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Buddhism without Borders: Contemporary Developments of Buddhism in the West

at the Institute of Buddhist Studies
Berkeley, California
March 18 - 21, 2010

Panel II: Buddhisms in America, 9:30 - 12:30

The First White Buddhist Priestess

Michihiro Ama, University of California, Irvine

This study examines the life of Sunya Pratt (1898-1986), who was ordained at the Buddhist Mission of North America (BMNA), present-day Buddhist Churches of America (BCA), in 1936 and served at its affiliated local organization in Tacoma, Washington until her death. It presents how an early Euro-American woman negotiated with and established herself in an ethnic Buddhist order. Despite the emerging interest of academia in the roles of Buddhist women in the United States, Sunya Pratt has received little attention for two reasons: the current discussion on Buddhist women in the United States concentrates on the study of “lived” religions, and scholars have explored the activities of Theosophist women and Caucasian female converts free from institutional constraints in the early history of Euro-American Buddhist sympathizers.

In this paper, I argue that Sunya Pratt was an unusual Euro-American Buddhist woman in a number of ways. First, she remained as part of an ethnic Buddhist organization throughout her life. All other Caucasians who were ordained at the BMNA during the 1930’s left the order before or after the Pacific War. Second, her presence at the BMNA represents doctrinal and ritual inconsistencies between Shin Buddhism and General Buddhism. Third, Pratt was one of a very few Caucasians, especially during the prewar and postwar periods, who was able to interact with Japanese/Japanese American Buddhists in the Tacoma/Seattle area. Fourth, from a Buddhist standpoint, Pratt even critiqued the modernity and modern nation states in 1941, before the outbreak of the Pacific War.

This paper consists of two parts. First it provides a brief biography of Pratt based on the information obtained through newspaper accounts, BCA Archives, and interviews with her son and members of the Tacoma Buddhist Temple. Second, the analysis of her commitment to and activities at Tacoma Buddhist Temple focuses on the intersection between the practices of General Buddhism and that of Shin Buddhism. By analyzing Pratt’s ordination ceremony at the BMNA, this study demonstrates how it diverged from Japanese tradition and appeared to be eclectic blending the strands of Theravåda, Shin and American practices, without any doctrinal justification. This shift simultaneously represents how the BMNA adapted itself to a new transnational environment during the 1930’s.

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