In the long-standing tradition of temple organizations, Saishin Dojo began as a means to solve a simple question: what do we do with our kids in the summer?
Saishin Dojo is the summer program run by Senshin Buddhist Temple and Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles, CA. For over 30 years, they have been teaching kids entering 1st grade through 6th grade a unique curriculum of Japanese American cooking, craft, and culture from passionate and talented community members and volunteers. This includes, and is certainly not limited to, learning pottery from members of Senshin’s WasabiKai, taking guided field trips to Tanaka Farms, and having taiko lessons from Kinnara Taiko.
It’s an extremely enriched program, and yet it feels weird to brag. After all, it’s just the way it’s always been.
Saishin Dojo was started by Rev. Mas Kodani, Rev. Russel Hamada, and Rev. Shoki Mohri, not as a way to showcase all the amazing things their temple members can teach, but because the temple was their home-base, the center of community, and their children just needed a place to run around from June to July. Cultural development was simply a byproduct.
For the students of Saishin Dojo, even now, it still feels that way. For a summer “school,” there’s an absurd amount of free play time, for example, and although there’s been steady improvement in the scheduling and organization of their ever-growing activities, Saishin Dojo is still about having fun more than anything.
Saishin Dojo fosters the perfect environment for kids to interact with and get to know each other. Some of my fondest childhood memories come from making new friends and playing in Senshin’s courtyard. When we weren't helping each other bead ōnenju or applauding at each other’s udon-making skills, we were jumping rope and hosting card game brackets. Those friends that I made became life-long relationships that I still carry with me today, through the doors that Saishin Dojo opened for me. But how, and why? What sets apart Saishin Dojo from J-school, or LABCC?
This past year, I returned to Saishin Dojo after eight years. The difference of being on the other side of it all gave me a whole new appreciation and perspective. At the first meeting, Rev. Mas explained the importance of teaching culture and language organically, the way our grandparents and parents taught us. “Say ‘hashi’ and not ‘chopstick.’ Say ‘kaikan’ instead of ‘social hall.’" He explained to us how adults ask questions, and want to know the exact meaning of everything, but the kids will pick it up. It’s the way we all learned.
Rev. Mas also explained that it’s part of our Eastern tradition to teach through practice, then lecture only if there’s time. Following that order, it’s easy to see why students like me don’t even realize the significance of those summers spent at Senshin until years after leaving. The things that we were taught, both by instruction and implicitly open a door to cultural understanding and appreciation that’s kept the Japanese American and, in conjunction, the Buddhist community alive for more than four generations. That tradition hasn’t changed, even while the rest of the world has.
I didn’t know what to expect after so many years, especially given that they had been on a hiatus after COVID-19 closed it down for the first time since its inception. What ended up baffling me the most was the normalcy of it all. The kids had to wear masks, of course, but they still played taiko with Mr. Johnny Mori, and kiaied loudly (though sometimes at inappropriate times). They had to take turns by grade who ate lunch inside and outside, but still managed to collect themselves at the very last minute for toban cleaning, with their little soap buckets and brooms. It seems that no matter how much time passes, kids can always tell the difference in a few seconds longer of silent meditation.
That isn’t to say the kids didn’t struggle despite it all. There was some friend drama, and conflict over who played with who, and who wanted to have a turn, and so on. But it was as it always has been. It really is astonishing how, despite all that the pandemic has disrupted, Saishin Dojo ran much the way it has for the twenty plus years prior. It felt like a little bubble of childhood– of my childhood– had somehow been preserved. In these kids I saw myself, and I can only hope that in me they were able to see themselves carrying on the legacy that brought them here.
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