The Treachery of Images .... and Zen practice

This post is about memory, history, and the trauma of race. Oh, what we know in zen practice—naming it stains it with defilement. The title of this entry, “The treachery of images,” (also known as the painting of a pipe with the caption, “This is not a pipe” or “C’est n’est pas une pipe”) is the work of French artist, Rene Magritte. Artists like Magritte, insist we understand that images of a thing are not that thing. You can read more about Magritte or see the “this is not a pipe” painting in the link below.

The photo below is my nephew, lingering, at the obelisk at Manzanar. This was his first and my second visit there. Its just him, me, and my dog. Its a long drive and along the way we downed a box of donuts. Apparently, donuts are a food staple of road trips. We are the only people there. Rusty nails, broken glass and splintered wood are the remnants of dismantled internment barracks. He is setting up camera gear to take pictures. I watch him as he pauses to take in the expansive beauty of Mount Whitney and reflect on his grandfather’s past.


This coming Saturday there is a Buddhist prayer service at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. Fort Sill is a U.S. Army property with a long history that includes captivity of Indigenous people, Japanese, and now, children who are unaccompanied minors or separated from their parents. On social media, I see the prayer service is being called a protest. There are calls for “never again is now” and “close the camps.” People are sending paper cranes.

In Asian American history, Fort Sill is not known as an internment camp though it is now being called one. In the chaos and upheaval following the evacuation order, aka, Executive Order 9066, there were many government agencies scrambling to meet the terms of the order —the DOJ, the FBI, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the WRA (War Relocation Authority), the Army, the Department of Defense, local police, etc. I suspect it will not be surprising to anyone there was a lack of coordination among government agencies. Also, prior to EO 9066, important dissent within the government about the constitutionality of the order.* Many Japanese were sent first to Assembly or other temporary detention centers, and then later, moved to one of the 10 sites known as internment centers (for example, Manzanar).

Since WWII, the past holds much “never again is now.” There have been important legal challenges to the constitutionality of 9066. However, the terms of the order have survived legal challenges, and instead, the convictions of several important challenges to the order have been vacated, set aside (by the Supreme Court), reparations were issued by Congress and signed by President Reagan in 1988.

And yet, this is not a pipe. Which is to say that calling the prayer service a protest does not make it so. A protest against is first about prayers for. The prayer service is for those who have died in captivity and calls our attention to the suffering born of chaos and upheaval, the long stringy threads of displacement that show up, silent threads, over generations, in ways that are so complex, its hard to even see the through line of trauma.

I am moved by friends in the dharma, those who have quietly rearranged their lives to attend. In the end, its not about how many cranes one has made or how much noise one can make in protest, but rather, the steadfast abiding with, just “being” alongside.


* I mention the dissent because I think its important to note that there was serious opposition to General DeWitt, Bendetsen, and internment proposals. Also, for those who might not know, the JACL or the Japanese American Citizen’s League (who self-describe now as the oldest Japanese American civil rights organization), was on the wrong side during WWII. Back then, they advocated Japanese immigrant and Japanese American cooperation with relocation. Similarly, the national offices of the ACLU dodged the opportunity to oppose the constitutionality of the executive order. My parents used to say, “the Quakers were the only ones who stood by us.”

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