Immigration, the DREAM Act, Buddhism, and the myth of the “quiet Asian” -Part 2

In a three part series, Karn Saetang, a Chicago youth organizer for the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center, shares his personal story, how his Buddhist faith guides his work, and how Asian-American youth in Chicago are busting the myth of the quiet Asian.

Today, Karn writes about his Buddhist heritage, his experience as a novice monk, his time spent in Thailand, how his Buddhist faith guides his work.  Enjoy.

In Thai, I’m what some older generations called a dek wat.  Which roughly translated means a child who grew up in the Buddhist temple/monastery community.  My parents used to take my and my sister to this one temple every Sunday in Burbank, IL.  When I was in elementary school, maybe around 7th grade, my dad was laid off and facing some serious health issues, and our family was pretty broke in general.  I’m a big believer in karma, and at that time, I felt our family needed all the good karma we could get.  So I was ordained as a novice monk, or nehn, at that temple.  I was the first person to undergo the ordination process at that temple, since it wasn’t a temple in Thailand, no one ever expected anyone to become ordained there.  And over time, my dad’s health started to improve.

In 2008, I traveled back to Thailand with my mom.  And after months of studying and preparation, I was able to become ordained as a Theravada phra, which is basically an adult monk, with my mom by my side.  The ceremony was at Wat Bovorn Nivet in the Banglamphu region of Thailand, where I also stayed.  2008 was a contentious time in Thailand.  Two years earlier, the Thai military staged a coup d’etat and overthrew the reigning prime minister.  And another political crisis emerged in 2008.  While I was staying at the temple, a couple streets down was the base of the PAD (People’s Alliance for Democracy), which was the government opposition party that helped lead the coup two years earlier, and was now involved in violent protests and demonstrations in the streets because of a new corrupt administration.  At one point they even took over the airports and basically shut down Thailand for a couple of days.  My mom was a very active supporter of the PAD in Chicago, and even more so in Thailand.  Before I was ordained, I asked and basically pleaded with here to not get involved with the demonstrations.  And my mom being my mom, didn’t listen.  I remember opening a Thai newspaper one day, and the front page showed a man with his legs blown off, along with other body parts and reports of fatalities and deaths during a protest the day before.  That same day, my mom came to visit me, and told me how she was at the demonstration with one of her friends, and about how now her eyes sting because of all the tear gas that were shot at them.

I found it a little ironic that in a country with close to 95% practicing Buddhists, it is also a country with a long history of revolutions and political unrest.  I found political organizers in Thailand to be highly confrontational and aggressive, but at the same time, I saw passion in their faces and heard conviction in their voices.  These were people who were not happy with their government, and were going to do anything necessary to change it.

Now in Buddhist culture, one of the main points is the cessation of all suffering, for all people.  And you do this through trying to get rid of all the defilements in your mind, which would pave the road to enlightenment according to Buddha.  He believed that to live life, is to live suffering, that life in itself is suffering, and that enlightenment would end the cycle of rebirth and end that suffering.  He sought to do this through teaching everyone possible.  He wanted every living creature on this planet to be free of pain and suffering.  In the same vein, life is hard, and we as people make it harder on ourselves sometimes.  In nature, every creature shares this planet.  An elephant doesn’t own any land, birds don’t own the sky, fish don’t own the sea.  If an elephant wanted to take a dip in pond, then why not.  If a bird wants to chill on a tree, then there’s no one to stop it.  So why the hell does humanity feel as though we have ownership of land?  Why did we draw lines on a map and name one piece the United States of America and another Mexico?  Why do we feel the need to have arbitrary borders and prevent people from seeing the rest of the land we all share?

But I also know I’m living in the real world, and I know that over years of oppression and politics, we face some pretty horrible immigration laws.  We’re preventing people from getting jobs.  We’re stopping America’s best and brightest from going to college.  We’re putting up roadblocks to dreams.  There are immigration backlogs for Filipinos that stretch more than 20 years.  We’re separating fathers from mothers from daughters from sons.  We’re unjustly detaining people.  We used to not allow black people to vote.  We used to not allow women to get real jobs.  We used to unjustly detain the Japanese in camps.  We’ve been through this before.  America has been through this before.  And if any country should know any better it should be the U.S.  But history repeats itself.  I never expect to reach enlightenment in this lifetime.  I never expect to end suffering for all people in this lifetime.  But I feel as though life can already be a heavy burden, so there’s no need to keep packing on more.  Buddhists believe every living being has a right to live.  From plants to bees, from dogs to humans.  No person has any right to deprive any living being of that right to live.  As an American, we cannot deprive anybody, regardless of where they were born, of an education, which is a fundamental human right.  We don’t get to pick and choose which civil and human rights we get to spread.

DREAM Activists like to say that in our history it has never been a bad idea to educate a segment of the population.  In the words of Buddha, “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”  I want to see my friends graduate college.  I want to see them get the good jobs they’ve earned and deserve.  And I want to see them raise their family, free of discrimination, and contribute back to the country they love so much.  I understand why there’s a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment in this country.  The cashier that yelled at my mom faced it.  If you come face to face with something you don’t understand, your first emotion might be fear, and fear breeds hate.  Humanity needs to understand that this is a planet we all share, and a person has no right to deprive another of any rights of life, a life that can be long, but one that has to have shared love and compassion.  There’s a long way to go to reach that ideal level, and I feel the DREAM Act is the first rung of the ladder to get there.

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3 thoughts on “Immigration, the DREAM Act, Buddhism, and the myth of the “quiet Asian” -Part 2

  1. wonderful article. I am a practicing Buddhist myself. I want to let all the Dreamers know that you're not dreaming alone! I support you all the way!

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