‘May We Gather’ Brings Together Buddhists for Healing Service
An unprecedented gathering of Buddhist lineages and ethnicities came together May 4 at the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles to offer a united message of healing amid the alarming rise of anti-Asian hate and violence.
That May 4 date carried particular significance because it marked the 49th day after the horrific murder of eight people in Atlanta, Georgia — six of whom were Asian American women. In many Buddhist traditions, 49 days after death marks an important transition for the bereaved.
“May We Gather: A National Buddhist Memorial Ceremony for Asian American Ancestors,” was organized by Bay Area Buddhist writer Chenxing Han, a recent graduate of the Institute of Buddhist Studies and author of “Be the Refuge: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists”; San Jose State University Professor Dr. Funie Hsu; and Rev. Dr. Duncan Ryuken Williams, a Soto Zen Buddhist priest and chair of the USC School of Religion.
A total of 49 clergy and teachers representing Jodo Shinshu, Nichiren, Zen, Fo Guang Shan, Theravada, Thien, Tibetan, and other traditions chanted during the 90-minute ceremony, which was livestreamed on YouTube and seen by thousands of people around the world. The event was supported by more than 350 Buddhist temples and churches and hundreds of clerics and individuals.
The ethnicities that were represented at the event spanned the spectrum of Buddhists of East, South and Southeast Asian ancestry: Chinese, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Sri Lankan, Taiwanese, Thai, Tibetan, and Vietnamese. Black, Latino and white Buddhists also took part in the event.
The idea of holding a national Buddhist memorial ceremony was discussed by Rev. Dr. Williams, Hsu and Han as a response to the mass shootings in Atlanta. Rev. Dr. Williams raised the concept of holding a healing ceremony on the 49th day of the Atlanta killings.
The Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles was specifically chosen as the site of the event for several reasons. The temple was vandalized in February amid an alarming increase of anti-Asian hate incidents in the past year. More than 6,600 incidents — including verbal harassment, shunning, physical assault and civil rights violations — have been reported nationwide since March 2020.
In the opening statement by Han and Hsu, Han referred to Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple and said it was built on Tongva territory, which she said had been stolen from the indigenous people during colonialism. Hsu recounted the nearly two centuries of xenophobia and systemic violence against Asians and Asian Americans in the United States. She spoke of the exclusion and violence faced by Chinese immigrants in the 1850s, the mass detention of Japanese Americans during the 1940s, and the discrimination faced by South and Southeast Asians in the 1970s, as they fled wars inflamed by the U.S. military.
“We do not suffer alone, nor do we heal alone,” Hsu said. “Only when we come together as a Sangha can we truly support each other’s freedom.”
Rev. Dr. Williams, in his Hyobyakumon, or pronouncement of intention, said: “We gather together to provide an antidote of 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.
“We join today to repair the racial karma of this nation because our destinies and freedoms are intertwined,” he continued.
“May We Gather” honored those who died from anti-Asian violence in the United States with seven memorial tablets — six of the tablets listed individuals. The tablets were set at the front of the Hondo, and Buddhist priests, monks and teachers placed lighted candles and offered incense before them. The seventh and last tablet represented “all beings who have lost their lives through racial and religious animus,” Han said.
“Because the history of systemic anti-Asian violence in the United States includes erasure, many of the names of those killed have not been documented,” Han said. “We say the names of these six individuals while acknowledging and honoring the many other names not on the altar today.”
In her Dharma message about the virya, or spiritual strength, paramita, Rev. Christina Moon’s voice broke as she recited the names of the six Asian American women killed in Atlanta: Tan Xiaojie, Feng Daoyeu, Hyun Jung Grant, Soon Chung Park, Kim Suncha, and Yong Ae Yue. Moon said the women were examples of virya.
“Let us commit to matching their spiritual strength, their virya, today and every day to come as we remember and honor them,” said Rev. Moon, of the Daihonzan Chozen-ji International Zen Dojo in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The event also included a ceramic lotus flower with cracked petals. As chanting began, several Buddhist priests painted and covered the cracks with gold lacquer, a Japanese art known as kintsugi, to symbolically repair a community harmed by hate and violence.
The ceremony ended with the Buddhists leaving the temple, one by one, and passing a long white string among themselves, a ritual of protection in Southeast Asian Buddhist traditions.
Han reflected on “May We Gather” and its united, healing message.
“For many Asian Americans, including Asian American Buddhists, the past year has been freighted with fear, pain, and isolation,” Han said after the event. “Assaults on elders, vandalization of temples, and other acts of violence have been heartrending reminders of this country's long history of anti-Asian and anti-Buddhist animus.
“‘May We Gather’ gave us an opportunity to respond to hate with understanding and love,” Han said. “It felt healing and hopeful to witness Asian American nuns, monks, priests, ministers, and lay teachers join together alongside spiritual friends of other backgrounds in a shared ceremony of mourning and renewal.
“The diversity of Buddhist traditions in this country is vast; each lineage is home to many Dharma gates that serve us in times of crisis,” she continued. “I hope Asian American Buddhists and our allies can recall ‘May We Gather’ as a moment that showed how gathering together across lines of ethnic and sectarian difference is possible — and necessary. Through such gatherings, we embody the strength and beauty of our interconnectedness with, and care for, each other.”
BCA Bishop Rev. Marvin Harada was among the Buddhist clergy who participated in “May We Gather.” Rev. Harada began the milestone event with the chanting of the “Sanbujo” as the monks and ministers entered the temple.
“It was a rare opportunity to be in the presence of monks, nuns, and ministers of all major Buddhist traditions here in the United States,” Rev. Harada said. “We shared in our common ground of the Dharma, paying reverence to the Buddha and being together as a Sangha.
“May each tradition of Buddhism prosper in this culture so that others might find the path that leads away from hatred and violence, and directs all to the way of peace, understanding, and compassion,” he said.