by Duncan Ryūken Williams
EDITORIAL NOTE: On Tuesday, May 4th, 2021, Higashi Honganji Buddhist temple in Los Angeles hosted a major historic event: “May We Gather: A National Buddhist Memorial Ceremony for Asian-American Ancestors.” The time and place of this unprecedented American Buddhist memorial service was highly intentional. It was held on the forty-ninth day after the Atlanta shootings, and thus marked the end of the traditional seven-week mourning period during which Buddhists believe that the departed transition into their next reincarnations. The location of the event was equally symbolic: the Japanese Buddhist temple in Little Tokyo, LA, itself had been the target of anti-Asian, anti-Buddhist vandalism back in February. The event was organized by Funie Hsu, Chenxing Han, and Duncan Ryūken Williams. Williams introduced the ceremony, noting how the targeted animosity and aggression against Asian communities in the United States today recalls the cultural climate leading up to the internment camps of World War II, and the ways it is intimately tied up with our nation’s larger history of racial brutality. With Williams’ generous permission, his comments appear below in their entirety, along with photographs by Tauran Woo. Links to the entire ceremony as well as coverage by major newspapers on the east and west coast appear below the text.
This multi-sectarian, multi-racial, and multi-lingual memorial service lasted an hour and a half, so a brief synopsis is provided here. To heal the wounds of intergenerational trauma and cross-cultural hatred, and to appease the spirits of “All Beings Who Have Lost Their Lives from Racial or Religious Animus,” over forty clerics and religious leaders from various Chinese, Khmer, Korean, Japanese, Sri Lankan, Taiwanese, Tibetan, Thai and Vietnamese Buddhist lineages in the United States gathered together to make traditional memorial offerings. Their regionally distinct robes ranged in color from saffron yellow to orange, maroon, red, brown, black and grey, and they chanted sacred texts and sutras in Pali, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Tibetan. A gender-inclusive lineup of speakers offered their thoughtful reflections in English and Spanish on the Six Perfections, which the temple has historically highlighted during the six weeks leading up to the Forty-Ninth Day Ceremony. (The six perfected qualities of an awakened being are generosity, morality, patience, spiritual strength, meditation, and wisdom). Several of the speakers were of African-American or mixed African-Asian descent, such as the grieving sons of the devout Korean Buddhist Yong Ae Yue of Atlanta. She consistently celebrated her sons’ biracial and bicultural heritages before she was tragically gunned down by a deranged and deluded mind.
As per custom, the clerics lit candles before memorial tablets and chanted prayers for a fortunate rebirth, but they also symbolically gilded the cracks of a lotus sculpture that was specially designed for the service. This innovative ritual element drew upon the Japanese ceramic technique of “gold joinery” (kintsugi) that does not attempt to hide the fissures and imperfections of a breakage, but rather draws attention to the repair and turns the seams into testaments of resilience and uniquely flawed beauty. The lotus blossom already represents the purification of all our karmic muck below the surface, but in this ritual context, the lotus petals’ kintsugi cracks also represent our desire to recognize and repair our society’s racial scars, transforming the broken bits into golden lines of connection. The healing power of our shared humanity also manifested in the final recessional string ceremony, as monks chanted protective blessings over the departing congregants, linked together via a single thread. – Pamela D. Winfield, associate editor of The Commons
Pronouncement of Intention (Hyobyakumon)
Rev. Duncan Ryūken Williams
Higashi Honganji Temple, Los Angeles, CA
May 4, 2021
The Buddha taught that even if you scour the world, there’s not a single person who has not experienced loss from the death of someone they love. This sense of loss is only compounded when a loved one passes away suddenly or violently. Forty-nine days ago, eight families experienced this aggravated sense of grieving when eight people, six of them Asian women, were shot and killed in the Atlanta, Georgia area.
We gather today because only through joining together do we know that we are not alone.
In ceremony, loss can be transformed into connection, including connection with those we believe are absent. The Buddha himself told his community just before he died that while he would no longer be physically present, he would still be with them through his teachings and his example. Indeed, the Buddha is with us in this present moment. He is here through his teachings, which links the past to the present and each of us to one another.
Death may be thought of as a loss, but in the customary 49 days of mourning after a person’s passing, we come to learn from the deceased just how present they are in our hearts and minds, our bones and marrow. Like the Buddha, they teach us that our lives are inexorably interlinked.
This gathering was prompted by the life and death of Yong Ae Yue, a devout Korean American Buddhist, whose life was cut short at the Aromatherapy Spa in Atlanta. Her two sons remember her as a selfless person who stood up against discrimination, and always advocated for treating people right. She reminds us that the antidote to a gunman’s confused and deluded mind is the wisdom to see things clearly. Her offering to the nation includes this very gathering, which brings together an American sangha from many lineages and many regions of our country. As with the life, death, and memory of George Floyd, we learn that the power of one life can touch the hearts of so many.
Ignorance and confusion were also the root causes that led to the killing of Tommy Le, a Vietnamese American who was shot to death by police in Seattle. Police claims that Tommy held a knife in his hands were proven to be false; he was simply knocking on a door with a pen. During his 49th-day Buddhist ceremony, Tommy’s family placed his photo on the temple altar alongside the photos of dozens more people who had passed on—firm in their belief that ceremony is not about one life, but about many lives in spiritual community. Thus, through the life of Tommy Le, we are reminded of Daunte Wright, shot by police in Minnesota during a routine traffic stop three weeks ago. The police offer claims she intended to use a Taser on him instead of a pistol. Tommy and Daunte become present every time we work to provide safety to all members of our community in wiser and more compassionate ways.
The poison of ignorance runs deep. If we go back in time to the WWII era, we find an entire ethnic group—including members of this very temple, where we are holding our ceremony now— targeted out of ignorance. Japanese American Buddhists constituted the largest Buddhist community in the United States at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. Temples were under government surveillance, priests arrested by the FBI as threats to national security, and over 120,000 Japanese American community members were eventually herded into America’s concentration camps because of our faith and our race.
Among those incarcerated and displaced was Kanesaburo Oshima, taken from his home in Kona, Hawai‘i and shot by a U.S. Army guard in the back of his neck at the Fort Sill Internment Camp in Oklahoma. He stood at the fence line surrounded by barbed wire, wishing only to be reunited with his wife and 11 children, who held his funeral at the Daifukuji Soto Mission. Today, his granddaughter, who serves as the Buddhist priest of that very temple, joins us in ceremony. Kanesaburo Oshima teaches us about how the Buddhist virtues of patience and persistence extend beyond generations.
This lineage of racial hurt sometimes moves beyond mere ignorance and confusion to hostility and even hatred. We recall the name Vicha Ratanapakdee, our Thai Buddhist immigrant elder, assaulted while taking his daily walk in his San Francisco neighborhood. We feel the impact of his head hitting the pavement. We reel from the unprovoked, senseless assaults that have been inflicted upon Ratanapakdee and so many of our Asian American community seniors in recent months. On the same streets, his daughter had been spat on by people as they accused her of bringing COVID to this country. The anti-Asian animus and violence is repeated as we recall Amarjit Sekhon, whose life was cut short by bullets at her workplace, the FedEx warehouse in Indianapolis, where Sikhs like her constitute the majority of the workforce. She left behind two sons who spoke of her working countless hours a week so she could provide food for everyone in the house. Vicha Ratanapakdee’s daughter hopes that telling her immigrant father’s story might protect others. And we feel his and Amarjit Sekhon’s presence today as a prayer and talisman against harm for all sentient beings.
Religio-racial hostility and outright hatred—also the result of delusion—runs deep in American history. On Super Bowl Sunday in 1996, Thien Minh Ly was in-line skating at a tennis court in Tustin, California while visiting his family. Since graduating from UCLA and Georgetown, he had hopes to one day serve as the first Vietnamese American ambassador to Vietnam, his devout Buddhist family’s ancestral land. We still recoil as we remember his death at the hands of an avowed white supremacist who bragged in a letter about this murder, enacted on behalf of a racist ideology. His brother recalls reading and almost fully memorizing that letter and returning to the site of the murder, unable to comprehend the hatred that ended Ly’s life.
That hatred is as old as the earliest records of American Buddhist history, established in our nation by Chinese immigrants. Among them, we recall Sia Bun Ning, who was among 28 Chinese miners massacred in Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1885 by those who believed that Chinese immigrants were taking jobs away from white miners. He was among those found dead in a burned-out hut next to the Buddho-Taoist temple. His community was branded with the slur words “the heathen Chinee,” and deemed a racially unassimilable and religiously unacceptable community in America. We feel these burning wounds even today.
Thien Minh Ly and Sia Bun Ning’s lives have been teaching all of us how to hold ourselves with dignity in the face of supremacist and exclusionary ideologies.
The poisons of ignorance, greed, and hatred have precipitously ended the lives of so many. We gather together to provide an antidote: wisdom to heal ignorance, lovingkindness to heal hatred, and generosity to heal greed. This powerful medicine is available to us right whenever the need arises.
The Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass provided a powerful diagnosis and healing when he insisted in a speech that America is “a composite nation.” A former enslaved person himself, he gave a speech nearly 20 years before Sia Bun Ning’s death about the rising agitation nationwide against the Chinese American community, and how the struggle for emancipation was interlinked to immigrant inclusion. The America he envisioned was one that welcomed the Chinese and immigrants of a multitude of races and faiths to the “duties of citizenship”—a vision of America that values multiplicity over singularity, hybridity over purity, and inclusivity over exclusivity.
As we see ourselves in others and others see us in them, we learn the lessons of those for whom we perform this ceremony. Today we join together to repair the racial karma of this nation, because our destinies and freedoms are intertwined. Though the mountain of suffering is high and the tears of pain fill the deepest oceans, our path compels us to rise up like a lotus flower above muddy waters.
Reparative medicine also comes from a saying attributed to Bodhidharma: “Nana korobi ya oki”: Fall down seven times / Get up eight. At times, this means we come back to our breath when our mind wanders or sit up straight when we slump off the meditation cushion. Other times, we return to our precepts and vows when we fall off the noble path.
But sometimes, it requires us to gather. And today, We the Sangha of the United States of America have gathered to recall our interconnectedness, feel the presence of those who have gone before, and to get back up. Though we may fall down a million times, we rise again a million and one times—in honor of our ancestors and our loved ones who have passed.
May we gather.
LA Times article:https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2021-05-08/rare-gathering-of-worlds-vast-schools-of-buddhism-offers-healing-against-racial-hate
New York Times article: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/05/us/learning-how-to-heal-in-the-wake-of-anti-asian-hate.html
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
Duncan Ryuken Williams was ordained as a Soto Zen Buddhist priest at Kotakuji Temple in 1993. He served as a Buddhist chaplain at Harvard University, where he received his Ph.D. in 2000. Currently, he is the Chair of the USC School of Religion, Professor of American Studies & Ethnicity, and Director of the USC Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture. Previously, he held the Ito Distinguished Chair of Japanese Buddhism at UC Berkeley and served as the Director of Berkeley’s Center for Japanese Studies. Williams is the author of the LA Times bestseller American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War (Harvard University Press, 2019) about Buddhism and the WWII Japanese American internment and author or editor of 8 books including The Other Side of Zen, Issei Buddhism in the Americas, American Buddhism, Hapa Japan, and Buddhism and Ecology. He is a national co-chair of Tsuru for Solidarity, a Japanese American racial justice organization and is currently working on a new book about racial reparations from a Buddhist perspective.