The Strange Gods Come to Canada

N. de BERTRAND LUGRIN February 15 1934

The Strange Gods Come to Canada

N. de BERTRAND LUGRIN February 15 1934

The Strange Gods Come to Canada



Banner and symbol and mystery Of shrine. Throb of the drum.

Out of the East, over the sea,

The strange gods come.

A HUSHED TWILIGHT pervades the little temple.

There are the lanterns—scores of them—unlighted as yet, hanging like pale bubbles. There is a mass of shadowy color at the extreme end of the hall, with here and there a glimmer coming from it.

The little priest—deferential, soft-footed and soft-voiced —shows us to cushioned chairs. There are two hundred chairs or more filling the floor space.

Then the lights are turned on.

Instantly the lanterns of varicolored silk with black framework become miniature temples themselves and flood the place with a soft light. There spring into being other lights down at the far end and we see the shrine come to life.

Hangings of Eastern silk—rich, dark dyes, crimson and purple—enclose it on three sides. Whether it is a sumptuous shrine or a simple one, these hangings are always there, mysterious, enfolding, guarding. At the top of the three graduated shelves which form the back of the shrine is the image or sacred emblem: and tributary to it are rare porcelains and vases of inlay work filled with flowers, candlesticks three feet high, of polished metal, large bowls of cloisonné from which rises a slender spiral of incense. At the edge of the dais, one on either side, are the great brass-bound holy drums, gleaming like the sun itself.

Now the little priest dons the pontifical vestments. They are warm and glowing in color, a full surplice and apron, crimson silk, stiff with gold and silver thread. On his head he places the crimson and gold mitre.

He is transformed, this gentle-spoken Japanese, and as he stands there, his back to the shrine, the soft lights about him, the mighty drums beside him, and the large book of prayers in his hands, he becomes a commanding figure, symbolizing the profound faith of millions of men and w'omen of Japan. Instinctively one feels the aw'e which comes when we are face to face with something beyond our capacity to deal with or understand.

Do not dismiss the idea of temples and shrines as something foreign and beyond the pale of an everyday Canadian’s interest. This shrine is in the very heart of Vancouver, and there are probably a dozen more of them throughout British Columbia.

We may have thought that with the vanishing of the joss houses, a quarter of a century ago, Oriental faiths ceased to be part and parcel of the life of the Chin.ese and Japanese in Canada. But we were wrong. They have brought to this Dominion their own deities, with all their accompaniment of banners, symbols, incense, candles, lanterns, prayer papers and great sacred drums.

They have, in most cases, set up their shrines in secret places where they may be safe from prying and unfriendly eyes, and to them flock day by day, at any hour of the day and far into the night, men and women with their big and little troubles and their serene, unshakable faith.

In Vancouver’s downtown district—that district which has won such an unsavory reputation for itself in the past few years—there are Buddhist kindergartens for the very young; preparatory to the English day schools which these children will attend later.

While the Chinese are not active propagandists, the Japanese—and there are more than 23,000 of them, with a higher birthrate than any other nationality in British Columbia—are conducting an aggressive campaign for proselytes, both in Buddhism and Shinto.

TT WAS THROUGH W. H. Gale, Superintendent of

Japanese Missions for British Columbia, that we first learned of the presence of Buddhist and Shinto shrines in Vancouver. Mr. Gale has recently returned from fifteen years missionary work in Japan and he gave us much

interesting information about the Nipponese. He had not visited the shrines himself nor, so far as he knew, had any of the mission workers. Upon making further enquiries we found that not only had no white person seen them, but it was doubtful if foreigners would be permitted to do so.

My friend and I started out to investigate. As the Chinese or Japanese consuls could not give us any information regarding addresses, we sought out Mr. Shimitzu, one of the best known of the Japanese missionaries for the United Church. He was most obliging and looked up for us eight different addresses of Shinto and Buddhist temples and shrines, which he had listed in his Japanese directory. They were very scattered addresses, however, and proved hard to find.

But once having found them, except in one instance, there was no difficulty. Perhaps the priests looked upon us as potential Buddhists. That was the mistake the young editor of one of the Japanese newspapers made when we called upon him in the course of our peregrinations. After some conversation with him he asked us if we believed in Buddha.

“Certainly,” we replied, and though the shiran kao— which means “the unknowing face”—of the Oriental is proverbial, such astonishment and pleasure overspread his countenance that we hastened to add: “Also in Jesus


“Ah!” and he assumed his shiran kao again. “You will excuse me, but many of the more intelligent of the white people have become Buddhists.” Which is a fact we can vouch for. Half a dozen of our own acquaintances are professed Buddhists. They were admirers and followers of the late Mrs. L. Adams Beck, who herself was admitted into the intimate mysteries of that religion upon her arrival in Japan a few years before she died.

The Nicherin shrine was the first we visited, but though we had been told that “you will know them by the sign of the lantern,” and though the lantern hung there, we felt there must be a mistake. An apparently empty shop, silent as the grave, with hieroglyphics on the glazed windows, meant nothing to us. Besides, the doors were locked.

But when we rang the bell our summons was immediately answered by a young Japanese with a courteous manner and an engaging smile. He spoke English fairly well, and after a short parley permitted us to enter. He was Rev. Y. Arakawa, the presiding priest.

The interior of the shop had been transformed into a temple. Lanterns hung from high ceilings—large lanterns of colored and white silk—all bearing the symbol of St. Nicherin, a sort of swastika. Common kitchen chairs, enlivened by bright cushions, filled the floor space.

The shrine, taking up nearly one end of the shop, consisted of a sort of altar surrounded back and sides by rich hangings. On the top shelf of the altar was a small figure, perhaps St. Nicherin himself, and right and left were two filigree silver trees. Two very large brass-bound drums flanked the shrine on either side, and there were tall vases. On a long table in front were neat piles of prayerbooks in the large script of the Orient.

Rev. Mr. Arakawa excused himself presently to return with a small, grey-haired, wrinkled w'oman with eager eyes —his mother. She had lived in Vancouver for more than twenty-five years and when her son was old enough had sent him home to Japan to be educated for the priesthood.

They looked shabby, Rev. Mr. Arakawa and his mother, against the rich shrine. But they had glad faces. One perceived that they had renounced everything for the faith they follow. The Nicherin sect is the largest Buddhist sect in Japan. It has more than five million adherents.

THERE IS NOT much difference in the Shinto shrines.

The one described at the beginning of this article is perhaps the most sumptuous. That of the Tenrikyo temple is smaller and simpler. We stopped at the latter Continued on page 44

Continued jrom page 11

j place lor a little while to chat with the priest ; and to watch a young mother at her devoj tions. The founder of Tenrikyo was a j woman and the sect had its beginning about j the middle of the last century. Its teachings are similar to that of Christian Science.

The woman, a worshipper, was accompanied by her small son and a large bag of buns. The shrine was at the back of double rooms. We «it in the front one. She smiled pleasantly at us. nodded to the priest, then j went forward to deposit a coin and take her I place in front of the shrine, j She opened her dress at the neck, softly ! clapped her hands and made an obeisance.

! This was repeated again and again as she ! turned to the left, centre and right of the shrine. She did not speak above a whisper and her demeanor was modest and not selfconscious. The baby foraged in the bag of buns. Men. women and children kept coming in and out of the entrance hall, evidently out of curiosity to see what ,we wanted. But she performed her rites undisturbed. When she had finished she fastened her blouse, picked up her bag of provisions and departed, bowing and smiling at us in passing.

We had been warned that we would not be permitted to enter the Konkokyo shrine on Keefer Street, but we decided to have a try.

Our destination was one of several twostoried houses having identical verandahs and long flights of steps. There is only the lantern to distinguish it. and its symbol means in Japanese phraseology “Golden Shrine Teaching,” while its presiding deity is the goddess of Mercy. Blinds and curtains were closely drawn.

Before we knocked we took the liberty of peeping through the door curtain, and saw only a man lying on a day bed directly in front of the door. He sprang up at the sight of us and opened it.

Unlike the other priests, he was fat and greasy, with an unwholesome and forbidding countenance. Upon our handing him a card from Rev. K. Shiraki, he took it, glanced

at it. then closed the door and we heard his steps receding. Again we tried to see through the curtain but it was impossible.

He returned to hand us back our card and to tell us that we could not come in. “No, no, no,” his small eyes fairly exuding malevolence. We tried persuasion. We had been extended every courtesy elsewhere. It was of no avail. He had never opened the door more than ten inches and now he closed i’ definitely and locked it.

A red-haired girl was sweeping off the adjoining verandah. She was interested in our movements. We asked her if she had ever been in the house of the shrine. She gave an emphatic “No.” adding:

“All sorts of crazy goings-on there. Shouting and banging on drums. Nobody can sleep round here sometimes.” She leaned over the railing and lowered her voice. “They used to be bringing dead bodies here and they had all the kids in the neighborhood scared blue. So the police interfered, but they still bring dead folks here in the night sometimes.”

She told us that there were two priests—a young man and “the old, fat. cranky fella.” She advised us to return some night about eight o’clock. “When it’s dark.” she suggested. “Crowds go in then, and they’d never notice you at first. You could get a good look before they put you out.”

Where Buddhists Worship


Gale, who took us in his car the final day of our pilgrimage, we had an interesting escort, Mr. Oana, a Japanese Anglican priest and David Chan, of the Chinese Mission. Mr. Oana would not care to take the initiative when it came to dealing with Chinese shrines. Racial feeling between Chinese and Japanese runs high on the Pacific Coast.

We learned that ‘the Chinese form of Buddhism as practised in Canada is of a

mongrel type. Nearly all Chinese are Buddhists and avowed followers of Confucius. but ancestor worship is mingled with their devotions; and with their love of canonizing they have already made a saint of Sun Yat Sen.

It was interesting to observe, as we walked through the Chinese thorouglUares - having parked our car in an alley suggestive of all sorts of crime—the looks with which Mr. Oana was favored. Not a Chinese who did not follow him with unfrier ily eyes. When he had passed, groups would gather and stare after him and talk in undertones.

Three long flights up in the Pekin Chop Suey House took us to the gathering place of the Chinese Freemasons, where there is a handsome Buddhist shrine, by far the most elaborate of any we had seen. It is set between two large metal screens with the most intricate symbolic carvings in metal. Enormous vases, great candlesticks and bowls for the burning of incense feature it. To the uninitiated eye it is fantastic, dull and meaningless. Polished, it would be a miracle of brilliance. But there seems to be something sinister about it as it is. Here were tremendous dragon heads covered with a dingy cloth, and always the drums —vast affairs, tall as a man.

The best example of a real Buddhist temple is to be found on Franklin Street. It is that of Amida Buddha, who must not be confused with the Gautama Buddha of the Chinese. Amidaism makes up about three-quarters of all Buddhism in Japan, and is a very active proselytizing sect.

The temple is in what was formerly a Christian church and the shrine takes up the high stage. It is composed of many inlaid pillars of black and silver, converging to a niche where stands a figure of Amida Buddha. Some magnificent brass lamps, hanging in wrought brass frames, showed rosy tapers. The sacred symbol, a wreath of wisteria, is embroidered on the heavy, voluminous hangings. Hidden light floods the stage and is reflected in all the shining metal work. A tremendous drum, which the

priest obligingly sounded for us, was at the right of the stage; on the left a reading desk, with the Buddhist praverbook. The chair of the priest, a high-backed teakwood with j red silk cushions, faced the centre of the shrine.

During the afternoon we visited several kindergartens. The first belonged to the mission with which Mr. Oana is connected. Here we saw some doll-like Japanese, aged from two to four years, learning to scallop little colored papers. We also listened to a class of twenty-five older children, who stood in front of their small chairs, their hands devoutly clasped and eyes closed, and sang brightly;

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,

Look upon a little child.

Pity my simplicity,

Suffer me to come to thee.


Some of these children have been baptized into Christianity, but Mr. Gale pointed out that their parents are all Buddhists and, as a rule, if any of the children die they are buried according to Buddhist rites.

The last kindergarten was a Buddhist school, and the prettiest Japanese girl we ever saw met us at the door. Assisting her was an elderly white woman with grey hair. The latter played the organ and called the roll.

There were little children—probably more of them on a fine day. but it happened to be raining. We interrupted them at their devotions. Small bodies and sleek black heads bowed low over folded arms; slow, subdued chant of baby voices in supplication to the strange gods. Then the arms outspread and the bodies bent still lower.

Nichyo chan—Tenya chan—Mimiyo chan —thus the roll call, but the pretty Japanese girl led the games.

Fifty potential Buddhists standing in a circle, with two in the centre, and singing with appropriate gestures:

Froggic in the meadow, can't get out.

Take a little stick and poke him out.