Immigration, Race and Dharma 1

To Whom Does Buddhism Offer Refuge?

As Buddhists, we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.  These three refuges, referred to as the ‘Triple Gem,’ protect us and provide succor from the difficulties in life.  However, do we, as practitioners, have an obligation to offer this same sense of safety and acceptance to those outside of our immediate sanghas?  The Buddhist Council of New York addressed this questions at its annual Forum on February 4th at the Village Zendo. The year’s topic, ‘Immigration, Race and Dharma: What are our refuges?’ addressed an issue of importance to many in the faith

“One should honor others’ religions .  So doing, one helps one’s own religion to grow and renders service to the religions of others too.”

Emperor Asoka

community—how to apply the basic principles of kindness, acceptance and compassion to those in and outside of our particular faith or tradition. Such acceptance is central to Buddhism.

It was the Buddhist emperor Asoka who declared, ‘One should not honor only one’s own religion and condemn the religions of others, but one should honor others’ religions for this or that reason. So doing, one helps one’s own religion to grow and renders service to the religions of others too.’ We can extend Asoka’s declaration to include honoring others’ gender and ethnic expression as well.

Immigration, Race, and Refuge

Sharon Lin, Youth Ambassador for Buddhist Global Relief, led the morning panel on the ‘Nature of Immigration and Race in NYC.’ Panelists included Dr. Diane Steinman, co-founder and director of the New York State Interfaith Network for Immigration Reform, Imam Farid Uddin Masoud, grand imam of the Sholakia Eidgah Moedan mosque and George Hirose, Co-President of the Japanese American Citizens League.

Dr. Steinman led the discussion by briefing the audience on the statistics surrounding immigration and allocation of refugee status. We learned that despite having a hand in many crises that cause those from other countries to flee their homes in the first place, America has a history of turning her back on those very people. It is that very legacy that we are again repeating in limiting who, exactly, deserves refuge. George Hirose continued the discussion of immigration inequities vis a vis the Japanese internment of 1942.

Boys at a Japanese Internment camp. Dorothea Lange

“The Japanese-American Incarceration is one of the darkest times in American history,” stated Hirose. He shared his own personal experience. While Hirose was born in America, his parents were not. “The first generation really wanted to be Americans. They here and knew they were going to die here. There was no question of loyalty. Even the Munson Report, which stated unequivocally that the Japanese Americans posed no national security threat, couldn’t stop the government’s incarceration of over a hundred thousand innocent citizens. Shortly after its release, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized ‘relocation’ of Japanese-Americans from their homes to various military camps throughout the country.  Hirose’s presentation reminded us all of the importance of not viewing those who are different from us from a place of fear. This is especially relevant

This meeting will increase our bonding and help us grow further to overcome hatred.

Imam Masoud

in our current social and political climate.  By not learning from our recent past, we run the risk of repeating the same egregious harms upon yet another group of people, namely, Muslims.

Imam Masoud, a well-known Islamic scholar who presents a strong voice against Islamic jihad, expressed optimism, despite the current political climate. “I am very hopeful that the present condition will end soon. This gathering is making me hopeful that the change will happen soon,” he added. Masoud concluded that “This meeting will increase our bonding and help us grow further to overcome hatred. It is our duty to spread such things around the world.” His statement is a reminder of the importance of actually embodying Buddhist teachings: ‘So with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings.’

syrian refugee women

Syrian refugee women stand in line to receive their family’s share of winter aid kits at Zaatari refugee camp, near the Syrian border, in Mafraq, Jordan, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)

Who Will Act for the Disempowered?

Reverend Tenku Ruff, a Soto Zen priest and Abbot of Kannon-ji Temple led the afternoon session on the ‘Buddhist Response to Immigration and Race.’  On the panel were Roshi Merle Kodo Boyd, Founder of the Lincroft Zen Sangha, Rev. Doyeon Park, Minister of the Manhattan Won Buddhist Temple, and James Lynch, Dharma Teacher of Rissho Kosei Kai.  Rev. Ruff began the session reflecting on her experience at Standing Rock, and what being in that environment meant for her.

“We were on their land, and as such, there was a different hierarchy. While we were there, those belonging the the First Nations spoke first. At the bottom of the hierarchy were white males. It was interesting to hear voices often unheard,” she reflected. She then asked the panel, “During these times, what do we, as Buddhists, have to offer the world?”

From left to right: Rev. Tenku Ruff, Roshi Merle Kodo Boyd, Rev. Doyeon Park, James Lynch

Roshi Kodo answered by reminding us that “we have a practice that grounds us so we don’t lose our heads.”  She went on to say that “if we don’t show up now, when is our practice going to show up?  It’s a scary thing to do, to stand up when you’re vulnerable, so we need to stand up for those who can’t. What do I feel about this time?  I feel I’m called to be scared.  The worse thing is not to stand.  As Buddhists, we don’t have the option to do nothing.”  Rev. Doyeon Park affirmed that “we cultivate Buddha nature so as not to be shaken by external circumstances.”  We have to make sure not to act from a place of anger, since “anger blocks skillful action to conditions.  So reflect from where those actions arise.”

James Lynch also warned that, unchecked, anger can overwhelm. He also stated that the “Buddha requires us to be courageous, so we have no choice but to be engaged. The real challenge is to be engaged and loving. Buddhism is

Buddha requires us to be courageous, so we have no choice but to be engaged. The real challenge is to be engaged and loving.

James Lynch

cause and effect, and when we fail to speak out, we set the conditions for oppressive governance. As Buddhists we must engage immediately in whatever way we can.”  The blessing of Buddhism, he added, is that “we can practice and be present for each other and not be alone,” echoing the words of the Buddha to Ananda.  “Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.”  The holy life the Buddha refers to does not begin and end in the meditation hall.  Our practice continues whether we are ‘standing, walking, seated or lying down,’ and all beings of goodwill, whatever their religion, can be admirable companions.

Regina Valdez

Regina is an Engaged Buddhist and the Community Outreach Coordinator for Buddhist Global Relief. A Buddhist practitioner since 2009, Regina uses the city as a crucible for deepening practice. She's a freelance writer and has lived in New York City for over 20 years.
Regina Valdez

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