Care, Conscientization, and Mobilization:
What Buddhist Monks Can Contribute to the Nuclear Issue
Ven. Paisan Visalo
Ven. Paisan Visalo is the chief abbot of Sukato forest monastery in the northeast region of Chaiyapume in Thailand. He ordained as a monk in 1983, after graduating from Thammasat University in Bangkok and founding the Coordinating Group for Religion and Society. He has worked extensively in the environmental and alternative development movement, in conflict resolution (as a member of the National Reconciliation Commission of Thailand), and in monastic reform within the Thai Sangha. More recently, he has led the Buddhika Network for Buddhism and Society in developing a network of religious and medical professionals working for more integrated spiritual and physical care for the dying. He is the author of numerous books in his native Thai language.
From November 6-7, 2012, I was fortunate to take part in a delegation of executive board members of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) to Fukushima prefecture. During this brief visit in which we met a variety of people across the prefecture and within the 20 km exclusion zone from the nuclear power plants, I could feel the pain and despair of the people in both the old and the young. I came to learn of the pain they feel at the uncertainty of their future with no guarantee of when they can go back to their normal lives. They also have immediate concerns of how to earn their living, especially those farmers who cannot grow food or sell their products. They also had worries about their health and the health of their families and those in their community. Many of them have been broken by the psychological stress of all these concerns.
I learned also of their feeling of betrayal by both the central and local governments. For years, they had believed in the safety of the nuclear power plants, but then came to learn of the dangers first hand. Now the present government, both central and local, does not help them, still saying that it is safe especially for those people beyond the 20 km area. Although they know it’s not safe, there is little they can do about it. This sense of betrayal by their own representatives is another heavy burden they carry. I feel sympathy, and I feel their pain and trauma.
Amidst this, I was very impressed by the courage and commitment of the Buddhist priests we met in Fukushima. Because of their bonds with their temple members and community, they have felt strongly to remain in their temples to support others who have remained and others who have evacuated. They have done much to encourage their communities to be hopeful and to not despair by making their temples as a place of inspiration and refuge for rebuilding a good life. I was particularly impressed by Rev. Toku-un Tanaka, one of the Buddhist leaders in the evacuated areas, for his commitment to serve as an inspiration to other people.
A Multi-Level Buddhist Contribution to the Nuclear Issue
Mental and Spiritual Care
My temple is located in Northeast Thailand, a region called Esaan, which is quite similar to Fukushima in being very rural, based in an agricultural economy, and rather economically impoverished. The people in my region have for many years struggled to earn their way of living while being exploited by government development schemes. Like Fukushima and other rural parts of Japan, we have experienced depopulation and the deterioration of community. Amidst such conditions, I think one of the first actions of Buddhist monks and priests is to support the morale of the people.
The people of my region, and of course the people of Fukushima, have felt pain, despair, and lack of hope for the future. A Buddhist priest, however, can help them reorient to the present and see that there are things they can do now. I think that it is still possible to have spiritual well being despite facing a lot of problems. In this way, the radioactive fallout in Fukushima should only affect us physically and not mentally or spiritually. We should not allow the radioactivity to undermine our mental and spiritual well being.
Much of the pain and suffering of the people in Fukushima is about the future which has not come yet, specifically concerning their health due to the effects of the radiation. I do recognize that these concerns are very legitimate. However, I have been working for some years now with the terminally ill in Thailand and have met many people with advanced cancer. Some of these people have learned how to limit the effect of the cancer to the physical level and not let it affect their mental and spiritual level. They are still able to lead good lives and live happily, because they live in the present moment. They don’t worry about their death which is in the future. I have also met many people in Thailand who have gotten HIV, but some are able to smile and to live happily despite the uncertainty of when they might die of AIDS.
This is the experience of those who have already become ill and gotten cancer, but the people in Japan have not gotten cancer yet. Their suffering is not yet physical but more on the mental and spiritual level, because they are too much occupied with the future. I do not want to sound insensitive and appear like I am trying to judge the people of Fukushima at all. Rather, I think it is important to reflect that this is a window of opportunity, especially for Buddhist priests who can help to reduce the mental and spiritual suffering of the people. They can help the people to realize that radioactivity may have an effect on them physically but not mentally or spritually. Such a realization can help them live happily in the present moment.
Buddhist priests can of course impart this understanding through traditional Buddhist methods of teaching meditation and giving dharma talks. However, they can also organize self-help groups to share and discuss the experiences of the people. As I saw in my experiences in Thailand, many cancer patients have become inspired by other patients who have gotten cancer yet can smile and have a happy life. Such groups help people to share their experiences and to learn from each other so they can free themselves from painful experiences. Such groups can provide inspiration and encouragement from other people who have already recovered mentally from the shock of having gotten cancer.
In this way, I learned from our visit to Fukushima how people with connections to the Chernobyl disaster have come to Fukushima to offer various kinds of support based on their experiences. However, this process can also be done among the people of Fukushima themselves. There are some people who have been able to face the anxiety and work positively with it, and these people can help others who are still struggling deeply with such anxiety. The key is creating a space with people who can understand them and listen to them mindfully. Buddhist priests can play an important role by providing such spaces in their temples and serving as facilitators to make such groups active.
I have seen two examples of this in Japan already. During our trip to Fukushima, we met Rev. Shoki Matsuda, a Zen priest at Senrin-ji temple in Da-te City in Fukushima some 50 kms from the nuclear power plants. Even before the incident, he was teaching his community Zen meditation and forming various kinds of community groups, like a school for children, to support their mental and spiritual well being.
The second example are the Buddhist priests who offered various types of support groups, especially tea parties, to help victims with their trauma and mental suffering in the days and months after the tsunami. The people of Fukushima are, of course, not just suffering from anxiety about the future but are also holding on to much pain from the past, such as losing loved ones in the tsunami, having to evacuate their homes indefinitely, and then losing elderly family who died suddenly in this process. Bereavement and loss is another area of mental and spiritual care that priests can support their communities to overcome. This involves not suppressing such feelings but becoming aware of them. There is a process to do this through sharing, understanding, and helping them to discover meaning to these past experiences. I have found that when people gain a new perspective on a past experience, especially concerning grief and loss, they can overcome it or at least come to accept it.
In 2004-2005, I did some such work in southern Thailand after the devastating tsunami that hit that region. We used a group process of sharing and listening to their loss while helping them to be aware of their grief, not suppressing it, and learning to live with it. I have also done similar work with my Buddhika Network for Buddhism and Society around anticipatory grief with terminal patients and their families, getting them to prepare for the loss that they know is coming. It has been encouraging to see the increasing interest since 3/11 among Buddhist priests in Japan to more intensively train in such counseling skills as Buddhist chaplains.
Conscientization to the Rights of the People
Amidst the anger and feeling of betrayal by the government, I was frankly surprised to see that the people of Fukushima have not risen up en masse to protest or fight against the administration more strongly. They do complain about the unreliability of the national and local governments, yet I got the sense that they are somewhat still submissive to them. I think this is due to the political system of patronage in Japan. The local and national governments in Japan rely on a patronage system of providing roads, bridges, and any kind of such infrastructure to the people, which also enriches construction companies and workers based in these areas. While of course it’s nice to have such facilities, it also creates a paternalistic relationship in which the people remain as children and the government as the parent. As we can see, many people in Fukushima still do not want to protest nuclear power, because they have been under the patronage of the government’s scheme to build nuclear reactors.
The result is a relationship of inequality where the government does not have to be accountable to the people. However, if the government does something wrong, it is our right and our duty to protest it. I think it’s better that the people of Fukushima feel rage, rather than just despair, and so try to prod or protest the government on any level. This has certainly happened in my region in Thailand where the people don’t just complain, they fight. In Thailand, the government is not good at giving the people what they need in terms of infrastructure and material wellbeing. The people in the countryside feel the government is unfairly good to the people in the cities, and they are no longer willing to accept this so they have been rising up.
Groups like the Assembly of the Poor and the Red Shirts have become popular in Northeast Thailand, because they have risen up against injustices brought against them by the central government. I have been active to support the activities of the Assembly of the Poor, because they have maintained a strict policy of non-violence and have not threatened to resort to violent acts against their opponents. While I have been sympathetic to the anger of the Red Shirts, I have not supported them, because some people within the movement have used threats of violence, directly or indirectly, in their activities.
Another aspect of the Assembly of the Poor that I support is that the villagers themselves are the leaders and control the strategy, whereas the Red Shirts, both at the national and regional levels, are mainly directed by political elites connected to the Thai Rak Thai party of exiled, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. My concern is that they never fought for democracy until Thaksin was removed from power and sent into exile. While the Red Shirts have fought for justice and the fair treatment of the rural people from the center, they have not rejected the patronage system. Rather, they embraced the populist patronage policies of Thaksin that made him so popular in rural areas during his regime. On the other hand, the Assembly of the Poor has been engaging in grassroots campaigns since 1995 to fight large scale development schemes, like the Pak Mun Dam, which have adversely affected the environment and the well being of the people in Northeast Thailand.
In this way, the first step is conscientization to social issues and the rights of the people. It is important for social activists, which includes Buddhist priests, to conscientize the people that it is their duty to actually pressure the government and fight rather than to just be in despair and to complain. While Buddhist priests should not mobilize people through anger, they should encourage the people to rise up. To become active in this way, one first submits petitions, which some activists in Fukushima have done. However, if these are ignored, then there is a need to hold rallies and to demonstrate or conduct a march. While some activists in Fukushima have tried to do this, the turn out for such events has been low, which I think again shows the power of the political patronage system in Japan. In this case of recovering from the radioactivity in the environment in Fukushima, the people cannot expect any more assistance from the government; their livelihood and their future is in their own hands. Even so, they must remind the government of what is their responsibility. In many countries, nonviolent direct action, including civil disobedience, is the last resort on which people can rely to make government accountable.
Mobilization for a New Society
In this way, the people have to take control of their own livelihoods, since encouraging people to be hopeful and also to participate in social protest are short term activities. In the long term, both political and economic decentralization is needed, because nuclear energy is a symptom of the strong centralization of the economy. Since Fukushima and Northern Japan provides agricultural goods, meat, and fish to the major urban areas around Tokyo, the nuclear incident affected other parts of the country in terms of food security, further reflecting the centralization of agriculture.
Therefore, I think Buddhist priests should offer to the people an alternative vision of the future; one that is more decentralized and regionalized or even localized in terms of energy generation and agricultural production. Priests should be capable of offering such a structural vision in order to help their communities understand the root cause of the problem, that is, the structural aspects of the problem. I think this cannot be done individually but rather collectively by group brainstorming, because it is not easy to identify a practical and achievable vision that is an alternative to nuclear energy and centralized agricultural production.
We can see now that these rural communities in Japan are very weak. Only the elderly remain, while the young have left to live in the big cities. As such, these regions are very vulnerable to any shocks that can further break down families and the community. We have had the same issues in my region in Thailand, so we have worked to strengthen the community and make it an enjoyable and livable place. We teach people not to seek prosperity in the cities but to build a hopeful future where they are. This is very difficult in such as social climate today, but there is still some room to accomplish it. We work to make the community productive in terms of economy, especially food production, which in turn requires a good ecosystem and healthy environment. This is why forest conservation is important in my community, because it can contribute to the production of food and the physical well being of the community. We also work on cultural and spiritual re-development, because people need to learn to be content with a simple life in the rural areas. People who learn this understand that happiness is in the mind and that spiritual well being is as important as material well being and consumption. If people can find happiness in the mind, they will need to consume less and less. This is what Buddhist priests can help them to realize and attain.
Reflections and Recommendations for Buddhist Asia
One of the first lessons of Fukushima for the rest of Asia to learn is, of course, the danger of nuclear energy, because in Thailand and many other Asian countries now, nuclear energy is being offered as the safe and ecologically sound alternative to fossil fuel energy. Japan is very famous for its discipline and efficiency, but their failures to use nuclear energy safely show how dangerous and expensive in the long run it is. Thailand, on the other hand, is well known for its lack of discipline and its weak regulations, so I think it is vulnerable to a disaster that is much worse than Japan’s.
A second clear lesson is the risk of the centralization of development and of the ideology of indefinite growth. The Japanese have had faith in indefinite growth, which is why they have followed the path of the centralization of the economy in terms of energy and food production. I think we should learn from Japan that this puts everyone at risk, because the entire system becomes threatened when one event goes wrong within it. We should lessen this risk by adopting a decentralized, regionalized system of production. The idea that we have to pursue indefinite growth at the expense of all other things is very dangerous.
A final lesson, which would be for the Buddhist Sangha in Asia, is the commitment we have seen from some of these Japanese priests in Fukushima to remain with their people. They have not abandoned the people as they have struggled with these problems and have supported them in their physical, social, mental, and spiritual needs. In this situation, the priests have had an opportunity to run away from the dangers and risks perhaps more easily than ordinary people, but the ones I have met have not run away from the problem. They have had the courage to risk their well being and their lives to help people. To be a kalyanamitra, a spiritual friend, a true friend in times of trouble, is what Buddhist priests should do.
At the same time they should find an alternative to the present situation, like Rev. Hidehito Okochi has done by developing green technology from the basis of temple activities. This alternative vision building should run counter to centralization and be in harmony with the environment. Buddhist priests should not just preach about such an alternative future but also develop the tools and the way to such a future. This is simply following the way of the Four Noble Truths: to identify what is the suffering in modern society and what are the root causes, both structurally and spiritually; then to present a vision of a better life that is free from suffering in terms of both the individual and society; and finally to provide the tools to attain this vision.