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‘May We Gather’ Draws Array of Buddhists to Antioch

Updated: May 15

Victims of Anti-Asian Hate, Racial and Religious Bigotry Memorialized; 200 Attend Event

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The historic El Campanil Theatre in Antioch, California, echoed with the sounds of sutra chanting in Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Lao. In the audience were Indian, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Sri Lankan, Taiwanese and Tibetan Buddhists.

More than 200 people from an array of Asian Buddhist lineages — including Shin Buddhists — assembled March 16 for a third-year memorial for eight people gunned down in Atlanta, six of whom were Asian American women, and also for victims of previous racial and religious bigotry dating back 150 years.

Among the BCA participants were: Rev. Harry Bridge, Resident Minister of the Buddhist Church of Oakland; Rev. Brian Nagata, director of Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai and a member of the Buddhist Church of Oakland; and Juliet Bost Yokoe, a Minister’s Assistant at the Berkeley Buddhist Temple and the San Mateo Buddhist Temple.

A many-armed statue of Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion, was at the center of the altar on stage, with five memorial tablets immediately in front for four Asian Americans: 

  • Yong Ae Yue, a 63-year-old spa worker killed in the Atlanta shootings.

  • Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai immigrant, who died in 2021 after being violently shoved to the ground.

  • Yik Oi Huang, an 88-year-old woman, who died after being brutally beaten at a San Francisco park in 2019.

  • Sia Bung Ning, a Chinese miner, killed in 1885 by armed white miners in Colorado.

  • A fifth tablet represented all people who have died due to racial and religious animosity.

“In coming together to honor our losses, we also affirm our collective commitment to stand against the forces of hatred and bigotry,” said Rev. Grace Song, a Won Buddhist minister who gave one of six Dharma messages. “Our gathering is an act of solidarity, a declaration that we will not let the voices of those we lost be silenced.

“It is a pledge to carry on their legacy by working towards a society where such acts of violence are unthinkable,” Rev. Song said.

The rare pan-Asian Buddhist memorial was organized by “May We Gather,”  a collective of Asian American Buddhists started in 2021 by: Dr. Funie Hsu/Chhi, an associate professor of American Studies at San Jose State University and a member of the Buddhist Church of Oakland; Rev. Dr. Duncan Ryuken Williams, a Soto Zen priest and director of the USC Shinso Center for Japanese Religions and Culture; and Chenxing Han, an author who earned a certificate in Buddhist chaplaincy from the Institute of Buddhist Studies.

The three were galvanized to come up with an Asian American Buddhist response to the nationwide wave of violence and vandalism of temples. It was clear to Rev. Dr. Williams that a ceremony was needed and Han suggested a memorial 49 days after the Atlanta shootings in keeping with many Buddhist funeral and memorial traditions, Hsu said.

The May 4, 2021, service conducted at the Higashi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles — itself the victim of an arson fire earlier that same year — also drew a wide range of Buddhist clergy, lay people and allies, including BCA Bishop Rev. Marvin Harada.

May We Gather conducted online memorials 100 days and one year after the Atlanta shootings.

“I think whenever I do these kinds of things, I feel the power of Sangha, the power of Buddhist communities,” Rev. Dr. Williams said, adding that although the Buddhists in attendance came from varying traditions, a key to all of their beliefs is to alleviate suffering.

The collective has grown to six members: Patricia Wakida, an artist and community activist; Jhani Randhawa, a community facilitator; and Juliet Bost Yokoe, a martial arts instructor.

The location of the third-year service connected the 2021 killings in Atlanta with what happened nearly 150 years ago in Antioch, California, a city of more than 115,000 residents located northeast of Oakland that was once home to a thriving Chinese population that in the 1800s included a Buddhist/Taoist temple.

The community of several hundred were banned from walking in the city at night in the mid-1800s, and in 1876, the second arson fire in five years broke out in Chinatown. The local fire department reportedly refused to put out the flames. Antioch’s Chinatown burned to the ground, and its residents hurriedly left with the possessions they could carry.

The 90-hour minute service featured a wide range of ritual and chanting styles, and Dharma talks by representatives of six Buddhist traditions. It opened with Dr. Paula Arai of IBS playing a taiko and Rev. Harry Bridge ringing kansho.

“When I was assigned to the Buddhist Church of Lodi (2006-2008), I used to pass by Antioch on my way to Berkeley and the Bay Area,” Rev. Bridge said, “but I didn’t know anything about it. An important part of this event was education about the history of Asians in Antioch, so I was glad to learn about that.”

Before she chanted the “Heart Sutra” in Chinese, the Ven. Dr. Longyun Shiu, founder of the American Bodhi Seal Buddhist Association in Daly City, said Buddhists believe there is an unconditional spiritual connection among all people, where distinctions of “race, ethnicity, national origin, gender and socio-economic status disappear.

“If we genuinely understand and embody our spiritual kinship through right concentration and boundless hearts, we would care for all people as we care for ourselves and our families,” she said. “There would be no hatred, no greed, no killing .… So let us practice the Buddha’s teaching to cultivate our minds and strengthen our spiritual kinship.”

As people left the theater to the sounds of a Lao Buddhist blessing, they placed a flower in front of the altar, putting their hands together and bowing. They then became part of a walking pilgrimage around the former site of Antioch’s Chinatown, making two stops, according to Dr. Hsu/Chhi.


Among the procession leaders was Rev. Brian Nagata, director of Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai (Society for the Promotion of Buddhism).

At Waldie Plaza, the first pilgrimage stopping point, Master E-Man, a Daoist priest from Arcadia, led a ritual and chanting for consoling spirits. Antioch Mayor Pro Tem Monica Wilson read the May 2021 Antioch City Council resolution that apologized for the burning of Chinatown and the treatment of Chinese and offered a flower. 

Also offering flowers were relatives of Angelo Quito, who while suffering a mental health crisis in December 2020, was restrained by Antioch police and died, and Sasanna Yee, Yik Oi Huang’s granddaughter. Yee also offered a flower during the service.

The pilgrimage ended at the landmark commemorating the “Birthplace of Antioch.” Tibetan Buddhist teacher Khenpo Paljor Gyatso conducted a ceremony. Participants draped Tibetan “khata” — colored scarves in white, blue, green, red and yellow — on the marker to redress how the history of Chinese immigrants and other non-white residents in Antioch was long forgotten.

Bost Yokoe, the volunteer coordinator for “May We Gather,” said her experience at the March event led her to reflect on what unites “the diverse followers of the Buddha’s teachings. I particularly want to see this opportunity for young Buddhists to connect across traditions .… I believe there is great potential in building strong community ties across Buddhism, especially for our youth.”

Bost Yokoe said BCA members were among the volunteers, including their mother, Lynn Yokoe from San Mateo; Rex Takahashi from Concord; Hondo Lobley from Oakland; and Arlene Kikkawa-Nielsen from Concord. They saw other BCA members in the audience such as Alan Hirahara from Berkeley and Jun Hamamoto from Oakland.

The organizers expressed their gratitude for everyone who helped organize and attend the May We Gather event.

“I felt really honored to be part of it and honored that other people wanted to be part of it,” Dr. Hsu/Chhi said.

Han said she was “happy and amazed” the service, walking pilgrimage and reception went so smoothly. 

“I felt energized and grateful to see so many people from different racial and religious backgrounds united together on that sunny Saturday,” she said.


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