I don't usually write more than one newsletter a month, but I felt compelled to share these reflections, which are inspired by two temple visits and a number of conversations with other American Buddhists. The spark for these reflections is the first photo that accompanies this New York Times article about Vicha Ratanapakdee.
When he saw this photo, my husband immediately recognized Wat Nagara Dhamma in San Francisco. The familiarity of it struck a chord of grief and yearning. Oh how we've missed being able to visit Buddhist communities in person during this pandemic.
Last month, for the first time in over a year, we stepped foot into two temples in San Francisco. Both temples are so unassuming that passersby are hard-pressed to differentiate them from the neighboring houses. At each temple, we donned our face masks, left our shoes by the entrance, bowed at the altar, gave offerings, and talked to the resident monk from a safe distance away.
At 慈恩寺 (the temple I introduce on page 2 of Be the Refuge: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists) the abbot was slow to shuffle down the stairs and unlock the front door but quick to welcome us in with a smile. It has been years since I've seen him last, but the same kindness twinkles in his eyes, the same spry humor peppers his speech. He apologized that there was no incense burning, though the altar was neatly arrayed with plates of oranges. A Guanyin chant played softly in a room that has not seen its congregants for over a year. I had to wipe away tears after we bowed. The abbot spoke of karma (how wearing our masks is an expression of Buddhist teachings that recognize the ways our actions affect others) and equality (how all of us have the potential to be Buddhas) in our only shared language of Mandarin, which must be his third or fourth tongue (raised in Saigon's Cholon district, he grew up surrounded by Teochew, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Vietnamese; the temple's congregants are similarly multilingual).
At Wat Nagara Dhamma, though it was my first time bowing at that exact altar, it felt I had visited countless times before. Tucked legs on red carpet, three prostrations to the Buddha and three more to the monk, Khun Vicha smiling from the altar, all of it connecting us to countless unseen others. We spoke to the monk and the former abbot (who also lives the temple) mainly in Thai, with a smattering of Khmer. Like the current abbot (who is still in Thailand, finding it difficult to return at this time), the two of them are from Surin province, so they speak Thai, Surin Khmer, and Lao, and understand Kuy as well. The congregants they serve are, not surprisingly, a multiethnic group.
Asked by an editor at Tricycle to comment on anti-Asian violence in the news, I think of 慈恩寺 and Wat Nagara Dhamma. These two temples impress on me the strength and resilience of Buddhist communities, as well as the power of Buddhist spaces to bring together people from multiple locations within the complex and contested category of "Asian American." By extension, I see Buddhism as a way to bridge ethnic and racial differences in American Buddhism more broadly.
I had the joy of speaking to Ruth King last week. We marveled at the complexity and heterogeneity of Black Buddhists and Asians American Buddhists, how much we have to learn from each other, how that learning can beautify our lives with art, ritual, food, music, dance, curiosity, wonder. In the face of tragic news, this is what buoys me, these possibilities for connection—all of them ours for the realizing.
With wishes for peace and connection,