In the following letter, scholar and Soto Zen priest Duncan Ryuken Williams recounts the events of July 20, 2019, when 25 Buddhist priests and lay leaders joined over 400 demonstrators in Oklahoma to protest the transfer of immigrant children to the Fort Sill Army Base, once the site of a Japanese internment camp. Shortly after the Trump administration’s June announcement that it planned to use Fort Sill to house 1,400 undocumented and unaccompanied migrant children, Williams joined a demonstration at the base organized by the immigrant-youth led advocacy group United We Dream and the Japanese American activist organization Tsuru for Solidarity. Planning for the next stage of action, Williams called on Buddhist leaders to come together and hold a remembrance ceremony paralleling a historic funeral service performed by 90 Buddhist priests at Fort Sill in 1942 for the people who died in internment camps (which Williams wrote about in his book American Sutra). He asked people who could not attend to show their support by sending paper cranes. The Buddhist leaders answered the call, and sangha members sent over 4,000 paper cranes. A week later, the White House announced that it was halting plans to transfer the 1,400 children to the former internment camp. In his letter, Williams expresses his gratitude to supporters and reflects on the power of “Buddhist free speech” to change the course of history. 

“We should study how kind and compassionate words . . . have the power to turn the destiny of the nation.” Zen master Dogen (1200-1253), from his Bodaisatta Shishobo

Multi-layered Buddhist robes are not usually worn in 102 degree heat or advisable for marching down a two-lane highway in front of a US Army base, but it felt perfectly fitting to wear them despite such conditions on July 20, 2019 in Lawton, Oklahoma. On this day, a group of 25 Buddhist priests and lay leaders donned their robes and marched with nearly 400 other protestors—including members of a Japanese American organization, Tsuru for Solidarity, that had invited us—toward a fence in front of the Bentley Gate at the Fort Sill Army Base.

We Buddhists walked the highway hoping not to get arrested before we could fulfill our responsibility to the day’s direct action. We planned to chant a Buddhist sutra as close to that fence as possible—a fence that was the site of two shootings of Japanese immigrants by US Army guards at the World War II Fort Sill Internment Camp, and a fence that was also slated to demarcate the confinement site of up to 1,400 asylum-seeking children from Central America, who have been separated from their families. 

Chanting scriptures is one of many forms of Buddhist speech. As Buddhist priests, our expressions can include everything from preaching dharma messages to less formal conversations with a fellow sangha members seeking guidance at difficult times in their lives. 

Sometimes our speech can provide perspective or shift things when we are in a rut, but as, Rev. Joan Amaral, one of my colleagues at the march [and founder of Zen Center North Shore in Beverly, Massachusetts], expressed with the above Dogen quote, kind and compassionate words also have the power to change the destiny of a nation.

And indeed, our chanting of the Heart Sutra at the Fort Sill gates was intended to shift the current course of our nation. We are at a moment in American history when our government’s lawyers make arguments that migrant children placed in cages in border detention facilities do not need to be provided with soap or toothbrushes for basic hygiene. Our nation’s officials claim that a concrete floor and a Mylar blanket is the full extent of what America is required to provide to these children who yearn for freedom and refuge from violence, who are seeking the legal right to have a hearing for asylum in our great nation.

The fate of these migrant children was not an abstract matter for the hundreds of youthful Latinx Dreamers—individuals who entered the US without legal documents as babies or young children—affiliated with United We Dream, the nation’s largest immigrant-youth led network that organized the protest. The Dreamers marched in front of the priests wearing Mylar blankets and orange T-shirts adorned with the words “Close the Camps” while chanting: “Down, down with deportation. Up, up with liberation.” 

During a protest rehearsal held the previous evening in a large conference room at a Best Western hotel in Lawton, we had arranged that the Buddhist priests would bring up the rear of the march. Four Buddhists had been assigned to the “rapid altar set up team” to prepare for our Buddhist ceremony on the highway’s median as soon as the young people reached the fence of the army base. The makeshift altar consisted of a folding table, a tablecloth, a framed photo of Kanesaburo Oshima (one of the Japanese immigrants shot by guards at the WWII Fort Sill Internment Camp fence), a Buddha statue carved in 1943 in the War Relocation Authority camp at Manzanar, and maile lei (a special flower offering sent by the Oshima family from Hawaii). With a pre-designated signal, the Dreamers’ chants would cease, their Mylar blankets would come off, and they would turn quietly toward us on one knee. 

The repeated chants of “Un-documented, Un-afraid”—a brave statement of identity and state of mind—gave us Buddhist priests, many of whom had no prior experience of protests or civil disobedience, the requisite courage to take a stand. Throughout the march, the Japanese American Tsuru for Solidarity team from New York City also served as our protectors, but they were not the only ones. 

internment fort sill
Buddhist priests and lay leaders march toward Fort Sill. | Mike Ishii

One counter-protester from Oklahoma City, holding a Trump 2020 sign and visibly armed with a large hunting knife, pepper spray, and a gun, moved in toward us to stop the chanting of the Buddhist priests. Our friends from the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the ACLU Oklahoma non-violently surrounded this counter-protester to ensure our speech would be protected, with the ACLU Oklahoma closely monitoring what transpired as legal observers. Among those who protected the sacred Buddhist ceremony was Mary Topaum, director of American Indian Movement, Indian Territory. The counter-protestor, who was not only trying to disrupt the ceremony but looking for a fight, caused Mary to fall to the ground, leading to her injuring her knee. She stood back up, letting the man know that she was not retaliating because she was also trying to protect him from himself. Mary was calmly and fiercely protecting those of us chanting a Buddhist scripture. 

There is a Zen Buddhist saying, “nana korobi, ya oki” (“Seven times fall down, Eight times get up”); a teaching that whenever we fall away from our spiritual path, we simply do the work of getting back up. On this day, a Native American friend and leader was knocked down, but she got back up. We bow to her.

With the resounding voice of our chant leader, Rev. Shumyō Kojima of Zenshuji (a historically Japanese American Zen Buddhist temple in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo), we intoned the Heart Sutra into the respectful silence offered by the youth. This Buddhist form of free speech was not only dedicated to those who had suffered at Fort Sill in the past but also a prayer that history would not repeat itself given the reports of an imminent transfer of 1,400 Central American migrant children here.

To be chanting with Buddhist priests from a variety of lineages took me back to the WWII internment of 700 Japanese immigrants who recalled their time in Oklahoma as one of extreme heat, unpredictable winds: “No soap rations. No toothpaste . . . Eat, sleep, wake Up. Eat, sleep, wake Up. [O]ne cannot but help but begin to lose one’s mind.”

Our remembrance ceremony paralleled a funeral held within Fort Sill on May 13, 1942. On that day, nearly 90 Buddhist priests from the Jodo Shinshu, Nichiren, Shingon, Zen, and Jodo sects —the entire spectrum of Japanese Buddhist lineages present in America at that time—performed the largest inter-sectarian Buddhist funeral up until that point in American history. Viewing Buddhist rites as a security threat, the US Army permitted only one joint funeral ceremony for a remembrance of three of the men who died whilst in camp, surrounding the priests with machine guns in case the gathering turned into a riot. The authorities feared such an outcome because two of the three men, Kanesaburo Oshima from Kona, Hawaii, and Ichiro Shimoda from Los Angeles,were killed at the hands of guards by the fence surrounding the internment camp. The large group of Buddhist priests set aside their sectarian differences to mark an important moment in American Buddhist history and to claim in a united show of conviction their right to religious freedom, even when their liberties had been taken away from them.

The chants during the 1942 remembrance ceremony for the immigrants who suffered due to racial and religious animus back in WWII were not disconnected with ours. When we see human dignity and decency eroded, we cannot be silent. When we observe anyone being excluded from America because of racial or religious prejudice, we American Buddhists cannot be silent. It is said that the Buddha, after emerging from his awakening under the Bodhi tree, distinguished himself from other enlightened beings by not dwelling in quiescence, but demonstrated his unsurpassed and complete awakening by speaking up. During his first sermon at Deer Park, he said, “I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end to suffering.” 

When it comes to the suffering endured by these migrant children separated from their families, in what can only be described as new forms of American concentration camps, we cannot remain silent. Mike Ishii from Tsuru for Solidarity spoke forcibly to those gathered: “We are here because we represent the voice of outrage in our community and in communities across this country who have historically been targeted by white supremacy and racism . . . If you bring the children here—every one of us represents thousands and thousands of people and we will come back.” The treatment of these children is not a partisan political issue—we should recall that a Democratic administration similarly used Fort Sill to house unaccompanied migrant children back in 2014—but a question of basic human decency and our nation’s values and character. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now.

The youthful chants of Dreamers and the Buddhist recitation of the Heart Sutra joined the multitude of expressions of concern at Fort Sill. Our words have the power to turn the destiny of our nation. 

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