Note: The original publication of this article was supported by a grant from the Membership and Outreach Committee of the Buddhist Churches of America and is also available at www.americanbuddhist.org
This paper describes the outreach efforts conducted by the Ekoji Buddhist Temple in order to share methods, strategies, results, and insights gained over the past several years. As you will see, the paper has a decidedly tactical and practical bent to it. My approach is tactical because my profession is in the marketing field and practical because of my own perspectivethat of a relative newcomer to Buddhism who grew up within a Western/Christian religious environment. In fact, my own journey to become a Buddhist can serve as introduction of sorts, as many new Sangha members who have sought spiritual fulfillment through Buddhism appear to have followed a similar journey.
My journey started six or seven years ago as a spiritual “itch” that needed to be scratched. I was not part of any organized church or religion at the time. I had gone through some intense life-changing events and had emerged with a sense of emptiness, a gnawing feeling on the inside (perhaps dukkha was revealing itself to me). I saw the emptiness as a lack of spiritual well being and began a search to find it. Although it spanned several years, in short, the search went something like this: First, I began to explore and learn about options and came across Buddhism. Second, I began read books on Buddhism. Third, as I learned more I realized (through the help of many authors) that to pursue Buddhism one needs the support of a Sangha. Fourth, I looked up Buddhist temples in the yellow pages, found Ekoji, and checked out its Website. I finally visited the temple with some trepidation. That trepidation immediately vanished as I was welcomed immediately by the temple Sangha.
I have been a member of Ekoji for four years, and over the past two I have been Director of Outreach at the temple. Our outreach program strives to share the Dharma in a way that makes the journey for anyone interested in Buddhism in general and Jodo Shinshu in particular an easy and inviting one. A recap of our experience is organized along the following lines:
• The Temple as a Source of Inspiration and Resources
• Key Target Audience: The Seeker
• The Learning Curve So Far
• What’s Working: Tactics for Outreach
• What’s Next
The Temple as a Source of Inspiration and Resources
At the very heart of an outreach effort is the vision of the temple and support of the Sangha. A clear vision of sharing the Dharma, backed up by a strong commitment by the Sangha, is what I call a “table stakes” item. That is, the vision and the commitment in order to have a successful outreach effort. At Ekoji, this vision was one of the driving forces for opening a Jodo Shinshu temple in our nation’s capital. Our founding minister, Reverend Kenryu Tsuji, envisioned Ekoji to be a spiritual haven for all who seek the way of enlightenment through the Nembutsu. For Buddhists in the area and for those who were still finding their way, Ekoji’s doors were always to be open. To quote Rev. Tsuji:
Ekoji will be a place where the differences in race, color, or creed will disappear and will be open to all who earnestly seek the Dharma.
Since 1981, our Sangha has embraced and vigorously supported this vision. Even though our numbers are relatively small, an enormous amount of dedication and hard work has produced a very strong foundation for outreach, from education classes and seminars, to a rich and comprehensive library, to a warm and inviting environment.
Finally, part of the temple vision for outreach needs to set the appropriate tone. We are not out to aggressively convert people to our religion or achieve an arbitrary number of new members. Rather, the underlying tone of our outreach is simply to invite and welcome. Our communication efforts are focused on making people aware of the temple programs and inviting them to attend. Once here, we strive to create a welcoming environment that will enable people to feel comfortable and supported as they pursue the path.
Key Target Audience: The Seeker
In our market, the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, one our main target audience segments is what we call “The Seeker”. Typically such individuals are on a path of religious exploration, either because the one they grew up with is no longer working for them or they are pursuing a spiritual path for the first time. Very often they are new to Buddhism and have little or no knowledge of Jodo Shinshu. The path they take is very similar to the path I took, which starts with a book and builds towards a temple visit and attending one of our events or classes. The Seeker brings both a lot of curiosity and doubt. These seekers are excited to learn about Buddhism but remain cautious toward embracing its religious tenants.
While the seeker is one of the key targets of our outreach efforts, it is not to the exclusion of others. We have a vibrant JapaneseAmerican community within the area to whom we reach out to or who join the temple having just moved to the DC area from another part of the country. In addition many practicing Buddhists from other denominations, whose sect may not have a temple in the area, have joined our Sangha. As with seekers, our message is inviting and welcoming.
The Learning Curve So Far
Based on our efforts over the past several years, a number of patterns have emerged from our experiences, which represent a learning curve to date:
The tendency to receive a lot of “lookers”Our outreach efforts have been successful in terms of getting a greater number of people to visit the temple and attend its events and classes. Much of this activity is driven by curiosity with a large drop-off in terms of repeat visits or repeat attendance by individuals to our events and classes. Although some of this may be due to a lack of continuing interest in pursuing Buddhism, undoubtedly some of it reflects the busy lifestyles of suburban professionals that make up a significant part of the DC area population.
Education seems to be the key ingredientFor those who stay on and become “regulars,” education seems to be the key. This is important because so much of the underlying philosophy and terminology is new. Very often people come from a Western/Christian background where religion is grounded in the worship of a deity and a concept of an everlasting soul. Buddhism contains neither. As a result, a deep exploration of the underlying principals of Buddhist beliefs and practices enables seekers to acquire the knowledge and context to embrace this new path.
The subtlety of Shin practice can be difficult to graspAs we often joke, our form of practice is the “no-practice practice.” That is, to be a Shin Buddhist is to recite the Nembutsu with a sincere heart and mind. Very often one will look puzzled when our practice is described. “Surely there is more too it?” “Where are the monks in colorful robes, the incense, the prostrations before an ornately decorated alter, the chanting, and the music. …Where is Richard Gere?” Certain preconceived notions about Buddhist practices are that they are both highly ritualized and very intense. Appreciating the power behind the simplistic recitation of the Nembutsu is difficult for many to grasp. I think this point relates to the previous one regarding education. The power of Nembutsu as a form of practice becomes easier to understand when one learns its evolution and that it rests on the shoulders of past masters (seven to be exact.)
Committing to Buddhism is a big stepIn fact committing oneself to any religious path is a big step. That may be obvious to some, but I didn’t really get it until recently. We just completed a new membership packet and began distributing it to people attending services. Much to my surprise many people who had been attending services for some time who I considered members already were asking for membership packets. After awhile I followed up with individuals who had not filled out a membership form. Their responses were that they were taking the membership commitment very seriously and wanted to be sure that were ready. Not from a financial or involvement in activities perspective but from a religious one. They considered the commitment to a religion a huge personal step and wanted to consider it very carefully beforehand. Thus, despite being a “regular” and being comfortable within the Sangha, taking the final step and declaring oneself a Buddhist can be daunting.
What’s Working: Tactics for Outreach
Listed below are the various tactics we have been using for our outreach program. They are divided into four categories: Market Communications, Events, Sangha Communications, and Capturing Information.
Website (ekoji.org)Far and away our most powerful form of communication and invitation. It is very often the first place people go to learn about Ekoji and its programs. We also use it to publish a weekly calendar of events. We are very fortunate to have a Webmaster among our Sangha who is very skilled in maintaining and improving the site.
Press releasesWe issue a press release for each event (classes, seminars, etc…) to a long list of local, regional, and national newspapers. For the most part, the event will be listed in an upcoming events calendar or on a page or section within a newspaper that covers religious topics.
AdvertisingPrimarily, we place ads in the Religious Activities Directory section in the Washington Post, which has proven to be very cost-effective.
FlyersAnnouncements of events and classes. With the Sangha’s help, we post them on community bulletins boards in supermarkets, coffee shops, and bookstores. and community centers.
BrochureWe publish an eight-page brochure that provides an overview of the temple, its activities, Buddhism and Shin Buddhism, and descriptions of symbols and etiquette.
Events and Classes
ServicesEach Sunday at 11:00 a.m.
MeditationEvery Wednesday at 8:00 p.m.
Temple ToursEvery Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.
SeminarsTwo or three daylong seminars each year on Buddhist topics led by leading practitioners.
Adult Dharma ClassClasses on various topics, including introduction to Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu, Life and Teachings of Shinran, and The Pure Land Sutras.
Children’s’ Dharma ClassesAll ages, meets twice each month.
Open HousesAll-day events designed to allow seekers to come and see the temple, meet the Sangha, and learn about our programs in a fun and casual setting.
Obon FestivalA great event for Seekers and Shin Buddhists alike.
Hosting GroupsGroups such as other churches, universities, and public schools are invited to visit and learn about Buddhism via a dedicated educated session for their group. Temple activities are free and open to all.
E-mail and Mail AnnouncementsPeriodic announcement about upcoming events.
Service AnnouncementsPromote upcoming events after each Sunday service.
NewsletterThe Kalavinka, published monthly.
Sangha EffortsInviting friends, neighbors, and colleagues to Ekoji events.
E-mail DatabaseCapture and maintain e-mail addresses of Sangha members and visitors. This practice enables us to promote on-going events to an ever-growing list of potential attendees.
Membership DatabaseMembership packets include a form to collect family contact information. From this we publish a Sangha Directory to enable Sangha members to communicate with each other.
Activity AttendanceTrack attendance of services, classes, and events to measure how well outreach is working.
So far, things seemed to be going in the right direction. Based on the activity attendance and other measures, the following the Ekoji outreach program has accomplished the following:
Average attendance at Sunday services is up from 25 to more than 40 attendees at each service. This result is from a combination of several initiatives. First, the overall increase in publicity has brought new people into the temple and our services are often the first event they will attend. Second, as more people attend other events, classes, and seminars, some tend to gravitate towards attending services as well.
Adult Dharma classes have also shown significant increases in attendance. Average class size for Adult Dharma classes has gone from 12 to 24 students. More importantly, the drop-off rate on attendance has fallen off, which is due in part to a shorter format, reducing the number of class sessions to complete a topic from 12 to 6 weeks.
Seminar attendance has risen to an average of 40 attendees per session.
Membership has moved up only slightly. It appears that this measure may be a “lagging indicator”, as it may take some time for new visitors to decide to become members of the temple.
In general, we have been able to link increases in visits and regular attendance to increases in overall outreach activity. While the relative gains are good, the absolute numbers remain small compared with the overall potential. One of the key conclusions we have drawn from our efforts is that we are not creating demand but rather fulfilling it. That is, many people in the DC area are already predisposed to exploring, learning, and practicing Buddhism, and we are merely providing that path through our temple.
At Ekoji, our vision and goals remain the same: To be a spiritual haven for all who seek the way of enlightenment through the Nembutsu through an outreach program that invites seekers and experience Buddhists to join our Sangha and learn the Buddha Dharma in warm and supportive setting.
We are working on several objectives to pursue this vision and keep the momentum we have achieved in our advancements. First, continue with what’s working. The methods to date have shown promise and, with effort and time, better results should be achieved. Second, we are exploring new ways to reach out to our community in order to share the Dharma. This includes efforts to take our message on the road and not always require people to come to the temple. One great example of this is an upcoming seminar being held through the Smithsonian AsianPacific American Program. Two of our Sangha members, Ron and Fujie Ohata, have arranged for Reverend Masao Kodani to give a lecture on Rituals in Buddhist Practice. This is an exciting opportunity to create a relationship with the Smithsonian Institution and work together on future seminars on Buddhism.
Finally, I would like to put in a plug for continuing the effort that Gordon Bermant has started with the Outreach Workshop conducted in Fresno, CA, earlier this year. Sharing successes, best practices, insights, and mistakes will enable all of the temples within the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) to learn from each other and make continuous improvements in our outreach efforts. This in turn will enable temples, the BCA, and its members to walk the Bodhisattva path and (as it is written in our Service Book) “with the Dharma pave a road to guide all being to Buddhahood.”
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