Updated: Jul 8
On May 4, 49 days after eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were shot and killed at spas in Atlanta, there was an extraordinary event called “May We Gather: A National Buddhist Memorial Ceremony for Asian American Ancestors.” It was created as a response to both the Atlanta killings and to the dramatic surge in hate crimes, harassment, and verbal and physical assaults against Asian Americans across the nation since the start of the COVID- 19 pandemic.
“May We Gather” brought together Buddhist clergy from across traditions and of diverse backgrounds in an act of collective mourning, remembrance, and healing. The monks, nuns, and ministers – including BCA Bishop Marvin Harada – represented Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Khmer, Taiwanese, Tibetan, Sri Lankan, Thai, and Vietnamese Buddhist traditions. The ceremony took place at Higashi Honganji temple in Little Tokyo – itself a target of vandalism and arson – and was live streamed to thousands watching across the U.S. and internationally.
The ceremony remembered not only the lives recently lost, but the many other Asian Americans throughout U.S. history who were victims of racial hatred. Memorial tablets bore the names of six of them, including Sia Bun Nin, one of 28 Chinese miners massacred in Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1885, and Thien Minh Ly, a Vietnamese American murdered in Orange County in 1996 by a white supremacist who boasted that he “killed a Jap.” A seventh tablet was dedicated to “All beings who have lost their lives through racial and religious animus.”
I was very moved by the ceremony organizers’ statements and the six Dharma talks. All were consistent in their message that a Buddhist response to hatred, discrimination, and violence should be based on compassion, understanding, and a recognition of our fundamental interconnectedness.
Interestingly, one word I did not hear during the ceremony was “forgiveness.” Perhaps that was intentional. For while the concept of forgiveness may exist in Buddhism, I think it is different from the Christian definition of granting absolution from sin, or the secular concept of releasing a wrongdoer from blame or guilt.
As Buddhists, we should recognize that even if we see ourselves as the wronged party, we are fundamentally no better than the person who hurt us. Each of us carries within us the capacity to harm – even kill – other beings. As Shinran Shonin said, “Under certain karmic conditions, I might do anything.” Moreover, in Buddhism we are mindful that our judgments are flawed by our egos and dualistic thinking. Therefore, we try to avoid absolutist thinking like “right” or “wrong,” “good” or “evil.” Finally, the Buddhist teaching of interdependence tells us that all of life is interconnected; we are not wholly separate and distinct from the people we consider wrongdoers.
I think what some Buddhists call “forgiveness” may be better described as understanding. Understanding the causes and conditions that brought about the actions and resulted in the harm. Understanding that we ourselves suffer from the Three Poisons of ignorance, greed, and hatred and are capable of harming others.
Understanding that helps us let go of our reflexive emotional responses of anger, fear, and vengeance. Understanding that does not demand forgiveness, but guides us toward a rational and compassionate response that does not compound the suffering of ourselves and others.
Compassion does not mean passivity, however. That was another powerful message from “May We Gather.” In his Spanish language Dharma talk, Bhanta Sanathavihari of the Sarathchandra Buddhist Center spoke on the Paramita of Ksanti (Patience). He said, “Patience is not compliance, nor is it a call for inaction . . . it is an effort to see things clearly in a difficult situation. Patience allows us to apply wisdom and compassion in the face of the unbearable. It gives us the opportunity to respond skillfully rather than unconsciously.”
We can apply that lens of wisdom and compassion when we take action to ameliorate both individual and societal suffering. Seeing clearly enables us to see that racism, misogyny, inequality, and other injustices exist. Compassion does not preclude seeking responsibility, accountability, and justice. Let us choose to respond to great wrongs by taking compassionate action to address injustice and decrease the suffering in this world.
Namo Amida Butsu Janis Hirohama, Minister’s Assistant