Buddha of Oakland

When Dan Stevenson placed a stone Buddha across the street from his house in Oakland’s Eastlake neighborhood, it was out of desperation. “The corner was constantly being filled up with mattress and couches and junk and there was some drug usage, a lot of graffiti, people just standing around doing nothing—just depressing,” said Stevenson.

 Stevenson and his wife, Lu, say they are not religious at all, but believe in the power of positive and negative energy, and so decided to try a small Buddha.

 “If I’d have thought Christ would’ve pulled it off—” Steven began jokingly, then interrupted himself. “Except Christ is so controversial with people. Buddha is a neutral dude. When Ace Hardware is carrying Buddha, it’s pretty neutral.”

Stevenson, who says he has little faith in humanity, didn’t expect much to happen next. Maybe someone would steal the icon or graffiti him. Instead, little by little, neighbors began to care for the tiny statue and worship him.

At first, Stevenson said, he would just see the occasional apple or orange near the Buddha, left as offerings. With time, a Vietnamese neighbor named Vina Vo and her son Cuc Vo came to him, asking if they could care for the Buddha statue.

 They built a platform for him to sit on and began to sweep and clean the area around him. (“In our religion, Buddha is not supposed to be on the ground,” said Cuc Vo.) Over time they painted him—at first he was just white, but they later painted him again, this time flesh-colored, with a golden robe, black hair and red lips.

Then they gave the shrine a renovation. Buddha is now elevated even higher and has a tiny house, just larger than a child’s playhouse, built by Vina’s husband. Every day, piles of oranges and apples are placed at his feet, next to burning incense. Chants are projected from tiny speakers behind his head. There is even a surveillance camera.

Each time they make a change to the Buddha or his surroundings, Vina Vo or another Vietnamese neighbor comes to Stevenson, asking his permission. “It’s your Buddha, I’m out of this now,” Stevenson always says, but nonetheless, a plate of fruit or a Vietnamese delicacy is always brought to him afterward. “It’s delicious. I mean, I eat it,” he said shyly. “But it’s a bit embarrassing.”

Now, every morning at 7 am, Vina Vo and other Vietnamese Buddhist women from the neighborhood meet there and dress in pale blue prayer clothes they brought from a Buddhist temple. They chant and pray and give offerings. The tiny shrine even has name plaque, “Phap Duyen Tu,” meaning “tranquility,” said Cuc Vo.

Any time of day, you can find Vina at the shrine. She and her husband, along with another family, are its primary caretakers. She is often there to pray, but also minds the offerings of fruit, flowers, bowls of black-eyed peas, and choco-pies. She shoos away stray cats and said there have been times she’s had to ask homeless people not to sleep inside the home built for Buddha.

She said everyone in the neighborhood loves the shrine and that all are welcome. “There’s been a lot of people who come by and maybe they aren’t Buddhist,” adds her son, “but they stop and talk and maybe they become Buddhist. Everyone is welcome.”

“It’s become this icon for the whole neighborhood,” said Stevenson. “There’s a lot of people that are not Buddhist that really come and just talk in front of him, they walk their dogs, they stand there—it’s a place where people meet and talk. It’s just cool.”

“He’s a popular little guy,” Stevenson continued. “He’s got a Facebook page. He’s got a Twitter account. He’s more connected socially than I am. He’s a great little guy, I guess. But it’s amazing, an amazing thing.”

Seeing this extravagantly cared for street corner, it’s now hard to imagine it was ever the place for dumping trash. “Since the Vietnamese have adopted the space, every morning they come and they clean it, and they sweep it,” said Stevenson. “It just kind of turned the whole thing around to zero. No more mattresses and no more garbage and no more graffiti and no more hanging out.”

Vina Vo, in turn, is thankful to Stevenson and believes his decision to place the Buddha statue there was divine intervention.  The morning sun lit up her face and the Buddha behind her, as she carefully arranged a bouquet of incense sticks while sitting on the step of Phap Duyen Tu. “Dan, thank you to Dan,” she said, gesturing toward Stevenson’s home across the street.

Filed under: Community, Culture, Front

54 Comments

  1. Gail conners

    Great news

    • wow

      I highly recommend everyone here type in ‘Buddha of Oakland’ in to Google ‘IMAGES’ and look at the photos.
      There you will see the progression of care.
      It starts off with this unassuming, tiny, painted white, buddha statue sitting in the dirt surrounded, almost obscured, by plants taller than the statue itself.
      It ultimately metastasizes into a carnival cacophony replete with American flags, several other statues, pictures, poured concrete etc. etc.
      You’re now left wondering if a discarded mattress would be a less offensive view.
      The real lesson here is the old saying – “a road paved with good intentions…

      • Truth

        You’re gross, and your opinions are gross. It’s mind-boggling that anyone would think a soiled abandoned mattress would be “less offensive” than the shrine resting there now. I hate to general, but I am guessing you’re a white Trump supporter, and probably male. I look forward to the day when people like you are the minority in the US. It’s coming.

        • Dell

          I’m a white male Trump supporter who also happens to be Buddhist, and I think this is wonderful. Not all of us are gun toting white supremacists. It’s amazing to see what a little gesture can do, and this is a wonderful example of a person seeing something they don’t like about the world, and affecting a positive change that got the community involved. We need more little gestures people! This is awesome!

      • Augustine Rotten

        I read the first sentence of your comment and I googled “Buddha of Oakland”. What a great piece of advice. It’s good seeing how the community has come together around this.

        The first advice was infinitely better than the rest of the comment.

      • Tom

        What a warped point of view.

  2. Richard Michalak

    That’s a great story. It is heavily reminiscent of a Nevil Shute novel called Round The Bend and Dan Stevenson sounds like Tom Cutter in that novel.
    find out about Nevil Shute (On the Beach, A Town Like Alice) at http://www.nevilshute.org

    • Vickers

      Ha! It does remind me of Round the Bend in a way. Hopefully this contributes to the quality of airplane maintenance everywhere.

  3. adam fisher

    Lovely.

  4. wsking

    How sweet! What a lovely thing to do!

  5. maureen hogan

    Lovely story. And not to be too PC but . . . your use of “flesh colored” may not have been the best word phrasing. Flesh comes in all kinds of colors. 🙂

    • Michael

      maureen, anytime you have to start a sentence with “not to be ________” , that’s exactly what you’re about to be,

      • Corley

        true, but her admitting it means she’s aware that some might find it annoying. She’s got a point- ‘flesh-colored’ assumes ‘caucasians’ as the default for humanity, which of course isn’t the case.

        • Shawn

          Sorry but human flesh tends to be the same colour for everyone. Unless you are sickly. Skin is what has different colouration.

          Plus you don’t know what colour they painted it so you can’t call the article out for it’s phrasing. Also stop being a useless sjw, it’s unbecoming.

      • A Decent Person

        Comment was made in 2015. Stop defining your worth with how many PC people you can “put in their place”. Your comment stems from hatred. Stop hating people. This is a lovely article about a community of people coming together and you feel the need to be vile.

    • Yas queen

      But white skin is indeed flesh… so its not inaccurate to call it flesh colored. lol

      • Johan Baumeister

        No, but it *is* imprecise.

      • Jay

        Yes, it’s literally accurate, but with respect you’re missing the point. “Flesh colored” has, for a very, very long time, been code for “Caucasian colored” – it’s an exclusionary term that inherently carries the weight of a more racist time when non-whites were of even less standing and acceptance in society than is the case today. It’s even less appropriate here, since the Buddha is not Caucasian.

        Also, even if we ignore all of the above, purely from an informational point of view, “flash colored” tells us literally nothing about what color it is! You see the problem, right?

        • human colored

          “flesh colored” can only be something from a very, very small selection of all the colors humans can see, so with your imagination, I am sure you could come up with an idea of what it could look like.
          The article is making no claims as to the superiority of that color, only that the Buddha has been painted a color that makes it more human-like.
          Bringing up the idea that it is not right to say such a thing as “flesh colored”, indicates that you are petty and missing the whole point of the article, which is absolutely positive.

          There are many different versions of so many things, including humans. Yes, it would be great to have language that is able to include everyone all at once, and even greater to have people that did not automatically think such limited language indicated racism, prejudice, or some other form of negativity, but thinking that a word or statement is automatically excluding all others, that is wrong also.

          Think positive, BE positive! =)

          • buddha coloured

            I actually thought it was a fitting description. as “flesh coloured” is something that changes form person to person, or from ethnicity to ethnicity. Coming from that lady, i didn’t have caucasian white in my mind, but a slightly darker shade, as custom in vietnam.
            I think people might need to stop reading those phrases with their own experiences in mind.

        • A man

          But in this case, it was a Vietnamese person painting a statue of the Buddha, who was Indian, so why assume flesh coloured in the article meant caucasian flesh coloured? It probably didn’t.

      • Bub

        As sensible as saying something is hair colored

    • N

      It’s cute because you’re assuming Caucasian when they probably painted him with Asian skin tones in mind. The author literally just meant they painted him to look human.

      Also it’s genuinely amazing that even an article as positive as this just has to be shit on by someone.

    • Sharon A.

      I’ve seen a photo of the statue and it is exactly what you would call ‘flesh color’ if you were to name a paint. I.e. it looks nothing like human flesh of any type just a yellow pinkish tone. No one needed your shaming. He was perfectly exact and correct in his explanation and everyone reading understood what he was talking about. You’re a ‘fault finder’ and nothing is more toxic.

  6. Very inspiring. I live in the South Bay and would like to visit this temple. Can you please tell me where is it in Oakland?
    Thanks,
    Hao

  7. m

    This is incredibly rude. “He’s a great little guy”
    This is a god to millions of people. He treated it like trash and forced a community to come take care of it. White people think that they can just put Buddha statues all over their house, businesses, and lawns and think it is not offensive.

    • N

      Jeez you must be fun at parties

    • W

      The Buddha is a revered figure, but he is not considered to be a god.

    • San

      No. To say Buddha is a god is actually more demeaning to him, nah…i dont think he will care as much. In Buddhist 6 Path, all will eventually be reincarnated into one of the planes of existance. Even those that existed as heavenly being (Deva) will eventually die. Guatama is the only one that gained enlightenment and escaped samsara. Buddhist would not be praying to him as a god, but rather paying homage and revere him for his teachings.

      TLDR: Buddha is not a god. He is more a teacher.

    • Ed

      Talk about missing the point.

    • Mark

      He didn’t force anyone to take care of him – he just sat the statue on the side of the road. They, as the article said ASKED to do all these things – they could have just walked straight past and ignored it quite easily

    • A man

      The Buddha isn’t a god. He is an enlightened human, also representing the fundamental timeless reality that is the nature of everyone’s mind.

      Anyway, why don’t you leave Buddhists to decide what is offensive? And ‘white people’ can be Buddhists too and lots of them are.

      I’m not sure Buddhism embraces the petty offence taking of 2017.

  8. Mars-in-Leo

    A lovely story indeed – with ongoing positiveness!

  9. Christ is only controversial in california

  10. Mark

    He didn’t force anyone to take care of him – he just sat the statue on the side of the road. They, as the article said ASKED to do all these things – they could have just walked straight past and ignored it quite easily

  11. westend

    Samsara at work here.
    The practical thing is that people now take care of that location where the buddha sits. People can enjoy the shrine and that also is an improvement.

  12. Philsie

    I’m confused at the part where she said “all are welcome”, yet she shoos away homeless people taking shelter. WTF?

  13. Reality

    I highly recommend everyone here type in ‘Buddha of Oakland’ in to Google ‘IMAGES’ and look at the photos.
    There you will see the progression of care.
    It starts off with this unassuming, tiny, painted white, buddha statue sitting in the dirt surrounded, almost obscured, by plants taller than the statue itself.
    It ultimately metastasizes into a carnival cacophony replete with American flags, several other statues, pictures, poured concrete etc. etc.
    You’re now left wondering if a discarded mattress would be a less offensive view.
    The real lesson here is the old saying – “a road paved with good intentions…

  14. I am saddened that they shoo away the homeless who are trying to sleep in the tiny house. Buddhism does not support that behavior.

  15. Iris Bruel

    I am nonplussed at how even so touching and lovely a story taps into such a well of animosity.

  16. Gary

    I worked at the Old Mother’s Cookie Factory near there for years. Walked my dogs by that corner everyday. People dumped clothes, ovens, mattresses, sofas, TVs there all the time. I walked by and saw the Buddha there cemented in the ground. Thought it was cool but that it was sure to be destroyed within a week. Then flowers were planted and bowls of fruit. It grew and others installed additional delicate porcelain figures, yet no one disturbed them. It was amazing. The city came to tear it up (I assume someone complained) but they had trouble removing the concrete and people came out to protest, so they left it. Soon a small shelter was built, followed by more statues, music and larger structures. Another very large shrine popped up a couple of blocks away. There were large lunches held there where people brought tables and chairs and platter upon platter of food was shared. Monks came to bless the site with a large ceremony. Always people tending the shrine and praying, everyone very friendly and happy. It was a remarkable transformation and has been nothing but a positive happening.

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