Ensho Ashikaga, Oriental Languages: Los Angeles
Born in his family's Buddhist temple in Sakai, Osaka, Ensho Ashikaga died of leukemia in Los Angeles on October 21, 1984. The 24th hereditary priest in his family, he was ordained at nine years and later attended the Buddhist university in Kyoto, Otani Daigaku, for advanced and graduate studies from 1928 to 1937. He was awarded a degree similar to the M. Litt.
In 1937 he was invited to UC Berkeley to teach Japanese Buddhism, Tibetan and graduate language courses. A few years later he met and married Toshi Shimizu. The outbreak of WWII caused the U. S. Navy to start crash programs in several lesser known languages in 1942 at Boulder, Colorado, and he accepted a request to teach intensive Japanese there. He proved to be a highly successful teacher under very demanding circumstances, and quickly compiled a large number of textbooks needed for the program. After the war, he returned to Berkeley and resumed teaching there.
UCLA had decided to open a Department of Oriental Languages in 1947 patterned after the one at Berkeley. The new chairman had known Ensho Ashikaga well for 10 years and had heard of his teaching ability from colleagues and students at the Navy Language School, so he invited Ensho to start the Japanese program. Finally, as the program expanded, he spent much of his time guiding students through advanced degrees in Japanese Buddhism and literature. He also served as department chairman, 1962-1968, and, never one to evade work, even as late 1973-1974 he was teaching eight courses. A true sensei and sempai, he was generous to a fault with his time and his office was always open to students with their problems. Among his many talents, Ensho was a superb cook and, assisted by his gracious wife, he often had friends and students to their home for sumptuous dinners. He also gave classes in calligraphy and painting at a nearby temple for Japanese in that community; some of them still gratefully practice the lessons given by a master. Such demands of his time forced
― 4 ―him to abandon his major project, a Tibetan-English dictionary, but he did publish important articles in western journals on ema, hyakkiyagyō, Bonmatsuri, etc.
His pre-eminence as a scholar and hereditary priest of the Jōdo Shinshū sect gave rise to further demands on his time. The main Los Angeles Higashi Honganji temple frequently asked him to preside over services and participate in important conferences. He also lectured on Sundays for years to the Young Buddhist Association and wrote dozens of articles in English for the temple's bilingual newsletter. As a token of the respect they accorded him, the Federation of Buddhist Churches contributed a significant sum for many years to the Oriental Library at UCLA for the purchase of Buddhist materials. Ashikaga also located important collections in Japan which were later acquired by the library.
Still nominal head priest of the Sakai temple, he spent summers and sabbaticals there. A year after his 1977 retirement, he was appointed Head of the Bureau of Rites and Ceremonies at Higashi Honganji's headquarters in Kyoto. In addition to other duties in this office, he taught novice priests the difficult art of ceremonial sutra chanting. He was also elected chairman of a group of scholars which had to edit and write commentaries on a large body of historically important manuscripts given the title of Shinshū Kudan Gisho. They are the teachings of Rinnyo Shōnin, fifteenth century reformer of the Shinshū sect. Seven of a projected 20 volumes were completed under Ashikaga's direction and are now in press; work continues on the others.
Those who did not know him well little suspected that a ready but rather elusive wit and fondness for puns lay behind his usual serious demeanor. One well-remembered summer when a western friend was travelling with Ensho, their Japanese cargo ship stood at dusk in the roads of Osaka where they were treated to an impressive sight. Bonfires were blazing on hills and seashore, and scores of miniature boats with glowing lanterns were coming from streams and rivers and bobbing bravely in the surf. It was mid-July and the last day of Bon-matsuri, or Festival for Spirits of the Dead. After a brief visit with the living, souls of the dead were being lighted on their way back to the other world. Ensho delivered an impromptu and highly amusing--yet erudite--lecture on the history of this festival over dinner on deck to a most appreciative class of one. As many of his students could attest, his formal lectures were often delivered with equal wit and received with equal appreciation.
This gentle and dedicated scholar will always be remembered with affection by those who really knew him, and all are indebted to him for his pioneer contribution to Japanese studies in this country. The department has established an annual Ensho Ashikaga Prize in his honor for outstanding graduate students; the first award went to a student in Japanese Buddhist studies.
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After an impressive service in the main Los Angeles temple, attended by hundreds of the faithful and friends, his ashes were deposited both there and in Higashi Otani in Kyoto. He is survived by his wife Toshi, and sons Yoshi, Taka and Hisa.
Ben Befu Kenneth Chen Y.C. Chu Richard Rudolph