How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man; these were the words of a famous singer. Adopting from these words, we ask, how many sacrifices must a man endure before he is accepted?
This was the question Prof. Duncan Ryuken Williams explored in his talk, as part of the thought-provoking and eye-opening interfaith conversations series of Pacifica Institute.
Underlining the fact that the city of Los Angeles is the most religiously diverse city in the country, Prof. Williams made a brief reference to his current research and study on the “Religions of Los Angeles”. Relating from personal experience as a practicing Japanese-American Buddhist, Prof. Williams conveyed an informative and emotional presentation on the history of the acculturation of Japanese-American Buddhists after WWII.
Prof. Williams noted that there were two main points of view on where America stands in terms of religion. One view states that though America is quite diverse, it still is fundamentally Christian, while the other view sees America as a free nation where religious freedom is expressed, explained Williams. What we have seen, in actuality, is the unfolding of different religions spreading out into a diverse platform. When I go to my temple today, he said, I see the 6th generation of young Buddhists being raised up in Los Angeles. They see themselves as Americans and though Buddhism may be a minority religion, they believe that it accords well with American values as well. This is the case today, and we have come a long way, but back in history, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Americans were faced with a great challenge, Prof Williams explained.
“How do we, as a religion from Asia, come to terms with America?” This was the big question they had to struggle with. He illustrated with a true story that had been related by his doctorate advisor’s wife, who had been a young girl at the time.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Americans (many of whom were Buddhists) had been classified into A-B-C lists, some were arrested, some were interrogated, others monitored, depending on their influence on their people and devoutness to their religion. This young girl lived on a farm with her family and came home one day to find American officers interrogating her father in one room and her mother in the other room with a gun held to her head. The girl’s father had been shooting off rabbits prying into his lettuce field and the American officers had seen them as a threat. Not being able to speak enough English, it was only after the girl arrived and explained the situation that they were released, only to be assured that they would be back to check up on them. As the lady had told of her story, she remembered how her father had lit a big fire and, one by one, burnt everything that symbolized their Japanese identity. Yet, when it came to their Holy Scriptures and writing symbolizing family heritage, her father was not able to put them in the fire. Instead, they buried them under a tree in their garden. “We have to show them that yes, we are Buddhists, but we are not unloyal,” her father had said. Prof. Williams pointed out, you see, they were willing to make a sacrifice and burn away their Japaneseness, but certainly not their faith.
Relating more stories of inspiration and endurance, as the Japanese-American families were made to sell off their properties and gather into camps, Prof. Williams painted quite a striking picture of the hardships the Japanese-American Buddhists went through. Still, they were not daunted. He mentioned a Buddhisht priest saying that he did not mind being moved from camp to camp as it gave him the opportunity to practice his faith in many different places. They tried to make the best of their circumstances, without complaining, he said and mentioned another Buddhist man who made a rosary out of the pits of the fruit that used to be their weekly ration. No matter the situation, they did not compromise their faith, emphasized Williams as he showed pictures of shrines made out of desert wood, or a corner of worship decorated on the wall of a horse stall, where the Buddhists were made to live for some time. They wanted to prove their loyalty to America, and many young Japanese-Americans volunteered to fight in the war for “their country” despite the irony that their families back at home were gathered behind barbed wires so they did not pose a threat to the country.
In the Buddhist faith, the most important thing is spiritual teachings, community gatherings and honoring the ancestors, explained Prof. Williams as he spoke of how, today, the ancestors who were unable to survive the harsh winter of 1942 in the camps, the eldest and youngest generations, are being honored today.
The Japanese-American Story of Buddhism acculturating in the US was not an easy road, as Prof. Williams related in detail. Many sacrifices were made in the process, yet, one thing was for sure, belief, values, their faith and those they held sacred, they were not compromised. They were held high, and they did their utmost to honor their faith no matter how harsh the circumstances.