On the night of February 25, a man climbed over the fence protecting the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in downtown Los Angeles. According to the temple’s security camera, he started a fire that torched two wooden lantern stands, tipped over and smashed two metal lanterns, and, before leaving, threw a rock through a panel of glass near the front door.
Bishop Noriaki Ito has been with the temple, part of the Jodo Shinshu or True Pure Land tradition, since 1976. Bishop Ito is the rinban (head minister) of the temple’s Los Angeles location and director of the Higashi Honganji North America District. He spoke to Tricycle Contributing Editor Daniel Burke on March 17, the day after eight people, including six Asian American women, were murdered in Atlanta.
I feel extreme sorrow for the continuation of these kinds of acts. Shock and sadness. What can we do? That question has been asked a lot at our temple. Maybe the man who attacked our temple felt that other religions besides his own are not valid. Or maybe it was just an attack on an Asian American institution because of what is happening in our country. It certainly seems like much of the hostility came after the coronavirus and the election of President Donald Trump. At least, those are the main reasons.
We moved to our location in Little Tokyo in 1976, one year after I joined the staff. There was a stretch of time when the economy was bad and downtown was empty and perceived to be dangerous, with car break-ins and such. We had some things stolen. But I haven’t had any kind of negative experience like this in the past fifteen years or so. The temple is mainly Japanese American, but we have diversified and have active members from a variety of backgrounds.
The suspect hasn’t been caught, so we don’t know his motives yet, but it seems to be part of this whole terrible situation of anti-Asian crimes. Now, with everything that happened at the temple and Atlanta, I feel like I have to look behind me to make sure no one is threatening. I listen to the stories about all the elders and women and children who have been attacked, and we have to label it what it is: hate. But at the same time, my position as a Buddhist priest means I need to always remember to express compassion for others, even the person who violated our temple.
I came to the United States in the 1950s and my wife’s family has been here since the early 1900s, so my grandchildren are fifth-generation Americans. They don’t know anything but being American. They have never been to Japan, so it’s really strange for them to realize there are people out there who may not like them. I always felt welcome here. I am an American citizen and treated as an American.
Asians, whether Japanese or from other countries, have been here for centuries. Of course, there were laws that prevented Asian immigrants from living in certain areas of the city. By the time I was in elementary school, Asians could purchase homes and live anywhere. Everyone started moving to the suburbs, so we moved to a central location in downtown Los Angeles. By that time there was the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. We became totally a part of the community, with no worries about being discriminated against.
I just remember one incident in high school. A few buddies and I were out late on a Saturday night and went to an IHOP. It was pretty crowded, with lots of groups coming in, and we kept getting passed over by the waiters. Finally, we complained to the manager and someone came to serve us. That’s the only incident in which we may not have been treated equally.
The only thing we can do is encourage people to show more respect for others. Unfortunately, for whatever reason our country has become more and more divided. Buddhism teaches us to have compassion for all living things as true friends in harmony. Those are the teachings, but there are certain times in our lives when it becomes very challenging to have compassion.
We haven’t been able to open our doors for Sunday services, so people weren’t here to see the damage. But we have received resounding support from the community. A friend of ours started a GoFundMe campaign that reached its $30,000 target within three weeks. It’s almost embarrassing how much money we have raised.
We are Pure Land Buddhists, and one of the main features of our religion are the Three Pure Land Sutras. One section talks about realizing a world in which weapons are no longer necessary. There are just too many guns out there.