Engaged Buddhism the Dalai Lama’s Way: Tibetan Leader’s Exceptional Energy for Japan’s Tsunami Victims

by Jonathan Watts

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has shown exceptional energy towards the Japanese people over the past year, and especially to the victims of the March 11th tsunami disaster. On the first day after the disasters, he issued a public statement offering his prayers and condolences to the people of Japan. He also offered spiritual advice recommending the frequent chanting of the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra. As a Buddhist monk and someone who recites the Heart Sutra daily, the Dalai Lama stated that recitation of the Heart Sutra would not only be helpful for those who had perished in the disaster but may also help prevent further disasters in the future. In addition to encouraging everyone in the Tibetan communities worldwide to pray for and chant the Heart Sutra for the Japanese people, he organized recitation of the Heart Sutra one hundred thousand times at the main temple near the Tibetan Government in Exile’s headquarters in Dharamsala, India.

While many other world leaders and Buddhist leaders offered such condolences, the Dalai Lama was the first to make a special trip to Japan to offer greater encouragement to the Japanese. He made a special diversion from his planned trip to the United States to come to Tokyo while the nuclear incident in Fukushima was unfolding and many other social, political, and religious personalities were cancelling their visits to Tokyo. Exemplifying an engaged Buddhist, the Dalai Lama did not recoil or back down from the danger, fear, and suffering, but rather chose to actively encounter it.

Special Memorial and Consoling Service on the 49th Day after the Tsunami
April 29th marked the 49th day since the disaster. In Buddhism, this day is considered the critical final day for a deceased’s consciousness to remain wandering in the intermediate state (bardo/chuin) before taking rebirth. The Dalai Lama presided over a special memorial service at Gokoku-ji Temple in Tokyo on this day for those who perished in the earthquake and tsunami. The 40-minute service included 15 Tibetan monks and 100 Japanese priests and nuns from a variety of sects, including the abbot of Soto Zen’s second main temple Sojo-ji and the abbot of Gokoku-ji, a head temple of the Shingon Koyasan sect. They chanted the Heart Sutra for extended periods in both Tibetan and Japanese. A gathering public from a wide variety of backgrounds numbering around 3,000 stuffed into the main hall and filled the compound outside,  watching the service on three large television monitors.

After the ceremony, the Dalai Lama gave an address in Tibetan in which he offered his deepest condolences to the Japanese people over the suffering caused by the March 11 events. He then gave another address in English in which he encouraged the Japanese as follows:

During World War II, there was a lot of destruction and many Japanese were killed. Two nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but our Japanese brothers and sisters never lost their self-confidence … Now you are passing through some difficulties, including economic difficulties, but you must keep your self-confidence. Instead of remembering this tragedy and the loss of friends and always being reminded of the sad situation, now move forward. You have the potential. So work hard.

He then offered a more nuanced message on this way forward:

Now due to global warming, this kind of natural disaster may come often, so you must work to prevent it. But there is no guarantee. Things are changing. You must look at the new reality and act according to that reality, for example about your lifestyle. Sometimes, in much developed countries, they live a very luxurious life. According to our new situation and obviously on this planet, that is silly. Millions and millions of people live in extreme lifestyles under poverty. The last few years when I have the opportunity to be with Japanese friends, particularly students, I urge them to learn English. This is so you can use your potential in different parts of the world for more constructive purposes in the educational field, the health field, and the development or technology fields. The Japanese people have a big population and a small amount of land, so every piece of land you utilize fully; whereas in some other big countries there is a lot of empty land. You must utilize your experience and expertise for how to utilize wasted land and wasted resources without damaging the ecology. That is what I want to share with you.

After concluding this address, he proceeded out of the main hall and toward to the temple’s main bell in the main courtyard. Ascending into the bell tower, he rang the bell  numerous times himself in a sign of traditional mourning. Finally, he slowly waded through the crowd stopping to talk to various people on the way to his vehicle and finally departed into the afternoon sun. The event was special in that not only was it covered well by the mass media, which usually shows no interest in Buddhist ceremonies in Japan, but also was attended by a wide variety of people offering an uncommon feeling of non-sectarianism and public outpouring of religiosity in this very secularized country. The Dalai Lama’s visit served not only to support the healing of Japan after the disaster but, as always, offered a point of common humanity and spirituality to bond people of various backgrounds together.

Visits to the Tsunami Areas in November
Some six months later, the Dalai Lama made a longer extended visit to Japan focusing on interacting with the people in the disaster areas. On November 5th, the Dalai Lama journeyed to Sendai City and its environs in Miyagi Prefecture. In the morning, he visited the Jodo Pure Land temple of Saiko-ji in the hard hit city of Ishinomaki to hold a prayer service for the revival of the community. The site of Saiko-ji, with Hiyoriyama mountain in the background, became inundated with massive amounts of debris at the time of the tsunami. One part of the temple was destroyed, and there was sludge remaining in the main hall that had to be scraped out as much as possible. By November, the debris had been totally cleared away and the cleaned up environs of the temple held special seats for residents to watch over the prayer service.

Ruins of the Graveyard in front of Saiko-ji

Children from the nearby kindergarten and other victims warmly greeted the Dalai Lama with palms together. The Dalai Lama exchanged warm embraces with the children and greeted people holding framed pictures of loved ones who had perished in the disaster. During the prayer service for the revival of the area, there was a chanting of the Heart Sutra by a group of local priests from various denominations, which was then followed by a group of accompanying Tibetan monks chanting the sutra in Tibetan.

During his subsequent talk, the Dalai Lama tried to encourage the victims by recounting his own experiences overcoming the difficulties at the time of his exile from Tibet and coming in contact with the revival in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after World War II. He said, “All you Japanese are courageous and diligent and have the character of helping each other out. You have the power of truly wonderful hearts and I think you can certainly restore this beautiful city.”He then commented, “As humans, we have intelligence. When such a thing happens, we must think. With our intelligence, combined with self-confidence, we can overcome all these problems. So tragedy certainly, naturally, brings sadness and demoralizes us; but now you must transform it  into enthusiasm and self-confidence and work hard to rebuild your lives, your country. Particularly with these young children here: provide them with education and let them lead another happy new generation.”

The Dalai Lama then moved on to Sendai to the Nichiren temple of Kosho-ji, where he gave another prayer service for community revival and a public talk sponsored by the Buddhist Association of Sendai. In the morning, he had developed an emotional connection with the audience and spoke more from the heart. Here, in the afternoon, he gave a more analytical and practical talk of how to use Buddhist teachings to look at suffering realistically and transform it into possibility.3 He presented the teaching of “voidness” (sunnata/ku) as a way of not getting stuck in negative feelings, noting, “We tend to bring greater suffering to ourselves when we believe that we have a fundamental self that must experience fundamental suffering.” One person in the audience asked, “What should one do when unhappiness suddenly springs forth?” The Dalai Lama further explained that, “One can even make use of the path of hardship for achieving enlightenment … By using the fact that things arise and fall, the way we deal with suffering can change as well as our thinking about the essence of suffering. A final important message he gave was: “It is not about forgetting suffering, but rather the fact that the “state” of suffering changes.”4

Approximately 2,500 people attended at each of these temples and listened attentively to his powerful message of revival. In a country that has become largely urban and secular, losing contact with its Buddhist roots, the outpouring of feeling at these events and the connection His Holiness made with the people—like during the event in Tokyo in April—was truly remarkable for a public religious event in Japan. It also showed to the country the still strong faith and connection that Japanese in the less urban areas of the Northeast have towards Buddhism.

photograph by the Bukkyo Times

Wrestling with the Nuclear Issue
Before returning to Tokyo and leaving the country, the Dalai Lama made a stop in Fukushima Prefecture on November 6th to give a talk at Nihon University in Koriyama City, some 60 kms from the crippled nuclear power plants. Although this is 40 kms from the no entry zone, a radiation reading taken in the middle of the city just before the Tibetan leader’s arrival showed a reading of 2.28 microsievert/hour—a mark dangerously bordering the radiation level considered hazardous for human life if continuously exposed for a year.5 The Dalai Lama said at his talk, “More natural disasters might come in the future because of global warming, so it is better you move to higher grounds and rebuild your home and family with greater enthusiasm”.

Statement by His Holiness the Dalai Lama on Nuclear Energy7

On November 7th, at a reporters meeting of the Free Press Association of Japan in Tokyo, there was a question concerning His Holiness’ stance on nuclear power by one reporter who then stated, “The Dalai Lama said that he endorses nuclear energy.” As this is a misunderstanding based on one part of His Holiness’ view concerning nuclear power, we would like to make the following public statement to communicate a proper understanding of the His Holiness’ views to everyone. – Liaison Office of H.H. the Dalai Lama for Japan and East Asia

First of all, in the case of any issue, it is not proper to jump to a conclusion based on one viewpoint or perspective. It is important to develop a complete way of understanding by grasping an issue from a variety of perspectives. Concerning nuclear energy, the use of it for destructive purposes creates a great disaster. I myself have visited Hiroshima many times. On the first or second time, I saw the buildings on which the bomb was dropped that were totally destroyed. I also visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and saw the display of the wristwatch of a survivor that had been burned and melted to the exact time of the dropping of the bomb. I also visited some of the victims who had been contaminated by the radiation and listened to their truly tragic stories. In this way, I myself am absolutely against the use of nuclear weapons. On the issue of nuclear energy being used for peaceful means, if there is a sufficient substitute for nuclear energy and we could therefore do away with it completely, I think that would be wonderful. However, there is still room for debate. If we think about substitutes, hydropower necessitates dams, of which there are in my homeland of Tibet. Because the construction of dams has been connected to tremendous environmental destruction, I cannot support their promotion. Wind power and solar power have still not yet been developed enough. In this way, I think we must consider the millions of people living in poverty and the severe gap between the rich and poor, not in developed countries like Japan, but in the many still economically developing countries in the world.

Therefore, we need to have the judgment of real experts who can analyze a matter comprehensively. In this way, if a conceived measure is 99% flawless, we can say it is safe. But then there is still a 1% danger remaining. Even in driving an automobile, or eating wonderful food, or being in what appears to be a safe room, you can never know what kind of unforeseeable thing will arise. Nuclear power is the same. For example, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor had become an out of date facility that did not have proper safety measures. This time during the Fukushima nuclear incident, if someone had designed the reactors with proper safety measures based on the possibility of such a huge tsunami, then it seems such a terrible disaster would not have occurred. However, even if that measure had been taken, there still could have been a 1% chance of it happening.

In the end, it is really up to the voice of the people of a country to decide. If the Japanese people want to completely withdraw from the use of nuclear power, then that’s great. I think that is the case with all peoples. In the way Germany and Italy decided to end nuclear power in their countries through a popular vote, if the Japanese have such an aspiration, that is totally fine.

The Dalai Lama has spent much of his public life in exile campaining tirelessly for non-violent political action and environmental conservation. He has not been a follower on these issues, but has been a leader who has studied to understand the issues deeply and proclaimed courageous positions. In his comments above, it seems that his concerns for poverty and the violence caused by exploitative economic systems (another of his concerns) trumps the environmental and political implications of nuclear power. Yet his comments from his talk at Gokoku-ji in Tokyo in April challenging the Japanese to adjust their lifestyles and not damage the ecology seem to be a tacit attack on the development of nuclear power and consumer lifestyles in Japan.

On the one hand, the Dalai Lama finds himself balancing his work in the conventional political realm with his role of Buddhist monk, some think that his  position on nuclear power follows the Indian government’s stance on promoting nuclear energy as a fulcrum for economic growth and the so-called eradication of poverty that such growth would entail. The fallacies of this belief have been well documented, and we are thus required to consider the reasons for the Dalai Lama taking such a position. Indeed, the Dalai Lama’ position may reflect the precarious position of the Tibetans as refugees, in that the Tibetan leader does not want to stir the ire of their generous host, the pro-nuclear Indian government.

On the other hand, his position on this issue seems to contrast that taken by many progressive Buddhists around the world, who consider him one of their leaders, and even the position traditionally conservative Japanese Buddhist denominations are beginning to adopt. The ongoing incident at the Fukushima nuclear facility has exposed the fallacy of nuclear power as an alternative to carbon fuels in the battle against global warming. This incident has also exposed the motives of certain Japanese politicians to use nuclear technology as a means of arming Japan with nuclear weapons8—an unthinkable scenario after the experiences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and an issue that the Dalai Lama has spoken out against numerous times.9 While many progressive Buddhists and social activists in Japan are deeply disappointed in the Dalai Lama’ statement following a most heartwarming visit to Japan, a deep respect and gratitude still exists among the Japanese for the Dalai Lama’ continuing care and support.


“Darai rama juyonse-ga hisai-chi hairi, hisai-sha-to chokusetsu fure-ai gekirei” (The 14th Dalai Lama enters the disaster areas and directly meets victims and encourages them) Bukkyo Times. November 10, 2011. Translation by author.
2 The Transformation of Pain. Website of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. November 5, 2011. http://www.dalailama.com/news/post/762-the-transformation-of-pain
3 The Transformation of Pain
4 Bukkyo Times. November 10, 2011.
5 Woeser, Sherab. “The Dalai Lama braves radiation threat, Interacts with victims.” Phayul. November 6, 2011. http://www.phayul.com/news/article.aspx?id=30337
6 Woeser, Sherab
7 After being unable to locate an English version on His Holiness’ official homepage, this statement was translated by the author from the Japanese site of the Liaison Office of H.H. the Dalai Lama for Japan and East Asia http://www.tibethouse.jp/news_release/2011/111115_nuclear.html
8 For example, former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. Suzuki, Takuya. “Nuclear Leverage: Long an advocate of nuclear energy, Nakasone now says Japan should go solar.” Asahi Shimbun. July 22, 2011. http://www.asahi.com/english/TKY201107210339.html.

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