My Spiritual Ancestors are Japanese, Chinese, and Indian

With the rise of recent hate crimes targeting the Asian American community I feel it necessary to share my love, appreciation and dedication to the people that have fed me spiritually for the last 30 years.  American Zen is indebted to countless Japanese Americans, Chinese-Americans, Korean-Americans, Tibetan-Americans and Indian-Americans who have over the past two centuries brought with them the spiritual teachings from their lands of origin.

For an excellent read on the Japanese American migration to the United States I recommend my colleague, Rev. Duncan Ryuken William’s book, American Sutra.  It clearly lays out the paths many Japanese Americans took in their trek from Japan to the United States, and the trials they experienced.

Japanese Buddhism first came to the Americas with migrant laborers seeking new opportunities across the Pacific.  The first Japanese community to settle in what is now an American territory consisted of 153 contract laborers who emigrated to Hawai’i, then a sovereign nation ruled by King Kamehameha V, to work on the island’s sugar plantations.  The group was later dubbed the “Gannenmono” because they were people (mono) who had left in the first year (gannen) of the Meiji government which was established in 1868.[1]

This time period for Japan engendered great social change.  Japan had been closed to the world for two hundred years and they lagged behind Western powers in terms of military prowess.  To rectify this, they worked extraordinarily hard to transform from a pre-industrial society to a modern society almost overnight.  In the process it became official government policy to expel anything that was foreign, and this included Buddhism.

Buddhism was considered foreign because it didn’t enter Japan until around the 6th century.  During a period of roughly 1000 years Buddhism and Shinto (the indigenous religion of Japan) integrated so that we observed Buddhist priests operating Shinto Shrines, and Shinto deities guarding Buddhist temples.  To this day we can see the remnants of this when visiting Japanese temples.

The gods of thunder and wind are often found at Buddhist Temple gates.

Some Buddhist priests were forced to disrobe.  Temples were destroyed or looted.  Shinto and Buddhist symbols were separated.  Yet the migrants brought Buddhism to their new home.  Under these conditions, Buddhism displayed a remarkable ability to adapt to a new country and to continue to inspire many Japanese-Americans.

Williams further states that the working conditions for Japanese migrants in Hawaii at this time were deplorable.

The twelve-hour workdays on the American-owned sugar plantations, the wretched housing conditions, the language barriers with the overseers, and the mistreatment of the laborers proved too much for many in the group to endure. [2]

Furthermore, during their internment during World War II, we are indebted to Japanese Americans for keeping the teachings of Buddhism alive and thriving during their internment experience.  Despite not having, for example, the usual instruments for performing ceremony consider the following statement from Rev. Bunyu Fujimura while he was imprisoned in Fort Lincoln Internment Camp in North Dakota:

We did not, of course, have a single religious implement to use for Buddhist services.  We did not have a tanjobutsu [Baby Buddha statue], butsu-gu [Buddhist ritual tools], flowers, incense, or any of the implements used in Hanamatsuri [Buddha’s birthday] celebration.  Fortunately, we were with many people who were clever with their hands.  Arthur Yamabe “borrowed” a carrot from the kitchen and carved a splendid image of the Buddha.[3]

This statement speaks to the adaptability of Japanese Americans and reflects what Zen Master Dogen in the 13th century called, “Nunanshin,” or “a soft and flexible heart/mind.”  Dogen described this “Nunanshin” as the very heart of Zen teaching, something beyond words and book knowledge.  Mr. Yamabe was one person of many ordinary Japanese Americans to display Enlightened activity at the camps.

Much more can be said here about Japanese Americans, but also Chinese, Tibetan, and Korean Americans.  Another excellent book on this subject is Rick Fields’, How the Swans Came to the Lake.  It documents the hardships in the forms of prejudices and even lynching that Chinese Americans and other Asian-Americans endured during the process of acculturation and assimilation to the United States.

Somehow, Buddhism survived through all this testing and deeply influenced me. I’m deeply appreciative of the Asian Americans who had the courage to transmit the Dharma to non-Asian Americans like myself. My personal exposure to Buddhism could not have happened without them, and this is why I have a practice of bowing to those who I consider my spiritual ancestors – from Dogen to Huineng, and from Bodhidharma and to the Buddha – who were Japanese, Chinese, and Indian.

Sangha member Jie Shao shared an email to Jisho regarding hate incidences directed towards Asian Americans:

“Thank you so much for initiating the cause here in Iowa!

I really appreciate your condolences to the victims and support to the Asian American communities at this hard time. The same heart-felt thanks to what you guys have always been doing to support underprivileged minorities or anyone who needs our help. It’s important not because I’m Asian, but it’s the call on our basic humanity to be more compassionate and standup together to help heal our troubled world. 

Instead of being angry or fear, I’ve been feeling deep sadness to what have more and more become of our world.  Earthquakes, natural fires, famine, pandemic, and on top of it, we divide, hate and harm each other for all kinds of reasons or merely letting out of our anger. Yes, it’s the degenerating age, but why people would choose to hate and harm each other instead of being united and helping each other facing the challenges?  

There’s an urgency for us to practice compassion and show our kindness. Let’s become peaceful warriors and standup together and fight. Not fighting externally the so-called enemies, but first our inner ignorance, bias, anger and other destructive emotions. Many people think being compassionate and nice is weak, but in fact, it takes more courage to choose to be righteous, and compassion is the strength. Some people also think sit and meditate won’t help the world, but in fact, the deeply felt compassion and awareness in our mind are the only powers that can help the world. Besides, if we’re still very confused by our own bias, anger, etc., and couldn’t feel driven by genuine compassion towards others, we may just easily get lost in whatever we strive to do. 

As a Buddhist practitioner, I’d wear my armor of compassion, and take my sword of wisdom, and fight as a peaceful warrior. Here’s something I can think of. Please meditate on the Four Immsurables, meditate on the sufferings of the victims, their loved ones, and all sentient beings who are suffering now in various ways as if you were them, until you shed your compassionate tears, and may they find inner peace. If you’re not familiar with that, please just pray for all suffering sentient beings, and dedicate your merits to the victims and may they be born into the Pure Land of Bliss.

Please keep learning and practicing Buddhism, the methods to eliminate our cling to this false self, so we could be less biased and more compassionate, and eventually get enlightened by finding our true nature, thus never feeling separated from but truly connected with everyone and everything. When you have wisdom, please skillfully show the wisdom you learn to those who are confused, leading them to the right path. 

There are these beautiful verses better describing the messages here and reveling the powers of the mind. It’s called the Aspirations of Bodhisattva Samantabhadrafrom the last chapter of the Flower Adornment Sutra ( considered “the King of All Sutras” in Chinese tradition, also very much emphasized in Tibetan tradition too) . I attach it here, we can also read it sometime. 

These are just my own thoughts. I’m myself ignorant, there should be a lot better ideas and perspective about it. But thanks for providing the chance for us to reflect on it.

Thanks again for your condolence and support in much need.”



Jie further commented on this blog post:

Thank you Daishin for prompting the awareness of compassion at this important time. Your support means a lot to us! As Daishin pointed out he benefited a lot spiritually from the wisdom and compassion of the East.

I would also say I benefited a lot spiritually by coming to the US and meeting a different culture. From the kindness of people me and my wife have received, I feel Buddha’s teachings become more vivid, “people are from North or South, but Buddha nature has no North or South”.

Fundamentally we are the same, we all look for loving kindness and compassion, and we feel right when we treat others with loving kindness and compassion. That’s the same conclusion from all the great wisdom traditions whether it is West or East. But it is through the spiritual journey here in the US that makes me feel more so, so I really appreciate it.

[1] Duncan Ryuken Williams,  American Sutra:  A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War.  Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019.  P. 22.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. p. 86.

The words Zen Fields and a signature stamp next to a spare ink pen outline of a meditator in a field


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