On April 8, 1984, Jodo Shinshu Buddhists from across the Pacific Northwest gather at the Sherwood Inn in South Tacoma to honor Reverend Sunya Pratt (1898-1986) for the 50 years she has served as teacher and leader at the Tacoma Buddhist Temple. Pratt first joined the congregation in 1934 and was ordained by Bishop Masuyama in 1936. From the year she joined, she led the English-language Buddhist education program at what was then known as the Tacoma Buddhist Church and it quickly grew, attracting Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans) who deeply appreciated the opportunity to learn the Dharma (teachings) in the language they had grown up speaking.
Honoring a Beloved Teacher and Leader
The testimonial dinner for Pratt coincided with Hanamatsuri, the holiday celebrating the birth of the historical (or Shakyamuni) Buddha. Earlier in the day, at the Tacoma Buddhist Temple, a procession of young children came forward to the altar to sprinkle water and sweet tea on a state of the historical Buddha. Pratt participated in the service alongside Reverend Tatsu Imai, resident minister at the temple, and Reverend Gerald Sakamoto, the minister at the White River Buddhist Temple in Auburn. Pratt gave a talk during the service in recognition of her jubilee anniversary.
At 4:30 p.m., the testimonial dinner began at the Sherwood Inn, a brick hotel that had opened in 1965 along the freeway in South Tacoma. Aki Hayashi served as the master of ceremonies during the event, and many different people, including Del Tanabe, Robert Yossuuye, Alvin Sasaki, Linda Takada, and Reverend Imai, spoke in honor of Pratt's long and significant contributions to the temple and other groups in the region. Then came testimonials from former ministers, alumni of the Sunday school, and representatives from regional Buddhist associations and temples from far as away as Yakima in Eastern Washington and Ontario, Oregon.
At the end of the ceremony, Pratt had an opportunity to respond. What she said that night went unrecorded, but a photo of her shows her with horn-rimmed glasses, a white iris corsage pinned to her shoulder, and a yellow card bearing her name. Her curly white hair shows no sign of the red that colored it in earlier years. Her eyes look aside, outside the photo frame, as if she might be startled or a bit overwhelmed in her search for words.
For Jodo Shinshu Buddhists like those gathered at the Sherwood Inn that evening, "expressing gratitude for all that we have received" is an essential practice and teaching, often embodied in the Nembutsu or recitation of Amida Buddha's name (Wilson). The testimonial dinner created a circle of gratitude, with Pratt standing before all the people whose lives she had touched. What could she speak in response, to share her own appreciation? When the words did come, they were spoken in her British accent that many had come to love.
Records of a Devoted Life
In preparation for the testimonial dinner, a call went out to those who had known Pratt to send letters of remembrance. From all over the country, dozens and dozens of cards, hand-written notes of appreciation, and typed-out letters arrived throughout the spring of 1984. Soon after the dinner, they were gathered in a thick scrapbook album along with photographs from her life and newspaper clippings. The album remains in the temple archives. As a primary source, it offers a rich, nuanced portrait of the many ways that Pratt touched the people she knew.
Several of the ministers shared memories of her, some of them going back to the earliest days of her involvement in the congregation. Reverend Shoshu Sakow, the minister serving at the church when she joined in 1934, wrote that Pratt already knew about Buddhism when he met her, "but the doctrine of Jodo Shinshu seemed to be something quite new to her so that I started orally the important and essential matters of the Jodo Shinshu doctrine with my English vocabularies, although limited, as best as I could, and she took notes of what I taught to her" ("Reverend Sunya Pratt: 1934-1984"). Sakow also described how she often drove him to other temples and member's homes. Sharing another way she supported ministers, Reverend Hiroshi Futaba remembered:
"While I was assigned to the Tacoma Buddhist Temple from 1952 to 1957, not only did you help me carry out the Temple duties but also treated me very warmly and often referred to me as 'my son,' which made me feel a strong sense of belonging although my family was across the Pacific Ocean" ("Reverend Sunya Pratt: 1934-1984").
The bulk of the letters come from the Nisei students who had attended the temple Sunday school program or other education programs. They mentioned the handmade flannel story boards that Pratt used to recount stories from the life of the Buddha. For many Nisei, who grew up speaking English, Pratt offered the opportunity to learn about Buddhism in everyday language. Clifford Ueda wrote, "I have always cherished my English instructions in Buddhism, because that was when the philosophy became understandable," and the Munekata family recognized in addition that Pratt brought English-language gathas (Buddhist hymns) and plays to the Temple: "We became the envy of many Buddhist temples, for we had someone who could help us to understand Buddhism in English. Her popularity grew" ("Reverend Sunya Pratt: 1934-1984").
Many who had lived in Tacoma's pre-war Japantown (Nihonmachi) neighborhood remembered the city fondly -- "Tacoma will always be my home, and you Rev. Pratt will be that wonderful friend who helped so much in what my girls are today" -- and also mentioned important landmarks, such as the Japanese Language School and the high school, while acknowledging that reminiscence of these times "will bring a tear or two" about "our old home town, Tacoma" ("Reverend Sunya Pratt: 1934-1984"). Martha Yoshioka described how Pratt's teachings on Buddhism "helped us during the turmoils we encountered in life," especially, "The time we were interned in Camp Harmony at the Puyallup Fair Grounds when you made visits and conducted services to keep our spirits up" ("Reverend Sunya Pratt: 1934-1984").
In the post-war years Pratt continued to have a significant role as a teacher, even as Nisei entered adulthood. In his long, typed letter Ted Tamaki described regular visits to the Pratt household for a "spot of tea" while he was attending the University of Puget Sound:
"It was during these talk sessions that she told me that her father who was professor introduced her to Buddhism. She told me of how she pursued Buddhism and found it to fulfill her needs in life, call it religion, philosophy or life itself. How its teaching coincides with scientific facts and how it can guide us through the maze which we call life" ("Reverend Sunya Pratt: 1934-1984").
He initially didn't quite understand what she was saying, but over the course of his lifetime and with help of other senseis, "what Rev. Pratt tried to drive into my head then slowly started to make sense" ("Reverend Sunya Pratt: 1934-1984").
In another remarkable letter Kathleen Tanabe Kumagai told how Pratt and her Buddhist education program shaped her own the identity as a young Japanese American. It is best to quote the letter at length because it illustrates the profound influence that Pratt's presence alone had on Nisei in the temple:
"I would like to thank you by letting you know how important you were to me as a role model during my Sunday School years. It was not particularly easy growing up as a Japanese Buddhist girl during the 50s and 60s in a White Christian male-dominated world. When my generation was starting school, there was still a little more than lingering prejudice in Tacoma against the Japanese-Americans who had so recently returned from the relocation campus. Before the days of 'Black is Beautiful' and 'Yellow Power' it would be painful knowing that I was different from those who were in the majority.
"You changed my attitude, by your example and by your teachings. One long-ago Sunday, when I was in early elementary school, I suddenly realized that the minister who was giving the flannel board story was different too. SHE was a white woman in a Japanese church. This was inspiring and made me realize that life is full of possibilities.
"Later, during the Sangha classes you taught for 9th graders, you gave me another unforgettable lesson. You said that there are as many ways to become a Buddhist as there are human beings and that enlightenment can be described as the fulfillment of each person's character. Again, I learned that it is natural to be different from everyone else and to be appreciative of each person's differences" ("Reverend Sunya Pratt: 1934-1984").
The album includes many more letters, notes, photos, and even a song written by Yaeko Nakano and dedicated to Pratt, and yet it is letters like this one that reveal how, through a consistent, dedicated presence in the temple, Pratt guided generations of Japanese Americans in their understanding and practice of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism.
The Legacy of Reverend Sunya Pratt
A little less than two years after the testimonial dinner, Pratt died on February 11, 1986, at the age of 88. Within the Tacoma Buddhist Temple, Pratt remains an important and honored figure more than 30 years later. In the hallway outside the Hondo, or main worship space, a collage shows photos of Pratt throughout many stages of her life. At the back of the temple is a gathering space called the Reverend Sunya Pratt Room where, after Sunday services, the sangha often gathers for coffee, tea, and snacks. On the wall in this room is a photo of Pratt among the many ministers who have served at the temple, a white female face among portraits of the Japanese and Japanese American men who have been assigned as ministers to the temple -- she served under nine in all.
While she was questionably identified as the "the first white Buddhist priestess" back in 1936, historical studies of Buddhism in the United States have tended overlook Pratt until relatively recently. Many narratives of early Western Buddhists tend to emphasize those who had the resources and mobility to leave home, study Buddhism in Asia, and bring it back to their own countries. On her ordination day back in 1936, Pratt admitted a desire to "seek sanctuary in some Eastern retreat" later in life ("Buddhists Ordain ..."), but as a mother and spouse, she wasn't in a position to easily leave her responsibilities in Tacoma, and never once visited Japan.
The scholar Michihiro Ama dedicates several pages to Pratt in his book Immigrants to the Pure Land, a history of Shin Buddhism in the first part of the twentieth century, and he further develops his analysis in the chapter on her ordination ceremony he contributed to the collection Buddhism Beyond Borders. Ama places Pratt among a small cohort of European Americans who converted to Buddhism in 1930s and became ordained as ministers in the Buddhist Mission of North America. For Ama, Pratt stands out among the other ministers because she was the only who made "a lifetime commitment" to Shin Buddhism and the temple she joined (Ama, "'First White Buddhist Priestess,'" 69).
Even though Pratt's commitment seems to have originated from her own life conditions as much as her devoted practice, she became an important female Buddhist leader for Shin Buddhists in the Pacific Northwest. The scrapbook of letters collected in her honor and held in the temple archives testifies to the many ways she guided others to a deeper understanding of Buddhism and their own lives.