canada,” he added.
Harding, who has studied Buddhism for the past two decades and has focused on the religion’s history in southern Alberta for the past 10 years, has collaborated on two books about the changing face of Buddhism in Canada – one set to be released next spring. He’s currently using a five-year grant worth more than $250,000 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to study Buddhism from a global perspective along with researchers from McGill University and Saint Mary’s University.
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