Vu Lan

Below is a holiday interview that I had originally intended to post a couple weeks back. My interviewee for the Vu Lan (盂蘭盆節) or Ullambana holiday is my friend Thao, who currently studies at a prestigious Southern California university. I am deeply grateful to her for sharing her thoughts and experiences of the Vu Lan festival, which concluded last week.

Who are you?

I am a youngin’ trying to find balance between college life and the Buddhist path.

What is the Buddhist significance of this holiday?

I grew up knowing this holiday as “Ullambana.” My mom was the first person to tell me the significance of this holiday. She told me a story of a son who made offerings to the temple sangha on a particular day of the moon calendar so his mother could be liberated after she had passed. Ullambana is similar to Japan’s Obon ceremony, honoring one’s ancestors who have passed as well. As I grew up, I came to learn that Ullambana was a holiday honoring filial piety, “one of the virtues to be held above all else: a respect for the parents and ancestors.”

What does this holiday mean to you?

This holiday reminds me of my roots. My name directly translates in both Vietnamese and Chinese (孝) as the less common English words of “filial piety.” Since Ullambana is centered around this concept, it humbles me and especially makes me want to let my parents know how much I appreciate them.

What do you plan to do on this holiday?

My current plan, while I’m back up North, will be going to celebrate this holiday at a temple called the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas on Sunday, August 14th. We will be reciting the Ullambana Sutra three times, and there will be a big lunch of vegetarian food. In addition, I will be able to show my parents my metta for them and express my gratitude for all parents alike ☺

Work has kept me busier than usual as of late, but I will make an effort to try to publish a few more posts this coming week.

Obon Festivals 2011!

Sadly, I’m travelling all weekend and so won’t have the opportunity to attend the festivals down here in Orange County and Venice. There are still plenty of Obon festivals left to attend this summer. It’s never to late to break out your kachi kachi!

Southern California and Nevada

Northern California (Bay, Northern and Coast Districts)

Northwest (Washington and Oregon)

Eastern and Mountain States


More details about Obon dates and locations can be found at the Japanese City Obon Festival and Bon Odori Schedule! (I wish I’d known about this before I typed up this list.) If you have photos, I’d be most delighted to link to them! Corrections are much welcome too. Many thanks to Rev. Bridgeand Rev. Usuki for their help in putting this list together.

Bon Odori this Weekend!

Bon odori is a dance linked with Obon. Entire festivals and bazaars have developed around bon odori, and these Obon festivals are good opportunities for interaction between temples and local communities. A number of Obon festivals are happening this weekend, from New York to Virginia to Chicago to Berkeley to Vancouver! If you happen to live near one of these temples, I encourage you to stop by and join in the dance and festivities. I’ve provided a list of some of this weekend’s festivals below.

Western Temples

Eastern Temples

Canadian Temples

If you want to attend a bon odori in Hawai‘i, you are fortunate that there’s a website for this: Let’s Bon Dance!

Let me know in the comments of any corrections needed with the lists above.

Photo credit to the Berkeley Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple. Thanks also to @Kyoshin, @djbuddha and Rev. Usuki for helping me find the lists of temples above.

It’s Obon Season!

We are already well into Obon season, and I haven’t even started to practice my moves yet!

I’ve posted about this holiday and festival before, and you can probably expect a few more posts this summer. My favorite explanation is still this article by Rev. Patti Usuki.

In Japan, Obon has been held since 657 CE. It is observed in July or August. A commonly held belief among people in Japan is that the disembodied spirits of the dead return to visit at this time of year. This belief is not supported by Jodo Shin Buddhists, who consider such a belief to be an unfounded superstition

Most Japanese-American Buddhists belong to the Jodo Shinshu school (including the sangha of West LA Buddhist Temple), so it is important to understand the history and significance of our Obon Festival. It is not, as some mistakenly believe, to welcome back the spirits of the dead. Instead, it is a time of gratitude, giving, and joy in the Truth of Life. Hence, it is also known as Kangi-e, or the Gathering of Joy.

There are already videos up of this year’s bon odori at the Arizona Buddhist Temple and the San Fernando Valley Buddhist Temple. If anyone has any other photos or video—especially from the recent Senshin or West CovinaObon festivities, I’ll most happily post those here too!

LGBT Pride Month

(I hate it when I accidentally post mid-draft. Apologies for this repost.) On Tuesday, President Barack Obama officially proclaimed this month of June Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month. You can also check out the associated White House website.

Last month was Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and one way I encouraged bloggers to celebrate was to actually talk to Asian American Buddhists and then post their words. I’m proposing the same idea for LGBT pride month—let’s celebrate LGBT Pride Month by welcoming the voices of LGBT Buddhists to our blogs.

It’s easy to think of these months as throwaway celebrations—“You get one month out of the year so that we can ignore you for the other eleven months!”—but the point, I’ve come to see, is that these celebrations give us license to focus on our community, to air our frustrations, to explore our history and to celebrate ourselves for who we are. We might even learn something.

Many of us can’t identify with these celebrations. They’re about other people. There can be an awkwardness about celebrating a community that we don’t sincerely identify with.

My proposal is simply to recognize that Asian American Buddhists and LGBT Buddhists (and Black Buddhists and Latino Buddhists…) are part of our community. We don’t have to identify with every part of our community to embrace it all. A great step forward is to simply shine a spotlight on the voices of those among us who have historically been ignored and marginalized.

Maybe you know everything there is to know about LGBT issues and the Buddhist community—and if you do, I hope you can educate me. Because I don’t. And I would bet most of my readers don’t.

Maybe if each of us reaches out and actually talks to other Buddhists who are normally silenced, if we share their perspectives and understanding in their own words—maybe this is the sort of process that celebrates our diversity while also bringing us closer together.

However you choose to celebrate this month, I hope that you do. And that you do so with pride.

Buddhist APAHM Roundup

As the sun sets on Asian Pacific American Heritage Month 2011, I’d like to extend my thanks to Maia Duerr (@fivedirections), Jack Daw (@ZenDirtZenDust), Chris Hoff (@NarrativeChris), Adam (@flylikeacrow) and Nathan (Dangerous Harvests) for their posts that delve into the ocean of the Asian American Buddhist community.

Many thanks also to the very supportive nods from Danny Fisher and Caine Das, who posted about APAHM on their blogs.

This month’s A Gift of Dharma posts from Danny Fisher included a unique focus on Asian and Asian American Buddhist quotes. You can read the words of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (5/15/45/85/95/15), Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh (5/25/12), Siddhartha Gotama (5/7), Chögyam Trungpa (5/115/17), Sulak Sivaraksa (5/18), Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (5/19), Preah Maha Ghosananda (5/20), Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne (5/215/225/23), Venerable Cheng Yen (5/24), B. R. Ambedkar (5/25), Bhante Henepola Gunaratana (5/26) and Mushim Ikeda-Nash (5/27).

My hope is that, in the future, Buddhist bloggers, editors and journalists will make more of an effort to incorporate the voices of Asian American Buddhists—not merely post about us in the third person or fish up writings off the web that we published years ago. Just as I have to put in a little extra effort to welcome in the voices of Asian American Buddhist women, there will be obstacles for other bloggers who aren’t used to reaching out to Asian American voices. Even so, for those of us who speak out in the name of equality and diversity in the Buddhist community, our actions should follow our words.

It’s another eleven months till APAHM 2012, but I’m already making a list of whom I’d like to interview. Anumodami to all who participated this year!

Buddhist Bloggers Celebrate Asian America

It’s so great to see other bloggers celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month!

Yesterday, Maia Duerr posted about ten Engaged Buddhists—nine from Asian America including Anchalee Kurutach, Anushka Fernandopulle, Canyon Sam, Duncan Ryuken Williams, Sister Jun Yasuda, Kaz Tanahashi, Ken Tanaka, Mushim Ikeda-Nash, Ryo Imamura, plus the redoubtable Thich Nhat Hanh. Go visit her post to read more about them! Jack Daw followed with a post about Rev. T. K. Nakagaki, a very unique Shin Buddhist minister in New York City.

Replying to my suggestion to welcome in the voices of Asian American Buddhists, blogger Chris Hoff invited me to publish a guest post on his blog, which you can read here. Maia Duerr also invited me to do an interview with her by email, which I hope we’ll be able to pull together in the near future. I’m eagerly looking forward to reading the interviews by @ohiobuddhist “with three Japanese-American Buddhists, two of whom were in Japan when the tsunami hit.”

If you know of other Buddhist bloggers who’ve chosen to celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line in the comments. As I mentioned on Dharma Bum, APAHM provides an opportunity樂威壯 for Asian Americans to write about these issues in a way that might feel awkward at any other time of the year—and these pieces, written about Asian Americans by Asian Americans, provided an opportunity for my father to share with me some of his struggles as an Asian American that he had never felt comfortable talking about before.

I hope that we as Buddhist bloggers can help foster that sort of connection—and not just for Asian Americans! This particular APAHM given me a new appreciation for these cultural celebrations and also shown me a way that I can participate, even when I might not identify with the celebration itself. Hopefully we can all join in together and bring the community just a little bit closer.

Asian American Holiday Musings

Of the five holiday interviews I’ve conducted this year (Magha PujaOhiganThingyanSongkran and Vesak), each one has reached out to a different Asian American voice in a different part of the world.

The goal of the holiday interviews has been to expose my readership to the diversity of Asian American Buddhist voices and to let these voices speak for themselves. For those of us who have limited contact with Asian Americans in the Buddhist community, our understanding of Asian American Buddhists far too often comes from poorly-deduced conclusions penned by non-Asian authors. I’d like to think that these interviews provide plenty of evidence that we might actually have some unique perspectives to offer.

Take for example the recent Southeast Asian New Year celebrations (i.e. the Other Lunar New Year). If you were to refer solely to the descriptions on Barbara’s Buddhism blog (“think egg hunts at Easter”) or in a comment left on this blog (“it’s really not a Buddhist holiday”)—both accurate but superficial and incomplete perspectives from outsiders—you would have missed out on the viewpoint of the Thai American meditator who takes this holiday as an occasion to renew his Buddhist practice or the Burmese American student activist who sees the new year as an opportunity to embrace the precepts, generosity and respect.

But I have a humiliating omission to confess. For all my dedication to highlighting the voices of Asian Americans, I’ve actually failed to bring forward the voices of our community’s largest demographic.

Namely, women.

All of the people I interviewed in the past are men who I met and interacted with online. The vast majority of Buddhist bloggers are men—a proportion that is even more extreme when we look at Asian American Buddhist blogs. It’s not prohibitively difficult to reach out to our Asian American Buddhist sisters—it just takes a little more work. I have to step out from behind my fig leaf of pseudonymity and actually reach out beyond the Buddhist blogosphere.

My only excuse for not having a Gotan-e post was that I had made the commitment to interview Asian American Buddhist women, and then I was too hesitant to take that extra step. This excuse is not a good one, and I’m not going let this opportunity slip by.

My plan is to continue to reach out for this interview—simply because it’s worth taking that extra effort to reach out to the women in my community. It’s worth the token sacrifice of my pseudonymity to bring a fuller diversity of Asian American Buddhists to the readers of this blog. It would be shameful to do otherwise.

If you’ve gotten this far, I’d also encourage those of you with your own blogs to take a similar step. This month is Asian Pacific American Heritage month, a celebration the United States established to spend a little extra time noticing the contributions of its APA citizens, and so it would be great if the Buddhist blogging community took advantage of the eight remaining days in May to spend a little time—maybe just one post—recognizing the voices of Asian American Buddhists.

I encourage you all to celebrate this month by publishing an interview with or a guest blog by an Asian American Buddhist.

Of course, you could reach out at any time that works for you, but just as it’s never to soon for me to publish the voices of Asian American Buddhist women, it’s never too soon for, say, Danny Fisher or Jack Daw to publish that interview with or guest post by Asian American Buddhists. When was the last time you did so? In fact, if you’re someone who agrees with absolutely nothing I write here, then here’s a fantastic opportunity to invite an Asian American Buddhist to post about how they think my blog is full of crap!

Ultimately, if you really believe that we are also American Buddhists, then please welcome us into your blogs as you welcome other American Buddhists. Let’s celebrate this month together.

Happy Vesak 2011!

Firehorse is a particularly inspiring blogger I met through the Buddhist blogosphere. For most holiday posts, I give a short bio of the interviewee in question; in the case of Firehorse, he speaks more eloquently for himself than I ever could. Below, he answers my questions about himself, about Buddhism and about Vesak (also spelled “Waisak”), a major holiday celebrated on the full moon today.

Who are you?

Tough question.

I am someone who loves flowers. I don’t know their Latin names etc but I love the experience of being with flowers; their beauty, fragility and “nowness.” I love biking, dogs, eating street food, exploring new places and playing stuffed animals with my children.

I have always been a seeker.

I didn’t cry for many, many years but now tend to tear up quite easily.

I have struggled tremendously with what it means to be a man and to be an Asian American.

I am a second generation Chinese American born in Flushing, Queens. I grew up not knowing much about Chinese culture or being able to speak Mandarin or Cantonese but from elementary school age experienced racism. My mother told me I was chased home to our apartment by a group of kids and I ran in grabbed a baseball bat and ran out again. This must have been before 4th grade. Up through and including college I often got into fights; getting beat up, beating other kids up and getting bullied, with racism often being in the mix.

Contrary to the stereotype I am not good at math—I failed geometry and trigonometry.

I was asked to leave 2 high schools for disciplinary reasons.

As a college student I continued to have disciplinary issues, was on academic probation and helped lead a diversity movement where we took over the administration building for a week and at the end negotiated our demands with the trustees.

I was a community organizer in the Bronx for 2 years and then in 1992 came to Indonesia to teach English but mostly to deepen my study of martial arts and am still here now.

I am the husband to a wonderful wife and father of 2 wonderful children. They are all wise and patient teachers of mine.

I have been an organic farmer, using it as a vehicle to teach life skills to street youth and other disadvantaged youth. Learning about organic farming is a way to directly connect with oneself and nature. Holding a fistful of seeds, massaging manure into the earth, digging holes, planting, watering, nurturing life, getting rained on—just feeling how we are part of nature’s rhythms. Its been great to see how the youth have continued to develop after graduating from the program—how passionate they are about the environment and how they have started to help others.

Currently I am the Country Representative for the Indonesia program of the American Friends Service Committee. We are a peacebuilding organization based on Quaker values and collaborate with local organizations seeking to create peace where there is social and economic justice, healing, accountability and democracy. It’s been great to learn about Quakerism and to be part of AFSC’s efforts in peacebuilding.

What’s the Buddhist significance of this holiday?

As a meditation student I have focused on my own practice but after doing a retreat at a monastery in East Java recently, have become more interested in finding out about Buddhism as a whole and in Indonesia in particular. So I look forward to learning the answer to this question.

Indonesia has been experiencing challenges to its religious diversity which is an integral part of the country’s history and identity. For Indonesian Buddhists in particular I think this holiday should be viewed as a call to make Buddhist values and practice more relevant in preserving Indonesia as a diverse and pluralistic society. 

For Buddhists in general, I think it’s an opportunity to reflect on how our practice can be of benefit to more people. In other words, how can we be more “engaged”? How can our own struggle with suffering help us engage with and help alleviate the suffering of others? Meditation has been a wonderful gift and tool but I also feel that its only the beginning—that we need to engage the injustice and violence all around us; in ourselves, in others and in society.

What does this holiday mean to you?

For me it’s an opportunity to reflect on and reaffirm my personal commitment to realize my own awakening and the awakening of others through my daily life and my work. Although they are interrelated, it reminds me of the need to constantly try to balance and integrate activism with my own meditation practice. What comes to mind is the Thich Nhat Hanh book title, Peace Is Every Step.

Perhaps Waisak is also an opportunity to reflect that the “raft is not the shore” and to remember we should not cling too tightly to any identity, including that of being Buddhist.

What do you plan to do on/for Vesak?

I will be meeting with representatives from local civil society organizations to plan how we can implement more effective peace activities including active nonviolence training that aims not only to facilitate personal transformation but also address societal issues. After that I hope I will still have time to make it to Borobudur in the evening to observe and participate in activities held by the Indonesian Buddhist community. There is something tremendously powerful about Borobudur and feeling connected to ancient generations of Buddhists.

I also plan to give thanks—to the many people and teachers who have helped me on the path with wisdom, kindness and love. Thank you all!

May we all love and be loved
May we all be touched by wisdom, peace and kindness
May we greet each day with clear eyes and a gentle heart 
May we all be happy!

Don’t forget to check out Firehorse’s blog here. You can also also check out links to other holiday interviews here.