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Temple 7G - Part 3

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There were two Buddhist “temples” at blocks 7G and 12G. My mother and I attended the closer one at 7G. For the first few months a table with a bowl of incense sticks served as the altar. I remembered the Los Angeles temple where incense smoke engulfed me as soon as I stepped into the hall. A shimmering gold Buddha dominated the front. We bowed in gassho. My mother told me that the beads on the long rosary twisting from the priest’s hand were carved from the holy Bodhi tree. Beneath its branches Buddha meditated for years until he attained enlightenment in a burst of light. Had he shattered? Did his body pieces sprinkle down and clump into this solid statue? Did the earth melt golden, hardening into this massive meditative form, the spectators stunned speechless. No, of course that’s not the way it happened. He retained his human form and set off, like Jesus, to preach his gospel throughout India. Life is suffering, he said. People agreed, yes, we suffer. “Deliver us from our suffering,” they cried. “Yes, I can do that,” he preached. “Follow the Eightfold Path with me.” And they did. By the hundreds they followed.

One Sunday after the service I stood close to the priest and touched his rosary, hoping for a magical day, but it turned out ordinary. I went home, changed into my everyday clothes, ate my lunch, and spent the afternoon playing with my friends. So much for miracles.

One Sunday in Amache a golden altar replaced the table. It housed an elongated Buddha carved from scrap wood by a resident. Gratefully, the priest performed a dedication ceremony. Waving a wand capped with red and white streamers, he chanted a solemn sutra, sucking in his breath loudly as if the effort was too great for mortal man. My mother closed her eyes and softly chanted in unison with the priest.

“You knew that sutra?” I asked, incredulous, after the service.

“It’s the same one as in Japan. I listened to Honorable father.”

“And memorized it?”

“He was a Zen priest. I loved the peace inside temple. So quiet. I helped my father even though it was my brother’s job. He’d rather play outside, so I took his job. Cleaned the altar, watered the flowers, emptied the incense pots. I listened to every sutra and memorized them. I even learned when to strike the bell. Ding…ding. Such a clear strong sound. Father said prayers at my mother’s shrine after dinner. We prayed for her soul in Nirvana and lit a candle so her path to heaven would be bright. We offered flowers so she had something sweet to smell and see on her journey. Now I pray every night for her and father and sister. I hope they are content. After I die, I will be content if you pray for me and include my mother and father and sister every day.”

“I didn’t even know them, Mom,” I said.

“Never mind, then. I will pray from my grave. Too much to ask...simple prayer.”

How had this conversation gotten so twisted? I felt guilty and manipulated, but how could I refuse? “Well...um...OK, Mom. I’ll offer prayers for the three of you. And Dad, too. Does it have to be in Japanese?”

“They don’t understand English.”

“I’ll try. You’ll have to teach me one in Japanese.”

“Yes, it’s enough to try.”

We left our discussion hanging. My mother never brought up the subject again.

Part 4 >>

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Author’s note: This story is another chapter from “18286.” Over the years, especially during Christmas season, I’ve wondered whose hands wrapped those gifts distributed by our Oriental santa. They probably never knew how much it meant to me/us. The story is my “thank you.”

© 2010 Lily Yuriko Nakai Havey

Amache buddhist concentration camp religion World War II