Ohigan 1942

Last month we observed the 75th Anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which was signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, authorizing the forced evacuation of all persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack. As we recall these important events for our Nembutsu community here in the United States, I have encountered precious insights in the diaries of Rev. Daisho Tana, who was serving the Japanese Buddhist community in Lompoc, California when the war broke out.   In later years, Rev. Tana was assigned to the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, where he cared for our Sangha from 1952 to 1955.

On February 24, 1942, FBI agents accompanied by three local police officers went to Rev. Tana’s home to investigate his activities.  When they arrived at his door, he asked them straightaway if he was to be taken into custody. They affirmed that he was.  The agents commenced to search his entire house from top to bottom, including the attic, the basement, and the back of the Buddha shrine, looking for guns, radios, or other items designated as contraband for enemy aliens.They left having found no prohibited items during their two-hour search. Rev.Tana was detained on March 13 and on March 14was put onto a truck bound for Los Angeles along with twelve other Japanese community leaders from the San Luis Obispo area, including a fellow Buddhist minister and a Japanese Christian pastor.

They were first detained at an old Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Tuna Canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains west of Los Angeles.  Rev. Tana’s diary entries from those early days of the internment paint a powerful picture of the disorienting experience of being transported from one place to another with little certainty of what the future would hold.  In the midst of all the confusion, Rev. Tana describes the clarity and comfort he found in the Buddha’s teachings.

As we prepare to observe our Spring Ohigan Service at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple on March 12, 2017 at 9:30 a.m., I would like to share the following entry from March 1942 in which Rev. Tana describes the first major Buddhist Observance that was held in the Tuna Canyon camp:

Ohigan Service in the Internment Camp—March 22, 1942

Today is Sunday.  At 9:00 a.m. there was an outdoor Christian Service.  I admire the practice of holding Sunday Services without fail wherever one may find oneself.

I do not care to get up in front of a crowd of people and promote Buddhism.  However, today is the Spring Equinox, so the various Buddhist sects decided to come together this evening for an Ohigan Service.

We hung a painted image of Amida Buddha in C Block and chanted the Junirai (“The Twelve Praises of Amida Buddha”) all together.  Gathered as Buddhists in the hall that was full to capacity, I was filled with emotion to be observing this year’s Ohigan Service in such an unexpected place.

Having been tasked with giving the Dharma talk at the Ohigan Service in this unexpected place, I entitled my talk “Our Ohigan” and spoke about the ideals we might aspire to as people being held prisoner.  When people applauded in the middle of my talk it struck me as rather unbefitting a Buddhist Service.  However, when they applauded again at the conclusion of my 30-minute Dharma talk, it occurred to me that it was not merely polite applause, but that I may have struck a chord with others who shared my sentiments.

I was encouraged when Pastor Izumi from [a Christian congregation in] Santa Barbara said it was a good sermon.  Pastor Nakane also said he enjoyed the way my voice carries when I speak.  It is a great thing when a person is able to respond to the words someone who holds a different point of view with frank words of appreciation.

(Santa Fe Lordsburg senji tekikokujin yokuryūjo nikki, Volume I, p. 117-118, Trans. H. Adams)

As I reflect on the words of the Junirai, which they chanted that night at Tuna Canyon Camp, and which we regularly chant at our Sunday Services these days in San Mateo, I find that the following verse expresses the wisdom and strength that sustained Rev. Tana in those difficult times:

SHO U MU JO MU GA TO
YAKU NYO SUI GATSU DEN YO RO
I SHU SEPPO MU MYO JI
KO GA CHO RAI MI DA SON

All things are impermanent and nonsubstantial,
Like the moon in the water, a lightning flash, or the dew.
For all beings, the Buddha expounds the Dharma that cannot be expressed in words.
Therefore I pay homage to Amida Buddha, the most Honored One.

(The Pure Land Writings, Volume I: The Indian Masters, p. 41)

When we face unsettling change in our lives and find that the things we have taken as our foundation prove to be nonsubstantial, like the moon on the water, the wisdom of the Buddha shines into our lives and guides us to an appreciation of the truth that goes beyond words.  Rev. Tana’s life of the Nembutsu in the midst of the uncertainty and hardship he and his companions faced shows the great strength that can be found in a life of humble gratitude for the guiding light of Amida Buddha’s wisdom.

Namo Amida Butsu