Letter from Shodo Harada Roshi in Sendai City
April 11, 2011
Many of the temples that were destroyed or affected in the recent earthquake and tsunami disaster in northern Japan were Zen temples. Not only these but many other temples in the region have served as shelters for the victims of the disaster, and many priesst have been tirelessly working for both their material and spiritual support, while existing in this difficult environment themselves. The following letter by Rev. Shodo Harada gives an up-close and personal look at the situation in the area near Sendai City. Rev. Harada is a Rinzai priest, author, head abbot of Sogenji—a three hundred year old temple in Okayama, Japan—and dharma heir of Yamada Mumon Roshi (1990-1988), one of the great Rinzai masters of the twentieth century. His students have begun more than a dozen affiliated Zen groups, known as One Drop Zendos, in the United States, Europe, and Asia.
To all of the One Drop Zendos around the world, to the many people concerned, and to those with whom we have a karmic affiliation, I am writing to you about the recent great earthquake and tsunami tragedy. From their most profound mind, everyone has worried about us and supported the disaster relief. I deeply thank you from the bottom of my heart.
In Sendai City there is a priest and a temple, Zenno-ji, with which we have strong karmic affiliation. He has always sent robes (samugi), rice, and straw sandals for going on alsm round for the people training at Sogen-ji. Many, many times he has sent these things for the people at Sogen-ji. In some way, in any way possible, I wanted to go there and support him. The Shinkansen (high speed train) was not yet running up there, the local trains were irregular and frequently nonexistent, and all the roads had been destroyed and were still impassable. Anywhere near the site of the disaster it was impossible to enter, except for the national guard and other emergency groups in their special vehicles. Regular vehicles could not get there. On March 27th, the roads finally were opened and so using every possible means we were able to go to Sendai and to the Fukushima area.
But there was also radiation leaking from the damaged power plants and it was known to be a very risky situation. Considering the one chance out of a thousand in which something could go wrong, it was decided to not take younger people training at Sogen-ji there, so Ekei Zenji and Domyo Koji were taken to represent the sangha. We took all kinds of food supplies and dishes to eat at meals. They had told us on the phone that they could only make cooked rice for us, and that they had nothing to eat with it. “We have no supplies or fuel, and so please bring your own food,” they told us. “We want to go visiting here and there, so for the children and the various evacuees, please, as much as possible, bring sweets and simple foods that they can eat without any need for preparation.”
People at Sogen-ji worked as hard as they could to get the breadbaking done and get as many loaves as bread made as possible before our departure. It was very insufficient, only a little something in a time of big need but our time had been limited. People gathered candy to bring as well. Since there is very little water available and they cannot brush their teeth, they also asked for gum that cleans your teeth when you chew it. We also packed many many, many hot packs, since it was still very cold. As we didn’ t know what we would encounter, we went in boots, warm clothes, and samugi.
In the morning we arrived in Sendai. There were many buildings which were still standing erect and appeared to have no damage, so there was a strange weird feeling. After our bus came into Sendai station, the priest who was supposed to pick us up arrived and we put our packages into his car. As we drove, the priest told us that although the buildings looked normal, inside all the offices were completely turned upside down and a mess. Not one single place can still be used inside the buildings.
Zenno-ji Temple is located about twenty minutes from the station. Zenno-ji had been seriously damaged. There were 1600 graves in the cemetery and every last gravestone had toppled over. It was a hideous scene. The main hall was just barely being covered by its roof. There were continual aftershocks every thirty minutes or so. The priest said that they could not even use the main hall yet. There were big cracks in the great stone lanterns and all of the rocks were falling around, having been loosened by the disaster. Even so the buildings were somehow still standing and had been protected even in such a severe disaster. He said that was already a great good fortune. They already had their life lines of electricity and water reconnected from a few day before but they were still without gas. They apologized for not being able to make a bath for us
His wife came out and greeted us saying she had prepared some rice balls. Eating them with instant miso soup, we had breakfast. That day when we arrived we were first to go around and look at the area, and take around the things we had brought. The next day from the morning we would work on the cleaning up of the Zenno-ji temple and house.
First, we went to Furin-ji temple, related to Zennoji’s abbot’s wife. Furin-ji was in the very middle of the worst hit part of the earthquake and tsunami, but the temple itself is just a bit above the worst-hit area. Mysteriously, it did not suffer any damage whatsoever. The water of the tsunami washed right up to the main gate of the temple, and just because of its being built on slightly higher ground, it was not affected by the wave. All of the houses up to main gate were completely and totally destroyed. The temple priest had welcomed 200 people to live there, and every day was making food for them. At a time like this the extensive size of a temple grounds was put to good use. The temple was able to welcome everyone in the area, to serve them, and to protect them within the temple grounds.
In these areas, seeing all the various conditions, we continued to drive around in the car and came out on the other side of the hills at a place called Shirahama, at the mouth of the Matsushima Bay. There are seven small islands here. Because this area is a place famous for its great beauty, each and every small island has a temple, seven of them all together. One of them, called Dosho-ji Temple, was the temple of a friend of Zenno-ji. We went there to visit next. This is the furthest small island and the water that had swept over it had destroyed its entire small town of 3,000 people, all in the one instant that the wave poured over them.
The head priest of that temple ran a kindergarten at the temple. Taking the children of the kindergarten, they had run up to the top of the mountain and been saved. But everything else just up to the top of that mountain had been swallowed up and covered in the tsunami’s waters, buried. No matter how hard he looked for a path down from the top, he was not able to find one. Everything had been destroyed, and strewn everywhere. They all were eventually rescued from the top of the mountain by a national guard helicopter. One after another they had been lifted up and rescued by the helicopter and this scene was played again and again on televisions all over Japan.
Passing hill after hill of debris we continued past the seven islands, went over the mountain, and came out at Shiogama, the next town. Here in Shiogama there were homes that had no one had yet entered into so they had not been searched yet for missing people. The national guard had not reached there yet. This town of Shiogama when looked down upon from the hill above, looked perfectly regular and as if there had been no damage nor disaster there. Here there had not been a huge powerful tidal wave, but the whole shopping street had filled up with water and been ruined, all of the things for sale there were unusable garbage now, the houses had all been soaked through with salt water and would have to be completely rebuilt. They were useless. The nearby Seashore rail line had run there servicing the hotels along the seacoast with Zuigan-ji temple as a famous landmark. It had been a huge tourist area. The hot springs hotels had opened their baths to all of the evacuees and other victims of the disaster. All of the people in the area were very thankful and so glad to have a place to bathe.
Passing by the typical shopping street area, we approached Zuigan-ji temple. The area of Matsushima around Zuigan-ji was a most beautiful place, furthest in the harbor with many small islands. They had each absorbed the power of the tidal wave and had therefore saved Zuigan-ji from the strongest thrust of the tidal wave. There had been no touch of a wave there, only a slight damage to some buildings. In spite of facing the ocean, it had not been touched by a drop of water. Of course the area in front of the main gate had been sunk into deep water and there was much damage there, nevertheless the people of the area all called this the oasis of the area. Here at Zuiganji, ever since the earthquake happened, 385 people were being given a place to live, and there were 16 monks who cooked and took care of them.
We then went again in the car and went to the place where the damage was greatest of all, the Nobiru area, on the other side of Ichigahama. The very beautiful ancient pine tree boulevard there, its hundreds of huge pine trees had been uprooted by the tsunami. By its sheer force, all the trees had been laid root side up, side by side in the same direction. It was as if they had each been thrown down and been placed there upside down in rows. Seeing this we could feel the awesome and terrifying huge power of great nature.
The evacuation place where many people had run to after the earthquake, the school’s gymnasium, had been completely pushed along and swept away in the tidal waves’ wake. There was a Soto Zen temple there which is now nothing but rubble. There are ruins but the main hall’s roof is two hundred meters away in a river. All of the gravestones of the temple’s graveyard are buried in rubble and debris. If you compare this to the lack of damage to Zuigan-ji temple, here there was a great swirling whirlpool affect that sandwiched things into its path and damaged them completely. So many people and things simply disappeared here and are gone. The degree of damage and injury to things is so great it still has not even been touched by anyone. It is from now that the various support groups and crews will begin to enter this area.
Shorin-ji is a temple nearby here, where the National Guard is staying while it works in this area. This is the last temple where we visited. At Shorin-ji, there were still 100 evacuees living. We gave them all of our bread and other supplies that we had brought along. There had been 300 evacuees but as public support came in, it became possible to move them
So many bodies were still floating in the ocean still. They were pulling them out and doing whatever they could. The crematoriums have all been damaged, but even if they wanted to cremate them, it was not possible without any fuel for the fire or any electricity available. so there was nowhere to cremate the bodies. They have had to make the open land into graves by digging into vacant lots and burying many bodies there. Priests have come even from as far as Nanzen-ji Temple in Kyoto to perform the ceremonies for these burials.
That night another earthquake of magnitude 6.5 happened. Every day again and again the aftershocks continuously come so that people have become numb to them. The endless lack of feeling settled in any way is in every person’s state of mind at this time. In this way we came to see how any resolution of this will be very far from now. And not only these myriad challenges, but that which is most feared by people all over the planet, in the neighboring prefecture of Fukushima is the damage done to the nuclear power plant.
If you look closely at the past history of the area, in this area of the Sanriku Coast, there have always been earthquakes. There are records from many eras, such as June 15, 1896 the Great Sanriku Earthquake. Also on March 3rd, 1933, there was a great earthquake in this same region with a tidal wave of more than 30 meters. The Great Chile Earthquake of 1960 created a tidal wave of 5.5 meters that struck here as well. It also created a great amount of damage.
Isn’t there some indulgent point there that needs looking at carefully. This and the nuclear power plant being built in such a location, a plant which is still pouring radiation into the Pacific Ocean. There are so many points that must be seriously returned to and reviewed carefully here. There are 19 of these nuclear power plants in Japan all together, not including the many more planned to be built on already acquired land. It is because of this accident that now no one in the country wants these plants. Today, all over the whole world, the biggest problem is this. The earthquake and tsunami’s challenges will be taken care of, but the results of this nuclear power plant will not go away. Scientists have called it a circumstance beyond anything that could have been imagined or estimated. They say it is an unlucky situation and these circumstances will never happen again. But it has happened now and this must not ever happen again. We must not have these. Now many voices against nuclear power plants have risen, and for Japan this is a great responsibility which has to be understood.
One very happy aspect to see was through this disaster has been people from all over the world extending their hands in kindness and their supporting with words from more than one hundred countries. I read these messages slowly and carefully. They were from America, South America, Africa, Europe, India, and all the various countries of Asia. I want to use this opportunity to say thank you.
Every single one of the people who train here at Sogen-ji is working intensely wholeheartedly for this matter. For the rest of my life left, my deep vow is to cultivate them so that even one of them will be able to open the truly seeing eye. We cannot be deceived. We cannot be deceived by what we see and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. In each and every era, we have to see from our truly opened eye, which is seeing the truth, and to not deceive ourselves. This is Zen and this is the harvest of our training and what our life is.
Thank you very much