Why Buddhists Should Be Concerned about Nuclear Energy

For the Benefit of Self, the Benefit of Other, and the Perfection of the Two:
Why Buddhists Should Be Concerned about Nuclear Energy

Rev. Tetsuen Nakajima

IMG_0643Rev. Tetsuen Nakajima is the abbot of Myotsu-ji, a Shingon (Japanese Vajrayana) Omuro denomination temple in Fukui Prefecture among the largest concentration of nuclear reactors in the world. The following article was written a full eleven years before the Fukushima incident, yet it speaks prophetically of the continuing challenges of nuclear energy as well as providing a manifesto on conscientization and activism from a Buddhist standpoint.

The famous response given by an alpinist as to why he climbed the mountain, “because it was there”, is filled the aroma of adventure and ambition. However, my response to the question, “Why did you, as a Buddhist, become active in the nuclear energy issue”, cannot be answered, “because nuclear energy is there.” In my case, it was because I got wrapped up in a deep darkness and distress.

In 1968, the issue of my town of Obama being lured into accepting a nuclear power plant came to the surface, and for the first time, the problem of nuclear energy came into my site. At this point, there were already six nuclear reactors in the process of being built on the coast of the Wakasa Bay in Fukui Prefecture, where Obama is located. More than thirty years have now elapsed since then and the birth of a citizen’s movement to obstruct such construction in Obama. The Wakasa Bay now has fifteen nuclear reactors clustered together in a concentrated area known as the Nuclear Ginza[1]. While struggling to clear away the continuing “fallout” of this situation, I repeatedly questioned myself, not so much as an individual citizen but as a Buddhist. In this process of introspection, I re-verified my own standing which I would like to express in this article.

Paradox in the Origins of Buddhism

Renouncing violence to all living beings, harming not even a one.

You would not wish for offspring, so how a companion?

Wander alone like a rhinoceros.[2]

The phrase, “to all living beings” forms the basis of a thorough ideology of non-violence and peace. The phrase, “like a rhinoceros”, is the essence of the individual who walks independently and establishes him/herself in a serene and strict manner. These two images form the paradox of the essence of Buddhism. I realize that I have not attained this level, but my way of living is being honed and developed on thinking and actions that never deviate from this spirit. This way of living, standing alone and independent, lies behind the sense of “buddha”, meaning “one who is awake” or “one who has awoken to truth.” Shakyamuni, as one who awoke to this truth, was able to naturally and almost casually speak of it:

Having come to know the meaning of things and removing doubts,

Wander alone like a rhinoceros.[3]

In a footnote in the Japanese translation of this sutra, the renowned Hajime Nakamura interprets the phrase of “having come to know” as leading to either “one’s own benefit, another’s benefit, and the benefit of both” or “benefit in this life, benefit in the next life, and the benefit of ultimate truth (Jp. shogi, P. paramattha).”[4]

The beautiful grounds of Myotsu-ji Temple in Fukui
The beautiful grounds of Myotsu-ji Temple in Fukui

In terms of my own “wandering”, I first escaped the mountain temple where I was born for university life in Tokyo; then I escaped Tokyo for the headquarters of my sect, Mt. Koya; and finally I returned again to my home in Wakasa. You could say that in the first half of my journey I was fixated on “self benefit”. I had been focusing on the arts and literature, but I began to be influenced by existential philosophy and shifted towards the problem of my own life and death, which was creating anxiety and fear in me. These currents eventually all converged within me. For myself at this time, “the next life” was a synonym for death and nothingness. “The benefit in this life” in which everything is changing had become relative and insubstantial. With this increasing personal sense of nihilism in the background, the U.S./Soviet Cold War crisis of competition over nuclear testing and the potential of nuclear war was occurring.

In the second half of this “wandering”, my self-absorbed situation was demolished, and I became awakened to “benefit for others” through the opportunity to meet victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings. These people experienced fully the hell of this life. As survivors, they are people who defy the violence of this harsh reality and vow to embody peace “in this life”. This is where “benefit for others” and “benefit for oneself” come together, which was something that I gradually came to discover in early Buddhist texts, like the Sutta Nipata, and in reality itself.

In whatever direction one looks,

things that one loves more than oneself do not appear.

In this way, for each and every one, the self is beloved.

Thus, for one’s own self, do not bring harm to others.

All people fear violence.

For all living things, life is dear.

Exchanging oneself for another, do not kill,

and do not allow killing.[5]

When Darkness Deepens, the Light also Grows Stronger

From 1968 to 1994, I went begging for alms in my local area as an act of supporting those who had been contaminated by nuclear radiation, first the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and later the workers from the nuclear power plants. At this time, there was continuing debate about the invitation from the central government to build a nuclear reactor on the cape around Obama city. At one public event, I heard a scientist give an explanation that, “A one million kilowatt/hour nuclear plant, if run for just one year, can generate inside its reactor 1,000 times more fallout than the Hiroshima nuclear bomb and 10 times more plutonium than the Nagasaki nuclear bomb.” It was on this day that I, and others in the audience, made a firm decision to oppose the building of a reactor in Obama.

Why is it that the walls in a nuclear reactor have to be 4-5 times thicker? Why haven’t they built a reactor within the Osaka metropolitan area? How is it that a nuclear power plant can be converted from a huge wad of bank notes? The answers to these questions can be found in the information provided by the aforementioned scientist. However, our petition movement against these reactors by fishermen, labor union members, and citizens was able through every effort possible to gain the support of more than half of the voters, and we forced our mayor who had initially accepted the invitation to give up. In the middle of the 1970s, a different mayor said these now famous words, “With the prosperity of the citizens in mind, I have chosen to accept the nuclear plant and the funding for it as well.” However, we also obliged him to give up this second invitation.

In this way, Obama city has been the only community in Wakasa to reject nuclear energy through the will of its citizens. The ironic fate is that we are now besieged on all sides by a crowd of fifteen reactors. However, we certainly did not just fold our hands and look on as spectators as this situation developed around us. When the Oi Nuclear Complex was extended into the town adjacent to us, it sent shock waves of concern among our people. Amidst this upheaval, I was compelled to develop an awareness as a Buddhist, and a small group of sympathetic Buddhists in Wakasa created the following appeal:

“The golden light of mammon” does not cease to attract the weak minds of us human beings. In exchange for a great danger, the extension of the Oi Nuclear Complex has been accompanied with “golden subsidies” and “golden cooperation”. There is no exception in the way money affects such situations. However, the extent of that light is certainly narrow and is at times brief. Before that light reaches us, it seems we must be thoroughly plunged into a deep darkness. On other hand, there is the “light of the good mind” of us human beings. While it is transparent and seems powerless, its extent is long and vast. The beautiful ocean of Wakasa has been preserved for generations through time. It is a blessing that has been given to not just the people of this area but also to the urban citizens of the wider Kansai and Chukyo areas. This truth has given life to these lands, and we must bequeath it to our most beloved children and grandchildren. (September 1981)

In the way that one tries to help defend a child who is being continually bullied at school, it is not an easy thing to persist in criticizing and opposing the “castle town of nuclear energy”. We local Buddhists, especially, must take on more than just the despair of the physical contamination of the workers from inside the plant facilities and of the environment by the emission of tiny particles of radiation. We must also take on the mental contamination of the citizens by the oppressive words and deeds and the aggressive use of money. At the same time, we must also turn our gaze towards confronting what must be called this large-scale structure of bullying.

The Nuclear Ginza
The Nuclear Ginza

Now in the year 2000, the 14 nuclear reactors, excluding the Monju Fast Breeder Reactor, are sending approximately 80 billion kilowatts of electricity per year to the Osaka metropolitan area. However, the electrical consumption per year of the localities where these reactors are built does not even exceed 1 billion kilowatts. Further, in order to support the convenience and comfortable lifestyles of more than 100 million citizens throughout the nation, about 350,000 workers within nuclear facilities around the country in these past thirty years have had to be unavoidably exposed and contaminated by radiation.[6] The forceful promotion of nuclear energy comes from the atomic energy and electrical companies, the major construction companies, and the group of hereditary government politicians and officials. Yet in what way is the average citizen, especially urban citizen, aware of this objective reality?

In the early Buddhist texts, one reads of the episode of the destruction of the Buddha’s own small Shakya tribe by the invasion of the large kingdom of Kosala. I find this story to offer a direct corollary with the present situation in Wakasa, which has been forced to host a concentration of nuclear power unlike anything seen in the world. The era of Shakyamuni Buddha predates by about two hundred years the consolidation of India by King Ashoka, who reigned from 269-232 B.C. The Buddha was born to the fate of inheriting the throne of a small tribal republic and preserving its social institutions, an experience which he expressed as follows:

Seeing people struggling, like fish, writhing in shallow water with enmity against one another, I became afraid. At one time, I had wanted to find some place where I could take shelter, but I never saw any such place. There is nothing in this world that is solid at base and not a part of it that is changeless.[7]

This crown prince of the Shakya tribal nation, named Siddartha Gotama, left home to become a wanderer at the age of 29, leaving behind a wife and child, and at age 35 became the Buddha. After Siddhartha’s going forth into wandering, the King of Kosala proposed a political alliance through marriage with the Shakya republic, which if rejected would bring unrelenting military action against it. At the conclusion of a major debate within the country, the Shakya leaders offered a beautiful woman, who was from a servant class. Unknowingly, the King of Kosala received her as his first queen and had a son with her. Eventually, the truth was discovered, and the prince became scorned as “the maid servant’s child” from the Shakya tribe. When this boy named Vidudabha ascended the throne as king, he led an invasion against the Shakya republic in an act of spite. The Buddha himself went to the open plain on the two countries’ borders to meet the king’s military expedition. The Buddhist texts relate how Vidudabha found the Buddha seated under a tree that gave him scarcely any shade, so he invited him to his side of the border to sit under a shady banyan tree. To this, the Buddha replied, “Be not worried. The shade of my kinsmen keeps me cool.” The Buddha called upon Vidudadbha to practice non-violence and was able to discourage him three times. However, upon the fourth such encounter, the Buddha saw that this was the fate of his people for their previous treachery. He then stood aside as the Shakya republic was totally destroyed by Vidudabha’s brutal campaign.[8]

According to the texts, when the Buddha was alive, sixteen different republics over the region were in competition, and a dark period emerged of the strong devouring the weak. It is, of course, abiding in this great darkness that we find the great light that serves as a symbol of the aforementioned paradox in the origins of Buddhism. Further, the Sangha, which was a communal grouping of renunciates and wanderers formed by the Buddha, was modeled along the communal republican government (sangha) of his own Shakya nation. The Shakya tribe has been lost in the sea of history, but the teaching of the Buddha, born to the Shakyas, has to this day spread throughout the world.

The Lessons of Monju

The Monju Reactor on the crystal white sand beaches of Wakasa
The Monju Reactor on the crystal white sand beaches of Wakasa

Returning to the nuclear issue, plutonium is generated in the process of the nuclear fuel being completely used up by a reactor. This spent fuel is then reprocessed, the plutonium extracted, and then used for: 1) a fast breeder reactor, 2) an advanced thermal converter reactor, or 3) the creation of mixed oxide fuel (MOX) for plutonium thermal power generation. The Japanese government has been pursuing this policy and plan up to this point.[9] To further develop this policy, the former Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (PNC)[10] built two new style reactors on the Tsuruga peninsula next to Obama, declaring proudly their names as the Monju Fast Breeder Reactor and the Fugen Advanced Thermal Converter Reactor.

The origins of these two names are the bodhisattvas who serve as attendants sitting at the side of Shakyamuni Buddha in various images and art work; that is, Manjusri Bodhisattva (Monju) to his left and Samantabhadra Bodhisattva (Fugen) to his right. These two bodhisattvas are symbols of the virtues of wisdom and compassion and appear riding on top of a lion and an elephant respectively. Through their wisdom and compassion, these two bodhisattvas are able to completely control the enormous strength of these great beasts. The officials who named the reactors wanted to represent the hopes of human happiness through harmonizing science and education to control the great energy of nuclear power.[11] There is also the legend of the god Pluto, from which the name of the incredibly deadly poison called plutonium comes. It is from these two new style reactors, Fugen and Monju, that such plutonium can be converted into nuclear weapons.

At each of the fifteen communities in the area that host nuclear plants, several tens of millions of yen were distributed. While riot police were brought in to control one protest group of 10,000 people, the stance of PNC and the government was to strongly proceed with the construction. If we think about it, which one of these groups would it be good for the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion to sympathize with? Even if someone was not a Buddhist, the citizens of Wakasa and of Fukui Prefecture had no choice but to protest this lack of sincerity. Eventually, Monju had a major incident on December 6, 1995, fifty years after the end of the Pacific War, and it remains inactive to this day.[12] I have come to feel that the Monju incident represents a fork in the road, indicating a great change coming here at the end of the century that we live in.

On the one hand, there is the road headed towards ruin. The attacks on Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941 certainly invited the expansion of a war of aggression as well as the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the great catastrophe of the defeat of our nation that followed. During this time, flowery rhetoric was made of “self sacrifice for one’s country” to cloud over the people’s spirit. Buddhists also twisted the true meaning of the Buddha’s concept of not-self in order to send followers off to the battlefield. I ask, how much longer will we continue to accept the same kind of flowery rhetoric used in the beautiful name of Manjusri and other such figures for a national policy that depends on nothing but the increase of spent nuclear fuel and plutonium?

On the other hand, the Buddha’s instructions of wisdom and compassion offer a road to peace and coexistence for all living things. For Buddhists in our country, December 8th is the day that is commemorated as jo-do-e, literally “a gathering for the achieving the way”, on which Siddartha Gotama sitting beneath a bodhi tree experienced awakening and became the Buddha. Isn’t it time to shift towards the development of renewable energy, make efforts towards a lifestyle of energy saving, and eliminate reliance on atomic energy, which coerces people into discriminating against and sacrificing others? The lion and elephant who need to be controlled are in no way atomic energy but rather the greed that develops within ourselves to flaunt our success.

What Is Right in Front of Oneself, Right Now in the Present Moment

The phrase that I mentioned at the beginning of this article, “one’s own benefit, another’s benefit, and the benefit of both”, was further developed in Mahayana Buddhism as “self benefit, another’s benefit, and the perfection of the two.” Within this “other” is implied the existence of all things, which the Buddha fully realized:

Contented and easily satisfied,

unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways,

peaceful and calm and wise and skillful,

not proud or demanding in nature. Let them not do the slightest thing

that the wise would later reprove.

Wishing: in gladness and in safety,

may all beings be at ease. Whatever living beings there may be;

whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,

the great or the mighty, medium, short or small,

the seen and the unseen,

those living near and far away,

those born and to-be-born,

May all beings be at ease![13]

Needless to say, these words of the Buddha are not just something uttered as an intellectual reflection. The act of self-reproach or control in the Buddhist concept of “sufficiency” (Jp. shoyoku chisoku, Skt. samtusti) is substantiated through a deep form of meditation passed down to us today from India thousands of years ago. The Buddha’s complete way of living is demanding in every way and is a radical paradox that originates from a deep darkness. These words are transmitting an urgent reverberation to us humans living in this world at the end of the 20th century.

The nuclear incident at Chernobyl contaminated with radiation all living things and animate life, created micro level damage to their genes that cannot be seen by the naked eye, and continues to have a negative effect on things that desire henceforth to live. In good and in evil, one’s own existence is both temporal and spacial and is connected to the existence of all other living beings in a chain that is wide, large, deep, and swift. This is surely the time when we will be taught a lesson in this truth. I think the millennium problem that we faced with computers when the year turned 2000 was surely a symbolic example of this issue.

He knows his earlier lives; he has seen the other forms of life, the woeful states and the happy states. This is the attainment: reaching the end of the chain-links of births. This is what I call a Brahmin.[14]

No expectations, not a hankering for this world or for any other; he is untied, released; this is what “Brahmin” means.[15]

At the end of the millennium, there were heads of religious groups and people making predictions and deceiving others by aimlessly finding fault with either previous life or future life. Though the Buddha had the power of deep insight into the past and future, he said the following:

The results are visible within an instant and require no time, this dharma.

The results come forth in an instant before the eye.

Who attains the immortal, tranquil, and deathless state of nirvana.[16]

This is what can be considered the “benefit of ultimate truth”. To further clarify these words of the Buddha, when we reflect on the reality of our own self, we can know that while the body extinguishes, the mind is capable of not withering away. I can affirm this when I am brought to think about the present situation and future of Wakasa. According to the way of looking that follows the bad dream of Chernobyl to the serious incident at Monju to the criticality incident at the Tokaimura nuclear facility in 1999 and further incidents within the country, we will never be able to revive our Wakasa area or any such community. On the other hand, the many articulate words of the Buddha that I have presented here show that we are never, ever not existing in deep interconnection. Therefore, there is nothing left to do but begin a new course from what is right in front of us, right now in the present moment.

translation and minor editing (including a change in the head title): Jonathan Watts with Naomi Takasawa, from the Japanese language journal Fuku-on-to Sekai (The Gospel and the World) February, 2000.

[1] Ginza refers to the high end shopping section of Tokyo where there are clusters of fancy shops and boutiques, which also serves as a sign of Japan’s post-war economic prosperity.

[2] Khaggavisana Sutta, Sutta Nipata Sn. 3.1, 35, translated Thanissaro Bhikkhu, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/.

[3] Khaggavisana Sutta, Sutta Nipata Sn. 3.1, 58.

[4] Hajima Nakamura. Trans. Budda-no kotoba: Suttanipaata (The Buddha’s Words: The Sutta Nipata). (Iwanami Bunko publishers: Tokyo, 1958) p. 207.

[5] Udana Varga 5.18-19. Rendered into English from the Japanese translation of the Sanskrit by the translator.

[6] This number has now swelled to approximately 500,000 workers who are not official company employees of the power companies but day laborers brought in by sub contracting firms to clean up dangerous waste. See “Japanese Workers Braved Radiation for a Temp Job” by Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times. April 9, 2011. & the documentary film Nuclear Ginza by Great Britain’s Channel 4.

[7] Attadanda Sutta, Sutta Nipata Sn 15.2-3, 936-37. Translated by H. Saddhatissa (London: Curzon Press, 1985).

[8] There are various sources to this story, which include the subsequent destruction of the Kosala army by a sudden flood in apparent retribution for their brutality. J.iv.152; UdA.265; Ap.i.300. http://www.metta.lk/pali-utils/Pali-Proper-Names/kapilavatthu.htm.

[9] While the Japanese government remains invested in this policy in 2013, it has become increasingly problematic with the overall failure of the Monju facility and the destruction of one of these plutonium thermal MOX reactors at the Fukushima #1 complex. “Plutonium Problem Lingers as Mixed-oxide Fuel Comes to Japan.” The Asahi Shimbun. June 25, 2013.

[10] PNC was renamed as the Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute (JNC) in 1998 and then unified with the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute (JAERI) to become the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) in 2005.

[11] In an article from the Japanese Bukkyo (Buddhist) Times dated June 6, 1970, there is a written contribution by Susumu Kiyonari, then Chairman of the PNC, that mentions Buddhism and nuclear power and the names of Monju and Fugen. It appears that Kiyonari himself had a good awareness of the horror of nuclear power when naming the reactors. He also had a strong interest in Buddhism, which led him to study it.

[12] In May 2010, it was restarted but another accident shut it down only three months later in August. In 2013, it faces decommissioning and the complete failure of its over 1 trillion yen investment over 25 years.

[13] Karaniya Metta Sutta, Sutta Nipata. Sn 8.1, 144-47. translated by The Amaravati Sangha. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/

[14] Vasettha Sutta, Sutta Nipata Sn 9.54, 647. Translated by H. Saddhatissa.

[15] Vasettha Sutta, Sutta Nipata Sn 9.41, 634. Translated by H. Saddhatissa.

[16] The three lines come from the Sutta Nipata respectively: Sn. 1137, 567, and 204. Translated by H. Saddhatissa.

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