May We Gather

Jeff Wilson
May We Gather: Healing from Hate in Buddhist America
Jeff Wilson [00:00:00] I'm sitting in the main sanctuary of Higashi Honganji Buddhist temple in downtown Los Angeles. It's quiet and peaceful now. Outside the city is rushing back home after a Tuesday workday. On Sundays, the temple fills with chanting and laughter, hymns and gossip, and the sounds of families and longtime friends sharing meals. This is the oldest temple in Los Angeles, and it's nurtured the community through generations of struggle and survival. Buddhism is about developing a peaceful heart and mind in a world that is rarely peaceful. This temple certainly experienced times of difficulty. One happened in February 2021 when an arsonist assaulted the temple just beyond the doors to the sanctuary. It was a shocking attack, but also just another moment in the long history of attacks on Asian-American Buddhists. An even worse moment came across the country just a few weeks later.
Reporter [00:01:11] A shooting rampage at three spas in the Atlanta metro area, Tuesday, leaving eight people dead and one wounded... “We just heard numerous gunshots coming from across the street. I won't say any names, but they're really nice girls.” Authorities tell the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that six of the victims were Asian women. … the killings came at a time when attacks on Asian-Americans have increased since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Jeff Wilson [00:01:37] Trauma and violence are indelible aspects of the American Buddhist experience, but so are healing and community. 49 days after the Atlanta attacks, this temple hosted one of the most remarkable rituals in Buddhist history.
Funie Hsu [00:01:52] When you engage in ritual at a monastery or a temple and you're doing it together with everyone else, you're creating that world, that Buddhist world that you want to be in, that you want to commit to, that you're taking refuge in.
Jeff Wilson [00:02:06] This is the story of that deeply Buddhist, uniquely American ceremony and how the community responded to our society's karma of race and hatred. I'm Jeff Wilson. And this is May We Gather.
Jeff Wilson voiceover [00:02:24] Act One: Trauma. I’m standing outside the Higashi temple in Little Tokyo. Reverend Noriaki Ito, the head minister, is dealing with the lock on the big security gate the temple installed after the arson attack.
Jeff Wilson [00:02:46] So, tell me about what happened when the temple was attacked?
Noriaki Ito: [00:02:49] it happened around 7:30. We were having a board meeting, but we were all, you know, different satellite sites. And so the only person was here was one, was my assistant priest. And so, you know, we didn't know anything about what was going to happen. But then the guy looks like he had it all planned out. Climbed over the fence, and the fence was little shorter than it is now. And he came over and then went up the stairs here. And we had these wooden lantern stands on both sides in front of the two concrete pillars. And he set those on fire. And, you know, they were made out of wood, so they burned very well.
Jeff Wilson voiceover: [00:03:40] The sole minister on site rushed out with a fire extinguisher as the attacker fled. Surveillance video showed he was a well-dressed white male, but the police never found him. On the one hand, the attack was the latest in a long history of exclusion and distrust. But at the same time it was very much a part of the particular scapegoating of Asians that added an extra layer of misery and fear to the pandemic experience for Asian Americans. Asian American Buddhists, who experience attacks based both on race and religion, felt especially endangered.
Donald Trump [00:04:14] Wuhan was catching on. Coronavirus, right? Kung Flu. Kung Flu. Covid! Covid-19!
Jeff Wilson voiceover (while Trump continues in background): [00:04:30] The Covid-19 pandemic started a new cycle of hate. President Donald Trump and his supporters reveled in racist targeting of Asians over the virus. As forced lockdowns disrupted life across America, Asian Americans experienced an ever-escalating series of attacks.
Reporter 1 [00:04:46] a 65 year old Asian-American is pushed to the ground, her attacker kicking her in the head again and again. Police say the man allegedly yelled expletives at her saying you don't belong here.
Reporter 2 [00:05:00] A 36 year old Asian-American father beaten by a stranger last Friday as he was standing near an intersection in San Francisco with his one year old baby in a stroller
Donald Trump [00:05:10] Some people call it the Chinese flu. The China flu. Right.
Reporter 3 [00:05:16] In San Francisco, this 84 year old Thai immigrant died after he was pushed to the ground in January.
Reporter 4 [00:05:21] A man walked up behind a 91 year old man and threw him to the ground.
Donald Trump [00:05:27] Right, they call it the China, as opposed to China, the 
 China. I never saw anything like it.
Reporter 5 [00:05:34] a 67 year old Asian man is suddenly ambushed at a Laundromat.
Reporter 6 [00:05:38] In New York, two Asian-American women also targeted, this time with a hammer.
Donald Trump [00:05:43] the Chinese virus.
Jeff Wilson voiceover [00:05:58] Amidst this avalanche of attacks the Atlanta area spa murders combined the worst elements of the fetishization of Asian women, anti-Asian hate, and America’s seemingly intractable gun problems. In my own temple people traded stories of harassment, and older members declared they were afraid to go out alone. Ministers and laypeople across the continent agonized over the reasons for the attacks.
Noriaki Ito [00:06:23] the initial reaction is like anger. And, you know, why why is this happening? And why do people have these kinds of, you know, attitudes and so forth?
Jeff Wilson voiceover [00:06:37] Ministers of local temples struggled to care for their congregations amid the rising tide of anti-Asian hate and attacks on Buddhist institutions. Naturally, they considered how to react to the violence. Rev. Marvin Harada is the bishop of the Buddhist Churches of America, the largest Japanese American-based Buddhist denomination. One of its main temples, Los Angeles Honpa Hongwanji, is about three blocks from the Higashi temple.
Marvin Harada [00:07:04] On a practical level, many of our temples initiated precautionary measures, and they they talked about safety issues and whether we should have active shooter protocols and things like that. So, you know, many of our temples had those kinds of discussions and and even some have now gone to having security guards when we have our Sunday services and things like that.
Jeff Wilson voiceover: [00:07:35] Beyond logistics, temple ministers also reflected on their own actions and reactions. Naturally, they turned to Buddhism and the Buddhist teachings, known as the Dharma, to try and understand the situation.
Marvin Harada [00:07:49] I think Buddhism gets to the core. It gets to the very source of such such acts of hatred and violence. Buddhism is pointing to the the self-centered, the ego self that acts... out of ignorance, out of anger, out of greed. And and that's the real source of the issue. … some individuals, you know, act out on it in in such extreme ways. But the core is is the same within all of us, that greed, anger and ignorance. So it should always lead to self-reflection. Even when we see these horrendous things on the news, it should still always lead to our own self-reflection. If I don't listen to the Dharma and be grounded in the teachings, you know, who knows what I might be capable of if I lose control.
Jeff Wilson voiceover [00:08:51] While local ministers focused on pastoral responses, Buddhist scholars drew upon their knowledge of history to provide context for the wave of attacks. Dr. Duncan Ryuken Williams of the University of Southern California serves as an assistant minister at Zenshuji, a Soto Zen temple a couple of blocks away from the Higashi temple. As a historian of American Buddhism he recognized the deep roots of this terrible moment and the need for recognition of that legacy.
Duncan Williams [00:9:22] there's, in fact, a much longer history of Asian-American Buddhists especially, who have come up against this idea of America as essentially a white and Christian nation. And because on the basis of race or on the basis of religion, Asian-American Buddhists don't fit either of those categories. The idea of Asian-Americans as ultimately non-American, un-American or even anti-American goes all the way back to the earliest groups… whether it's something at the federal level, like the Chinese Exclusion Act, where discussions around, you know, the assimilability of such a group was questioned, an immigration law, the first time a federal law targeted one particular group for exclusion from America. Based on in the discussions of the U.S. Senate at the time this idea that they were not only racially unassailable but as heathens, so-called non-Christians, were religiously unacceptable as belonging in the American context.
Jeff Wilson voiceover [00:10:36] Dr. Williams’s award-winning book American Sutra detailed the way Japanese immigrants and their children were branded as un-American, with the strength of Buddhism within the community one of the primary factors for their exclusion. It was these same immigrants who founded the Higashi, Honpa Hongwanji, and Zenshuji temples as places of worship and sites of refuge from a hostile white Christian America.
Duncan Williams [00:11:04] One of the things about Asian-American Buddhist history and its long history is that we can look back, you know, in the different decades, such as during World War Two, with the Japanese American experience, a community that was a majority Buddhist community where Buddhist priests were targeted for arrest. After Pearl Harbor. Temples were often the targets of vandalism. People would shoot shotguns at temples. There were arson attempts at temples and so on and so forth. So this is not the first time that Asian-Americans have been the target of an individual or institutional basis animus where race and religion was kind of conflated.
Jeff Wilson voiceover [00:11:53] Dr. Funie Hsu, an Associate Professor of American Studies at San Jose University, was also struggling with the difficult times. In conversation with Dr. Williams and Chenxing Han, the author of Be the Refuge: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists, Dr. Hsu drew on her knowledge of Asian American Buddhist history to understand the present.
Funie Hsu [00:12:14] I think a lot of the anti-Asian violence can seem to people who are more on the periphery of the conversations around Asian-American racialization in the United States or Buddhism and race in the United States, can seem like it has nothing to do with Buddhism. But in actuality … being Asian American and Buddhist is this complex intertwining of race and religion … the first community of embodied practitioners in the United States, who were Chinese laborers, … they not only faced anti-Asian violence, but a lot of that violence was intertwined with the kind of religious violence that, in fact, you couldn't really separate it. And so for Asian American Buddhists, even though many of the anti-Asian attacks that we saw that went viral had really no mention of Buddhism or no kind of overt symbols of Buddhism, … for Asian American Buddhists, we understand that this really as always being intertwined
Jeff Wilson voiceover [00:13:14] Their conversations led into discussion of how to act in the wake of the temple arson, the Atlanta spa murders, and the other attacks. Williams, Hsu, and Han began to envision a specifically Buddhist public response. It wasn’t enough to know the history, or worry in hushed private conversations, or put up ever higher temple fences. It was time for a dramatic act of communal gathering and healing, one that engaged with the recent attacks and the entire sweep of Asian American Buddhist marginalization and suffering. It was time for ceremony.
Jeff Wilson voiceover [00:14:10] Act Two: Resilience. In the early Spring of 2021, Dr. Funie Hsu and American Buddhist scholar Chenxing Han were involved in conversations with Dr. Duncan Williams about producing a public Buddhist memorial ritual at the Higashi temple. They named it May We Gather.
Funie Hsu [00:14:32] We organized, May We Gather, because it became increasingly clear to us with the ongoing acts of anti-Asian violence, that there needed to be a coherent response and one that was a passionate and compassionate response as well… And then when the Atlanta shooting happened, that really was what created this idea or stimulated this idea of having a ritual, a memorial, that later in the process of planning the initial invite, we came to know and call May We Gather.
Jeff Wilson voiceover [00:15:09] Chenxing Han noted that at the time of the Atlanta area shootings, Covid-19 vaccines weren’t fully rolled out yet. This meant that people were still unable to gather in order to process traumatic events.
Chenxing Han [00:15:22] And so my sense, especially among the Asian-American community, was that there was just so much individual helplessness or grief or rage or shock or numbness, just this all of these different emotions and not a lot of collective space for processing those emotions or expressing those emotions. And we really wanted to find a way to respond from our position as Asian-American Buddhists… May We Gather is indeed, I would say, a form of both resistance and an expression of resilience in the face of a country in which white Christian privilege, white Christian supremacy, still operates on a daily level, sometimes invisibly, sometimes very much overtly. And that explains why there was an arson, why there are acts of violence committed against racial minorities and religious minorities in an ongoing way.
Duncan Williams [00:16:16] there is this kind of racial karma of America where these type of exclusions and telling people they don't belong and, they're, you know, China flu and all this stuff, this kind of language is not new. And I think the resilience and the ways in which Asian-American Buddhists have been able to maintain and persist is something we also wanted to kind of note, to say it wasn't just about the violence and the immediate response to it, but a reference back to this much longer history of persistence, survival and creating a home and refuge, a sangha in America. And so I felt the ceremony was as much about that as about, you know, trying to find a direct, you know, immediate response to what had happened in Atlanta
Jeff Wilson voiceover [00:17:09] Buddhism in the popular American imagination is often stereotyped as meditation practice, with people sitting passively on cushions as they seek inner calm and detachment. But in living Asian-majority Buddhist temples, Buddhism is about community and caring, and the primary practices are ceremonies, memorial services, chanting rituals, and acts of charity and kindness. These practices can bring struggling individuals together into an interconnected group of support, and work on healing the mind and heart on levels that doctrinal study or quiet meditation don’t necessarily reach.
Duncan Williams [00:17:48] ceremony has the power sometimes on a more unconscious level to provide meaning and cohesion and the bringing together of people where having something in a moment when it could be the one is anxious or upset or so, ano, hurt. How do we how do we heal that? And so ceremony to me sometimes more than the words themselves, can have this very, very strong repair kind of work. And that's sometimes a little bit less articulated, less kind of on the conscious level, but more unconsciously bringing people together for the purpose of, you know, alleviating suffering together.
Chenxing Han [00:18:35] I've often had the experience myself and heard others speak of this, of there's points where you're chanting together and maybe you close your eyes. And it can feel like your voice is coming through the mouths of other people, or it's hard to know where you begin and other you know, where other people and you begin. And I think that's a very profound expression of the teaching of anatta, one of the three marks of Buddhism, impermanence.
Funie Hsu [00:19:00] I think that May We Gather was able to highlight that sort of kind of common sense feeling that a lot of us do have, especially those of us who are raised as Asian-American Buddhists. A lot of our experience around Buddhism is around memorial. Maybe that's our first time that we really are thrown into Buddhist practice because someone in our family died and then we become engaged whether we wanted to or not.
Jeff Wilson voiceover [00:19:20] Buddhism is very diverse, and different lineages assign different meanings to rituals and memorials. For Jodo Shinshu Pure Land Buddhist temples, like the Higashi temple or those in the Buddhist Churches of America, memorials are oriented toward comforting the living. In many other Buddhist traditions, memorials are designed to generate merit that may be dedicated to the deceased in order to improve their future rebirths. But regardless of the exact doctrine of this or that Buddhist lineage, memorial ceremonies are always an opportunity to reconnect with those we’ve lost and soak in the Dharma with others who seek to heal. Rev. Ito expressed his view:
Noriaki Ito [00:20:09] the person who passed away has become, you know, especially it was like the grandfather or something has become your personal Buddha, your personal teacher. And so as long as you can keep your memories of the kind of person that he was or she was, then you will continue to be inspired. And and hopefully to you know reach the kind of goals that that person wished for you.
Jeff Wilson voiceover [00:20:38] Working with Rev. Ito at the Higashi temple, Williams, Hsu, and Han began to put together the pieces of their ceremony. Who should be invited? Who should be honored? What rituals should it include? Among themselves, they already represented several different Buddhist traditions, from different cultural backgrounds. Gradually, May We Gather evolved into something unprecedented: what if instead of grounding the ceremony in one Buddhist tradition, it was grounded in all of them? What if instead of honoring the experience of the Japanese American Buddhist community or the Chinese American Buddhist community, it honored the shared experiences of all Asian American Buddhists? What if instead of rituals from Higashi or Zenshuji, it included rituals from every temple tradition in Los Angeles? Was a truly pan-Asian American Buddhist memorial ceremony possible? And more to the point, could they pull it off?
Chenxing Han [00:21:37] … major limitation we faced was Covid, so we could only have a very small number of spots for who could be invited. In fact, we would want to invite far more people, or even better yet, make it a public ceremony where people could attend in person. But since there was still social distancing, everyone had to wear a mask. So there were a very limited number of people. On top of that, there were language barriers to contend with … my spouse Trent, who speaks several Southeast Asian languages, was sort of helping us to navigate Vietnamese and Lao and Thai, Khmer. And we were working with Chinese and Japanese.
Duncan Williams [00:22:12] people from all these different both ethnic and lineage communities. And there were also some challenges with, you know, sometimes some Theravada monks did not want to be on the same platform as Mahayana priests to do the ceremony together. So I had to figure out a technique to kind of have people come on in different moments and and so on and so forth. There was also challenges around just getting the full range of Asian-American Buddhist representation to to to come together, because, again, sometimes some ethnic groups also have a historical uh like not they don't like to work with each other.
Funie Hsu [00:22:58] I think another element that really was something that could have been a big disastrous surprise was the fact that it was live stream. So not only were we going to have this ritual, it was something that because of the COVID precautions and the fact that we couldn't invite everyone to gather with us in person, we felt having this livestream component was a way of maintaining that feeling, of being together in ceremony and in ritual and gathering, which was so essential to May We Gather. So taking the risk to do something that we have never done before… And being able to manage the people in the different processions of events, all of that had to be sort of produced as if this was like a TV show.
Jeff Wilson voiceover [00:23:51] With a hard deadline of 49 days after the Atlanta shootings, the team worked quickly to produce the event, calling upon their many connections in the Asian American Buddhist community to assemble donors, technical crew, artists, and most importantly Buddhist monks and nuns from a huge diversity of traditions to participate in the ceremony. A website was put together to publicize the event, and Buddhist temples and practitioners from across the country were encouraged to sign on as supporters. Hundreds did so, and word of the upcoming ceremony began to spread further, to Canada, Europe, Japan, China, and Cambodia.
Chenxing Han [00:24:27] in terms of time, we couldn't have a rehearsal at all. So really the rehearsal had to happen right before the live ceremony went live. And they were very rushed rehearsals... there was just sort of this almost chaos. We were, I don't know if, I think it's fair to say we were not sure if it would all come together the moment the cameras started rolling.
Jeff Wilson voiceover [00:24:47] On May 4, 2021, the cameras did start to roll. Reverend Marvin Harada began to chant Sanbujo, inviting the buddhas of all directions throughout the universe to join the assembly for the ceremony. The doors to the Higashi temple sanctuary opened, and monks and nuns from every Buddhist tradition solemnly marched into the temple.
Chenxing Han [00:25:14] None of us were quite sure what we were doing, but then we also had this shared intention. And then the moment that the cameras really started rolling, there was a very palpable shift in energy in the room, as if like everything came together and there's something very fluid. And I think that was really moving. I remember speaking into the camera and being nervous, but then knowing Funie's here with me, Duncan's here with me, and all these people are here. And I felt this sense of very much not being alone, that there were so many other people just with us. … the embodied feeling of what it was like to be in that room with all these people was really powerful.
Jeff Wilson voiceover [00:25:51] The gathering had begun.
Jeff Wilson voiceover [00:26:06] Act Three: Ceremony. As monks and nuns poured into the Higashi temple and offered incense, head minister Reverend Noriaki Ito led the assembly in chanting Juseige, an excerpt from the Larger Pure Land Sutra. As the chanting wound down, Chenxing Han stepped to the microphone.
Chenxing Han [00:26:50] [FADES IN UNDER VOICEOVER]…you to May We Gather a national Buddhist memorial for Asian American ancestors. We extend our deepest gratitude to Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, for hosting today's ceremony. … Today, May 4th, 2021, marks the 49th day since eight people, six of them women of Asian descent, were killed in a mass shooting in Georgia. In many Buddhist traditions, the 49th day after death is an important moment of transition for both the deceased and the bereaved. Our collective grief is likewise shaped by the horrors of the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed the lives of over 3 million people around the globe, including nearly 600,000 Americans… The virus has also been used as a racist justification for many of the recent incidents of anti-Asian violence… Our bodies have been unjustly blamed for the work of microscopic vectors.
Jeff Wilson voiceover [00:27:52] Next, Funie Hsu moved to the podium.
Funie Hsu [00:27:56] In the face of nearly two centuries of xenophobia and systemic violence, Asian-American Buddhists have long joined together to rebuild our communities. Piece by broken piece, we sutured the jagged edges of altars, statues, incense burners and our very bodies and minds back together. This mending is part of our Buddhist practice in America. Each act of rejoining reveals how compassion can arise out of racial suffering. How fragments are inseparable from wholeness. We mend them as a declaration of our interconnectedness, as an expression of gratitude to our ancestors, and as a way to cultivate the karmic conditions for American Buddhism's continued flourishing.
Jeff Wilson voiceover: [00:28:48] Chenxing Han introduced a short video of the sons of one of the Atlanta victims, talking about their mother, a Korean American Buddhist. Afterwards, the assembly took refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the community of practitioners, a common ritual at many Buddhist gatherings. Then Duncan Williams rose to deliver a message.
Duncan Williams [00:29:10] We gather today because only through joining together do we know that we are not alone. In ceremony, loss can be transformed into connection, including connection with those we believe are absent. The Buddha himself told his community just before he died that while he would no longer be physically present, he would still be with them through his teaching and his example. Indeed, the Buddha is with us in this present moment. He is here through his teachings, which links the past to the present and each of us to one another. Death may be thought of as a loss. But in the customary 49 days of mourning after a person's passing, we come to learn from the deceased just how present they are in our hearts and minds, our bones and marrow... together, we join today to repair the racial karma of this nation, because our destinies and freedoms are intertwined. And though the mountain of suffering is high and the tears of pain fill the deepest oceans, our path compels us to rise up like a lotus flower above muddy waters.
Jeff Wilson voiceover [00:30:33] After Dr. Williams, Reverend Ito came forward to deliver his own message.
Noriaki Ito [00:30:39] In the Pure Land Shin Buddhist tradition, we are always encouraged to engage in self-examination as ordinary beings afflicted with the three poisons of anger, greed and ignorance. We come to the realization that we are no better than anyone else... It is difficult not to condemn those who commit violence against others. But as Buddhists, we are encouraged to learn from every experience, every relationship, as we proceed on the path given to us by Shakyamuni Buddha and by all of the Buddhas that we honor and remember here today.
Jeff Wilson voiceover [00:31:19] After Reverend Ito, Venerable Kinh Nghiem of Deer Park Monastery gave a short talk. When she finished, Chenxing Hand returned to the podium.
Chenxing Han [00:31:28] On the altar before us are six memorial tablets bearing the names of Yong Ae Yue, Vechar Ratanapakdee, Tommy Le, Tien Min Lee, Kanisaburo Oshima and Hsi Bu Nen. These six individuals are just some of the many Asian-American Buddhists killed in acts of violence from the 19th century to the present. Because the history of systemic anti-Asian violence in the US includes erasure, many of the names of those killed have not been documented. We say the names of these six individuals while acknowledging and honoring the many other names not on the altar today. Grief and loss connect us across different ethnic and spiritual communities. The seventh Central Tablet commemorates all people who have lost their lives due to racial and religious animus.
Jeff Wilson voiceover [00:32:37] Members of the assembly came forward once more to offer incense as the names played across the screen for those watching around the world. The merit dedication was followed by a prayer, then a talk in Spanish on the Buddhist virtue of patience by Bhante Sanathavihari of Saranthchandra Buddhist Center, and one by Bishop Myokei Caine-Barrett of Myokenji Temple Nichiren Buddhist Center of Texas. Dr. Hsu introduced the next ritual.
Funie Hsu [00:33:07] On the altar before us is a Kintsugi Lotus, handcrafted, especially for our ceremony today by James Okamura. Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics by mending the fractures with gold and lacquer. The lotus flower rising clean from muddy roots symbolizes the purity and potential of the Buddha's awakening. The cracks in this Kintsugi Lotus will now be gilded by several of our monastics in attendance. Transforming brokenness into beauty.
Chenxing Han [00:33:43] The work of repairing our communities requires remembering rather than hiding the ways in which we've been hurt. The careful rejoining process of Kintsugi embodies our collective efforts to heal the wounds of racism and religious bigotry. The gilding of the Kintsugi Lotus will be accompanied by the chanting of the Heart Sutra in Korean by a delegation from the Jogye order led by venerable Myogyeong of Korean Buddhist temple, followed by the chanting in Tibetan of Jampe Kuzug and Ngomon, led by Geshe Phuntsho and both Tanzin Tharpa and venerable Tenzin Lekshey of Gaden Shartse Thubten Dhargye Ling.
Jeff Wilson voiceover [00:34:26] As the chanting filled the sanctuary, one by one the monks and nuns moved forward to dip a brush in melted gold, which they painted into the cracks of the white ceramic lotus flower. This was followed by two more talks. As the ceremony drew to a close, white strings were tied from the altar, through the sanctuary, and out to the front of the temple, where they were attached to the lanterns that had been broken by the arsonist.
Funie Hsu [00:35:02] The two long white threads emanating from the altar will be empowered with the blessings of these chants. These chords weave together the Buddha as represented on the altar, the Dharma as manifest in the parrita chants, and the collective protection [chant] and interconnectedness of everyone participating in this event in-person and online. [chanting] These threads will guide us as we leave this space to share our aspirations for peace and healing with the world.
Funie Hsu [00:35:46] I recall many people telling me and most of these people were Asian American Buddhists, that as soon as it started and there was a procession of the ordained and Buddhist leadership coming in, that's when their tears started to flow. Just hearing the chanting, seeing them walk in, right away, that they had this feeling of this is different. And this really touches something about their experience being Buddhist and this new aspect of their experience being Buddhist in America that hadn't really been spoken to or invited into existence in this kind of way.
Duncan Williams [00:36:28] I feel that there's something very powerful about all these lineages existing here in America and being able to come together. There's something in some ways I feel like it's never probably even happened in the history of Buddhism, where you can have so many different lineage people work together on ceremony, and that's the opportunity I think the United States gives us.
Chenxing Han [00:36:54] it shifted something for me. It was, again, for me, a reminder that we're actually so much more connected … I think Buddhism invites us into a kind of deep and profound kinship with people, even if they don't share our racial or ethnic or religious backgrounds.
Jeff Wilson voiceover [00:37:20] This podcast was produced in collaboration with the Religion, Race & Democracy Lab at the University of Virginia. With help from the Lab’s Senior Producer, Emily Gadek, and the Lab’s Editor, Kelly Hardcastle Jones. News clips were sourced from CNN.
The full May We Gather ceremony can be found at Excerpts from that ceremony are used with permission.
You can find more documentary research on religion, race, and democracy and more stories from the Lab’s summer institute at
[00:38:03] PODCAST ENDS]

Like so much in American religion, the 2021 Buddhist ceremony May We Gather combined elements of suffering, solidarity, and healing. Once again, prejudice tried to destroy those who are viewed as outside the white Christian American ideal. But this time it also inadvertently stimulated the creation of something beautiful and strong: a new form of Asian American Buddhist gathering that responded to America’s racial karma with defiance, historical awareness, and communal care.

May We Gather came together in the wake of tragedy. The worldwide trauma of Covid-19 was exacerbated in the United States by hate crimes against Asian Americans, especially after Donald Trump’s racialization and politicization of the pandemic. There were numerous unprovoked assaults on Asian Americans, including elders, women, and parents with young children, and fear became widespread. The lowest point was the sickening massacre of workers and patrons at three Atlanta-area Asian spas.

Sadly, this was only the latest in a long history of discrimination and endangerment. Asian Americans have been subject to suspicion, marginalization, and violence for over 150 years, from lynchings to the WWII American concentration camps. This is especially so for Asian American Buddhists, who suffer intersectional violence due to both race and religion (and even more so for women and queer Buddhists). Buddhist temples in particular have frequently been the target of arson, vandalism, and other forms of attack, and yet another spike of attacks occurred during the pandemic.

In addition to racial and religious-based targeting, Asian American Buddhists have—ironically—often found themselves sidelined. Discussion of race in America focuses mainly on Black/white issues; consideration of religion mainly concentrates on Christianity, or, increasingly, the spiritual-but-not-religious scene; and even when Buddhism is noted by the mainstream the lion’s share of attention goes to the smaller but more socially-enfranchised white Buddhist community, or to the often appropriative mindfulness industry. Even within American Buddhist discourse the Asian American majority frequently find themselves left out, subject to the ignorance or insultingly condescending attitudes of some white Buddhists, as Dr. Funie Hsu has discussed.

After the Georgia shootings (and yet another temple arson), the common experience of fear, marginalization, sadness, and anger was crystalized into action by several Buddhist scholars and their community partners. The result was May We Gather, an Asian American Buddhist response that drew on community, family, and tradition in distinctive ways. It was also breath-takingly innovative, combining unheard of pan-ethnic and pan-sectarian inclusivity, new rituals, and deft use of technology to weave a tapestry of healing that provided refuge for Buddhists near and far.
Buddhism is subject to many stereotypes: that it’s all about meditation, that Buddhists are calm and passive, that it is a foreign religion, that it focuses on individual enlightenment.

May We Gather reflects a more accurate presentation, especially for historic Asian American communities: community and ritual are at the heart of Buddhism; they have deep powers for cultivating healing and solidarity; Asian American Buddhists will stand up for themselves and claim their rightful place in American society when threatened; and generations of American Buddhists have found ways to navigate the seas of intolerance and erasure to achieve a measure of peace and happiness.


Han, Chenxing. Be the Refuge: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2021.
Williams, Duncan Ryuken. American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019.
Yancy, George, and Emily McRae, eds. Buddhism and Whiteness: Critical Reflections. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2019.

Project Contributors

Jeff Wilson

Jeff Wilson

Professor of Religious Studies and East Asian Studies

Jeff Wilson is a professor of Religious Studies and East Asian Studies at Renison University College (University of Waterloo). His research focuses on Buddhism in North America, Hawaii, and Japan. His first book, Mourning the Unborn Dead (Oxford 2009), examined the American uses of Japanese Buddhist post-abortion rituals. His second book, Dixie Dharma (North Carolina 2012), explored the role of regionalism in the life of a Buddhist temple in the South. His third book, Mindful America (Oxford 2014), charted the transformation of mindfulness from a Buddhist monastic practice to a omnipresent medical, psychological, and self-help technique. His fourth book, Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki, Volume III: Comparative Religion (California 2016), examined the interfaith writings of one of the most important 20th century Japanese Buddhist scholars. He is also the author of pioneering research on the first documented clergy-led same-sex marriages in American history, including the world’s first Buddhist same-sex wedding ceremonies.

Kelly Hardcastle Jones

Kelly Hardcastle Jones


I’m a freelance producer and editor, currently working on Seizing Freedom (from Virginia Public Media and Stitcher). I also help UVA students produce documentaries for the Religion, Race & Democracy Lab. I used to be a producer for BackStory, which I joined after a brief and sordid affair with graduate-level philosophy in Guelph, Canada. I started a nationally syndicated radio show and podcast called Pioneer Radio, got some training at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, won a Third Coast Short Doc award for a three-minute piece about poutine, produced a documentary for the BBC about firearm suicide, and started a family. Before becoming a freelancer, I developed, produced, edited, and hosted a podcast through NPR’s Storytelling Lab called Do Over about regret and the strange terror of the choices we make. I also produced Brand Soundscapes for NPM/Creative. In my non-audio time, I do kung fu.

Emily Gadek

Emily Gadek

Senior Producer

These days, Gadek spends her time producing Sacred & Profane, the Lab’s podcast exploring the many ways religion shapes our daily lives. Previously, she was a producer for Virginia Humanities’ popular American history show, BackStory, and worked on WBEZ Chicago’s morning news show Eight Forty-Eight. In other lives, she’s been an ESL teacher, a freelance audio producer and videographer, and ran a website for a midcentury modern house museum in the deep desert of Southern California.

Additional Credits

Music in the episode is from Blue Dot Sessions. Photo by Tauran Woo for May We Gather.