The editorial page of The Light of Dharma, a San Francisco-based Buddhist magazine published from 1901 to 1907. This page appeared in every issue.
The editorial page of The Light of Dharma, a San Francisco-based Buddhist magazine published from 1901 to 1907. This page appeared in every issue.

At the turn of this century, the only English-language Buddhist magazine published on the West Coast was The Light of Dharma(1901-07). The magazine was produced under the auspices of the Japanese Pure Land (Jodo Shin) Buddhist Mission temple in San Francisco, which was established in 1899 by priests sent from the Nishi-Honganji headquarters in Kyoto, Japan. Unlike the temple’s monthly Japanese publication, Beikoku Bukkyo (Buddhism in America), which was read primarily by newly arrived Japanese immigrants, The Light of Dharma had both a wider readership and a greater range of contributors. One needs only to glance through the table of contents to notice its international character. It included essays by local Shin Buddhist priests, articles by prominent priests in Japan and scholars such as Kosui Otani, Soen Shaku, D.T. Suzuki, and featured other Asian Buddhists, among them Anagarika Dharmapala (Maha Bodhi Society) and Ananda Maitriya (Buddhasana Samagama). American-born Buddhologists Paul Cams and Eleanor Moore, and world-renowned scholars such as Professor Charles Lanman (Harvard) and C.A.F. Rhys Davids (London), also wrote for the magazine. As Thomas Tweed has shown in The American Encounter with Buddhism: 1844-1912 the readership extended beyond the West Coast to include subscribers in the Midwest and on the East Coast, where it was read by a number of eminent scholars. According to Tweed, the annual circulation of the magazine was between five hundred and one thousand copies, with 97 percent of the total number going to non-Asian Americans.

Articles covered four major topics: Shin and general Buddhist doctrine and history, Japanese civilization, Buddhism and modernity, and Buddhist propagation in America, Europe, and Asia. Titles such as “In Floral Japan” (Urabe, 1905), “Buddhism and Socialism” (Rev. Kino, 1904), “A Buddhist View of War” (D. T. Suzuki, 1904), “The Threshold of Buddhist Ethics” (Rhys Davids, 1904), “Did Buddhism Exist in Prehistoric America?” (Moore, 1904), and “Buddhist Churches in the United States” (Hori, 1907) are just a few of the diverse topics addressed in these pages.

The complex interactions between Japan and the rest of the world during the Meiji period (1868-1912) provide the backdrop for insight into some of the motivations these Japanese Buddhists had in furthering American understanding about both Japan and Buddhism. James Ketelaar, in his book Of Heretics and Martyrs in Meiji Japan: Buddhism and Its Persecution, is persuasive in arguing that Japanese Meiji Buddhists used international (American, European, and Southeast Asian) perspectives about Buddhism as a strategy to strengthen and revitalize domestic Buddhist organizations that had been demolished by the policies of the early Meiji state. These Japanese Meiji Buddhists in America, as editors of the magazine, hoped to propagate the Buddha dharma for the sake of immigrant Japanese and Caucasian converts on the one hand, and on the other to use the journal as a way to reinvigorate Buddhism in an ever more nationalistic Japan. The hope for American sympathy toward Japanese involvement in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), for instance, can be seen in a number of issues of The Light of Dharma. This war was thought of by most Japanese as a symbol of national independence, which had been the nation’s goal since the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Soen Shaku, who himself acted as a Buddhist chaplain to the soldiers at Nan Shan, reveals his nationalistic view of war in a 1905 article for the magazine: “I wished to inspire. if I could, our valiant soldiers with the ennobling thoughts of the Buddha, so as to enable them to die on the battlefield with the confidence that the task which they engaged [in] is great and noble.” Of course, this understanding on the political level was tied in with the hope that Americans could further come to appreciate the cultural and religious heritage of the Japanese. It is in this light that we might see the effort by these early Japanese Buddhists in San Francisco to reach beyond their local immigrant community. This context is also crucial in understanding why this magazine emerged and disappeared in the form it did.

The other context,what Tweed called the “Victorian culture and the limits of dissent,” is equally crucial for understanding early American interest in Buddhism and this type of magazine. By 1900, the San Francisco Pure Land mission had organized the Dharma Sangha of Buddha, a group for Caucasian Buddhists in that area. The Americans interested in Buddhism—esoterics, rationalists, and romantics, in Tweed’s typology—were informed by a certain set of cultural values that permeated the Victorian worldview, such as self-reliance, optimism, and activism. To the extent to which the Meiji Buddhist sensibilities of The Light of Dharma coincided with these Victorian American sensibilities, the magazine might been seen as a successful encounter between two worldviews that seemed to be open to each other. It assured American readers of the optimistic and activist character of Buddhism by often quoting from a Buddhist scripture: “The dharma of the Tathagata does not require a man to go into homelessness or to resign the world.”

Despite the short-lived nature of the magazine and its reflection of the times, The Light of Dharma also seems to embody a willingness to experiment for the sake of turning the various forms of Buddhism that came to America into a new American Buddhism. (The reasons for the journal’s demise are still unclear, but there is speculation that the severe depression in Japan in the wake of the Russo-Japanese War put an end to the it’s funding.)

An interesting comparison might be made with The Buddhist Ray (1888-1894), a journal edited by Philangi Dasa, which was based in Santa Cruz, California. This magazine, clearly influenced by Dasa’s interest in theosophy and Swedenborgianism, was primarily aimed at a Caucasian-American audience. In contrast, The Light of Dharma might be seen as a publication that upheld the unique bridge between the Japanese-American community and the larger community in which it found itself.