History of Woe: An Ontario temple is born to offer spirituality and hope

This article is excerpted from the Enterprise’s annual history magazine, “Journey Into Malheur County’s Rich History”. Copies of Journey are available free of charge from the Enterprise office and local businesses in the area.

ONTARIO — In 1947, as snow blanketed the quiet streets of Ontario, more than a hundred Japanese-Americans gathered on the grounds of what would become the Idaho-Oregon Buddhist Temple.

They wore coats and ties and held hats on their knees. They thought of friends and family members who were far away, of homes to which they could no longer return.

The temple would provide refuge and comfort.

In the years following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, more than 800 Japanese Americans emigrated to Ontario, settling there as farm laborers and other manual laborers to avoid internment. The small rural farming town was one of the few in the state to host them during World War II, when tensions and anti-Japanese sentiment were high in the country.

By the end of the war, this population had grown to 1,500.

Seeking community after the war, a group of Japanese immigrants founded and hand-built the Idaho-Oregon Buddhist Temple on Southeast Fourth Avenue.

Today, 75 years later, the temple remains a pillar of spirituality and community for the Japanese-American community in Ontario – the sons and daughters of that first generation, known as nisei.

Most of the current church stewards are third- and fourth-generation Japanese Americans with deep roots in the church.

Mike Iseri, 64, is co-president of the church. His father, George Iseri, was president during his time, and his grandfather was also a member.

“My first memory of the church – although I’m not sure if it’s a real memory or the memory of a picture I saw – I was sitting on a foundation wall of the current temple building during its construction,” Iseri said. “And a lot of the kids I went to church with growing up, I’m still friends with today.”

As a child, Iseri attended church Sunday services and weekly Japanese language school. He remembers hiding in the bathroom to avoid learning Japanese, swinging from the boiler pipes in the basement with friends, even having his first sip of illicit beer.

“I didn’t really understand the importance of growing up in the church,” Iseri said. “Looking back now, I still don’t think there was a time when that light came on. I think I gradually got closer to where I am now.

On a hot July morning, Iseri packs her car to the temple – a cooler with water and fruit, musubi handmade by a church member, a makeshift altar and incense for a ceremony. The church organizes cemetery tours each year, touring more than a dozen cemeteries across Treasure Valley in the course of a week. From Boise to Baker City, nearly all are the final resting place of at least one church member.

For the most part, Iseri said, the community has aged with the church. While second and third generations of Japanese-Americans have generally stayed in the area, starting and raising families in the town of their earliest memories, few young people have done the same.

“This older generation has quietly drifted away,” Iseri said. “The sad thing is that not only have we become the old people of the church, but at the same time we are the young people of the church. Most young people, you know, grew up, went to college and moved on.

But for Iseri, and for the generation that preceded her, the choice to stay was easy – that’s where their community began.

At Mount Hope Cemetery in Baker City, an hour’s drive from Ontario, Iseri’s truck turns onto an unpaved road, kicking up gravel and dust, and stops at the edge of the cemetery, where the graves Japanese are separated from the rest.

Most are unmarked or have names smeared by decades of wear – some were dead railroad workers without families in small towns in eastern Oregon. Most died young. Their visitors now are those who follow the tradition of the Buddhist church to honor and remember those who came before, however long that may have been.

At the foot of a sloping hill dotted with sagebrush, Reverend Kathy Chatterton leads a small group of sutra chants, a Buddhist practice meant to reflect and clear the mind. Iseri lights the incense, placing the smoking sticks upright on a small altar.

The Rev. Kathy Chatterton, associate minister of the Idaho-Oregon Buddhist Temple, leads community members in chanting sutras during a visitation ceremony at the grave on June 13, 2022. (The Enterprise/CYNTHIA LIU)

“In Buddhism we talk a lot about all the causes and conditions that make our lives possible. Here at the cemetery, we are reminded of all that,” Chatterton says.

“Obon is a time for us to remember all those loved ones, friends, neighbors and strangers who are here in the cemetery. We express our gratitude to them for the life we ​​lead. The phrase that comes to mind is the Japanese expression “okage sama de”, the idea that I am what I am thanks to you.

Iseri and Chatterton stop for lunch along the road, opening brown paper bags of handmade musubi – a Japanese snack of a slice of Spam on a block of rice – and slices of cucumber wrapped by a another member of the church.

Chatterton also remembers his own childhood in the church.

“After the war, our parents didn’t want us to learn Japanese, because they wanted us to be Americans,” she said. “I’ve been a temple member all my life and grew up in the temple, but it wasn’t until high school and college that I started to get more into it.”

Chatterton attended Christian college and was ordained an assistant minister, a status bestowed by the Buddhist mother temple in Kyoto, Japan. For her, the practice of Buddhism has given more meaning to her life.

Unlike monotheistic religions, Buddhism, founded in India and practiced by more than 400 million people, does not deify its creator. Followers of Buddhism generally view it more as a way of life, or a work practice, than a religion.

The Idaho-Oregon Buddhist Temple practices jodo shinshu Buddhism, also known as Pure Land Buddhism, which prioritizes wisdom and compassion. It is family-oriented, focusing on practical teachings that are accessible and can be implemented in daily life.

“He accepts all of us as we are,” Chatterton said. “A lot of people don’t realize it’s a Buddhist temple, not a Japanese temple. It’s for everyone. It shouldn’t be a foreign thing; it is a way of life accessible to all.

Mike Iseri is currently co-president of the Idaho-Oregon Buddhist Church. His father, George Iseri, was president in his day, and his grandfather was an involved member in his own right. (The Company/CYNTHIA LIU)

For Iseri too, his hope is that the church will continue to grow in the future – and that, although it was founded by Japanese immigrants, it does not have to be a Japanese congregation to preserve the tradition. and the history of its founders. Instead, it should involve people from all walks of life, all ethnicities and all ages.

“We need it to grow, to keep the church alive and to learn from each other,” Iseri said. “Buddhism is a practice that anyone can adopt. By its very nature, it is non-judgmental.

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