Questioning National Culture at Zen Symposium on Disasters and Nuclear Power

The Rinzai Zen Myoshin-ji Denomination and the Tokyo Zen Center welcomed Taitsu Kono, Myoshin-ji’s Chief Priest (kancho), to their public symposium entitled “Now, Here, and Us: Considering Our Way of Living After the 3/11 Natural Disasters and Nuclear Incident”, convened on February 16, 2013 at Ryu-un-ji temple in Tokyo. The symposium emphasized a reconsideration of contemporary Japanese culture, which has placed importance on material things, while looking at the essential spiritual message of Shakyamuni Buddha in the concept of “contentment” or “sufficiency” (Jp. shoyoku chisoku, Skt. samtusti). There was also a special voice message recorded for the symposium by Rev. Sokyu Genyu, the renowned author and abbot of Fukuju-ji, a Rinzai Myoshin-ji temple in Fukushima, some 55 kms from the nuclear reactors.

Rev. Nakajima (center left), Rev. Kono (center right) photo credit: The Bukkyo Times

The theme of Rev. Kono’s keynote speech was “Securing Human Safety”. Based on his own experiences of wartime Japan, the 83 year-old monk explained, “It can be said that about ten years ago we entered this present Era of the Mind/Heart (Jp. kokoro, Skt. citta). This is differs from the culture that values the abundance and well-being brought by material things. However, I think that it’s not correct to simply speak of the mind/heart.” He continued on saying, “It is not enough to just give lip service by saying nuclear energy is no good. As everything is impermanent and prone to decay, we must lead a life of knowing what is sufficient. If we do not understand this, it’s meaningless to speak of this being the material and that being the mind/heart. We must take action.” He concluded by sounding the alarm, “We must live in a way which is deeply mindful and reverent of the reality that all things lack inherent identity (i.e. “all dharmas are without self”, Jp. shoho muga).

The next speaker was Rev. Tetsuen Nakajima, abbot of Myotsu-ji, a Shingon Omuro denomination temple in the Wakasa Bay of Fukui Prefecture. Rev. Nakajima reflected on his own work as a long time anti-nuclear activist, “I have had no choice but to live in the world’s most dense area of nuclear reactors called the Nuclear Ginza (like a crowded shopping district of nuclear energy).” He pointed out the problem of radioactive waste noting, “The nuclear waste needing disposal created by the reactors in the Wakasa Bay over the past 40 years is 400,000 times more that the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, while the total waste of all of the nuclear reactors in Japan over this time is 1.2 million times that of the Hiroshima bomb.” Rev. Nakajima also brought up the suffering of some 500,000 total workers who have been employed in these nuclear reactors and contaminated by radioactive emissions and waste.

The final speaker was Rev. Keiko Koyama, the abbot of Jion-ji, a Rinzai Myoshin-ji temple in Iwate prefecture in a city called Rikuzentakada, which was devastated by the tsunami. He gave a slide presentation on the situation there starting from the day of the disaster, earnestly speaking, “I have often heard people say, ‘Up to what point will the reconstruction work in Tohoku be continued?’ But this is no joke. It continues on… I would be grateful if on March 11 you would put your hands together in prayer and turn your mind/hearts to the direction of Tohoku.” When Rev. Koyama showed photos of the situation of the storefronts and houses that were destroyed, sniffles and weeping could be heard from the audience.

Rev. Sokyu Genyu in his video message said, “I don’t know if it is the bad habit of making simplistic simulations of future events or the bad influence of the medical practice of informed consent that guesses how much longer patients will live, but we have developed a tendency to look at things in the worst way possible, and this includes those who have been exposed to low levels of radiation. This way of thinking has brought stagnation, even paralysis, and distress to the people of our country.” He then appealed to people to “not be overly influenced by your preconceptions and by emotional arguments and to please take in new information in a level headed manner.”

During the final question and answer session, Rev. Kono urged the creation of a safe environment through a humanitarian culture, emphasizing that, “From now on, whatever incident that occurs, we are going to have to think about guaranteeing safety. However, there is no way to think about such safety in a nuclear incident that is ‘beyond expectation’ (as the experts labeled the Fukushima incident). What were are really talking about here is culture.” The coordinator of the symposium, Rev. Seiya Chisaka, abbot of Toen-ji, a Rinzai Myoshin-ji temple in Miyagi prefecture in a town called Shiogama that was also ravaged by the tsunami, concluded by noting, “We would like for you all to come visit us in the disaster areas.”

Translated by Jonathan S Watts with Rev. Jin Sakai; from The Bukkyo Times February 28, 2013

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