On American Values

Today, I volunteered at my temple. Every semester, a class from the Jesuit university down the street comes to learn about Buddhism as part of their world religions course, and I took a shot at explaining its history and relevance.

I fielded a number of questions regarding the core beliefs and practices of Buddhism; the migration of the tradition from Asia to the West (and in some cases back to Asia); and the practice of recognizing and cultivating compassion.

The final question was about the temple itself, and how it was built. At that moment I put a few pieces together, and decided to tell them a story with some contemporary parallels.

Members of this tradition came together in Seattle in the late 19th century. Responding to an impassioned plea by the merchants, farmers, laborers and other tradespeople who had settled here, religious leaders in Japan sent ministers to preside over religious services, including funerals. By the 1930s, second-generation Japanese-Americans composed a large proportion of the temple’s membership, and they had outgrown their meeting hall.

The congregation at the time, while not exactly flush with cash, had a few acres of property and just enough credit to build a new temple. Starting in 1940, construction crews were aided by parishioners, who arranged working parties on Sundays, their only days off, to keep the project close to its budget. A thousand people participated in the dedication, on October 5, 1941.

Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Empire of Japan on December 7.

The temple president, a well-known businessman, was arrested that afternoon. The bank where many temple members kept their personal and business accounts was seized by federal agents on the morning of December 8, leaving them without access to funds. Ten days later, the first batch of people of Japanese descent were sent to internment camps.

On December 23, eleven hundred Japanese-Americans held an Americanism Rally in Seattle. There, they drafted and signed a statement of loyalty and transmitted it to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Three days later, the second wave of internees was shipped off to Montana.

On May 3, 1942, less than 7 months after this temple was dedicated, its entire congregation was interned. The temple itself was taken over by the U.S. Maritime Commission, who used it during the war as a barracks and command center. In 1945, when members returned from their internment, they found their main hall had been broken into and ransacked, their personal effects pillaged. Reverend Tatsuya Ichikawa, the temple’s long-serving head minister, and his family were the last to be released, in March of 1946.

All told, at least 110,000 people of Japanese descent were interned between 1942 and 1945–80,000 of them second- or third-generation American citizens. According to the Densho Project, “during World War II, no Japanese American in the U.S., Hawaii or Alaska, citizen or immigrant, was ever convicted of espionage or sabotage.”

I need to underscore that most of these people were Americans. And not only passport-holders or (ugh) anchor babies: they were English teachers, grocers, doctors, architects, even a semipro baseball team. They were proud, patriotic citizens. And somehow, after all of the mistreatment they suffered at the hands of the American government, they remain so today. Their sole crime was where, or to whom, they were born.

I go to a temple where children attend a week-long program called the Kids’ Summer Program. Not “camp.” Never “camp.” “Camp” is reserved to describe the shared experience of those 70 and older, where their homes and livelihoods were taken from them by an angry, paranoid, authoritarian government — all in the political equivalent of the blink of an eye. They became untouchables, pariahs. Enemies. Some lost family farms and businesses. Some were separated from their families for the duration of the war. And all the while, the remainder of American culture hummed along as though they weren’t complicit in the atrocity.

If there’s one thing you learn when you study this period, it’s this: not only can Americans abandon their core values, we do it fast.

When the politically and/or socioeconomically privileged feel threatened, when they feel angry, when they feel fearful, they will act with great speed on that emotion. The country we glorify— bring me your tired, your poor — can evaporate right in front of our eyes, if we let it.

Which brings us to the present day.

Refugees by the thousands are actively risking their lives for nothing more than a chance at something else. They come from places where many of them risk death at the hands of any number of brutal groups. In Syria alone, it could come from a government that doesn’t like your particular sect, or tribe. Or it can come from a doomsday cult that controls supply lines, captures cities, and kills without reason or emotion.

“Refuge” is one of the most used, most comforting words used in Buddhist scripture. We take refuge in the compassionate Buddha. We take refuge in the Dharma that he taught. We take refuge in the community of practitioners, our fellow travelers, the Sangha. Refuge is the protection against the suffering we all experience. And the suffering these refugees have experienced is so intense, many of them have left most of what they own and everything they know, because anywhere, literally anywhere, is better than where they came from.

The values that we are taught as being quintessentially American are echoed in Buddhist teachings. Charity. Virtue. Wisdom. Diligence. Tolerance. Equality. In fact, people of any (or no) creed can find these traits in their own ideals. If we have these values, we must hold them up for everyone, or they’re not truly our values. They’re just feel-good lies we tell ourselves.

The news reduces this to a migration crisis. It reduces these people to Muslims. And we lose our vision from there. We become self-centered and small. We look at these suffering people not as victims of the people they’re fleeing, but strangely, perversely, as their reflection. We think the worst of this religion we know so little about, while never allowing ourselves to see the kind of hatred and hostility we present them.

It’s that hatred and hostility that’s played up by our politicians to curry favor. They say, hey, maybe we should put them in a database. Maybe we should question and detain them. Maybe we should keep them from the refuge they’re requesting. Maybe we should close their places of worship. Maybe we should round them up. For safety. To protect our way of life. From them.

Whether it’s nationality, or faith, or skin color, people individually and collectively make bad decisions out of prejudice. We are seen for the hypocrites that we are. And the cycle continues. Others see us making enemies of them, out loud, right there on the screen, and they make enemies of us.

At our best, we made a better country by welcoming people who were not like us. And we almost never treated them well to begin with. But they wanted to be among us. And gradually, they became a lot like us. And we became a little like them.

If you read the news — the politicians posturing over excluding people because of their ancestry, or their nationality, or their religion — and think “no,” you need to say “no” out loud. Right now. And you need to keep saying it. To your friends. To the politicians. As often and as loudly as you can. By the time you see innocent people being persecuted, or imprisoned, or worse, it is already too late.

On the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor Day, President George H. W. Bush issued a formal apology from the United States government for the internment. The apology includes this passage:

“In remembering, it is important to come to grips with the past. No nation can fully understand itself or find its place in the world if it does not look with clear eyes at all the glories and disgraces of its past. We in the United States acknowledge such an injustice in our history. The internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry was a great injustice, and it will never be repeated.”

It will never be repeated.

Will it?