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Buddhist benefactors - local couple conduct worldwide relief drive
The Dhamma Times & Religion Journal  September 1, 2001


Flint - Ken and Visakha Kawasaki realize that the money they raise is "only a drop in the bucket" in answer to the religious needs of Buddhists worldwide but the results of their efforts still are rewarding.

"In fact, it can be quite heady when we see the results of donations to various causes," observed Visakha as she thumbed through photos of a school established near Calcutta, India, with funds from the Buddhist Relief Mission that the Kawasakis administer from their home.

The Kawasakis established the fund in 1988 while teaching English in a private school in Osaka, Japan. They raised funds while in Japan but also registered the organization in Michigan in 1992.

They closed the Japan effort when they retired in August 1999 after teaching for 30 years and turned full attention the Flint-based effort upon their return here, where Visakha was born.

The Kawasakis direct the program but also have a board of directors.

They converted to Buddhism in 1978 while on a worldwide trip. They became interested in fund-raising for Buddhists while working in Indochinese refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines in the early 1980s.

"We noticed that there were many Christian groups working in the camps, but a large number of the refugees were Buddhist, so we established a fund to help them," Ken said.

Their mission is the U.S. headquarters for the expanding fund-raising effort.

Annual donations have ranged from $10,000 to $20,000, but the Kawasakis look forward to a jump to $50,000 with formal approval Aug. 21 of U.S. charitable tax-deductible status.

Funds have gone to a wide variety of charitable religious works, ranging from having Buddhist books reprinted for distribution, underwriting construction of monasteries, orphanages, schools and working with poverty groups in Asia.

The Kawasakis focus on remote areas in their effort.

They currently are awaiting arrival of 154 pounds of books from India for distribution as requested. A growing number of requests are coming from prisons.

"Prisoners want to grow and have so much more interest in religious alternatives," said Visakha. "They often are filled with anger and Buddhism helps them get beyond that. They also have more time for meditation."

Prisoners also request Buddha images and meditation accouterments. Just this week, the Kawasakis received a request for a book from a prisoner in Spokane, Wash.

The Kawasakis say the U.S. prison system is sometimes hostile to Buddhists, or followers of any faith other than Christianity. They said Buddhist inmates often must overcome formidable barriers to obtain Dhamma (religious) books, or to have an opportunity to practice meditation with qualified teachers from the outside.

A few Christian chaplains have shown themselves to be fairly tolerant and sometimes even supportive of efforts to allow Buddhist practices in prisons, according to the Kawasakis.

Interest among prisoners has prompted the Kawasakis to petition the state Department of Corrections to include a Buddhist monk on its chaplaincy advisory council. The corrections department is scheduled to take up the request this month.

The Kawasakis have thousands of pictures showing how the money they have collected has been put to use in Asian countries.

Some of the groups they helped establish are doing so well they are donating funds for other worldwide mission efforts.

"To us, our work knows no borders, no extremity," Ken said.

To verify the legitimacy of requests for help, the Kawasakis are in close correspondence with applicants and often visit the area. They are leaving in October for a three-month visit to Thailand, Bangladesh and India. They were in India, Thailand and Sri Lanka for 2 1/2 months earlier this year.

"We just visit as often as possible to see how things are going," said Visakha.

When the Kawasakis established a mission branch in Flint before their return here, Visakha's mother, Sara C. Decker, oversaw it. Decker retired in 1979 as a librarian at the Clio branch of the Genesee District Library. She died in January at 87.

The Kawasakis' home also is the headquarters for the Burmese Relief Center - USA. Unlike the Buddhist Relief Mission, it joins efforts with other religious groups to assist people in refugee camps in the former Burma, now called Myanmer.

Buddhist Relief Mission has a 600-person mailing list. The Kawasakis are sometimes surprised at the breadth of the responses.

Their "Relief Notes 2000," a 12-page newsletter containing articles and photos of the past year's activities carried a notice of the availability of an 80-minute video, "The Buddha and His Teaching."

The Kawasakis have had responses from places as distant as Algeria, Russia and England.

The Kawasakis converted to Buddhism after an around-the-world trip in 1978.

"We don't prostelyze, we don't go door-to-door but if people are interested we are happy provide information on what the Buddhist teaching is and invite them to come and see what we are doing," Visakha commented.

"If someone is interested, all they have to do is ask," she added.

The Kawasakis said they know of about 50 people in the Flint area who follow the Buddhist religion. Some of them meet in the Kawasaki home from 7-9 p.m. each Friday for chanting and mediation. 


Updated: 1-9-2001

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