Exposed to Buddhism at a young age, Reverend Sunya Gladys Pratt became an important spiritual leader for Jodo Shinshu Buddhists in the Pacific Northwest. She first joined the Tacoma Buddhist Church (later Temple) in 1934 and quickly became involved in the children's education program, teaching Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans) in Sunday school classes. A few years later, on April 23, 1936, she was ordained as a minister in a colorful ceremony that blended several Buddhist traditions but was rooted in the Shin Buddhism practiced at the church. Media coverage at the time described her as the "the first white Buddhist priestess," a designation that scholars now question. More significantly, she met a great need for English-language religious instruction within the Japanese American Buddhist community. Pratt remained active in the temple for more than 50 years. Among early European American converts to Buddhism, Pratt is notable for her lifelong commitment and service to Shin Buddhism and the Japanese American community in the Puget Sound region.
Early Life: Choosing Buddhism
Born on February 6, 1898, Pratt spent most of her early life in Britain. When she was about 14, her father, a philosopher and professor named Henry William Brice, presented her with books of the world's religions and instructed her to select the one to which she felt the most affinity. "I chose Buddhism, the most tolerant of the world's religions," she later explained ("Buddhists Ordain ..."), noting she was attracted to "its philosophy of compassion, calmness, emancipation from ignorance and prejudice, its justice" (Time).
During World War I, she worked as a typist at an air base and met J. Wesley Pratt (1885-1977), then serving as a soldier in the Canadian army. They married in 1917 and soon afterward moved to Canada in search of business opportunities. The Pratts came to Washington in the 1930s, living briefly in Seattle before settling in Tacoma in 1931 to establish the Tacoma Button Company. The couple had two children: Veronica (1916-1979) and Patrick (b. 1926).
In 1933, Gladys Pratt first made contact with the Tacoma Buddhist Church through Reverend Robert Clifton (1903-1963) and Bishop Kenju Masuyama. Clifton was one among a small number of Westerners who had converted to Buddhism in the early twentieth century and were ordained as ministers in the Buddhist Mission of North America (BMNA), the umbrella organization for Shin Buddhists on the United States mainland and in Canada. Initially BMNA served Japanese immigrant communities, coordinating the work of temples located primarily on the West Coast, but under Masuyama's leadership, the BMNA began to attract the interest of European Americans through its nascent English-language program.
Clifton had read something Pratt wrote for a Buddhist publication, and he and Masuyama met with her Tacoma when they were touring the Pacific Northwest. "In America there is a need for a person who can understand the two minds -- the Japanese and the English minds," Masuyama told Pratt, "The Japanese mind knows Buddhism but not the English mind. I want to put Buddhism in the English mind" ("Tacoma Buddhist Church," 264). Soon afterward, Pratt joined the Tacoma Buddhist Church and quickly became deeply involved in its activities, focusing her energies on the children's education program.
An Important Member of the Community
Over the next two years, Pratt established herself as an important member of the church and the wider Buddhist community in the Pacific Northwest. During this time, around 1934, she dropped her given name Gladys and begin calling herself Sunya, the sanskrit word for "emptiness," one of the central tenets of Buddhism. This decision was part of larger effort to self-identify her religious affiliation as Buddhist. A few years later she told a reporter:
"Of course, some of my white neighbors and acquaintances think I am a devil incarnate, or just plain crazy. For years, I have made it a policy when I meet a stranger to tell him immediately, 'I am a Buddhist. If you do not want to have anything to do with me, you do not need to.' I have had very little trouble" ("Buddhists Ordain ...").
Pratt's early and ongoing contributions to the Tacoma Buddhist Church were in what was then called Sunday School and would later be called Dharma School, the Buddhist education program for the young children of the church. Prior to her arrival, the services, talks, and classes were all delivered in Japanese, but after Pratt got involved they were offered in both Japanese and English. The Nisei -- second-generation children of Japanese immigrants -- appreciated the opportunity to learn Buddhism in English and flocked to her classes. Soon every available space in the church was being used for Sunday school: "the kitchen, minister's office, balcony, basement, stage and alcove. Some classes met in the basement of the minister's residency where firewood was stored for winter. As the wood pile decreased and space became available, more students were able to sit in the cold basement for class work" ("Tacoma Buddhist Church," 264).
Ordination at Tacoma Buddhist Church
On April 23, 1936, a crowd filled the Tacoma Buddhist Church to watch Pratt's ordination ceremony. At the sounding of bell, 10 girls in yellow kimonos processed between the full pews toward the altar. Newspapers recount that about 200 people were present, many of them outsiders, white people, reporters or the curious attracted to the event by considerable news coverage over the previous days. A headline in the Tacoma News Tribune that morning read "Buddhist Priestess: Tacoman First White Woman to Take Vows in U.S."
Sunya Pratt followed the girls, holding in her outstretched arms a yellow robe. Waiting at the altar was Bishop Masuyama in bright red robes. On either side of him stood Reverend Shoshu Sakow, the resident minister; Reverend Jokatsu Yukawa, who had served as minister in Tacoma from 1928 to 1933 and had returned from Los Angeles for the ceremony; and Reverend Julius Goldwater (1908-2001), a white American who had been previously ordained as a minister.
When she arrived before them, Goldwater announced that the candidate seeks ordination. "In compassion for me, Lord, take these robes," Pratt replied, holding them out, "Ordain me in the brotherhood of our Lord Buddha" ("Tacoman Is Ordained ..."). She left to don the robes that, according to the newspapers, she would not wear again until her death. As they waited, those gathered began to sing a Buddhist gatha (hymn) in English. When she returned, she spoke her vows: "I take my refuge in Buddha. I take my refuge in Dharma. I take my refuge in Sangha" ("Tacoman Is Ordained ..."). The Bishop conferred upon her the title Upasika Bhikuni and the dharma name Teiun. In all the ceremony lasted half an hour.
Articles and photos of the ceremony appeared in area newspapers, as well as The Los Angeles Times and Time magazine, usually describing Pratt as "the first white Buddhist priestess." The scholar Michihiro Ama has observed that Pratt was not the first woman of European descent to be ordained as a Buddhist teacher, but she was first to receive widespread media coverage. He also notes that while contemporary journalists viewed the occurrence as exotic, timeless, and "oriental," the ceremony diverted significantly from the conventional Jodo Shinshu ordination rites for ministers in its blend of elements from the Shin, Mahayana, and Theravada traditions. What is significant, however, is that the ceremony confirmed Pratt's role as a spiritual leader at the church and in the region.
Leading Classes and Talks Around the Region
Pratt continued teaching following her ordination. Many former students later fondly recalled her primary teaching tool: the flannel story board. Using pieces she fashioned herself, she would portray scenes from the life of the historical Buddha to convey teachings in a way that the children could understand. As her understanding deepened, she also integrated lessons on Shin Buddhism, teaching the meaning and significance of practices such as the Nembutsu, the recitation of the name of Amidha Buddha. Her work became so popular that other Buddhist churches in the Puget Sound region invited her to also give classes. She regularly traveled to Auburn and Seattle to provide study sessions for other sanghas.
Throughout the 1930s, she also offered English-language talks, usually on Wednesday nights at the Tacoma Buddhist Church. Newspapers carried some of the titles: "Buddhism and Humor," "Buddhism and the Modern World," or "What Does Buddhism Have to Offer?" Perhaps thanks to these efforts, Pratt attracted a small number of people outside the Japanese American community in the Puget Sound region. In the late 1930s, for instance, she co-led initiation services for six white people, and she reported whenever new members joined the Seattle Buddhist Church.
Ally to an Incarcerated Community
As news of the Japanese military's attack on Pearl Harbor spread on December 7, 1941, most Shin Buddhists on the West Coast learned what had happened at Sunday services that day. The attack and the U.S. declaration of war against Japan that soon followed stoked already latent anti-Japanese sentiment in Tacoma and across the West Coast. Soon after the attack, the FBI arrested many leaders in the Japanese American community, including Reverend Gikan Nishinaga, the Tacoma Buddhist Church minister at the time. He was taken with the others to a Department of Justice internment camp in Fort Missoula, Montana. In his absence, Pratt began leading the Sunday services.
As the federal government moved toward a policy of removing all people of Japanese descent from West Coast states, Pratt was among the few white people who advocated for tolerance and understanding. Tatsuya Ichikawa, for instance, recalled that she "appealed to whites" over the radio, saying of the Japanese community: "I have befriended them for a long time without once having experienced unpleasant feeling toward them. I see no reason why Japanese should be excluded" (Ito, 272). Even though Tacoma's mayor at the time, Harry Cain (1906-1979) also spoke out on behalf of the Japanese American community, such voices were rare and went unheeded. After the federal order came in May 1942, the remaining residents of Tacoma's Japantown boarded trains at Union Station and were sent first to Pinedale Assembly Center in California, then eventually on to internment camps.
Pratt remained behind to watch the church building, which held belongings of sangha members. She also received permission from the War Relocation Authority to visit Seattle Buddhists held at Camp Harmony, the euphemistic name for the assembly center created at the fairgrounds in Puyallup. The services she led helped keep up the spirits of the Buddhists incarcerated there before they were transferred to internment camps elsewhere. As the war came to a close, Pratt helped members returning to Tacoma re-establish themselves and regain a sense of community. As one of the sangha leaders, she was likely intimately involved in opening the building up as a temporary residence and assisting members to find homes and furniture. In 1945, she hosted in her home the first post-war Buddhist service held in Tacoma, a funeral for Sergeant Edwin Fukui.
Influencing a Generation of Nisei
Pratt continued to have a deep and lasting influence on the generation of Nisei who came of age after the war. Her steady presence and ability to integrate Buddhist teachings into everyday life offered the young adults in the sangha a spiritual foundation they would carry with them later into life. A letter signed by Tsuyoshi and Ayako Horike recalls Pratt's generosity in the immediate post-war years:
"When I returned to ... finish college, you and your family were there to give me moral support and countless help. You made me 'gohan' in that inimitable way of yours, and even insisted that I bring over my laundry! At graduation, you were my 'family,' as mine were still interned at Minidoka. When the family came out of camp, you gave us a 'starter set' of dishes to help start us living normal lives again. Truly, your 'Buddhism in Action' cannot be forgotten" ("Reverend Sunya Pratt: 1934-1984").
For Ted Tamaki, the meaning of Pratt's teachings sometimes took time to sink in, but as years passed, he recognized her insights as profound and influential. For instance, one evening he was with some friends in a church youth group gathered around a table, hanging out together. At this time, as a young man, Tamaki participated in temple life more for social than spiritual reasons -- it was the place where his friends were. Hearing the teens talking in the room, Pratt poked her head inside to check on them.
When one said to Pratt half-jokingly, "Reverend Pratt, tell us about Shin Buddhism in one sentence," without hesitation she replied, "That table is Buddhism," and although all the young men thought she was a bit crazy, many years after this event, Tamaki reflected: "What she said reflects the truth of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. It is about the basics in life, what keeps us going. It points to these basic things, like the air we breathe, that we so often forget to appreciate" (Tamaki interview).
The Pratts lived in the Proctor neighborhood, close to the College (later University) of Puget Sound campus, and Pratt played a formative role for Tamaki as well when he was student there. He signed up for a public-speaking class thinking it would be and easy grade, but found it more difficult than expected. He turned to Pratt for help, in part because she spoke proper British English. Rather than begin lessons in public speaking, she handed him a service book from the temple and told him to begin chanting a sutra, or Buddhist scripture. He didn't understand why at first, but with time began to see. "To learn how to chant is to learn how to breath. Proper breathing is an essential part of public speaking" (Tamaki interview). The "lessons" in public speaking led to longer conversations about Buddhism. Years later Tamaki wrote of Pratt in tribute, speaking for many sangha members:
"What a priceless gift for those of us who lived in and around Tacoma to have the opportunity to learn from such a gifted and devoted lady ... Because of her guidance I feel that I am now able to relate some of my life experiences as Buddhist experiences" ("Reverend Sunya Pratt: 1934-1984").
Pratt also had a significant influence on Boy Scout Troop No. 115, which the church formed in 1959. Within the Mount Rainier District Council, this troop produced the highest percentage of Eagle Scouts. Twenty-eight of these Scouts received the Sangha Award, thanks to Pratt's religious instruction. In the wider Buddhist community, Pratt remained active, attending gatherings and conventions of what was now called the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA), the post-war name for the BMNA. She continued to lead the church's education program and did outreach to regional temples, as well, and her curricula became incorporated into the youth education program of the BCA. In addition, she published several essays on Buddhist topics in American Buddhist, the magazine of the BCA.
Personal Life and Business
The Pratts operated the Tacoma Button Company out of their home for nearly 35 years until it went out of business in 1965. The company sold buttons affixed to cards in stores throughout Tacoma.
Pratt's husband, J. Wesley Pratt, died in 1977. Then, two years later, in 1979, stomach cancer took the life of her daughter Veronica. These events seem to have brought a profound grief and depression, and Pratt stopped attending the church for some time. She relied on the close relationships she had formed over the years to weather this period. Several members, for instance, recall receiving regular calls at dinner time that would last for hours as Pratt talked through her difficulties. Sangha members eventually drew her back into fuller involvement in the community.
Recognition and Honors Late in Life
Over five decades, Pratt served under nine ministers. Something the newspaper stories in 1936 didn't understand was that her ordination was only the beginning of a three-step process to be recognized as a Shin Buddhist minister. On March 1, 1969, in a ceremony led by Bishop Kenryu Tsuji, Reverend Pratt received full ordination.
The sangha also paid her tribute in many ways over the years. On April 27, 1959, in recognition of Pratt's 25 years of service to that point, the church hosted a celebration in her honor at the Top of the Ocean, a popular restaurant on Ruston Way in Tacoma that was built on pilings to look like an ocean liner. More than 500 Buddhists from around the Northwest attended. Then, in 1971, the church named a room where the sangha gathers for tea after services the Reverend Sunya Pratt Room.
On the 50th anniversary of her joining the temple, April 8, 1984, the sangha again celebrated Pratt, this time with a testimonial dinner at the Sherwood Inn. A call for remembrances went out, and letters from former students, priests, and friends poured in. They were collected in a thick album that remained in the temple archives in 2019. Adding to her accolades, the Japanese government awarded her in 1985 with Sixth Class of the Sacred Treasure Medal for her service to the temple and the community.
A few days after her 88th birthday, Sunya Pratt died on February 11, 1986. More than three decades later, she remained a beloved and inspiring figure to those who knew and remembered her. A collage of photos commemorates her in the hallway, just outside the Hondo, or main worship space, of the Tacoma Buddhist Temple. Her life and teaching are woven into the history of the temple, but she also had pivotal role in the early transmission of Buddhism to the Pacific Northwest. As a figure in the larger history of Buddhism in the United States, she stands out as a female spiritual leader, notable for her steadfast dedication and service. Among the Americans who converted to Buddhism in the 1930s, Pratt was the only one who remained committed to Shin Buddhism and devoted to the temple where she was ordained.