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Last week I experienced something that, based on my eight years of living in Los Angeles, is really quite extraordinary: Try as I might, I couldn’t spot a single homeless individual within 6 square miles.
Every year, Los Angeles County conducts a homeless count in all the neighborhoods within its purview. LA has to do this count if it wants to get federal money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and though the methodology is flawed (it leaves out a huge population of invisible homeless who live in motels or crash on friends’ couches), the count still plays an important role in helping policymakers register the magnitude of the homelessness situation. Last year’s count revealed a 23 percent spike in LA County’s homeless population, to nearly 58,000, a number LA officials called “staggering” and “scary.”
This year, about 8,000 volunteers roamed the streets on foot or cars with their flashlights and tally sheets to count the homeless for three nights, and I was one of them. I sat in the back seat of a Chevrolet Volt with a clipboard, peering out the open window for any potential evidence of homelessness—whether individuals with obviously bad hygiene and weathered skin, couples in tents, families in vehicles with parking tickets and lights on, or makeshift shelters of tarps and carts. I was in a team with two other volunteers. One, an official with the LA Housing & Community Investment Department, manned the wheel. The other, a digital advertiser, navigated. I was the designated counter, which meant I marked lines on my tally sheet whenever I saw a homeless person.
Each team was assigned a census tract, and my team had to cover most of Bel Air, a hillside residential neighborhood with some of the wealthiest residents in the country. For more than two hours, we drove around the borders of our census tract, weaving through narrow, steep streets that abruptly halted in front of bolted gates and private driveways and, in one case, a humongous white bull statue. We meandered so many of these hidden alleyways that I could feel the half-digested cookies in my stomach sliding up my throat, but I forced my eyes open to look for any individuals who looked like they didn’t belong. We saw Tolkienesque castles with majestic front gates that seemed like they belonged behind a moat. We saw grand, swooping villas, glimmering cars, and swanky, futuristic structures with transparent glass walls and infinity pools. What we did not see was a single sign of homelessness.
None of us was surprised. When you’re living in a home worth $6 million to $250 million in an enclosed, highly guarded area, you’re probably also resourceful enough to make your neighborhood very unfriendly to the homeless. Here, hired security guards chase out strangers, while gated communities ward off trespassers. The closest service provider or public restroom is miles away, and the roads have no sidewalks for the homeless to set up camp. Meanwhile, statistics show that the homeless population is growing, while the amount of affordable housing is shrinking—so we knew that the lack of homelessness we saw in Bel Air was not indicative of the real situation in Los Angeles.
“This is a good thing, isn’t it? Should we be disappointed that we didn’t see a single homeless person tonight?”
Although we didn’t see any homeless people, we knew they were around: December’s Skirball fire, which destroyed six homes and damaged 12 more in Bel Air, was apparently ignited by an illegal cooking fire at a homeless encampment in a nearby ravine. Those campers are now gone: The only things officials found at the abandoned homeless site were a scorched portable stove, a pot, a cheese grater, several fuel canisters, a ruined boombox, and burned pages from a children’s encyclopedia. The incident sparked debate within the Bel Air community. Some residents said they sympathized with the homeless, but others said they fear another fire outbreak and want the authorities to crack down on encampments.
By the time we returned to our deployment site at Bel Air Church, it was almost 11 p.m. Some of the youngest volunteers greeted us by the door with hopeful smiles. “Any luck?” a dark-haired boy asked.
I shrugged. “Zero,” I said, returning a tally sheet with no lines, just ovals.
“Oh, really? Zero?” said the boy, looking a little crestfallen. He and his young buddies packed us bundles of leftover cake and brownies in case we got hungry on our drive back home. They also handed out little cloth knapsacks stuffed with hygiene products in case we ran into any homeless persons on our way.
As my teammates and I left the church, we wondered, “This is a good thing, isn’t it? Should we be disappointed that we didn’t see a single homeless person tonight?”
I thought about the New York Times journalist I met that night during the homeless count orientation and guessed that if anyone was most disappointed, it would have been him. He had shown up with a reporter’s notebook and a photographer, hoping to string together some narrative for a future story on LA. He said he had chosen the Bel Air site because he had read about the Skirball fire and had hoped to catch a visible juxtaposition between the rich and the poor. I doubt the photographer got much out of his trip except for some pretty snaps of pretty homes with pretty views.
By the time I reached home, it was almost midnight. My low-income neighborhood is so dense that it’s usually impossible to find parking that late at night, so as usual, I parked at an illegal spot with the plan to move it early in the morning before the parking enforcement officer zipped in. The moment I stepped out of the car, I spotted a homeless man snoring on top of some cardboard on the sidewalk next to a city-run nursing home. As I walked to my apartment, I passed another homeless man who has been living in my neighborhood for as long as I have. He was curled up next to a dollar store with a plastic bundle for a pillow. Nope, it’s not hard to spot homelessness in my neck of the woods.
That New York Times reporter wanted a dramatic scene of the stinking rich and the stinking poor living side-by-side to highlight inequality and injustice in the city. But here in LA, people divide themselves physically by class and, to some degree, by race—and maybe that’s the problem. If you have to rummage through bushes and climb down ravines to find a homeless person, then it’s too easy to forget they even exist.
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My best friend in Singapore, Jingwen, was a Buddhist. I still remember the three incense sticks sticking out of a red altar by the door to her apartment. Sometimes, I would catch Jingwen’s grandmother step out of the house carrying fresh incense sticks, the tips glowing coal-red and unfurling a pungent, woody odor. She would hold the incense sticks up to her chest with both hands and bow before the altar several times, praying for luck and health.
Jingwen’s grandmother was a devout Buddhist, but the rest of the family were nominal Buddhists who seemed to perform the motions because surely it wouldn’t hurt the chances of attaining good karma. Jingwen’s grandmother would drag her to the temple and force her to kneel and pray before a statue, but Jingwen always fell asleep the moment she rested her head to the floor. At age 12, after Jingwen professed faith in Christ, she continued going to the temple with her grandmother, but felt less guilty about dozing off before the gods she no longer believed in.
For some reason, I thought about Jingwen and her grandmother when I visited Koyasan Beikoku Betsuin, a Japanese Buddhist temple in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. There, I had an interview with Rev. Ryuzen Hayashi who, as the sole English-speaking priest of the temple, bore the burden of answering all my questions about Buddhism. Even though I had grown up with many Buddhist friends, I knew little about the religion, and all of its various sects and syncretic beliefs confused me (I suppose that’s how non-Christians feel about our countless denominations and theological tiffs as well).
The first thing Hayashi told me was that Buddhism is flexible, which is why it’s attractive to so many modern people in America: You can hold other religious beliefs, or reject organized religion, and still practice the core principles of Buddhism. His form of Buddhism, which is part of the Shingon Sect, emphasizes discipline over the mind, body, and mouth until they reflect Buddha’s—no longer enslaved to human fears, greed, and suffering, a constant maintenance of “the perfectly flat mind.” Only then, Rev. Hayashi said, do you “awaken” to become a Buddha. The good news is, “anyone can become a Buddha,” he said. They just have to practice really hard.
I asked, “Well, then, are you a Buddha?”
Hayashi smiled: “I’m ... sometimes a Buddha.” Then he added, “Human beings are very, very weak. You might be fine, and then all of a sudden, bad memories and thoughts disrupt you. That’s why we have to keep practicing.”
I asked him what things keep him from being a 24/7 Buddha. He thought about it for a few seconds and answered, “Traffic. You know, L.A. has a lot of bad drivers.” I instantly liked him.
Good religious discipline is not enough—they still feel the need to beg their gods for help.
Hayashi was born to a family of Buddhist priests at a temple in Kyushu, Japan, which meant he grew up to the chants of sutras and the dongs of bells and the glow of incense. He used to think the temple life was “so boring, not cool”—but one day realized that just like how the son of a professional baseball player would be batting balls since young, he had been developing the skills for priesthood early in his life: “So why not use this benefit and do bigger things as a priest?”
After graduating college, Hayashi attended the Koyasan Shingon school in Mount Koya, a UNESCO-designated mountain where his sect’s world headquarters reside, and where Buddhist activities date way back to AD 819. Now 33 years old, Hayashi helps perform rituals and ceremonies, preaches sermons, and prays blessings for his congregation here in L.A. Whenever he’s stressed or mad or anxious, he straightens his posture, practices deep breathing, meditates on some mantras, and tries to will away the negativities inside him. When parishioners come to him with troubles, that’s what Hayashi coaches them to do as well, and some come back and tell him they feel better.
Most nominal Buddhists fail to keep up with that kind of devotion, so they create shortcuts to blessings: Some temples hold large, wooden prayer wheels that contain Buddhist scriptures (sutra), and when parishioners turn the device, the belief is that they earn the same merit as having read all the sutras in the wheel. While visiting a temple in Kamakura, Japan, I watched streams of people turn that prayer wheel as they passed by, some turning it twice for good measure. Yet even that is not enough to reassure believers, it seems: At every temple, people purchase incense and candles and amulets that promise all sorts of blessings: perfect health, good pregnancy, family happiness, success in ambition, good luck. Good religious discipline is not enough—they still feel the need to beg their gods for help.
From all my interactions with Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews, I see a common thread between these religions and Christianity: We all acknowledge that the world is broken, full of suffering and sins and injustice. We also believe in the possibility of goodness, justice, salvation—but we diverge on how to get there. For Hayashi, the more he embraced his religion, the harder he tries to liberate himself from the toils of the world through works and willpower.
As a 30-year-old, I am close to Hayashi’s age and like him, I grew up in a clergy home and spent most of childhood years in church services, youth retreats, and prayer groups. I too thought this life was “so boring, not cool,” and resented having to spend so many weekends and weekday evenings in church when I’d rather be playing Power Rangers with my friends. But unlike Hayashi, the more I mature in my faith, the more profoundly I understand the truth of Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
I thought of my Singaporean best friend Jingwen and her grandmother again. When her grandmother died a few years back, Jingwen mourned harder than the rest of her family, because she doesn’t know if her grandmother ever professed faith in Christ, doesn’t know where her soul is now. Jingwen is still currently the only Christian in her family, and as she prays for her family’s salvation, she wonders: “Why me? Why did God pick me out from a family of Buddhists?” Yet because the reason for that gift is still a great mystery, she cannot ever boast of her salvation.
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I must have walked past the Japanese Buddhist temple in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, several dozen times and never noticed it until the day I set up an interview with the temple priest there. That was in December, when I was working on a story about the Japanese Buddhist practice of observing memorial services for unborn babies (see “Guilt Offerings”). I had just returned from a trip to Japan, where I visited two Buddhist temples with cemeteries full of baby-faced statues that represent the souls of children who have died of abortion, miscarriage, or stillbirth. The temples, like many others in Japan, offered memorial services (called mizuko kuyo) for these never-born babies. But this third temple I was now visiting was on my home turf of Los Angeles in Little Tokyo, a historic ethnic neighborhood dotted with museums, theaters, sushi bars, and mochi sweet shops.
Koyasan Beikoku Betsuin is a beige-and-gray, slope-roofed temple in the heart of the neighborhood. Elbowed between a Japanese collectible gift shop and a shabu shabu house, the temple is hidden down a narrow driveway, away from the bustle and gaggle of tourists. I almost missed the entrance to the gateway, and as I parked my car nearby, I watched a white couple wander into the temple courtyard and gawk around, confused, before bumbling back out. It was like we had entered an abrupt, secret tranquility—the noises of traffic outside shushed down, and the only chatter I heard was from chirping birds from who-knows-where (seriously, where were these mysterious birds in this concrete jungle?).
A young priest greeted me at the door with a smile and a bow. Here in America, many Buddhist priests adopt Christian ecclesiastical titles, so instead of greeting him as Priest Hayashi, I bowed hello to Rev. Ryuzen Hayashi. (His boss is the Bishop Emeritus Taisen Miyata.) Other than the Americanized title, Rev. Hayashi was otherwise very traditional: He wore a long olive-green robe, an outer garment printed with intricate gold patterns, thick white socks, and white slippers. His head was shiny bald, and he had smooth, expressive fingers that waved for emphasis as he talked.
One of Hayashi’s duties is to perform mizuko kuyo for anyone who requests it. He knows that most of these cases involve abortion—he sees and hears the parents’ regret. He calls abortion a “very disgusting thing”: He’s seen video footage of late-term abortions, watched the scenes where a fully formed unborn baby tries to wiggle away from the abortionist’s needle, and says he personally thinks abortion should be illegal: “The child had no sin. It’s the parents who are guilty. They made a decision.” But his role as a minister, he said, is to be the “intermediary” between the participant and the spirits, and also to help the parents through their loss: “I just listen. The purpose of mizuko kuyo is to pray.”
Over the years he’s even had non-Japanese, non-Buddhist participants seeking relief from their suffering or guilt over their child’s death. Mizuko kuyo was the only ceremony they found that specifically addressed the issue of prenatal deaths in a ritualistic way. These American patrons, Hayashi said, are willing to try anything that will help them. To me, these requests signify a very human longing for some sort of public, bodily expression of the grief of losing an unborn child. Even when the parents don’t believe in the personhood of an unborn baby, they feel the need to mourn in some way. Perhaps a mizuko kuyo seems comforting in its simplicity and formality.
Here in Koyasan Buddhist Temple, the priest prays to Jizo, a bodhisattva whom the Japanese believe protects and guides children to a better place. Mizuko kuyo also has a therapeutic component: It appeals to the heart of the parent to acknowledge their grief. Many temples in America focus more on the emotional rather than religious aspect of the service, since the growing number of American mizuko kuyo participants are not Buddhist.
But traditionally, the heart of mizuko kuyo is all about Jizo. In the courtyard outside the Koyasan temple stood several gray stone statues of Jizo. They had red cloth bibs around their neck and held a jingle staff in one hand, a mani jewel in the other—the staff to warn small creatures so Jizo can avoid trampling them, the jewel to grant all wishes. One Jizo statue at the temple had a baby in his arm and two more crying babies crawling up his lap, with a halo around his head to signify his divinity. I also saw smaller Jizos the size of my forearm—chubby figures with tilted faces, beaming crescent eyes, and pouty lips, adorned with red bibs and fluffy Santa Claus hats.
Japanese Buddhists believe Jizo presides over the otherworld, where the spirits of unborn babies whimper and weep before the mythical Sanzu River that blocks their path to the spirit world. The tale goes: Since these infants so prematurely departed the earthly world, they have no tally of good deeds to help them cross the river. What’s more, their untimely deaths brought their parents much pain, so they are doomed to pay penance by eternally piling stones by the river bank, stuck in a limbo of perpetual atonement and pain. Indeed, Buddhism does not take the matter of karma lightly: You get what you reap, no more, no less. But Jizo, the semi-deity who denied Buddhahood to first help others attain salvation, is full of compassion and mercy. He protects the weak by shielding the defenseless children behind his robe from demons, letting them hear mantras, and guiding them to the spirit world.
Hmm ... this sounds familiar. It’s no wonder that Jizo is the most beloved deity in Japan—deep down, we long for a Savior full of compassion and mercy for the weak and lost. I was reminded of a verse I recently studied from the book of Hosea: “For in you, the fatherless find compassion.” But preluding that sweet, tender line is also a recognition of the true God: “We will never again say ‘Our gods’ to what our own hands have made, for in you the fatherless find compassion” (Hosea 14:3). And Jizo, as lovely as he sounds, is still a manmade imitation of Jesus Christ.