Toft-spoken and with a hint of a Midwestern accent flattened out by world travel, Henry Adams has, since April, been the minister at the Buddhist Church of Santa Barbara and Oxnard Buddhist Temple. That makes him the first non-Japanese-born minister to hold services at both churches.
At 33, the Rev. Adams modestly downplays the newsworthy nature of such a position. For him, it was simply a month between finishing his training and stepping into a vacancy left by the former minister. He was suggested to the Oxnard church by the Bishop of the Buddhist Churches of America and contracted to the Santa Barbara temple as well. And he wasn’t aware, he says, of the special import of his choice. Ten percent of current active ministers, he says, are of non-Japanese descent.
“It’s not a big part of the way I think about my ministry,” he tells the News-Press. “It’s more about the Buddhist religious identity.”
However, the Buddhist Church of Santa Barbara does reflect the culture of the Japanese-Americans in Santa Barbara, and the founding members of the temple are in their 80s and 90s. Japanese-American internment during World War II has formed a big part of the church’s identity, too, he says, not just in Santa Barbara but in all Buddhist churches in America, especially California. The Rev. Adams does suggest that his placement is a transition period for the church.
“We’re thinking about how to involve more people from the community,” he says. “There’s definitely a movement now to make the temple accessible to anyone who has an interest.”
You don’t have to know Japanese to come to services, the reverend points out, and you don’t have to be Buddhist, either.
“We welcome anyone who is interested, even if they identify as Christian or Jewish or Muslim or whatever.”
The Rev. Adams, however, does know Japanese. He leads the services in both languages, and did much of his training in Japan. His wife, Shoko, is Japanese.
Born in the small town of Fridley, Minn., the Rev. Adams was raised in a very religious Lutheran household, the fourth-generation child of Norwegian immigrants. He grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, and went to church every Sunday with the family. In high school, the Rev. Adams spent a year in India as an exchange student and was confronted with a lot of abject poverty and class disparity.
“I started to have existential questions about why people suffer,” he says. “And if there is a solution to this problem of human suffering.”
Being in a country that birthed several of the world’s religions, it wasn’t long until the Rev. Adams found his way to Buddhism.
“I read very broadly, but settled into Buddhism over a year. I felt it had the clearest answers to suffering. Buddhism teaches that suffering is the result of self-centered attachment, especially to the concept of me and mine. It also offers a practical path. Not only does the Buddha strive to understand human suffering but he also taught a clear path to liberation.”
While a student at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, the Rev. Adams went to Japan and began to study and practice Buddhism among the Japanese. He returned during his graduate studies at the University of Michigan and after receiving his master’s degree. His Japanese language is “pretty good,” backed with three years of his work translating texts. “A lot of my understanding of Buddhist concepts is in Japanese, so often I find myself quickly translating these concepts into English. Of course, it helps that I am a native English speaker.”
He doesn’t agree, though, that some concepts can’t be successfully translated.
“What you need are people who are thoroughly able in both languages. If you cling too much to the original phrasing of the Japanese or Chinese, you might not be able to represent the original nuance. But I think it’s possible if you’re able to think creatively.”
Back in the States after his stay in Japan, his parents were apprehensive.
“It was incomprehensible to them.” But they have grown to accept and understand his religion.
“They have come to see it’s a good thing for me,” he says. “My mother is very involved in her church and she can see what I’m doing, so she can relate on that level. My father sees I’m making a contribution to society.”
To the Rev. Adams, bringing the concepts of Buddhism to everyday life is a large part of his teaching.
“It’s a question of how do I live this teaching in modern society. Jodo Shinshu (a branch of Buddhism) emphasizes Buddhism as a daily practice, to live in the hustle and bustle of work and family. It’s not a practice that you do alone, like a retreat. As I endeavor to practice among my own family life and ministry, I think to myself, What am I learning that I can share with others?”
The reverend says his initial months in a new town — he had never been to Southern California before this; he previously was in Kyoto, Japan — were made easy by the enthusiasm of church members.
“People were generous and very supportive,” he says. “They were very welcoming to me and my wife. We feel we have close friends and family already, established right from the beginning.”
He also adds there have been challenges, as is expected with a first assignment after completing training.
“I do struggle with just not knowing with what I’m doing sometimes. It’s stressful, but I can’t imagine it being any easier than what it is. A big part of that is people have been patient while I find my footing.”
Currently, attendance to services and memorials tops out at 30 people, but the Rev. Adams hopes to see more. On the other hand, a small group is very welcoming, and names get learned quickly after a few introductions.
The Buddhist Church of Santa Barbara follows the Jodo Shinshu branch of Buddhism, the main Buddhist sect of Japan. It is not related to Zen Buddhism, and does not deal with meditation and its practice.
The Santa Barbara church offers study classes 10 a.m. the first Monday and third Friday of the month. Readings come from the writings of 12th century monk Shinran, among others. Classes are conversational, the groups are small, and the interaction is friendly.
For the two monthly services, the Rev. Adams follows the traditional Jodo Shinshu style, with chanting, readings, singing and conversation. “We’ll have tea and chat for a bit,” he adds with a smile.