The Deep Listening Gyocha Volunteer Activities of the Soto Zen Youth Association

by Rev. Taiko Kyuma

Rev. Taiko Kyuma is the former Chief and now Advisor to the National Soto Denomination Youth Association as well as Advisor to the Association’s Department of Disaster Aid and Revival. He is the abbot Ryutoku-ji temple and the vice abbot of Jorin-ji temple located in Da-te City, Fukushima Prefecture, on the edge of the nuclear exclusion zone.

On the day of the earthquake and tsunami disaster, the National Soto Denomination Youth Association (SYA) established a Department of Disaster Aid and Revival. At first, we tried to gather as much information as possible despite extreme difficulties as communication had been disrupted in the disaster areas. Our work at first was to give utmost priority to material aid. Receiving requests for emergency material aid, we began delivering this aid on March 17 for the maintenance of living in the six cities of Shirakawa, Izumizaki-mura, Sukagawa, Tamura, Fukushima, and Da-te in Fukushima Prefecture. We then established a local headquarters of the Department of Disaster Aid and Revival in my own Jorin-ji temple in Da-te in order to create a base for our work and regulate it according to locale and information we were collecting. The objective of our work in these localities was to strive to develop cooperation among the government offices established for disaster relief and the social welfare associations in each region.

From this time, SYA, with 64 branch groups consisting of more than 1,800 members, has engaged in a number of activities, such as: material aid, basic volunteer support, rehabilitation of temples, chanting and memorial services for the dead, deep listening gyocha, a Kanze-phone telephone consultation hotline, a “correspondence project” to prevent the isolation of individuals, a proposal for workshops on aid for self-reliance at the newly built temporary housing, a summer camp for refugees from the nuclear incident, and decontamination work in the nuclear affected areas.

From the standpoint of being Buddhist priests, we have sought to maintain a self-awareness of the importance of compassion (maitri-karuna/ji-hi), yet at the same time not imposing our spiritual views when coming into contact with victims of the disaster. I myself have been influenced by the important idea of “a volunteer being a catalyst” from the former Managing Director of the Shanti Volunteer Association (formerly Soto-shu Volunteer Association – SVA), Rev. Jitsujo Arima.[1]

Deep Listening Gyocha in the Disaster Areas

The term gyocha, literally meaning “tea practice”, is a ceremony of taking tea conducted in Zen temples and Zen practice centers. Tea is taken in a simple and direct manner in order to objectively re-examine one’s own practice and one’s own daily existence through conversation with one’s Zen master and co-practitioners. This is a very important time for the practitioner to develop mindfulness and to return to one’s own essence. Gyocha as an activity in deep listening to victims during a disaster is about holding and embracing the physical and psychological stress of the victims and offering them a chance for respite while being caught in unavoidably constrained circumstances with no immediate prospects for their future. In this way, we have sought to develop mutual communication as companions experiencing this same life. In terms of the daily drinking of tea in the disaster areas, our activities have aimed to help the victims slowly recover their own beings and way of daily life through sharing tea and dealing with the difficult reality together.

Gyocha for supporting victim revival during disasters was started by SYA at the time of the March 2007 earthquake on the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture. The opportunity leading up to this application of gyocha came from the experience of providing hot meals at the time of the October 2004 earthquake in the Chuetsu region of Niigata Prefecture. At that time, a woman made a comment to one of our members, “We are thankful to receive the hot meal, but as you are a Buddhist priest, we victims would like you to listen deeply to our stories.” Afterwards, we asked our SYA members what they could offer and called to their attention the importance of secondary volunteer activities involving “deep listening”. We then set up a study group to prepare for such work and then began the first gyocha during the Noto Peninsula earthquake. In the same year, another earthquake hit the Chuetsu region, and we ran more gyocha there as well.

Gyocha activities have the following specific aims:

  • Offering hot tea for the physical well being of disaster victims: In disaster areas, resource lifelines have been knocked out and there is a lack of fuel, so it is a real problem to prepare hot meals. The work then is also concerned with the physical health of the victims.
  • Deep listening and mental and spiritual care for the victims: Our volunteer staff, which at first was all Buddhist priests, engages in deep listening to the concerns of victims. When a disaster takes place, we make efforts to begin work with as many personnel as possible as quickly as we can in order to deal with the anxiety and variety of emotions that the victims experience.
  • Providing a system to connect government and volunteer center support for the needs of the victims: In order to connect the government and volunteer centers’ work, we go on rounds of each evacuation shelter to listen and ascertain needs; for example, at public recreation centers, the need for futon beds for people with back pain and simple changing rooms for women who need privacy.
  • Supporting communication on all levels: Through gyocha, we strive to develop communication among communities and person-to-person communication as well as supporting the self-reliance of the victims and the communities in the disaster areas. We introduce fellow victims to each other and support their deepening relationships as well as proving active support for making connections from the individual to community level during gyocha.

With the passing of time after the disaster, the evacuation centers became filled with plastic bottles and cans of water and tea. However, we did not want to do gyocha using these drinks. Rather, we pay special attention to the process of a person preparing tea or coffee by hand, the smell of brewing, and the “warmth” of other humans that they may have almost forgotten.

Reflections on the Practice of Gyocha

Creating a gyocha can be done relatively easily, but within the limits of what you can get in a disaster area, you need to prepare some in advance. Preparation involves: 1) preparing materials, 2) determining the location and how to adapt to it, and 3) confirming the volunteer staff and what they can do. Further, you have to get an estimate of the number of people at an evacuation center and consider the day and time of the gyocha. When doing work at an evacuation shelter, there’s a difference between the real number of people and the figures of the data of victims. There are changes everyday. For example, at a center with 100 people, many come and go throughout the day, so in reality you end up dealing with up to 30 old people and children at one time. In this way, the needs expressed during gyocha are not all the needs of the place. Young people are young people; women have women’s needs. I think it’s a good idea to listen deeply when there is a discussion about the needs of the those who are absent.

At one center, there had been many people at a gyocha we did, and we felt we were quite successful in this way. However, the next time, there was only one person besides us. He was filled with despair, so I felt I wanted to get intimate with him and support him. The ideal of this work is that when getting intimate with the real suffering of people, you can support them a bit mentally and emotionally.

There is no need to talk to someone who is resting and won’t be woken up. However, when talking with the person next to them, it’s important to examine the situation and ask the evacuation center staff about their situation. There are people who have developed problems in the legs and back and can’t move without pain. The aim of our work is to be concerned for their health and lifestyle and not to lose contact just because they are resting. We should communicate with people in charge and tell the medical staff or shelter staff about anyone who seems in poor condition. There are many instances of a “just wait” attitude in dealing with people’s demands and requests, so we try to fill in the gaps and fulfill the role of connecting people. This is one significant aspect of gyocha.

At the evacuation centers, living is naturally in a shambles, and each person has to make their life in one little corner. There are many people dealing with stress who will not greet or offer any expression to us. This is especially due to the high rate of turnover amongst the centers’ staff, the number of uninvited media who show up, and the many other visitors including volunteers. There are also cases of stress being caused by too many activities being run. While victims continue to deal with this stress, they can also appreciate the kindness of a Buddhist priest.

However, in reality, in such times of disaster, there are specific religious groups that take advantage of the situation by engaging in prosthelytization and profit making activities. At the evacuation centers, there are many religious people from various denominations. At public evacuation centers, I have heard of people using the name of a certain denomination and seen people with robes and a priestly appearance engage in persuasive prosthelytization and self-advertising. Those people have been denied access to such evacuation centers and had their volunteer activities forbidden by the local social welfare volunteer center.

Master Dogen said in the Shushogi, “The Buddha himself lived as a human being before attaining Buddhahood.” In this way, it is ideal if a priest can humble himself to develop a heart-to-heart connection with a disaster victim. In the case of being asked to come do chanting and give a dharma talk, we should do it rather privately, refraining from doing it in the evacuation center or in front of many people. If the person has a family temple, it’s important to help make a connection to it. In reviving local community, people who come from the outside must desire to make a connection with the local people. In this way, we think it best that even at large evacuation centers the number of gyocha staff should not exceed ten persons.

After doing gyocha many times in a place, one may end up asking the same thing to someone like, “It sure is hot today” or “This is my favorite snack, and what is yours?” That person ends up feeling embarrassed and doesn’t want to respond. It’s necessary for the volunteer to figure out a way to deal with this. There may be children running around playing energetically, but we must be careful to notice their mental pain and the lack of brightness in their eyes. If the gyocha volunteer staff can help by bringing to each gyocha some of their own local snacks or travelling gifts and offer them to the victims, then this will provide a point of conversation to connect with them. This seems to be effective in creating a bond without having to worry about what to talk about.

Deeply listening, you can observe a person’s discontent, dissatisfaction, insecurity and anxiety. After sincerely experiencing the life of a victim in both body and speech, afterwards we make a report to the volunteer center on the specific details (daily life, illness, etc.) of the person. For example, when one asks to a victim, “Are you having any problems?” and he says, “I am doing okay… Thank you very much for the tea”, one should not be satisfied with that response and end the conversation. To the person who says, “I am not feeling burdened,” I say, “In that case, is there anyone around you who’s having problems?” Then listening, I take down information on their reply which begins, “That person over there…”A person holds in some suffering that remains unspoken towards other people. They will not directly say to someone they have just met, “Please help me.” It’s a mistake to think the meaning of gyocha is simply a way of getting intimate with such a person’s real feeling to do a “needs assessment”. While drinking tea, we listen deeply, making person-to-person connections and connections with local people. In order to revitalize local community, someone needs to notice when there is a person who can carry out this role in the community. This is something we want to help with.


Gyocha has been recognized by wider society as the work of Soto denomination volunteers. We are receiving many requests to do such work from the volunteer centers of social welfare associations and from local governments. We want to respond to such requests, offer support towards the revival of these communities, and assist victims to re-establish their self-reliance. However, with the passage of time, people are returning to their homes, moving to temporary housing, or moving away altogether, and the lives of the victims are undergoing a metamorphosis. Volunteer centers are being scaled back and offices being relocated as the disaster areas shift into a new phase of rehabilitation and restoration. Gyocha is also undergoing a change from when we started doing it. I think from examining the needs of the disaster areas, we will make a change in our methods of operation and search for a new sustainable course. There might be occasions like festivals where we are asked to join. Especially in the regions where our volunteer staff have established strong footholds, we will take on cooperative work for community events. It’s nice if we can connect people in communities together while drinking tea. However, if people in communities themselves can come together to drink tea and talk as a way to revive the community without gyocha volunteers, then gyocha can discontinue its work. When that time comes, donating equipment to community centers and regions can be a course of action.

Translated by Jonathan Watts with Rev. Jin Sakai

[1] For a brief profile of Rev. Arima and his importance to socially engaged Buddhism in Japan, see: Watts, Jonathan. “The Search for Socially Engaged Buddhism in Japan”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: