Remembering Julius Goldwater, an American Buddhist Pioneer

Reverend Julius GoldwaterYesterday marked the ninth anniversary of the death of Reverend Julius Goldwater, an early pioneer of American Buddhism, and one of the first Westerners ordained in a Japanese Buddhist lineage.

Julius Goldwater was perhaps the most interesting person I’ve ever met. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to get to know him well.

Our first encounter was at a Vesak ceremony in the late 1990’s. I was chatting  with a woman while we waited for lunch to be served. At that time I was looking around for groups to practice with and I asked about hers. She replied that she went to a group run by this old guy who was sitting a few chairs away and that they studied Nagarjuna and Shantideva. Those were two of my favorite guys, so my eyes lit up. But, she said, the group was not open to newcomers. That was disheartening to hear. I couldn’t imagine a group for Westerners that was not open to new people. Later when I was introduced to Mr. Goldwater I made a smart remark about it. Actually, it wasn’t such a smart remark, it was rather stupid, and he wasted no time in putting me in my place.

Thus, our relationship got off to a rocky start. When I found out a little about him, I eager to make amends, although I still believed he policy about new people in his group was mistaken. So whenever I saw him after that, I would try to make friends with him, but he would have nothing to do with me. It was literally a couple of years before I finally wore him down, and he invited me to his house in Park La Brea.

It was the first time I had visited the home of a Buddhist where there was no altar or shrine. He kept all his Buddhist “stuff” in a drawer in the tiny room he used as an office. He was still distrustful of me, suspicious of my motives. He kept asking me what I wanted and I kept saying all I wanted was to get to know him and learn his story and his views on Dharma. He eventually accepted that and we had some talks. However, he was in declining heath (he was in his 90s) and had little time left.

Rev. Goldwater was born in Los Angeles in 1908. He came from a wealthy family of German Jewish decent. His first cousin was Barry Goldwater, the famous Republican Senator from Arizona. He felt no connection with Judaism, instead he was attracted to the teachings of such people as Krishnamurti,  Inayat Khan, and Swami Prabhavananda, and studied with Manly P. Hall at the Church of the People, which housed one of the largest libraries on parapsychology, mysticism, and Eastern religions in the world.

When Goldwater moved with his father to Hawaii in the late 1920’s, that’s when he became interested in Buddhism. His mentors were Tai Hsu, a Chinese Buddhist reformer; Yeimyo Imamura, a Japanese bishop; and Dr. Ernest Hunt, an Englishman who had been ordained by Honpa Hongwanji, a branch of Jodo (Pure Land) Shinshu.

In Honolulu, Mr. Goldwater became (along with Hunt) one of the first non-Japanese to receive ordination (tokudo) and Dharma-teaching certification (kyoshi) from a Japanese Buddhist tradition. In 1933, he received kyoshi again at Nishi Honganji in Los Angeles, despite his unusual request that he not be required to teach only Jodo Shin Buddhism. He received a third ordination, in general Mahayana, in Hang Chow China.

He took Subhadra as his Buddhist name. Subhadra was said to have been a learned Brahmin, who at the age of 120 became the last convert made by the Buddha. Rev. Goldwater always referred to himself as “the American Bhikshu”.

By the late 1930’s, he was back in Los Angeles. He became a priest at Nishi Hongwanji, a Jodo temple in Little Tokyo (located on First Street in the building that is now the site of the Japanese American National Museum). During this period, when few Westerners were involved in Buddhist groups, Goldwater played a key role in the lives of the congregations of the local Japanese temples by conducting services and organizing Youth Dances for Nisei teenagers. He also traveled up and down the West Coast, spreading the dharma to Japanese-Americans in agricultural settlements.

Later, during World War II, Rev. Goldwater he founded the one of the earliest “home-grown” American Buddhist organizations, the Buddhist Brotherhood of America.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into the War, the government ordered all persons of Japanese descent living on West Coast evacuated into internment camps. It emptied Little Tokyo and the other Japanese enclaves around Los Angeles. Rev. Goldwater was practically the sole follower of Japanese Buddhism in Southern California, and he was asked to assume responsibility of maintaining all the local Japanese temples. I believe that included not only the Jodo temples, but the Zen, Nichiren and Shingon temples as well. He arranged for the various Japanese temples to store internee’s furniture and other belongings. He was given Power of Attorney at Nishi Hongwanji, and in addition to safeguarding the temple building and the internee’s belongings stored there, he endeavored to protect the internees’ real estate property, and  saved at least one internees’ home when he reported an illegal sale of the property to the FBI.

In addition to this demanding responsibility, Rev. Goldwater visited internees at ten different camps in California, Arizona, Colorado, and Arkansas. He brought them much-needed daily supplies, gifts of coffee and candy, and his self-published books on Buddhism. These courageous acts of compassion must have brought them some measure of consolation and hope to people imprisoned solely on account of their ethnicity.

When the Japanese congregations returned after the war, Goldwater continued to help. He turned one of the temples into a hostel, where the internees could stay until they found places of their own. He unselfishly gave of his time and energy helping people find jobs and places to live. If a member of the congregation didn’t have enough money for a down payment on a home, Mr. Goldwater chipped-in with his own money. If someone needed food, he bought it.  He encountered some persecution from these efforts. Caucasian Americans verbally abused him on many occasions, and one time his house was vandalized.

Some 45 years later, a woman, who had been part of his congregation, gave Mr. Goldwater $500 from $20,000 she received in reparations paid to the Japanese-American internees by the U.S. government. He vowed to never cash the check. He said, “I only acted as any American would have.” The truth is, at that time few Americans would have done as he did.

Immediately after the war, he tried to convinced the returning Japanese-American Buddhists of the need to assimilate into American culture. It was at his urging that the Buddhist Mission of North America changed its name to the Buddhist Churches of America.

However, the bishop at Goldwater’s home temple was not keen on the Americanization of Japanese Buddhism, and that may have been a factor that caused L.A. Hompa Hongwanji to file suit against him for $20,000 on June 10, 1946 over alleged accounting irregularities. As I stated, Rev. Goldwater had been given the power of attorney over the temple building in 1942 and apparently some of the temple’s expense money got mixed up with money for Goldwater’s Buddhist Brotherhood, and since he did not keep an accounting book during the war, he was found to be in error and the judge ruled for the temple.

[In an interesting side note, during the war Goldwater, on behalf of Hompa Hongwanji, leased space in the temple building. Two of the occupants were the Providence Baptist Association and the First Street Clinic, the latter operated by one Dr. George Hodel. The temple sued both the PBA and Hodel for refusing to evacuate for returning Japanese Americans. Dr. Hodel resided in a rather well known house on Franklin Avenue designed by Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright, where he threw allegedly wild parties attended by Man Ray and film director John Huston, among others. Some years ago, Hodel’s son, a LAPD Homicide detective, wrote a book naming his father as the Black Dahlia murderer.]

In the wake of the controversy over expenses, Mr. Goldwater resigned from the temple and began leading his weekly study group, which he continued up to his last year, when his failing health forced him to stop. He maintained that this group, as part of the Buddhist Brotherhood in America, was the oldest continually meeting American Buddhist community. He also came to a different understanding of Buddhist teachings during the second part of his life; he became disillusioned with the religious and ritualistic aspects of Buddhism. “Buddhism is not religion, its education,” he said. In his view, the purpose of Buddhist teachings was to give people effective and practical tools for living, not religious rites and moral commandments.

A man with a spirited personality, Julius Goldwater minced no words when he spoke his mind and did not suffer fools gladly. He was a person who sought truth, and once armed with truth he fought for a better world. We are all indebted to this compassionate soldier, a real pioneer of American Buddhism.

Rev. Goldwater’s ANCIENT BUDDHIST THOUGHT-WAVE:

We surround all men and all forms of life with infinite love and compassion. Particularly do we send out compassionate thoughts to those in suffering and sorrow; to all those in doubt and ignorance, to all who are striving to attain Truth and to those whose feet are standing close to the great change men call death, we send forth oceans of wisdom, mercy and love.

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