Excerpted from "Of Christmas and Karma, Persimmon Tree, Winter 2015
When I was nine, Mom and I lived with Baachan and Jiichan, Grandma and Grandpa. Ten years after they left the incarceration camp, they’d finally earned enough money sharecropping strawberries to land of their own. It was nothing compared to the 100-acre seaside ranch they’d lost. This was ten hot dusty acres south of San Jose, off the old Hwy. 101, Blood Alley, they called it, because cars could get hit by fast-moving traffic as they tried to pull onto the highway.
Eveery week, Mom dragged me to the Buddhist Sunday School on a nearby farm. Boring! We sat on hard folding chairs, in a bare, whitewashed room with a piano and a small Buddhist shrine. We listened to the traveling minister, sang
corny Christian-sounding hymns and read boring sutras out loud. If I started swinging my legs to passthe time, Mom gave my thigh a sharp, quick squeeze, so I chewed the inside of my cheek and twirled the tassel of my ojuzu prayer beads. But I did believe in the Buddha. Every time we said the Golden Chain prayer, etched deeper into my heart and brain.
"I am a link in Amida's golden chain of love that stretches around the world. I will keep my link bright and strong. I will try to be kind to all living things and protect all who are weaker than myself. I will try to think pure and beautiful thoughts, to say pure and beautiful words, and to do pure and beautiful deeds, knowing that on what I do now depends not only my happiness or unhappiness but also that of others. May every link in Amida's golden chain of love become bright and strong and may we all attain perfect peace."
How can I protect all those weaker than myself? I worried. I’m just a kid! I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I visualized my parents, grandparents, and all my aunties and uncles lined up in a row, expecting me to keep my link bright and strong. They are not angry, just disappointed, which makes it worse.
Baachan, liked to say Amida was all-powerful and all-seeing. He lived in the sky and kept track of everything. If we did good things, good things would happen. If we did bad things, bad things would happen. That was karma, and you couldn’t escape it.
One day, I was sitting on the front porch steps, feeling bored in the lazy heat of summer. An enormous horse fly buzzed around my head. I flicked it away, but it kept coming back. Bzzzz. Bzzzz. Bzzt. Bzzt. It landed on the steps and rubbed its feelers together. Its huge red eyes bulged from the sides of its head. I wondered if it saw hundreds of little girls bending down to look at it.
What would the fly look like dead? I pushed the thought away. I will try to be kind to all living things. But the though came back. I wonder what will happen if I kill it.
There was no one around: Mom was at work, Baachan and Jiichan were out in the fields. I glanced up at the sky. It was a sharp clean blue without a cloud in it. It’s only a fly. Maybe Amida won’t see. I mentally manufacture a dense grey cloud and pull it across the sky. Then I take off my shoe and swat the fly. When I lift the shoe, I'm disappointed. The fly didn’t look much different, except for thick yellow guts oozing out, and a red smear of blood. Its blood was the same color as mine!
From then on, whenever our car bounced over the railroad tracks and waited for a gap in traffic to turn onto Blood Alley, I could almost feel a big fly swatter hovering in the sky.