It’s tough being a Buddhist in Alaska. Too much darkness, too much daylight, far too much cold. The cost of living is high, the economy is depressed—and so are many Alaskans: The state has one of the highest suicide rates in the country. So what could motivate a Buddhist priest to move halfway around the world to settle in a place that makes Tibet look tropical by comparison? In a word: love. Rev. Yuho Van Parijs,…It’s tough being a Buddhist in Alaska.

Too much darkness, too much daylight, far too much cold. The cost of living is high, the economy is depressed—and so are many Alaskans: The state has one of the highest suicide rates in the country. So what could motivate a Buddhist priest to move halfway around the world to settle in a place that makes Tibet look tropical by comparison? In a word: love.

A meditation session at White Lotus Center in Anchorage, Alaska. © Kalynn Johnson
A meditation session at White Lotus Center in Anchorage, Alaska. © Kalynn Johnson

Rev. Yuho Van Parijs, serving as a minister at Jikoji, the Jodo Shinshu Pure Land temple in Antwerp, Belgium, found the task of setting up his temple’s website more rewarding than he ever imagined. While exchanging ideas with other Buddhists on the Internet, he met Diane Johnson, the woman who was to become his wife. Over several years, their cyber-romance blossomed, and in the summer of 1998 he moved to Anchorage.

From the beginning, their relationship was based not only on mutual respect and affection but also on a deep desire to spread the dharma. Thus was born the White Lotus Center for Shin Buddhism, Alaska’s first Pure Land temple. The pair wasted no time making their mark on Anchorage’s religious landscape. Diane set up a dharma school program for children of the temple. Yuho, who holds a master’s degree in comparative religion, began teaching undergraduate courses on Buddhist history at Alaska Pacific University. He also started offering ten-week adult education classes on Buddhism. “People want to hear about Buddhism, but they want to meet it on a more level ground,” Yuho notes. “They may be wary about visiting a temple.” The Van Parijses hit on a novel idea—why not hold a Change Your Mind Day in Alaska? The outdoor celebration of free Buddhist teachings, developed by Tricycle, had never been held outside of Manhattan’s Central Park. But Diane’s determination not only resulted in the spread of Change Your Mind Day (now held in as many as thirty-eight separate cities; see page 24) to Anchorage, it also brought about something nearly as surprising: Virtually all of the dozen or so Buddhist groups in Alaska participated, initiating an inter-Buddhist dialogue that had never before taken place in the Far North.

The White Lotus Center’s pansectarian efforts have continued, following the temple’s mission not only to spread Pure Land but to support all forms of Buddhism in Alaska. The temple allowed other Buddhist groups to use its space for meetings and services. Further outreach to the community occurred when Diane was elected President of the Anchorage Interfaith Council, and in her new position she persuaded representatives of the local Zen and Soka Gakkai groups to join the AIC, bringing a plurality of Buddhist voices into what had been a predominately Christian religious dialogue. The temple has made significant contributions to worldwide Buddhism, as well: In 2001 it created www.shinranworks.com to host the English translation of The Collected Works of Shinran. The thirteenth-century founder of Jodo Shinshu, Japan’s largest Buddhist sect, Shinran is one of the most important figures in the history of Buddhism, but prior to the White Lotus Center’s efforts his works were largely unavailable to the English-speaking world. “This is such a beautiful text, and so few people knew about it,” laments Yuho.

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