By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor
On May 4 — the 49th day since a gunman killed eight in Atlanta, including six Asian women — Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo played host to a stirring memorial for the dead and those suffering from anti-Asian hate.
“We the Sangha of the United States,” intoned Rev. Duncan Ryuken Williams of Zenshuji Soto Mission, “have gathered to recall our interconnectedness, feel the presence of those who have gone before and to get back up.”
“May We Gather,” described as a national Buddhist memorial for Asian American ancestors, also memorialized Asians throughout U.S. history who have been targeted and killed in acts of racial hate. In the Buddhist tradition, the journey of the soul of the deceased is completed in 49 days.
For the ceremony, 49 Buddhist priests led by Bishop Marvin Harada of Buddhist Churches of America, clad in robes of saffron, crimson, gold and black, wordlessly processed through the center aisle of Higashi with a common purpose. Cameras livestreamed the ceremony to a virtual audience and viewers were encouraged to light candles and incense.
The gathering brought together leaders from the Chinese, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Taiwanese, Tibetan, Sri Lankan, Thai, and Vietnamese Buddhist traditions.
In its diversity, they staked claim to a place in this country at a time when so many Asians have been told they do not belong, experiencing disdain and violence at unprecedented levels, brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the altar, tablets were inscribed with names of the dead, including Yong Ae Yue, 63, a devout Buddhist and a victim of the Atlanta shootings on March 16. A single mom, she emigrated to the U.S. from South Korea in 1979, raising two sons of Korean and Black heritage.
Elliott and Robert Peterson gave permission to show a video tribute for their mother, in which they described her as a “typical Korean mom” who loved karaoke and doted on her kids and grandkids.
Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai American, was also memorialized. Ratanapakdee died after being brutally pushed to the ground in broad daylight on Jan. 28 in the Anza Vista district of San Francisco. His assailant has pled not guilty to charges of assault with a deadly weapon, elder abuse and murder.
Memorial tablets also honored victims from decades past: Tommy Le, Thien Minh Ly, Kanesaburo Oshima and Sia Bun Ning.
Bishop Noriaki Ito, in his Dharma message, focused on wisdom. Higashi was vandalized on Feb. 25, a window broken and lanterns set ablaze and destroyed. On Tuesday, the physical damage was gone, but the temple continues the hard work of recovery.
“True wisdom is to realize that we are ordinary people who need the guidance of the Buddhadharma to enable us to realize a world in which we can live together as friends,” Ito said. “It is difficult not to condemn those who commit violence against others. But as Buddhists, we are encouraged to learn from every experience, every relationship as we proceed on the path given to us by Śākyamuni Buddha, and by all of the Buddhas we honor and remember here today.”
Participants in the ceremony also included Nun Minh Tu of Huong Tich Temple in Santa Ana and Vien Ly of Dieu Ngu Temple. Both temples in Orange County were among six that were vandalized last year, in what police have called hate crimes.
Sister Kinh Nghiem of the Deer Park Monastery in Escondido spoke of compassion. “As we care for our suffering and face the challenges confronting us, we remind ourselves that the way of understanding and compassion is the antidote to the fear, violence, and discrimination in this moment that we all have experienced personally, as a community, and as a nation.”
Rev. Cristina Moon of Daihonzan Chozen-ji International Zen Dojo traveled from Honolulu to deliver a Dharma message on pāramitā of vīrya or spiritual strength.
In an email response to The Rafu, Moon said the collaboration of so many Buddhist organizations was “historic.” It was her first visit to Little Tokyo.
“Not only were we responding to the escalating rates of violence against Asian Americans, the event was also a reckoning with our country’s long history of animus towards Asians and Asian Americans. I deeply appreciated how the organizers framed this for a wide audience,” Moon wrote.
“As a priest at Daihonzan Chozen-ji, I also felt fortunate to be able to speak about spiritual strength — an often overlooked virtue and necessary element of spiritual training and self development. Right now, we are all facing unprecedented existential challenges: climate change, pandemic, racial division, domestic terrorism, and mass shootings.
“Younger generations in particular need to know about the foundational role that cultivating a fighting spirit can have in confronting these challenges — how it’s not just about training in Zen or Buddhism to develop sensitivity, which we often associate with the compassion and intuition Buddhism is known for, but also the strength to sustain them.”
Throughout the ceremony, inclusion of diverse voices of Buddhism was emphasized.
Bhante Sanathavihari of the Sarathchandra Buddhist Center in North Hollywood gave a Dharma message on patience in Spanish. Of Mexican American heritage, he spoke afterwards to The Rafu, explaining, “I grew up in Koreatown and the first school I went to was a Korean school. I was very involved since before I can remember. So I wanted to help out. I feel that us Latinos we can do more. I don’t feel we’ve really stepped up to it and this is my humble attempt to bring in the Latino community.
“My message today was about patience. It is difficult to practice when confronted with adversity and physical attacks and racism. But patience is the ground for wisdom, compassion and all the other virtues.”
At the conclusion of the ceremony, the clergy lined up to give offerings of incense and lights before the memorial tablets. A kintsugi lotus flower ceramic, created by James Okamura, was gilded with delicate brushes, symbolizing repairing the damage done by hatred.
Phramaha Loedej Wongsricha, abbot of Wat Phrathatphanom of America in Yucca Valley, led the gathering in a paritta ritual and protective chants.
In a Thai tradition, the clergy left the temple, holding string tied to the Buddha, unspooled from two large spools held by Ito and Rev. Shumyo Kojima.
Williams organized the memorial with Funie Hsu, professor at San Jose State University, and Chenxing Han, author of “Be the Refuge: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists.”
He explained the symbolism: “All the monastics processed out holding that string, not only tied us to the Buddha but also to each other. We come in one-by-one but came out as a community, that was the meaning of the thread.”
He said that he hopes the memorial is a moment of healing, for all those who have suffered from anti-Asian racism.
“When you hurt like that, when you’re told you don’t belong, I think we wanted to go deep into our very hearts about what kind of damage does,” Williams said.
“May We Gather” can be viewed at www.maywegather.org/livestream.