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What American Buddhism Looks Like: Solidarity for Immigrants at Fort Sill

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Editor’s note: This is the second part of a three-part essay recounting a 20 July protest by American Buddhists at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, where plans were underway to expand facilities holding detained immigrants. In this account, Rev. Duncan Ryuken Williams, a Buddhist scholar and Soto Zen priest, writes of “Naming Names: Memorializing Our Interlinked Histories.” You can read more in our news coverage: Tsuru for Solidarity Takes Peaceful Action to Protest Mass Detention of Immigrants in the US and see the first part of Rev. Williams’ essay here: At Fort Sill, a Prayer That History Would Not Repeat Itself (Tricycle).

Before leaving the Fort Sill fence to attend a rally in nearby Shepler Square Park, Rev. Egyoku Nakao, the Japanese American abbot emeritus of the Zen Center of Los Angeles (ZCLA), and I took a brief detour to pay homage to Kanesaburo Oshima, the father of 11 children who had run small businesses in Kona, Hawai‘i, before being shot in the back of the head by a guard at Fort Sill in May 1942. Our fellow Soto Zen Buddhist priest, Rev. Jiko Nakade (the abbot of Kona Daifukuji Soto Zen Mission and granddaughter of Kanesaburo Oshima) had sent special maile lei from Hawai‘i as a flower offering for the memorial service. Instead of randomly leaving them at the highway median, where we had set up the ceremonial altar, we draped them over the cannon at the Fort Sill sign at Bentley Gate, a bigger version of the weapon used to end his life.

Draping the <i>lei</i> from the Oshima family on the cannon at Fort Sill’s Bentley Gate. Photo by Linda Morris
Draping the lei from the Oshima family on the cannon at Fort Sill’s Bentley Gate. Photo by Linda Morris

Our role at the Shepler Square Park rally was to perform a Buddhist memorial service in ever-widening circles of inclusion. We began with a tribute to Kanesaburo Oshima with a letter from the family read by Rev. Egyoku Nakao, one of only a handful of Japanese Americans to have served as the head of an American Zen Center. The letter written by his granddaughter noted that his “untimely death behind barbed wire was the source of great sorrow and trauma for his wife Matsu Oshima and their 11 children, who had been patiently awaiting grandfather’s return to Kona since the night he was unjustly taken away after Pearl Harbor was attacked. Grandfather Kanesaburo did eventually return to his family, but in the form of ashes, carried back to Hawai‘i by my father Noboru Oshima, the eldest of the Oshima children, at the end of WWII.”

Rev. William Briones (LA Honpa Hongwanji Temple) leading the chanting the Juseige (Three Sacred Vows). Photo by Evan Kodani
Rev. William Briones (LA Honpa Hongwanji Temple) leading the chanting the Juseige (Three Sacred Vows). Photo by Evan Kodani

We then turned to the idea that this Buddhist memorial service would not be just about one life, but a remembrance of the interlinked histories of many communities. Rev. William Briones, head minister of the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple (one of the oldest Japanese American temples in North America), served as the chant leader for this part of the ceremony. He prefaced the ritual with a reflection on how, as a Mexican American Buddhist priest serving a historic Japanese American sangha, what is happening to migrant children is personal; his own grandparents crossed the border without papers in the early 1900s.

This memorial service was about making manifest the interlinked histories of communities that have been targeted for exclusion from America, placed into indefinite detention, separated from their families in migration, and experienced death—naming people who might otherwise be relegated to the ash heap of forgotten history.

As the chanting began, we invited Michael Topaum, the spiritual leader of the American Indian Movement, to bring to the altar Buddhist memorial tablets, on which he had written down the names of the Kiowa Chiefs—White Bear, Lone Wolf, Sitting Bear, and Big Tree—leaders of the indigenous peoples who were moved to southwestern Oklahoma in 1867.

Michael Topaum (American Indian Movement), spiritual elder, writing the names of the Kiowa chiefs on Buddhist memorial tablets. Photo by Evan Kodani
Michael Topaum (American Indian Movement), spiritual elder, writing the names of the Kiowa chiefs on Buddhist memorial tablets. Photo by Evan Kodani

Rev. Ryuji Hayashi of the Los Angeles Koyasan Buddhist Temple, whose predecessor Bishop Seytsu Takahashi had been interned at Fort Sill during the Second World War, approached the altar next with the names of four Japanese immigrants who died during their incarceration in Oklahoma: Kanesaburo Oshima, Ichiro Shimoda, Alessandro Ouchi, and Shiro Y. Nakahata.

Rev. Ryuji Hayashi (Koyasan Buddhist Temple, LA) places memorial tablets for the four Japanese Immigrants who died at Fort Sill in May 1942. Photo by Evan Kodani)
Rev. Ryuji Hayashi (Koyasan Buddhist Temple, LA) places memorial tablets for the four Japanese Immigrants who died at Fort Sill in May 1942. Photo by Evan Kodani)

The final offering of names on Buddhist memorial tablets was dedicated to the 10 young people who died in the past 14 months at the border or in US detention centers. Whether it was one-year-old Mariee Juárez from Guatemala, who passed away from a respiratory infection, two-year-old Valeria Martinez from El Salvador, who drowned in the Rio Bravo alongside her father, or 20-year-old Claudia Patricia Gomez Gonzalez from Guatemala, who was shot and killed by a border agent, there is a real human cost from the “zero tolerance” policy aimed at deterrence. The name of the seven other migrant children who have died—Wilmer Josue Ramirez Vasquez (aged two), Gurupreet Kaur (aged six), Jakelin Amel Rosmery Caal Marquin (aged seven), Felipe Gomez Alonzo (aged eight), Darlyn Cristabel Cordova Valle (aged 10), Juan de Leon Gutierrez (aged 16), and Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez (aged 16)—were written on tablets by Rev. Briones and brought to the altar by 10 young Dreamers wearing “Close the Camps” t-shirts.

Left: one-year old Mariee Juárez, from Guatemala, died soon after release from ICE custody. From abcnews.go.com. Right: two-year-old Valeria Martinez with father, Oscar, drowned in the Rio Bravo trying to cross into the US. From reuters.com
Left: one-year old Mariee Juárez, from Guatemala, died soon after release from ICE custody. From abcnews.go.com. Right: two-year-old Valeria Martinez with father, Oscar, drowned in the Rio Bravo trying to cross into the US. From reuters.com
Dreamers carry memorial tablets for the 10 children who died during the border crossing or in border detention facilities. Photo by Evan Kodani
Dreamers carry memorial tablets for the 10 children who died during the border crossing or in border detention facilities. Photo by Evan Kodani

In the Japanese Buddhist tradition, this is the time of year when we hold Obon or Urabon (Skt. Ullambana) ceremonies and festivals to remember and honor the dead with gratitude. And in that spirit, as a spontaneous ritual act, Tsuru for Solidarity co-founder Mike Ishii delivered a heartfelt invitation to all those assembled to write the names of those they would like remembered onto memorial tablets—those who have passed as well as individuals who may currently be experiencing suffering through family separation, indefinite detention, sexual abuse, or deportation. To our surprise, more than 100 people solemnly wrote the name of a loved one and offered the memorial tablet at the front altar as we repeatedly chanted the Juseige(Three Sacred Vows).

Receiving memorial tablets from all communities. Photo by Evan Kodani
Receiving memorial tablets from all communities. Photo by Evan Kodani

At ceremonies like this, we recall how those who came before us make us who we are. We make present those absent, and in so doing, recognize how our lives are interlinked with the past; that we are not alone, connected in community with the vast web of existence. Our own liberation co-arising with the liberation of all beings. This was a sentiment expressed repeatedly by Tsuru for Solidarity members—that by standing up for the migrant children detained today, the Japanese American community’s own trauma of wartime incarceration was being healed; that the legacy of forced removal, incarceration, and exclusion based on religion and race can be transformed through recognizing others so targeted today. Virtually no one spoke up for Japanese Americans when they were disappeared from schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods, but in this moment when history appears to be repeating itself, this community in particular needs to speak out.

In that moment of the Buddhist memorial service, the Dreamers’ chants from earlier in the day of “this is what community looks like” rang true. Documented or undocumented, all residents of our nation, one big sangha coming together. Upon reflection, it also occurred to me that, “This is what American Buddhism looks like.” There we were in Oklahoma, united by our concern for migrant children. A Mexican American priest, serving one of oldest historically Japanese American Buddhist temples, leading the chanting; a Japanese immigrant priest serving another historical Japanese American Buddhist temple walking up with the memorial tablets for the Fort Sill dead; a dozen white and two mixed-race Japanese American Soto Zen priests; and four Dharma teachers ordained in a Vietnamese lineage of engaged Buddhism, two of them Japanese American, one Korean American and one white. Only in America.

We went to Fort Sill to remind America of its duty to honor the yearning for freedom. America reminded us that our freedoms must be embodied and actualized through seeing interconnectedness—of the past and the present, of the shared futures of a multiplicity of religious and ethnic communities.

See more

A Call for Buddhist Leaders to Protest Inhumane Treatment of Migrant Children – Lending Our Support to Tsuru for Solidarity (Duncan Ryuken Williams)
Tsuru for Solidarity (Facebook)
Buddhist Protest of Inhumane Treatment of Migrant Children (YouTube)

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