Finding Buddha’s path on streets of San Francisco
A block off Grant Avenue in San Francisco’s Chinatown - beyond the well-worn path tourists take past souvenir shops, restaurants and a dive saloon - begins a historical tour of a more spiritual nature.
Duck into a nondescript doorway at 125 Waverly Place, ascend five narrow flights and step into the first and oldest Buddhist temple in the United States.
At the Tien Hau Temple, before an intricately carved gilded wooden shrine and ornate Buddha statues, under dozens of paper lanterns, Buddhists in the Chinese tradition still burn pungent incense and leave offerings to the goddess Tien Hau in return for the promise of happiness and a long life.
Established in 1852 by Chinese immigrants who came to California during the Gold Rush and named for a 10th-century provincial woman who protected people at sea, the original temple burned down in the fire set off by the 1906 earthquake but eventually found its new home in this three-block-long alley.
Over the next 150 years, San Francisco would continue to water those early seeds of Buddhism planted in America, as geography, social history and waves of immigrants made it fertile ground for a once esoteric tradition now grown so popular that the Dalai Lama regularly fills football stadiums.
“Since the 1800s, San Francisco was the most important gateway for people coming from the Pacific Rim,” said Charlie Chin, artist in residence at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco, who also leads tours and gives lectures. “They weren’t proselytizing Buddhism, but they brought it here with their other cultural beliefs and practices.”
Today, a spiritual tourist, whether Buddhist or not, can find inspiration if not enlightenment following in the footsteps of American Buddhism on a pilgrimage throughout the Greater Bay Area.
The Buddhism the Chinese brought was a spiritual mix of traditional folk beliefs, Taoism, Confucianism and Chan, the antecedent of Japanese Zen.
Though there are differences, central to both Chan and Zen is meditation, or zazen in Japanese, as well as the Buddha’s basic lessons of compassion, impermanence and awareness of the present moment.
Japanese immigrants arrived in San Francisco in the late 19th century as agricultural labourers, bringing Zen and its variations. In 1898, they founded the Buddhist Temple of San Francisco in the downtown district. Based on a sect of Buddhism called Jodo Shinshu (Pure Land), America’s first Japanese Buddhist temple also burned down in 1906 but was re-established in 1913 at 1881 Pine Street, not far from the current Japantown.
Now part of the Buddhist Temples of America, whose national headquarters are nearby at 1710 Octavia Street, the San Francisco center has pews in its worship hall that make it look like a Christian church or Jewish synagogue - that is, until you catch sight of the elaborate altar with a golden statue of the Buddha in the centre.
On the roof of the Temple is one of the most sacred Buddhist monuments in San Francisco. Housed in a domed tower (stupa in Sanskrit) that is topped by a spiral that looks like a braided hair knot is a small box containing what are said to be a bit of the Buddha’s ashen bone relics, a gift sent in 1935 by the ruler of Siam. Visitors may ask to view the box.
It was not until the 1950s that interest in Buddhism grew with the next wave that migrated to San Francisco. Though these immigrants were not Asian, they did settle in downtown at the edge of Chinatown, where an intrepid pilgrim can continue to follow their footsteps.
In fact, starting in the mid-50s and continuing into the 1960s, a series of events and trends turned San Francisco into a hothouse for new varieties and strains of American Buddhism.
At the busy intersection of Columbus Avenue and Broadway, which separates Chinatown from the bohemian-style cafes, neon-lit Italian restaurants and the block-long red-light district of North Beach, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti helped found the City Lights Bookstore in 1953 as the first all-paperbound bookshop in the country.
Across from where entertainers like Lenny Bruce worked out new material at the Hungry and the Purple Onion (still showcasing comedy), Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl and Other Poems’ in 1956. City Lights became an unofficial headquarters of the Beat literary movement, the hangout of Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and many other authors who were reading, practising and writing about Buddhism.
“I made a beeline to City Lights as soon as I moved to San Francisco in the 1960s,” said Wes Nisker, a Bay Area FM radio commentator who now teaches and writes about Buddhism and performs the one-man musical “Big Bang, the Buddha and the Baby Boom.”
“It was the epicentre for a radical new kind of Buddhism that was beginning to flower in America. As a budding Buddhist myself, I had to make it the first stop for my own personal pilgrimage.”
In 1959, Shunryu Suzuki, a Buddhist priest from Japan, came to San Francisco to teach Zen to ethnic Japanese in the city’s Western Addition and Japantown. But so many Westerners were attending his talks that three years later Suzuki-roshi (roshi means teacher) established a separate Zen center on Page Street, down the hill from Haight and Ashbury Streets, crossroads of another ‘60s movement also in search of peace, love and happiness.
“It was a time of great foment, when there was enormous interest in one’s inner life,” recalled Yvonne Rand, the resident teacher at Goat-in-the-Road, a Zen centre in Mendocino County, who first attended Suzuki-roshi’s meditation classes in 1966 and quickly became his secretary.
“Roshi attracted people in the arts, civil rights activists and other agents of social change and consciousness - all hanging around the Bay Area.”
The teacher’s enthusiasm for integrating Zen practice into everyday life spawned several offshoots: Greens, a gourmet vegetarian restaurant at Fort Mason overlooking the bay; Tassajara Bakery, several blocks from Haight Street; the Zen Hospice Project, which has become a national model; and three other Bay Area meditation centres, including Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a three-hour drive south of San Francisco near Carmel Valley, which opened in 1966 as America’s first Zen monastery.