The Aim of “Engaged Buddhists”: A Post 3/11 World

By Hiroshi Nagai

Zaikei Fukushi – Magazine of the Association of Laborer’s Pension Welfare

January 2013

There is one photograph:

Amidst falling snow, a solitary Buddhist monk holds his left hand to his chest in prayer while chanting out loud. In his right hand, he holds a small bell with nothing on his feet but straw sandals. Around him are strewn the leftover wreckage of homes and automobiles.

This photo was widely circulated after it was taken on April 4, 2011 shortly after the tsunami in Northern Japan. The young monk, clad in the navy blue robes of the Rinzai Zen denomination, comes from Morioka City in Iwate Prefecture, and he struck this figure while praying for the peaceful rest of the souls of the victims of the great tsunami.

11/10 Sulak speaks at the public forum in Yokohama
11/10 Sulak speaks at the public forum in Yokohama

“A Bird Cannot Fly with One Wing”

The occasion I had for seeing this memorable photo came during the one week recess of the Japanese National Diet, when I visited the Kodo Kyodan Buddhist Fellowship in Yokohama for a international forum. An old friend of mine presented me an English language book with this photo as the cover. The book is entitled This Precious Life. Amidst the 12 party free-for-all leading up to the December national elections, I was able to shift to the discussions of this forum, and while looking over this book, think about which party I might cast my vote for.

The forum was entitled “The Wisdom of Interbeing and the Art of Happiness” and was a gathering of engaged Buddhists from around the world seeking for what contemporary society and a post 3/11 Japan should look like. Engaged Buddhism in Japanese does not have a fixed translation, but it could be rendered “Buddhists participating in society” (shakai sankaku-suru bukkyo-to). These are Buddhists who are taking on various activities towards the resolution of various problems of humanity while basing themselves in Buddhist values.

The forum was the cooperative initiative of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) – a network based in Asia of members from over 20 countries – and the Japan Network of Engaged Buddhists (JNEB). The tsunami and nuclear disasters of 2011 have exposed the excessiveness of the ideology of economic centered development in contemporary society. Other Asian nations, which have promoted the same path, have been debating what lessons can be learned from the Japanese experience. Sulak Sivaraksa is the founder of INEB as well as being an internationally known social critic, scholar, publisher, and social activist from Thailand. In his keynote speech, he explained that based on the Buddhist values of interdependence and impermanence in which all things exist in mutual relationship, life is not be lived as a spectator. Self and other, friend and enemy are fundamentally the same. Furthermore, in terms of the Fukushima nuclear tragedy, we should not take a stance of resignation as observers from the outside world.

According to Sivaraksa, scientific and economic progress is cut off from the spiritual growth of the inner self. Nevertheless, Japan has continued up to this time to be at the forefront of modernization in Asia, which prioritizes western values. The result has been the destruction of abundant nature and traditional culture as well as the ruin of the mind and body, which in the end has brought about the new specter of nuclear contamination. Using the metaphor of “a bird cannot fly with one wing”, Sivaraksa explained that through a process of deep reflection and reviving the fundamental Buddhist teachings of wisdom and compassion, Asians should discover what is the meaning of a truly happy society.

Rev. Yoshiharu Tomatsu
Rev. Yoshiharu Tomatsu

The Shedding of “Funeral Buddhism”

Most of us Japanese have basically no connection with Buddhist priests outside of funerals. If Buddhist priests and teachings, like those in Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia, are not rooted in daily living, then the issue of priests taking part in social problems never comes up. However, from this forum, I was able for the first time to become aware of the emergence of engaged Buddhists who also come from the Japanese Buddhist world, which has been ridiculed as “Funeral Buddhism”.

One of the forum’s panelists was Rev. Yoshiharu Tomatsu, the abbot of Shinko-in, a Jodo Pure Land temple in Tokyo, who has been active to confront the nuclear issue. In December of 2011, as the acting Secretary General of the Japan Buddhist Federation, which is comprised of 104 denominations nationwide, Rev. Tomatsu was central in the adoption of a declaration that “called for a lifestyle without dependence on nuclear power.” The declaration makes the appeal that as Japan is the only country to have been victim of atomic bombing, it must develop a deep concern for not just the humans who are suffering from nuclear contamination but all the various “life” that has been threatened during this incident, as well as build “a society that respects each individual ‘life’”.

Rev. Tomatsu also pointed out the mistake of the Japanese Buddhist world forgetting its origins and cooperating with the militarism of the Pacific War era and how important it is to make an investigation of this reality so that this mistake is never repeated again. “We must work towards the greatest happiness, which aims for the realization of a lifestyle that is humble in the face of nature, knowledgeable of sufficiency, and rejecting of the present society that only increases suffering through excessive materialistic greed.” Rev. Tomatsu also explained about developing local communities that support co-existence and respect.

The new activities of the Japanese Buddhist world are not limited to this “anti-nuclear” declaration. Buddhist temples were used as emergency shelters for victims of the tsunami, offered prayers at the burials of victims of the disaster, and created places for children to stay and consider the problems of atomic energy together with adults. This Precious Life, which I received as a gift, was published with the aim of introducing to the rest of the world the activities of Japanese engaged Buddhists and to create greater solidarity for building societies that protect “life”.

This goes beyond just being a Buddhist follower and extends to what each of us might be able to do. Ven. Huimin Bhikshu, the Dean of the Dharma Drum Buddhist College in Taiwan, introduced the poem by Kenji Miyazawa, “Not Losing to the Rain” (ame-ni-mo makezu). Miyazawa was a great lover of nature and agriculture, and express this spirit in this poem, especially in the concluding verse, “Such a person, I want to become”. Ven. Huimin, who lived in Japan as an exchange student, said, “Beginning with an individual who aspires to ‘such a person, I want to become’, we can proceed to include the entire society, which might say, ‘such people, we want to become’”.

Ven. Huimin
Ven. Huimin

Miyazawa does not use any political words in this poem. However, the verse, “Every day four bowls of brown rice, miso, and some vegetables to eat,” speaks of being content in one’s daily life; and the verses, “If there is a sick child to the east, going and nursing over them… if there is a quarrel or a suit to the north, telling them to leave off with such waste,” are practical activities which have not changed in meaning for our present 21st century. Humanity cannot survive without a lifestyle that understands sufficiency. How can we build a society that cares for the sick and the socially disadvantaged? How must we carry out our duties to confront making a peaceful society without war?

In the elections of the National Diet, each party has battled in developing policies around nuclear energy, economics and public finance, diplomatic relations and security, and education. However, all of these issues can be summed up in Miyazawa’s poem and the photograph that I introduced at the beginning of this article; that is “life”. It’s not clear whether the political parties are showing to the voters policies that get to the root of the issues or not. I’m not sure I can find a policy or a politicians that can achieve such a thing. As we greet the New Year, I think we will continue to repeat these questions.

translated by Jonathan Watts

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