This past month the San Mateo Buddhist Temple had the honor of hosting a tour group from the San Francisco Foundation that was visiting sites in North Central San Mateo to learn more about the history of our neighborhood, how it is changing, and the current challenges faced by its residents. The tour organizers were eager to include SMBT on the tour to highlight the important role that the Japanese-American Buddhist community has played in our neighborhood over the past 120 years.
During the visit, our guests heard from four SMBT Sangha members and longtime residents of North Central about their memories of life in the neighborhood and their hopes for the future. Each shared a moving story of how their family had overcome challenges to establish meaningful lives here in San Mateo. I’d like to share one of those stories, as I find it particularly relevant as we prepare to observe our Bodhi Day service on Sunday, December 1, 2020, at 9:30 a.m., in celebration of Sakyamuni Buddha’s realization of enlightenment seated beneath the Bodhi Tree:
The most significant event that happened as a child was the U.S. evacuation order in Feb. 1942. I was 6 years old then and vividly remember the black-out drills the city had where all lights in the homes and streets had to be turned off until the all-clear sirens would go off and curfews were set at 8:00 PM. My father was a landscape gardener during the day and often was asked by wealthy families in Hillsborough to wash dishes for their parties and would drive home with his headlights turned off. I remember how I was worried that he’d be caught. We only had three months to prepare to move – selling whatever we could for a few cents to the dollar and burning everything else we couldn’t sell or take with us. I recall tears streaming down my older siblings’ faces seeing their treasured books and things thrown in the bonfire in our backyard. On moving day, May 9, 1942, my younger brother had just turned 3 on May 7. We closed the house and walked from Delaware to Tilton to the Masonic Hall on Ellsworth and Tilton. On our way there, my younger brother started to cry because he didn’t have his favorite doll. My father had dumped it in the trash can because it was old and tattered. But my brother cried so hard that my father had to walk back to the house to get it. As the buses arrived to take us to Tanforan Race Track, which was converted to the Assembly Center, I was again worried if my father would return in time so I kept looking down Tilton Ave. With a sign of relief, I saw him coming.
After 3 years in internment camps in Topaz, Utah, and Tule Lake, CA, my family was able to return to San Mateo because my uncle and aunt offered to share their home on Eldorado Street. All 8 of us lived there for 3 years until we were able to save enough money to buy a home on 4th Ave. At that time, we were restricted to buy only in the North Central area – nothing beyond 5th Ave. to the south and Peninsula Ave. to the north and the railroad tracks to the west and Highway 101 to the east.
Returning to San Mateo after the war was difficult. Prejudice against the Japanese community was still strong. The San Mateo Buddhist Temple was “home” for us returnees – a gathering place to share our experiences, and having a minister to listen to and giving us strength to face new challenges as families had to restart their lives from scratch.
The traditional story of the Buddha’s enlightenment tells how a brilliant light shone forth from the place where he sat in meditation as the moment of Siddhartha’s awakening approached. When Mara, the demon king of illusion, saw this light, he knew that Siddhartha was about to go beyond the world of illusion and open forth a path for all beings to break free from Mara’s control in the unending suffering cycle of birth and death. Mara then summoned his army of demon hoards in an attempt to thwart Siddhartha and force him to stray from his path to awakening. Mara came at Siddhartha with the full force of his army of illusion in the hope of disrupting Siddhartha’s meditation. Undaunted in his wisdom and courage, Siddhartha saw through the illusions and refused to be swayed from concentration. At that moment Siddhartha reached down and touched the ground claiming that spot as the site where he would realize unsurpassed awakening. It is said that with this show of determination and resolve by Siddhartha, the earth shook in affirmation and Mara was forced to accept defeat.
The members of the San Mateo Buddhist Temple who returned after the war to reestablish this temple in San Mateo are carrying on this tradition of claiming sacred space for Buddhist practice of Buddha by establishing the lot at 2 South Claremont Street in North Central San Mateo as their place for Awakening.
Namo Amida Butsu