For its members, the Betsuin choir provides more than just an opportunity to sing, it enables them to connect with other members of the temple, provides a way to express their joy in Jodo Shinshu teachings and to share Buddhist music with a wide audience.
It’s been that way since the first choir formed in 1950. Over the decades, the choir has been a pacesetter among Shin Buddhist choirs, organizing the first Northern California Buddhist music festival, hosting music recitals and performing at major temple and Buddhist Churches of America events.
The San Jose Betsuin Senior Choir was founded in 1950. Its first directors were music teachers from the San Jose Unified School District. The choir’s first performance was during a visit of the Gomonshu, head of the temple’s sect of Buddhism that is headquartered in Kyoto, and his wife during a visit to the United States.
In 1959, Mrs. Yumiko Hojo arrived in San Jose with her husband, Rev. Eijitsu Hojo. Mrs. Hojo is one of the three women recognized as pioneers of Shin Buddhist music in the United States, along with Jane Imamura and Chizu Iwanaga. They wrote some of the most enduring and endearing English-language gathas sung by generations of Dharma School students and adults at services.
Under Mrs. Hojo’s direction the choir began to sing at major services. Beginning in 1963, the choir performed in a recital that featured Buddhist gathas, Japanese folk songs and contemporary English language tunes. The event continued for 14 years.
The choir’s contributions to the temple and the Buddhist Churches of America were recognized on its 10th anniversary. Then-Bishop Kenryu Tsuji presented a certificate to the choir for “outstanding contributions to American Buddhism by developing interest in and appreciation for creative Buddhist music, not only in your own Sangha, but also throughout the BCA.”
The choir milestones include a tour of Hawaii with the Junior Choir in 1982, a 1976 tour of the Pacific Northwest, performances at the Betsuin’s 100th anniversary in 2002, hosting the first Northern California Choir Festival in 2005, and a joint performance with San Jose Taiko at the Japanese Immersive festival in 2018.
“The choir offers a wonderful space to connect with sangha members and also provides opportunities to practice/experience interconnectedness, remain in the present, and learn about gathas,” says choir member Aiko Yep.
The choir practices every Tuesday night in the Hondo (temple building), doing so via Zoom since February 2021 due to the pandemic. But there is a special night that the members look forward to … the monthly snack night. But that’s not the only social activity.
“We’ll celebrate marriages, births, retirements, any reason for us to be happy for one another,” a choir member says.
When Aiko Yep moved to San Jose, she decided to join the choir.
“I previously sang with another temple choir, and when I moved to San Jose, I was excited to connect with the San Jose Betsuin and join this group,” Aiko says.
Eventually, her husband, Ben, decided he would give singing with a choir a try.
“I started choir at the same time I started to play ukulele, and because of that I was able to increase my confidence to sing for a public performance,” Ben says.
During the pandemic, the choir gathered virtually to record gathas, which was not easy to do. The choir members had to record themselves singing, mostly on their own. Each recording had to be synchronized with the other recordings. The virtual performances were played during Sunday services and also at the Coast District Nembutsu Family Conference. These recordings have been used in our regular Sunday services and also will be available in the upcoming BCA Music Library for temples’ use when a musician is not available for services.
The Betsuin choir members continue to do what they love to do best, singing together and sharing their love of the Dharma through music.