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The Oakland Buddha, An Unlikely Harbinger of Peace in a Troubled Community

Photo by Leiris from Atlas Obscura (Source)

When a local Californian man found himself fed up with vandalism, litter, and crime in his neighborhood in Oakland, he decided to take matters into his own hands.

A median strip at 11th Avenue and East 19th Street became a dumping ground for residential junk, and the city government turned a blind eye on the issue. But Dan Stevenson — who told Oakland North that he had “little faith in humanity” — refused to let it go. 

Purchasing a 60-cm stone statue of Buddha from the hardware store, he and his wife Lu decided to install the figure on the spot. Stevenson was by no means a religious man, but retaliating to the problem with an icon like Buddha — whom he called “a neutral dude” — seemed like an apt response.

What was meant to be an innocent, almost passive response from the non-Buddhist couple would turn out to be a miracle of sorts for the entire neighborhood. 

Photo by Thomas Walden Levy (Source

The small hardware-bought figure would, in time, become a little haven for the Buddhist residents of Oakland. Even more astoundingly: in 2014, five years after the installation, the police reported that criminal activity in the area dropped to an immense 82%. This is something many of the locals correlated with the existence of the Buddha statue.

Today, it is enshrined in a small abode, surrounded by offerings of all sorts. Soft, meditative music plays serenely from a speaker. Framed photos, flowers, and candles encompass the now-painted Buddha. 

On the shrine, a plaque reads Phap Duyen Tu, which means “tranquility.” It serves as the epitome of peace in a neighborhood once riddled with trouble.

‘Phap Duyen Tu’, A Quiet, Sacred Space

Stevenson said that he was not expecting much from the little project. He supposed that someone would steal the statue, vandalize it, perhaps even dispose of it in due time. (There was a reported incident of a theft attempt, which failed, and is fortunately unlikely to happen again — the figure is now attached to a stand.)

To his utter surprise, Stevenson found little offerings at the base of the two-foot figure from Buddhists in the area. It would particularly catch the attention of two Vietnamese citizens: Vina Vo and her son, Cuc Vo. 

According to a report from The World, Vina, her husband, her brother, and a few others made their way to Oakland in 1892 in a small boat. Vina was merely a young woman then, and the war had just ended in Vietnam. Her home village — including their places of worship — had sadly been destroyed.

Vina Vo, photo by Thomas Walden Levy (Source)

Upon hearing the small, uncanny Buddha statue in the intersection, Vina and her son took a keen interest in it. They wanted to care for it themselves.

The pair would initially ask Stevenson for permission every time they tried to make changes. But Stevenson was no Buddhist, and he wanted to encourage their efforts. “It’s your Buddha,” he’d tell them every time. “I’m out of this now.”

At some point, the mother and son mounted the statue up a platform: “In our religion, Buddha is not supposed to be on the ground,” Cuc Vo told Oakland North. 

Photo by Deana Mitchell from Atlas Obscura (Source)

The little Buddha would also be colored in time — first in stark white, then in full intricate detail. The flesh-colored, golden-robed icon is a far cry from when Stevenson first erected it. “His hair’s been colored. His garments are gold and red,” he said. “I mean, he’s beautiful. I would never recognize him on the street.”

Buddha Transforms the Neighborhood

Although Vina and Cuc were the most familiar visitors of Phap Duyen Tu, many other Buddhists in the community would turn it into a little spot of spiritual refuge. It’s especially meaningful because it was a rare opportunity for immigrants to be closer to their faith — especially in the bustling streets of Oakland.

Photo by Thomas Walden Levy (Source)

And this was not the only astounding effect of the statue. Crimes gradually started to go down since its installation in 2009, and while there was no proven correlation between the two factors, many people credit the statue nonetheless. Even those with no religious ties to the icon would be appalled by it. 

“The dope-dealing has stopped, the ladies of the evening have stopped,” Andy Blackwood, a resident of Oakland, said in an SFGATE article

Where garbage and vandalism once were, candles and flowers replaced. “They’re out here every morning like clockwork,” said another local, Alicia Tatum. The original purpose of the Stevenson couple was fulfilled: people would keep the shrine clean and well-maintained to preserve its sanctity. 

Regardless of religious affiliations — and whether or not it truly helped alleviate the criminal activity — the Phap Duyen Tu was a transformative space for the community.

“[People] believe this is a holy site now,” Cuc told AJ+. “If it brings good feelings to people, and [they] like to come and give a little prayer in the morning or at nighttime, then that’s a beautiful thing.”

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