Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Denver Buddhist Temple was established by a branch of the Jodo Shinshu, one of Buddhism's largest sects in Japan, founded by Shinran Shonin in the thirteenth century. Economic conditions in Japan in the nineteenth century drove many Japanese immigrants to North America seeking employment in farming, mining, and railroad construction. Records indicate the first Japanese settlers in Colorado arrived before 1886; a Japanese cultural society was founded in Denver about 1904.

Shin Buddhism followed the settlers to Colorado, and on March 13, 1916, Rev. Tessho Ono, a graduate of Kyoto Imperial University, inaugurated a church attended by 250 Japanese immigrants. The Denver Buddhist Church served also as community center for many lonely Japanese. Eventually, membership spanned the region, including Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana, and Texas. The early ministers of the Denver Buddhist Church traveled widely, visiting parishioners, comforting the sick, and performing memorial services for the dead. From the beginning, the church organized cultural events that supported traditional values while Japanese assimilated into American culture. Youth groups such as the Young Buddhist Association (eventually the YMBA and YWBA) and Sunday schools sponsored oratorical contests, ballroom dancing, beauty pageants, and a night school. Eventually, a Sunday school curriculum was supplied by the Buddhist Churches of America, headquartered in California, guiding immigrant parents in the religious education of their children. By 1934, under the leadership of Rev. Yoshitaka Tamai, there were fourteen branch temples within a 600-mile radius of Denver, and 300 families were listed as members.

World War II and its anti-Japanese sentiment were difficult for the Colorado Japanese community. Travel was restricted and finances were threatened, but most avoided the internment imposed on their West Coast compatriots. In 1944 a church delegation sought an additional English-speaking minister and brought to Colorado Rev. Noboru Tsunoda, a second-generation Japanese who had been interned in a camp. After the war, as many as 20,000 Japanese moved into the state to work on farms. Church membership soared. At the same time, European Americans took an interest in Buddhism and in Japanese culture, and myriad groups from Christian churches, civic organizations, and schools visited the church, resulting in an increase in non-Japanese membership.

Determined to realize its dream of building, the community raised $150,000 to purchase land in downtown Denver. In 1949 they dedicated their new church and created a regional organization called the Tri-State Buddhist Church. Over the next fifteen years the Denver church added offices, Sunday school rooms, a residence for ministers, an auditorium, and a high-rise apartment building, Tamai Towers, for subsidized housing. Eventually, commercial establishments rented space, creating Sakura Square, a Japanese cultural presence in downtown Denver.

In a pattern consistent with national Shin Buddhist trends, membership in the Denver church has declined since the 1950s. In 1977 the Denver Buddhist Church became the Denver Buddhist Temple. In 2001 the Denver temple had an official membership of 454 and had informal affiliated communities in Wyoming, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma; two Denver ministers serve nine affiliated temples with a total of 214 members and visit distant communities annually.

Judith Simmer-Brown Naropa University

Bloom, Alfred. "Shin Buddhism in America: A Social Perspective." In The Faces of American Buddhism, edited by Charles S. Prebish and Kenneth K. Tanaka. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998: 31–48.

Watada, Matajiro, ed. A History of Fifty Years of the Tri-State Buddhist Church, 1916–1966. Denver: Tri-State Buddhist Church, 1968.

Previous: Deadwood Chinatown | Contents | Next: Denver Chinatown

XML: egp.asam.009.xml