Shinran Shonin, or, a Hidden Buddhist Statue by Julia Flasphaler

Illustration by Gisela Levy

Illustration by Gisela Levy

      The apartment at 332 Riverside Drive on the Upper West Side of Manhattan once housed newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies.1 It’s now home to the New York Buddhist Church, a markedly pious turn for the building and its residents. I know this fact about Hearst’s sexual exploits because Tony tells me, as I sit on a leather couch in the building’s foyer. Pink and purple tie-dye swirl on his faded shirt. He looks at me directly and asks me what I want to know. I’m not sure, I reply. I e-mailed the church about the statue out front and the President, Hoshina Seki, wrote that I could interview her for my class. So the statue, I guess I’m here for that. He looks at me squarely and I think he knows I’m lying. I know exactly why I’m here. I just can’t tell anyone.

I first noticed the statue about a year ago, returning home from one of those long walks I could report to my therapist about—proof that maybe I was returning, that whatever brand of millennial mental breakdown I had experienced was real, but lifting. The large bronze statue looked down at me from its perch in front of the church. A placard read that it had survived the atomic bombing in Hiroshima. A few years later, it had been moved to New York as a symbol of peace. An angry red band near its feet told me that it was true, it really did witness the blast.

Waiting for my interview, Tony shares a bit of personal history with me. He explains that a lot of the Japanese—in fact, many of this Church’s family members—were taken to internment camps in California. Because of Executive Order 9066, not only were Japanese-Americans relocated, but the temple was forced to assimilate. “Priests became ministers and the church took on a more Protestant form” he says, leading me to a long wooden table filled with fluorescent slips of paper. He leaves me by the pamphlets and calendars, when Hoshina comes down the stairs. “You should stay for the service!” Tony grins at me and leaves.

The statue survived, but did the Japanese people? Did the families? It’s a difficult subject to broach, and I’m trespassing into a space that doesn’t belong to me. Half-Korean from my mother’s side, I’ve grown up hearing hateful stories about the loss my grandparents endured during the Japanese occupation of Korea. They raped Korean women, my aunt said. They used bayonets and skewered them. But how different are bayonets and atomic bombs?

I explain apologetically to Hoshina that I didn’t know where to meet. I am negotiating my welcome in this church, trying to assure her with my deference that I’m on her side. We take a small elevator up to the second floor and I think that Hoshina can hear my Korean aunt’s voice playing in my head, yelling at me about Japanese war crimes. I stifle my breathing until it clicks open, and she leads me to her office. Slight in stature but direct and articulate in speech, Hoshina says that my inquiry about the statue had been forwarded to her. I want to burst out, “But do you hate it here? Did your grandfather’s skin drip off his body when the bomb fell? Can’t you tell that I’m Korean?” I want her to console me.

Hoshina says that the statue was made by a Japanese industrialist, Seiichi Hirose. It’s part of a set of six that he commissioned before the war. “He made these six statues in honor of his son. His son passed away, I’m not sure how he passed away but he died, it wasn’t because of the war or anything like that—it was something else, and he felt compelled to make these six statues,” Hoshina recites softly.

“And when he donated the statue here to bring it over to New York, he had created a Shinran Shonin–who is the founder of our particular sect. He created a young Shinran Shonin—maybe about fourteen years old or something like that.”

Previous research had told me that Shinran Shonin founded Jodo Shinshu or Shin Buddhism in the 12th century. The branch is currently one of the most widely practiced forms of Buddhism in the U.S. and Japan. According to the Buddhist Churches of America, the path of Shin Buddhism is “one of simply listening and opening one’s heart”. Hoshina echoes this sentiment, “Basically our teaching is that—by reciting the name, which is Namu Amida Butsu—that’s basically all that we really need if we can give our full trust in believing that through Shinran, he will basically—I don’t want to say like Christ, he will save you, or something like that—but he will help you to find the way to Enlightenment.” I nod.

“And what else can I tell you—well there’s not much to say about the statue, really. But well, the statue was originally dedicated on September 11th and the keynote speaker D.T. Suzuki, who was a prominent Zen Buddhist at the time—he said basically that World War II and all the wars, particularly WWII, wasn’t a war between the United states and Japan. It was really a war that was brewing for centuries and centuries and centuries. And it just came to the surface.”

      This emphasis on a collective violence sticks with me. Part of the difficulty of breaking cycles of violence comes from the transmission of what’s come to be known in the therapeutic community as “intergenerational trauma”. Doctor M. Gerard Fromm explains in Lost in Transmission: Studies of Trauma Across Generations, “what human beings cannot contain of their experience—what has been traumatically overwhelming, unbearable, unthinkable—falls out of social discourse, but very often on to and into the next generation as an affective sensitivity or a chaotic urgency” (xvi).2 The unthinkable brutality of war is handed down from generation to generation by oral histories, but also by unaddressed symptoms such as anxieties and addictions. Oftentimes the experiences, as Fromm points out, are left unaddressed.

And this is what has brought me here—trying to trace this trendy term—collective or intergenerational trauma. But mostly because I want to see that other people have reconciled their own traumas, so I can have proof that I will outlive my own. If Tony were to ask me again, why are you here? I wish I could say, in a gush—I am here because I lost my alcoholic father, after he victimized me, because he was victimized, and I don’t know how to make sense of grieving someone who is bad, of someone who is now the enemy. And the shame I inherited the moment my father’s fist struck my cheek, it killed me. And I was dead for years before I even knew and I think that is what they call trauma. I would say, I don’t know how to tell you in this language that isn’t my mother’s, how my parents failed me but because they were failed and so they failed themselves. I would say, please believe me, or give me a statue, or a sliver of comfort, because the violence I have witnessed and that has been inflicted upon me has robbed me of the very thing I need to be able to speak about it—belief in my own version of events. And isn’t there some kind of connection between the intimate dance of family violence, and the back-and-forth violence of two nations? Or is this my arrogance, my twenty-something need to thrust myself out into the world, to understand everything through my own experiences of grief.

“Well, it’s almost time for service—but I have some photos,” Hoshina interjects.
“Oh, right—yes, sorry! I forgot that I’m keeping you.”
“It’s okay—this is a photo of the man who donated the statue. And this is the statue in its original location at the park outside of Hiroshima.” Hoshina gingerly pulls the photos of a black box I hadn’t noticed was sitting on her lap throughout the entire interview.
“Is it okay if I take a photo?”
“Yes, yes, of course.”
Hirose’s slim face doesn’t show the death he must have experienced, losing a son. But I know that it’s there, somewhere, because Hoshina says it’s so.

Figure 1 Left: Japanese metal founder and Jodo Shinshu follower Seiichi Hirose who created and later donated the statue, dated 1955. Right: Statue at its original location in Hiroshima.

Figure 1 Left: Japanese metal founder and Jodo Shinshu follower Seiichi Hirose who created and later donated the statue, dated 1955. Right: Statue at its original location in Hiroshima.


I return the next Sunday. Staring at a backlit rice paper wall, breathing in incense, a female Buddhist priest gives a short sermon about a sailor who falls overboard into the ocean and almost drowns, until he realizes that instead of struggling against the water he should give up resisting, and instead allow himself to float. The water buoys him up. He survives. On my way into the service, I cautiously pick up a square red service book. Leafing through it there are different mantras to recite and even a new musical notation system that corresponds to the different intonations and notes I hear the other church members around me singing. The Church itself is an addition to the original apartment that Hearst previously owned. An ornate altar is placed center, with two large portraits on either side. Someone mentions who they are, but I forget.

At lunch, I sit with three other new members who stood up to announce themselves during the service. This is an accomplishment for me, sharing space with strangers. Hoshina gives me a smile and a slight bow. She’s happy to see me back. I hold noodles that taste faintly of sesame oil in my chopsticks, trying to finish my meal quickly so that I can eat the sweet white bean cookies I purchased for a dollar. They were from the previous day’s autumn harvest festival.

Leanne, a woman with softly wrinkled and blemished skin, is attending service in New York today because she’s visiting from Hawaii. She pronounces the name slowly, “Hawai’i”, with the stop between the two ‘i’s that I’ve heard other native Hawaiians pronounce before. I ask her why there are so many Asians in Hawaii. People are mixed-race there, like me, I say. She laughs and uses the term “Asian diaspora”. Poor Japanese workers moved to the islands years ago for jobs on fruit plantations. And then they stayed. “You know—the islands are actually only one third haole—which is our word for white people—and the other two thirds are Asian or Pacific Islander. Which most people don’t know.” She smiles at me.

The two other new members are a mother and daughter, Madeleine and Bobby. Bobby tells us that she’s going to cosmetology school, but has been learning Chinese and attending meditations and service here for the past two years. She’s nineteen. She has full cheeks framed by dark curls. Her mother, Madeleine, begins a conversation with Leanne about whether to visit Buddhist temples in Hawaii or China, and where they should go. I inch forward, trying to keep tabs on Leanne’s suggestions.

On my way out I stop to pick up a bundle of mums that one of the Japanese elders brought from her garden in New Jersey. The newspaper holding the flowers crinkles in my hands. I try not to squish my gift. Walking over to the stairwell, I notice that Madeleine is sitting down with one of the Reverends. He has a service book in his hand and it seems like he’s explaining one of the lessons, or one of the mantras. They recite together.

1 CBROOKS. “#11: Odd Coincidence at the New York Buddhist Church.” Asian American History in NYC. (retrieved 10/25/2017).

2 Fromm, M. Gerard, ed. Lost in Transmission : Studies of Trauma Across Generations. London: Karnac Books, 2011. Accessed October 25, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central.