What would Buddha do? Young people find out

Buddha's birthday celebrated in Sacramento

A Vesak Day ceremony celebrating the birthday of Buddha was held Sunday at the Kim Quang Temple in Sacramento.
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A Vesak Day ceremony celebrating the birthday of Buddha was held Sunday at the Kim Quang Temple in Sacramento.

Sacramentans honored Buddha’s 2,641st birthday Sunday, many of them young adults who view their religion as an antidote to the divisiveness of the Trump era.

At Sacramento’s Kim Quang Temple, a calming oasis on Alta Arden, about 300 Buddhists of various races celebrated Vesak, a spiritual trifecta of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing, with silent prayer, chanting, meditation, music and vegetarian fare.

Given the violence in the world and “the poisons that cloud the mind and manifest into unwholesome actions … it is all the more necessary in this 21st century to be realistic and optimistic,” Vice Abbott Thich Thien Nhon told the crowd.

By showing gratitude and taking refuge in the Buddha, his teachings and those of our parents and teachers, “we commit ourselves to freedom from greed, hatred and delusion,” Nhon said.

Duy Nguyen, a civil engineering student at San Francisco State who attended Mira Loma High School, said Buddhism helped him through his rocky transition from high school to college. And he said it helped him deal with the election of Donald Trump, whom he opposed.

“People around me were very solemn – you’ve got to unplug for a while, turn off your phone and notifications, close your eyes and focus on your breaths. Count to 10 and if you get distracted, start again.”

Nguyen, 21, says he does this for about 20 minutes whenever he can. “Rather than constantly being bombarded with news, it allows you to take a different perspective.”

He said his generation likes Buddhism “because it’s practical – it can help end an argument with my girlfriend a lot faster if you both can take a step back and think about the situation a little more.”

Visitors to the lush temple grounds were greeted by Handson Tran, a Sac State computer science major, and Emmy Phan, a kinesiology major at American River College.

Tran appeared in the role of 16-year-old Siddhartha, a young prince born in northern India who renounced his wealth and family and found enlightenment after he walked among the sick and the suffering. Phan was dressed as Yasodhara – Siddhartha’s wife and the mother of their son Rahula – who had to learn forgiveness and acceptance when Siddhartha left her to find enlightenment.

“Our role is to teach the youth the culture, religion and practice of Buddhism,” said Phan, 20. “During the refugee crisis and all the bombs, it broke my heart to see so many people in distress. Buddha teaches that during the darkest days you’re always going to see the light.”

Peace and goodness “always start with one person,” Phan said. “By serving our youth group and feeding the homeless, we believe in karma, and hopefully it will spread.”

Nguyen, Tran and Phan represent the new wave of Buddhists. With its growing Asian population, California now has the largest number and second-highest proportion of Buddhists in America, according to the Pew Research Center.

About 2 percent of the state’s population, or 800,000 residents, are Buddhists. Unlike most religions in the United States, Buddhism is picking up young converts. About 34 percent of practicing Buddhists adults are 18 to 29, up from 23 percent in 2007, Pew data show.

“A lot of young people find Buddhism compatible with their way of life,” said temple secretary Phe Bach, who teaches meditation to teachers, students and prison inmates. “We are very friendly to the environment; we believe compassion and wisdom go hand in hand; we all have the potential to be enlightened like him, and that’s very important for young people.”

Bach’s students respond to karma, or the law of cause and effect, “by cultivating good deeds, avoiding bad deeds and keeping your mind calm and clear, good things will happen.”

Buddhism “is gaining a lot of new ground in the modern context because it’s practical; it’s more about understanding the nature of the mind and the human condition and working to alleviate suffering,” said Layne R. Little, who teaches religious studies at UC Berkeley, UC Davis and Sac State. Particularly appealing is the Buddha’s teaching “that every person is the sole arbiter of their religious life.”

Buddhists are less likely than other religious groups to frequently attend church. About 18 percent of Buddhists say they go to temple at least once a week, compared to 47 percent of Christians, according to Pew.

“Everyone practices in their own way,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen’s mother, temple treasurer Thu Ngo, was clad in an ao dai, a traditional flowing Vietnamese dress that dozens of women wore in a kaleidoscope of colors. Ngo, who survived the Vietnam War, said many temple members have dealt with fear and anxiety in the polarized political climate.

The key for coping is the Buddhist belief in impermanence, she said.

“We have to live and enjoy the moment fully, live each day as if it’s your last,” she added. Trump is here for now, but he, too, shall pass “and so will the feeling of helplessness. We have to believe in America.”

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMagagnini