Welcoming strangers into places of worship has always been a core value of Toronto's Buddhist community, says Chemi Lhamo. Now, it's not so simple.
"The very places that are meant to be open are now having to take precautions," Lhamo, an organizer with the Tibetan Canadian Cultural Centre and a spokesperson for Gajang Buddhist Center, told CBC Toronto.
A recent string of crimes at places of worship across the Greater Toronto Area has meant Gajang Buddhist Center, and others like it, have had to beef up security. That includes screening new visitors.
"It's really sad because in the given world that we live in, there's not a lot of safe spaces, even just free spaces, to access," Lhamo said.
Between July 21 and Sept. 9, police in Peel and York regions have reported seven break-ins and thefts at Buddhist temples, monasteries and meditation centres. No arrests have been made. The places of worship declined to comment, citing concerns they might become repeat victims.
Peel police say in one incident, suspects stole money and caused damage to the property. In another instance, suspects asked for a blessing, before stealing a safe and fleeing.
Buddhist temples and monasteries aren't the only places of worship being targeted. There have been 29 break-ins at religious centres across Peel Region since the beginning of the year, according to police data.
Police say the recent incidents appear to be motivated by financial gain and are not being investigated as hate crimes. Investigators are searching for suspects, but have not yet made any arrests.
Chemi Lhamo says the Buddhist community has always been welcoming to new members. Now, she says, there will have to be a more stringent 'intake' process for strangers. (Chemi Lhamo)
Toronto police said officers are in contact with other police services, and are conducting general patrols, particularly in off-hours, in areas where places of worship are located.
"Generally these are the places that are very welcoming and open," Lhamo said. "To see … such break-ins or threats, thefts, has been quite disheartening."
Buddhists in the GTA
Buddhism in Canada stretches back centuries, according to Antoine Panaioti, an expert in Buddhist philosophy at Toronto Metropolitan University.
He says it can be traced back to the construction of the railroad in the 1880s.
Buddhism first came to Canada when Chinese immigrants arrived in the 1880s to work on the railroad. They were paid about $1 a day. (Lorna Fandrich)
Nearly 150 years later, members of the Buddhist community in Toronto make up two per cent of the city's population, according to Statistics Canada data from 2021.
There's a wide variety of Buddhist places of worship — each of which practice slightly different versions of the religion.
However, Panaioti says they all rely on cash donations, which could make them targets.
Buddhist temples are vulnerable, experts say
It's not just the assumption that there's cash onsite that makes these places of worship "easy targets" for crime, said Timothy Bryan, assistant sociology professor at the University of Toronto, who researches the policing of hate crimes.
He says the religion's core values — open and welcoming, with "a desire to address the needs of people" — also have an impact.
Toronto police said they have boosted patrols around Buddhist places of worship in light of recent break-ins, but Timothy Bryan, assistant sociology professor at the University of Toronto, says the responsibility often falls on victims of the attacks to protect themselves from future crimes. (Timothy Bryan)
"You can have a phenomenon where communities are targeted because there's a perception that they are easy victims," Bryan said.
Though police don't consider the incidents hate crimes, Bryan says they still have "significant effects" on the community.
These types of crimes aren't an entirely new phenomenon.
Pamela Yoshida remembers multiple break-ins and other incidents at the Toronto Buddhist Church, where she's been going since she was in diapers and where she is now an administrative assistant.
In 2005, when the church moved from Bathurst Street to a new North York location, she says those break-ins stopped. Though she says the recent incidents have had some community members questioning whether more precautions are needed, such as a sign advertising: "We keep no cash inside the building."
The Toronto Buddhist Church first opened in Toronto in 1947. Pamela Yoshida, assistant to the administrator, says she feels 'very, very safe' at their North York location. (Toronto Buddhist Church)
Yoshida doesn't think it's necessary.
"We should be open and we should welcome everybody," she said. "If someone wants to, you know, break in here, that's their conscience."
What happens now?
Police say their investigations will continue, but Bryan says the onus is unfortunately on places of worship to defend themselves.
"It's often difficult to do prevention strictly through policing," he said.
"If the community wants to have effective ways of preventing these kinds of things from occurring, they have to incur the cost of perhaps installing fencing or gates or cameras."
Back at Gajang Buddhist Center, Lhamo says it's also important for the community to do what it does best: love.
"[These incidents] encourage us to spread the values of our Buddhist tradition, which is rooted in wisdom and compassion," she said.
"Keep spreading the messages of love and compassion for everybody so that such incidents happen less."