Protecting Forests and Building Health and Longevity through Everyone’s Energy
February 5, 2014
Rev. Hidehito Okochi
At Kenju-in Temple in downtown Tokyo, we recently completed a complete renewal of the temple building as part of our commemoration of the 800-year memorial of our Jodo Pure Land denomination founder, Honen-bo Genku, in 2012. The temple itself has an over 300-year history, once being the family temple of the Ogyu Matsudaira clan and a sub temple to the grand Koishikawa Denzu-In Temple. Kenju-in has 100 member households. However, its graveyard cannot be expanded any further and there are various other constraints to the complex. Both the temple and its followers have had further anxieties about its future amidst changing attitudes in society as well as declining birth rates. Therefore, there was an effort all by all parties concerned to undertake a drastic change. Subsequently, the head representative of the parishioners together with others in charge of the temple developed as a plan with the following goals:
1) To ensure the sustainability of the temple without passing on costs to future generations
2) To develop a temple that truly reflects the wishes and exhibits a concrete way of living of this community of practitioners of the nenbutsu and faith in Amitabha Buddha
3) To take on activities that appeal to a spirit of environmentalism under the name of Kenju-in
4) To empower everyone in the community to take part in the reconstruction of the temple
We felt it was significant to connect our present historical situation and these goals to Honen’s 800th memorial and similar ones of the other great Kamakura Buddhist founders, who inspired a great historical shift in thought that involved the common people choosing their own forms of spiritual practice.
In order to look at all the different possibilities, the rebuilding planning process began ten years in advance. Parishioners went on study tours and sought out the viewpoints of various experts. I myself have developed various connections through my work in environmental conservation, alternative energy, and ecological construction. In this way, the temple reconstruction project created a collaboration with the Natural Homes Company (Tennen Jutaku). Natural Homes is a group focused of creating places to live that last a long time and support our health without using chemical materials, while also reviving the forests of Japan.
In this way, the construction not only aimed at using chemical free natural materials but aimed for a durability that will last at least 300 years. The wood used on the exterior was entirely from domestic, solid natural woods, which were smoke cured at a low temperature with no chemical preservatives. The interior woodwork came from the same domestic wood, and the adhesives used for the flooring and wallpaper were all natural, non-chemical. The reinforced concrete used in various places was made with a special construction method built to last 300 years.
The construction, however, did not just cover the temple facilities. A group of 14 individual apartments were built as an entirely cooperative and connected complex with the temple. Typically speaking, land and building are considered to have an equivalent value, but in reality most of the actual cost goes into the construction work. In the case of apartments, usually a developer or head of a construction project will sell individual lots in order to increase their profit. However, in a cooperative system, a construction group is first made of the people who will live in the apartments. They become the heads of the construction project and build it through a contract with a builder. In this way, everyone participates in the different stages of the planning and receives the benefits of a developer in the ability to purchase at a cheaper price. Ultimately, a community based on mutual trust more easily develops in this scenario rather than the usual one in which separate home owners don’t know anything about those living next to them.
Further, the ownership of the lots is under the name of Kenju-in Temple, which is a registered religious corporation, and the lots are tied together on 100-year leases with the partitioned ownership of each apartment. Usually, in the case of leases with fixed periods, the lot is handed back over at the lease’s expiry, and it is common for the landowner to collect extra fees for the demolition of the building on the lot. However, for this construction project, since the building is considered to have a 300-year durability, at the end of the 100-year lease period, there is a contract that the plot will return to Kenju-in Temple without any extra fees. After that, Kenju-in can re-lease the plot. While Kenju-in has a 300-year old history, being able to establish the temple complex as an asset for another 300 years will provide the lay parishioners with a sense of security about the future. This is the basic outline of the construction work, and now I would like to explain further my thinking and the meaning of this work in general.
Japan is the largest consumer of forest products in the world as well as top importer of them. For myself, there is a heartfelt pain at the common site of the disaster left behind from the felling of forests for use in Japan and the growing incidence of illegal deforestation, especially in Southeast Asia countries. I feel it has become a serious issue for Japanese to stop relying on livelihoods that not only destroy the environment but violate human rights through the growing economic disparity between wealthy landowners, politicians, other vested interests and the local people living around the forests.
There have been various violent strategies, such as the unjust use of cheap labor and transport, which have made wood products cheap at the cost of life. These schemes have also led to the collapse of Japan’s own domestic lumber industry. Since the end of World War II, an increasing percentage of commercial forests in Japan were planted with cedar and cypress but went without proper management. As the timber industry shifted to the import of cheap wood from Southeast Asia, these forests have gone to waste through landslides and mudslides, which in turn have led to other natural disasters and have had a negative influence on water resources.
The Natural Homes Company, in order to protect forests and use wood products in an effective way as well as reviving the domestic lumber industry, has expanded their work to link together lumber people, builders, and consumers. I myself have visited mountainous areas, and after experiencing how these forests have been cleared out and their undergrowth mowed down, our group came to understand how valuable natural resources are used. Since most consumption occurs in urban areas, I felt it was necessary to develop an awareness of one’s own place within the revolving cycle of life that sustains us and of the Buddhist sense of gratitude as expressed in our meal chant known as the gokan-no-ge, of which the first section goes: “Let us reflect on the efforts of those who have provided this food.”
Towards a Healthy Environment
We have also been working to completely eliminate the use of chemicals in housing. In recent years, hay fever, atopic skin conditions, and other allergies have been on the rise in Japan. One cause is thought to be the accumulation of chemicals and food additives in the body. However, we also know that the chemicals in the body that a person normally has to deal with come from breathing the outer air. This is also not just a problem of the outside air but also the air within rooms. The construction materials typically used in buildings contain insecticides and chemicals to prevent molding. Further, chemicals from glues, bonds, and adhesives permeate the air in a room. Although they are often in minute quantities, they seem to eventually create sudden kinds of reactions and illnesses. Furthermore, in the event of a fire, people no only die from the heat of the flames but from the overwhelming amount of toxic gases released as a building burns. Construction firms and the makers of construction materials have definite political power and have been able to establish safety standards in which people cannot truly live.
Recently, the Kenju-in Temple Cooperative held an explanatory meeting in the schoolroom of a newly constructed school in the neighborhood. So many people attended that the room could not accommodate them, and the next such meeting had to move to a different venue. In the wake of these events, quite a large number of people went to the Natural Homes offices for consultations on improving their homes. If a fire breaks out in a Natural Homes building, we can know that no toxic gases will be released.
There are still quite a number of unresolved cases concerning psychological illnesses without a known cause. There is very little understanding of the sufferers, who are often treated as strange or unusual. In becoming intimate with the anxieties of people in our community, we felt we needed to create an environment in which children can be raised and everyone can live in security. Therefore it’s not just about cutting down on chemicals but rather not using any at all from the very beginning.
The Plan for a 300 Hundred Year Old House Creates Social Capital from a Consumer Item
The core work of Natural Homes is the construction of basic wooden housing. Their basic concept is to construct long life 300-year buildings while at the same time not using chemicals. In the past, old Japanese houses could be built to last hundreds of years. The endurance of the wood came from the biomass of the forests in which the sunken earth created a low temperature smoldering and drying effect. There have already been studies done on wood that was cut and used over 200 years ago which exhibits such incredible strength. The results of this research show how much better this process is than plywood or wood that has been laminated with adhesive guards.
Nowadays, homes built in Japan average just under 30 years before they must be torn down again. This presents not just a problem about the cycle of using environmental resources but also a problem with the present state of society. In the example of a family with children who live in an apartment, they have taken out a 30-year loan on its construction. However, by the time they have finished paying it off, it needs to be torn down; and then the next generation repeats the same process. This may give a positive boost to GDP, but if we think out about resources and how it takes 60 years for a forest to grow and be harvested for its products, then this is not a sustainable practice.
I have visited the Palestine territories as part of my work to support children there. The people in Gaza have been deprived of
their freedom since 2007 by the economic blockade and have been pushed to the limits of a poverty stricken life. However, 10 years earlier before the massive air bombings of the region began, one could find great family houses in which people had lived for 100 years. The dwellings built at Kenju-in Temple are, in a manner of speaking, social capital that has been built with the aim of supporting the lives of people into the future. In this way, I feel that we need to move towards a “path of liberation” away from the cycles and systems that make individuals and households alike consume rather preserve their assets.
Creating a Secure Community
Kenju-in now has a new temple base from which to send our prayers to the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha while also developing wider human connections. One of these new connections is a cooperative association that promotes the management and protection of forests in which even kids can get involved. Using the cows that have been donated by local dairy farmers in this mountainous plateau region, the group helps to manage forests by debarking a certain number of trees and clearing them out. This is an event jointly sponsored by people involved in eco-village and natural energy activities as well as various civic groups and non-profit organizations.
The head of the lay parishioners of Kenju-in as well as the members of the temple committee have been supporting me, the abbot, by holding numerous posts at the same time, from the planning and carrying out of various activities to managing the homepage and facebook sites for the temple. The community of 14 residences, which are an extension of the temple, not only offered to establish a general management group, a disaster prevention committee, and a grounds maintenance committee, but also have organized parties and events for the community. These people are largely in their 30s and 40s and thus quite busy with their working lives and raising children. However, they have actively gotten involved in community activities and have often expressed their opinions.
From the planning stage up to now, the lay parishioners and the citizens around Kenju-in Temple have spent a lot of time to meet and discuss issues. If one thinks in a conventional manner about this project with its 100-year leases and non-profit mentality, one would not be able to help but think it is strange and perhaps suspicious. However, I feel that making a foundation for living together in which everyone is thinking and participating, becoming self aware of responsibility, believing in its potential, and working with a goal of the Future “Pure Land” is something Buddhist temples can realize.
Translated by Jonathan S. Watts with Rev. Jin Sakai