West Covina Buddhist Temple Participates at the San Bernardino County Museum “Multicultural Celebration of Ancestors”

The attractive grounds of the San Bernardino County Museum proved the perfect setting for the Multicultural Celebration of Ancestors

On Saturday, October 20, 2007, West Covina Buddhist Temple (WCBT) participated in the San Bernardino County Museum’s annual “Multicultural Celebration of Ancestors,” held outdoors on the museum’s beautiful tree-shaded grounds in Redlands, California. The event was a thoroughly enjoyable, family-oriented mix of arts and craft activities, dancing, music, and story telling, all movingly demonstrating how different cultures remember their ancestors.

Interestingly, WCBT was invited by the museum ostensibly as a representative of not only Japanese cultural tradition, but also of course, the Buddhist tradition, a seemingly unusual move for a government-funded organization. But actually, the cultures and traditions represented—the Maori of New Zealand, Native American, Polynesian dance traditions, Aztec dancing, and our Bon Odori tradition—all share a common appreciation for the contributions ancestors have made to our lives. Thus, perhaps it can be said that the real value of a culture is not so much in its actual dances, singing, and ceremonies, however colorful and unique. Rather, a culture’s true value is in the deeper, more human values it expresses. And what made the sharing of culture particularly valuable is the Museum’s “multicultural celebration” theme, which greatly enhanced our ability to appreciate the essential oneness of all cultures. All traditions, including of course our Bon Odori dancing, incorporate a spiritual dimension: we understand that life is impermanent and therefore, precious. At the San Bernardino County Museum, all the cultures presented moving testament to this universal truth.

At the event, WCBT contributed a manto-e lantern making activity. These are the lanterns seen during our temple’s Obon Festival, on which the names of a deceased loved one are written as a rememberance. This activity involved resident minister Rev. Ken Kawawata patiently inscribing—all day long—in beautiful kanji characters, the names of a deceased loved one on a lantern each participant had made at the craft tables. These wonderful lanterns were the brain child of WCBT’s talented craft specialist, Hisako Koga, who not only designed the lantern, but created a prototype kit which the museum’s own staff then duplicated—250 lantern “kits” were made! Hisako also helped train the museum’s staff on the best way to assemble the kits.

Above: Rev. Ken Kawawata inscribes in kanji characters the name of a loved one on the manto-e lantern's tag as curious kids look on
Below: Kids from the Museum's great youth club help with the lantern project

WCBT also contributed a Bon Odori dance activity, which is the dancing featured during our Obon Festival. At the start of the dance, Diane Hata explained to the museum’s participants the meaning of Obon:

"Obon is a time to remind us of how much our parents and grandparents, and all our ancestors, have done to make our lives happy. In this sense, it is really our ancestors who liberate us through the love and compassion they have given us. And actually, our ancestors have never really left. We constantly live in the light of their contributions. Obon is therefore not merely a time marking death and separation; ultimately it is an opportunity to rejoice in the life we enjoy, and express gratitude for all the conditions, both past and present, that help to sustain our lives.”

Diane Hata explains the meaning of Obon

Then Joanie Martinez, along with Merry Jitosho and Diane, taught both the Bon Odori and Tanko Bushi dances to the eager participants, who seemed to really enjoy the group dancing.

Above: Joanie Martinez demonstrates the Bon Odori dance movements
Below: Museum visitors dance the Tanko Bushi

Meanwhile, at the temple’s information booth, Frederick Brenion and Peter Hata interacted all day with many visitors who were curious not only about various aspects of the Buddhist teachings but also, despite WCBT being about 40 miles west of San Bernardino, interested in attending an actual service. Also lending support at the booth were Kurt Kowalski and Tor Ormseth.

Above: Peter Hata and Fred Brenion answer visitors questions about Buddhist teachings
Below: John Winslade (at left, who helped present the Maori welcome ceremony) discusses with Kurt Kowalski and Peter the commonalities of all cultures

Above: One of the items on display that attracted the most attention was the temple's fascinating "Favorite Buddhist Movies Poster" (read some of our movie reviews)

The event was deemed a great success by all parties, and it seems likely WCBT and the San Bernardino County Museum will work together again in future community events.

Above: At the close of the Multicultural Celebration of Ancestors, Jolene Redvale (2nd from left), the San Bernardino County Museum's Curator of Education, and Michele Nielsen, the Curator of History, pose with (left to right) WCBT's Peter Hata, Frederick Brenion, Diane Hata, Rev. Kawawata, and Kurt Kowalski

Personal Comments of WCBT’s temple staff:

Diane Hata
The theme of appreciating and paying homage to one’s ancestors was evident throughout the day. I personally felt that this invitation to share the meaning of Obon with other cultures helped us experience “universal brotherhood.” Each of us, whether our roots come from Africa, Mexico, or Japan, is truly the result of the giving and the sacrifices of others.

Kurt Kowalski
We started the day with a traditional Maori, New Zealand native, welcome. We welcomed all, including the trees, the buildings and the ground! We ended with a Native American blessing, opening us to the four directions. These ceremonies affected me deeply and characterized the experience of openness I felt throughout the day. All the participants seemed open and interested in each other’s beliefs and the varied ways in which we honored our ancestors. The air was filled with a general openness to life that, interestingly enough, seemed to flow from the participants’ willingness to embrace death as an important part of being alive. I felt honored that my children and I could be a part of that special gathering.

I was very impressed with the diligent work of the Sangha members as they explained Obon, taught dance, and made lanterns. They were the face of Buddha. Reverend Ken must have written names on over a hundred lanterns, including the one that my son Leo made and we hung by the family alter when we returned home that evening. For us it was a special day, gathering with our friends and sharing with others what we all hold important. What could be more meaningful?

Joanie Martinez
Cheryl Brown of Black Voice Newspapers invited and personally involved us all in an African American tradition shared among her family. On Thanksgiving Day, family members gather and remember names of ancestors, friends, and other important people who’ve had an impact on their lives. With each “We remember (name of person)..,” a little water is poured. I think because they are inside a home when they do this, Cheryl said they pour the water onto a plant. I’m thinking originally this activity might’ve been done outdoors and poured onto the ground/tree. Doing this activity on “Ancestor’s Day” at the museum, collectively and with a diverse population of strangers, was a unique and meaningful shared experience. It was a collective recognition of people in our lives who have passed away, but whom we remember with fondness, love, and gratitude. One by one, the participants in the audience offered the name of someone in their family or a friend who had passed away. Cheryl also wanted to add the names of a few abolitionists, since their courage and selfless actions impacted her own legacy. After saying each deceased person’s name, Cheryl would pour a little water onto the ground and say an African word/phrase. To me, it was as if she were saying something akin to “Namu Amida Butsu.” Like the “Mustard Seed” story in our own Buddhist tradition, we witnessed together how people of all ages, races, and culture, had experienced the passing away of a loved one. Likewise, we recognized this universal desire to remember and thank them.

Prior to the sharing of our Obon Odori tradition, Diane Hata was our wonderful spokesperson who first graciously thanked the San Bernardino County Museum staff for allowing us to be a part of their multicultural ancestor’s day event. She acknowledged her appreciation of such an event that allowed us to see the common ground we all share amidst the diversity we represent. She prefaced the Obon Odori dancing with the Mogallana story, and in her comforting but humorous way, encouraged all to join in the dancing. Thank you, Diane.

I was also very impressed with the Museum Youth Club (MYC), who were stationed at the various craft booths to assist with the projects. They were middle school-aged youth who were quite responsible and helpful. It seems to be a very popular club in the community, and numbers around 100 in actual membership! They have regular weekly meetings, various educational outings and events, as well as assisting in events such as this. Since some of us could not stay all day, and we appreciated their help and patience with the Buddhist manto-e lantern craft.

Frederick Brenion
What an extraordinary day! Not just because of good weather and the good company of our temple members, but because the Dharma was being shared and communicated with people hungry for it. Throughout the day people walked by our temple booth, and they didn’t just glance and walk on, but actually picked up copies of every article, brochure, and pamphlet that we had! People were excited and asked questions, sometimes pointed, but all honest. “I heard that Buddhists are very tolerant of other religions, is that true?,” “Are you vegetarians?,” “Do you meditate?,” “What made you become a Buddhist?,” and so on. We rose to the occasion and answered as honestly and directly as we could.

And I think that was appreciated by the visitors—that and the fact that we weren’t judging, but rather just listening to them and their questions, and speaking to the root of the matter. It was interesting that with several questioners I brought up the Buddhist understanding of “Cause and effects,” which I had learned with some intensity at our Dobo retreats, and I could see their eyes light up as if I had hit some deep truth within them that was never really expressed before.

I really feel that the Inland Empire is ripe for solid Dharma teaching. I do believe that for our own temple’s growth, we must reach out more into our neighbor valley. And who knows? We might be planting the seeds for a future sister temple out here!

Hisako Koga
I liked the opening with a traditional Maori welcome and the story telling by Cheryl Brown. It really made me realize we are just a small part of a very large community. My focus was mainly on the lantern project and I was impressed at how the Museum’s staff had prepared all the pieces for the project. But what impressed me the most were the young volunteers. You’d think young kids would rather be doing anything else on a Saturday afternoon than volunteer at a museum. But here they were. They all had their assigned jobs and were ready to help the visitors with art projects or whatever else needed to be done. They were great.

The museum staff was really friendly and although I didn’t get a chance to really look around, the museum looked like one that I’d like to go back and explore when I have more time.

Peter Hata
I’d like to thank the Temple Communication Staff for their help in planning and presenting WCBT’s contributions at this event. I want to especially recognize Hisako for her great manto-e lantern project, Rev. Ken for his artful kanji inscriptions, Diane, Joanie, and Merry for getting everyone to “dance for joy,” and Frederick for coordinating all the material for the temple’s info booth. Thanks also for the additional support from Tor and Kurt.

In addition, I am deeply grateful to the San Bernardino County Museum staff, who graciously and enthusiastically welcomed our temple’s participation. In particular, it was an absolute pleasure to work with Michele Nielsen, Curator of History, Jolene Redvale, Curator of Education, and Museum Educator Nancy Kirkwood. In a very real sense, as the event approached, the museum staff’s openness and curiosity about our temple’s various contributions was contagious, and I think this caused our own temple staff to increasingly anticipate the event.

As we said our goodbyes at the event’s close, it was quite clear both the museum and temple staffs ultimately share a common vision of “community,” and enthusiastically expressed the desire to collaborate again in the future.

The San Bernardino County Museum Website

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