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Barbara O'Brien

The 11th Avenue Buddha

By July 15, 2012

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Here's a wonderful story that I heard this morning, about a couple who solved a problem with a Buddha.

Dan and Lu Stevenson of Oakland, California, wanted to do something to clean up their neighborhood. A traffic median on a street corner had become a dumping ground for garbage, old mattresses, and other rubbish. The city took days to respond to calls to clean it up. The corner also became a magnet for drug trafficking, public urination, and graffiti.

So in 2009 Dan went to a hardware store and bought a little concrete meditating Buddha. He installed the Buddha on the median with epoxy and rebar. Dan and Lu are not Buddhists; Dan said he thought of installing the Buddha because "he was a neutral being that denotes compassion, brotherhood, and peace," and he thought the presence of a Buddha would "change the energy" on the street corner.

Soon there was a slight change -- the garbage and graffiti still arrived, but it was being dumped on the other side of the street divide. In the first year, the dumping, drug, graffiti, and urination problems were reduced about 50 percent, Dan Stevenson said.

In the second year, an anonymous neighbor painted the Buddha white. Then people began to leave offerings of flowers and fruit. During this time the illegal dumping all but disappeared.

Other people in the neighborhood began to pick up around the Buddha, so neighbors were around all hours of the day. The graffiti artists, drug pushers, etc. no longer had the corner to themselves, and moved elsewhere.

The little concrete Buddha became a neighborhood focal point. People on walks would stop there to view the Buddha and talk to other neighbors on walks.

A Vietnamese couple came and asked if they could build a shelter with a roof over the Buddha. In some parts of Asia it is considered disrespectful to leave a Buddha out in the open. Soon the neighborhood Buddha had a pretty, bright red "house."

But then someone complained to the city of Oakland that there was a religious display on public property, and a public works supervisor came and said the Buddha would have to be removed. The city would jackhammer the Buddha into bits if no one else took him away.

The neighbors immediately began to call and write city government officials asking to keep the 11th Avenue Buddha. Oakland now says it has postponed dismantling the Buddha and is "studying the situation."

Dan Stevenson's personal account of the 11th Avenue Buddha is very sweet and worth reading. See also a news story about the Buddha from the local NBC television affiliate.

This post and the last one both touch on the issue of religion on public property. In my non-lawyerly opinion the 11th Avenue Buddha is not an obvious First Amendment violation, but I want to go into that in another post.

July 16, 2012 at 9:41 am
(1) Jim says:

Wonderful story, hopefully the shrine will be able to stay. Nothing like the community using their own ingenuity to improve their quality of life.

July 16, 2012 at 11:17 am
(2) Mumon says:

This post and the last one both touch on the issue of religion on public property. In my non-lawyerly opinion the 11th Avenue Buddha is not an obvious First Amendment violation, but I want to go into that in another post.

I think it comes close, and only because it’s a variation of the “Is the Buddha you get at the garden-supply store a religious object?”,

But it poses – to me at any rate – a more interesting question: Can you achieve the same effect without a visual representation of the Buddha?

That’s a variation of Seung Sahn’s “Dropping Ashes on the Buddha” koan.

July 16, 2012 at 1:01 pm
(3) David says:

Reminds me of a famous case–San Francisco I believe–of a phallus shaped concrete traffic divider that was left in a corner of a park by a maintenance crew and was soon identified as a Shiva lingam by local Hindus, who made it into a shrine. Then, of course, hippies and general gawkers followed and, for some reason, some Buddhists too. So that also created a brouhaha about religion in public spaces. I am a big supporter of separation of religion and state, but some battles just seem silly to fight. If it does not cause taxpayer expense or otherwise interfere with public life it seems silly to me to forcifly remove a Buddha, creche, menorah, Saint Francis or anything else of that nature.

July 17, 2012 at 12:02 pm
(4) Mila says:

I love this story …. how one person’s intention to uplift their environment, and their willingness to take action, had effects which rippled out to spark that same loving-kindness and love of beauty in the hearts of others, so that eventually what seemed like a very small gesture became something with true transformative power. Awesome, and then some :)

The legal situation around it is a separate issue, & hopefully will be resolved to the greatest benefit of all involved — but regardless of how this turns out, the deeper message of how we’re interconnected in all kinds of wondrous and mysterious ways, and how the smallest of actions has effects we could never have imagined, stands ….

July 17, 2012 at 3:11 pm
(5) Michael says:

I think it would be interesting to ask the person who did not want to see a religious display on public property what non-religious symbol could be used to the same effect.

Also, I wonder (maybe being paranoid) if they complainant was really an atheist seeking to preserve the separation of religion and state or a member of another religion who did not like the competition.

July 18, 2012 at 11:01 am
(6) Zen Beginner says:

We had a similar issue come up in San Francisco a few years back around the Roman Torture Implement on the top of Mt. Davidson. The eventual solution was to auction off the land under the cross to a private entity, thus making it non governmental property.


It looks like the ninth circuit ruled on the issue, so there’s some precedent to research.

July 20, 2012 at 4:41 am
(7) Yoel Reuben says:

Thank you ! This is a very interesting story,people of all walks of life showld appreciate ths gesture- I have and will always look to the Buddha for enlightenment

July 20, 2012 at 3:17 pm
(8) JoyFinder says:

I’ve often heard, and also believe, that Buddhism is not a religion, but a philosophy. Is there a “religion” that encourages people to question it’s beliefs and decide if it’s right for them, as buddhism does?
* What a wonderful story!

July 21, 2012 at 8:03 pm
(9) Tanukisan says:

That’s a wonderful story; I hope the city council is wise enough to honour the community’s desires and leave the statue where it is.

Sadly, that did not happen on one street I lived in years ago in Auckland, New Zealand. Some new traffic islands had been installed, and a neighbour voluntarily put some flowers and low shrubs in place in the bare soil. One morning, I noticed they had been pulled up and placed on the median strip. The neighbour replaced them and we all wrote to the local council asking that they remain in place. One week later, I came home to find that, not only had they been removed again, but the traffic islands had been covered with bitumen – presumably to make certain that no iconoclast dared to attempt to beautify them again. I’ve no doubt that some hard-faced bureaucrat is still smugly self-satisfied about their success in foiling such a blatant attempt to overturn the council ordinances. And we never did get a response to our letters.

Maybe we should have put a Buddha statue there.

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