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Japanese Buddhist Responses to the Earthquake and Tsunami

by Miriam Levering


One aspect of Japanese Buddhists' response to the March 11 earthquake is an appreciation of its reminder that everything is impermanent.
 The "normal" life we take for granted is fragile, and thus not really normal.


The responses of Japanese Buddhists to Japan's March 2011 double disaster give us an opportunity to reflect on the modern and contemporary understandings of salvation and liberation among Japanese Buddhists.1 When a major disaster happens, such as the Sumatra earthquake and tsunami of 2004 that killed 250,000 people in Indonesia and another 47,000 elsewhere in Southeast Asia or the gigantic earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan's Pacific coast in 2011, Buddhists are often asked by the news media how they understand what caused the terrible losses. In Southeast Asia and elsewhere, Shakyamuni Buddha's teaching about karma is often invoked: each person's actions in this life or past lives brought about each person's loss, and liberation is liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth. But as we saw in March of 2011, things are not so simple for Buddhists in Japan.

First, modern Japanese are considerably shaped by a Confucian-Buddhist worldview in which karma is both individual and social. In response to a catastrophic earthquake that struck Japan in his own day, the Zen monk and poet Ryokan (1758-1831) wrote this haunting Confucian-Buddhist poem, titled "Poem Composed Following a Terrible Earthquake":

Day after day after day,
At noon and midnight, the cold was piercing.
The sky was thick with black clouds that blocked out the sun.
Fierce winds howled, snow swirled violently.
Wild waves stormed heaven, buffeting monster fish.
Walls trembled and shook, people shrieked in terror.
Looking back at the past forty years, I now see that things were racing out of control:
People had grown lax and indifferent,
Forming factions and fighting among themselves.
They forgot about obligations and duty,
Ignored notions of loyalty and justice,
And thought only of themselves.
Full of self-conceit, they cheated each other,
Creating an endless, filthy mess.
The world was rife with madness.
No one shared my concern.
Things got worse until the final disaster struck -
Few were aware that the world was star-crossed
And dreadfully out of kilter.
If you really want to understand this tragedy, look deep inside
Rather than helplessly bemoan your cruel fate.

Beginning in pre-Han China, Confucians in East Asia made a connection between the morality of the ruler or the ruling elite and the occurrence of what we call "natural disasters." Heaven ordains all things. When immorality rules in the human realm, Heaven responds with signs such as two-headed cows and disasters such as earthquakes and floods. Ryokan, a Buddhist in a Confucian-dominated era, extends this correspondence beyond the ruling elite; if people in general are lax and indifferent, forgetting about obligations and duty, loyalty and justice, then the world is out of kilter and disaster will strike. In March of 2011, when the massive earthquake and tsunami struck on the island of Honshu's northeast coast, the governor of Tokyo commented that by sending the earthquake and tsunami, the gods made known their response to the self-centered thinking of present-day Japanese. This comment, soon heard around the world, struck this same note.2

To-san, a wise Japanese Rissho Kosei-kai Buddhist friend in Tokyo, responded to the earthquake in accord with Ryokan's poem: "We don't know why the people in the northeast have been given such horrible suffering, but our best response is to search our own hearts and repent." As for Ryokan, but based explicitly on the Buddhist idea of interconnectedness expressed in Rissho Kosei-kai in terms of Tiantai Zhiyi's doctrine that there are "three thousand worlds in a single thought," the causes of a disaster are shared. Whether we were directly affected by the disaster or not, our impure hearts helped cause it, and purifying our hearts will help everyone.

Not all Buddhists in Japan sought an explanation in karma, shared or unshared. Rev. Tesshu Shaku, chief priest of Nyoraiji temple, a Jodo Shinshu (True Pure Land sect of Buddhism) temple in Ikeda City, Japan, responded in this way:

Buddhism is called a religion with no god. So we don't think God caused this, according to the Buddhist way of thinking. We think of the law of cause and effect, searching for a cause. It is the same approach as science. The cause of this earthquake is the friction between the North American plate and the Pacific plate.

So that I could better understand this, Ven. Zhiru Ng, a Buddhist bhiksuni (nun) and scholar of Buddhist history, sent me to the Burmese monk Mahasi Sayadaw's explanation of karma. He writes:

According to Buddhism, there are five orders or processes (niyama) that operate in the physical and mental realms. They are:
1. Utu niyama - physical inorganic order, for example, seasonal phenomena of winds and rains. The unerring order of seasons, characteristic seasonal changes and events, causes of winds and rains, nature of heat, and so forth, all belong to this group.
2. Bija niyama - order of germs and seeds (physical organic order), for example, rice produced from rice seed, sugary taste from sugar cane or honey, peculiar characteristics of certain fruits, and the like. The scientific theory of cells and genes and the physical similarity of twins may be ascribed to this order.
3. Kamma niyama (Skt., karma niyama) - order of act and result, for instance, desirable and undesirable acts produce corresponding good and bad results. As surely as water seeks its own level, so does karma, given opportunity, produce its inevitable result, not in the form of a reward or punishment but as an innate sequence. This sequence of deed and effect is as natural and necessary as the way of the sun and the moon.
4. Dhamma niyama - order of the norm, for example, the natural phenomena occurring at the advent of a bodhisattva in his last birth. Gravitation and other similar laws of nature. The natural reason for being good and so forth may be included in this group.
5. Citta niyama - order or mind or psychic law, for instance, processes of consciousness, arising and perishing of consciousness, constituents of consciousness, power of mind, and so forth, including telepathy, telaesthesia, retrocognition, premonition, clairvoyance, clairaudience, thought reading, and such other psychic phenomena that are inexplicable to modern science.

According to Mahasi Sayadaw's explanation, every mental or physical phenomenon could be explained by these all-embracing five orders or processes that are laws in themselves. Karma as such is only one of these five orders. Like Rev. Shaku, quoted above, one could point out that the earthquake and resultant tsunami were results of the utu niyama, physical causal processes, and not of the karma niyama. Physical plates of the earth's solid crust interacted.

Some of my Buddhist friends insisted that the five niyamas are only descriptive distinctions, and the various processes of causation are united, making karma affect all the other processes. Others insisted that disasters arise codependently with disturbances in the mind. Among my Buddhist friends in Japan, the view that the earthquake and tsunami were merely natural phenomena was widespread. One can see why this would be the case: Does one really want to say that the people who live in earthquake or tsunami zones have all done worse actions and therefore suffer worse karmic fruits than those who live in geologically more tranquil zones?

This is all the more the case in Japan because Japanese Buddhists in general and Rissho Kosei-kai Buddhists in particular do not strongly believe that a person can expect a long series of radically different lifetimes. Rather, at death one becomes and remains a living ancestor in the family in which one has lived. Liberation is not liberation from the endless cycle of birth and rebirth. Rather, liberations take place repeatedly in this life as we free ourselves from self-centered, grasping responses to daily situations. The dead, too, can be liberated from the suffering caused by self-centeredness through posthumous ordination as the Buddha's disciples. Through such liberation they become happy, generous ancestors.

Rather than devoting much thought to the karmic causes of the March 11 disaster, my Japanese Buddhist friends focused on compassion. The pressing issue was how we could open ourselves to feel and respond to the pain and the needs of others. As Rev. Shaku also said:

The Japanese are more focused on relationships as opposed to faith, feeling the pain of others. I have witnessed this at the time of the Hanshin Awaji earthquake. [In 1995 the Great Hanshin earthquake on the island of Awaji, known in the West as the Kobe earthquake, killed about sixty-five hundred people.] There were many people who came to the affected area to help and volunteer. There is a word, "earthquake children," for people whose perspectives were affected by the disaster. They became very active in community service or became Buddhist monks. So people will be more spiritual, feeling the pains and joys of others.

Undamaged Buddhist temples belonging to the traditional Japanese Buddhist sects and the Dharma centers of Buddhist groups among the "new religions," such as Rissho Kosei-kai and Soka Gakkai, opened their spaces to the refugees left homeless by the tsunami or the nuclear-related evacuation. Large traditional Buddhist denominations and Buddhist new religions delivered massive donations of needed goods and sent volunteer teams to help with the refugees and the cleanup. These efforts continue and will do so for some time.

Since March 11, 2011, for Japan's Buddhist priests and Rissho Kosei-kai members in the northeast region, the most compelling need has been for services and prayers to benefit the dead - those who died in the earthquake and tsunami and those who have died since in evacuation centers. In Japan the overwhelming majority are buried according to Buddhist custom: cremation and interment in a family plot. With many bodies swept away in the tsunami, many Japanese have had to come to terms with having to forgo rituals that they know help the dead. For one thing, without a body or definite news, one doesn't feel right giving up hope that the loved one is still alive. Japanese Buddhist priests are doing what they can to offer collective services for survivors who lack the comfort of seeing the body and holding a cremation. The American scholar of Japanese religion John Nelson said: "In the days ahead, you'll see people praying, with hands folded, for the spirits of those killed. It goes back to a really early understanding of human spirits and rituals designed to control those spirits, which can take 49 days or, depending on the type of Buddhism, could go on for up to seven years."

One sad fact of the harsh conditions in the northeast has been that bodies are so numerous and electricity so lacking that bodies have been buried in mass graves or cremated without the full Buddhist ceremony. The reporter Steven Jiang met a Buddhist priest at the centuries-old temple Senryuji just outside the twenty-kilometer perimeter that defines the "no-go" or evacuation zone around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. He wrote:

Sweeping its immaculately kept ground - complete with a sand garden and a fish pond - was Shinkoh Ishikawa, a 58-year-old Buddhist monk who offers a rare sanctuary to a community ravaged by a succession of disasters. The government had advised residents between the 20- and 30-kilometer zones to move away or remain indoors. "Religion is not something distant, it stays next to you," Ishikawa explained his decision to stay after seeing hundreds of bodies of tsunami victims cremated at the local funeral home without a proper Buddhist ritual. "I hope people understand that death is not the end of one's life, but a revolving step where lives meet again." . . . Lighting a candle in the temple's main hall where eight boxes of cremated remains lay on a table, Ishikawa chanted prayers for the dead.

One concern at death for both established Buddhist sects and Buddhist new religions is that the deceased receive an ordination name, or kaimyo, after death. Rissho Kosei-kai, a Buddhist new religion, for example, immediately gave those known and unknown who died in the northeast from the earthquake and tsunami a collective posthumous ordination name so that merit from prayers and sutra chanting could be sent to them in the realm between death and rebirth or, in another more common way of thinking, during their transition from living being to ancestor.

The transfer of merit that occurs at the end of every Rissho Kosei-kai service throughout Japan usually sends the merit from the service to various buddhas and bodhisattvas, gods, spirits, the founders of the lineage, current teachers, one's own ancestors, and those of other members.

Since March 11, the transfer-of-merit portion of the recitation now sends all the merit from the service to all of the above except the members' own ancestors and others on the members' family tree. Instead, the service is defined from the beginning as a memorial service for the collective dead of the March 11 earthquake and as an occasion of prayers for the safety of those in nuclear-accident-struck Fukushima and those in all the northeastern prefectures burdened by sorrow, loss, or fear.

Although one's own ancestors and the deceased members of one's family will still gain merit from the service offered, for explicit resumption of transfers to them, one's own ancestors and deceased members of one's family tree will have to wait till the dead of the earthquake and tsunami have been helped to reach a peaceful and happy state as hotoke, or buddha ancestors. The transfer of merit to the victims is carried out so that "they may delight in the taste of the Dharma and quickly accomplish the wonderful fruit of supreme awakening," that is, be liberated to become hotoke.

One aspect of Japanese Buddhists' response to the March 11 earthquake is an appreciation of its reminder that everything is impermanent. The "normal" life we take for granted is fragile, and thus not really normal, as one of my Rissho Kosei-kai Buddhist friends in Tokyo pointed out. This became abundantly clear immediately in Tokyo, where trains stopped running; bread, toilet paper, and milk disappeared from store shelves; and cell phone networks stopped working. For me, too, the quake left behind a strong awareness that everything and everyone is precious.

Buddhists around the world teach that life in this moment is both infinitely valuable and the only life we have - at least as far as this life goes. Thich Nhat Hanh is quoted as saying, when asked about the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan:

An event such as this reminds us of the impermanent nature of our lives. It helps us remember that what's most important is to love each other, to be there for each other, and to treasure each moment we have that we are alive. This is the best that we can do for those who have died: We can live in such a way that they can feel they are continuing to live in us, more mindfully, more profoundly, more beautifully, tasting every minute of life available to us, for them.

Japanese Buddhists would not agree that this is the best we can do for our beloved dead or all of those who died in the tsunami: ordination names and merit transfer are important. But they would agree with the first half of Thich Nhat Hanh's statement. Accepting the truth of impermanence and interconnectedness but also the goal of living together as one family; treasuring each other; opening our hearts in compassion; treating each moment of our life as an opportunity to see, act, and value truly; relying on a teaching that points to values grounded in truths that lie beyond this world - these are Japanese responses as well. In my understanding, in Rissho Kosei-kai this is the practical meaning of liberation for those who experience a growing liberation even while not yet having become full buddhas.

Accepting the truth of impermanence and the goal of living together as one family with openheartedness and compassion is relatively easy to do when living a prosperous and secure-seeming life. It must seem nearly impossible when overwhelmed by death and disaster. Yet the principles apply there as well. President Nichiko Niwano of Rissho Kosei-kai wrote about cheerfulness, kindness, and warmheartedness in his report on his experiences while visiting the disaster areas:

Cheerfulness is part of the Buddha wisdom and means never being swayed by emotion but living bravely by making the Dharma our light. Kindness includes sympathy, and warmheartedness includes compassion. That phrase means that we should go forth on the path of mutual liberation in the light of the Buddha wisdom, cultivating compassion and human warmth. . . . [These are] things that we have to care about in the situation we are in right now.
    Among the people in the disaster areas being evacuated from their own neighborhoods because of the tsunami or nuclear accidents, some have lost family members, homes, or jobs and have no hope for the future. However, they can carve their future by living a day at a time. I urge them to encourage and help one another, making the most of the people and things around them. There is a saying, "The muddier the water, the bigger the lotus flower." No one has any idea how long it will take for the disaster victims to overcome their burden of hardship or sorrow. However, I believe that if we remember sayings like the one about the lotus flower, we will not only think of this catastrophe as a great tragedy but accept it as an opportunity for everyone to grow as human beings. I think this is exactly the right way to honor those who perished and to live as they would wish us to live.

When asked what kind of growth he had in mind, President Niwano said:

In the nearly seventy years since the Second World War, Japan has become materially advanced as one of the world's great economic powers. However, we have forgotten our true heritage and have indulged in excesses of every kind, with overconsumption and waste. We need to reflect on our sense of values and lifestyle and think anew to move forward into the future.

And so we come back full circle to Ryokan's mood, if not exactly Ryokan's point. In President Niwano's thought, the earthquake was not explicitly blamed on our excesses. But in light of our heightened awareness of impermanence and the suffering of others and our new desire to be one family with each other, we may choose not to go on as we have done, somewhat thoughtlessly as it now seems. We have been given an opportunity to reflect, a chance to reshape the future. The more we can do that, the more we experience a liberation that we can share with others.


1. For pictures of the effects of this double disaster, see http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2011/03/earthquake-in-japan/100022/.

2. The governor publicly apologized for the remarks a day later, but I am sure many older Japanese did not think an apology was required.


Miriam Levering, Professor Emerita of Religious Studies and Asian Studies at the University of Tennessee, is an international advisor to Rissho Kosei-kai. She received her PhD from Harvard University in 1978. She has edited a book called Rethinking Scripture, a study of the concepts and uses of sacred texts in the major religious traditions, and has written many articles on women and gender in Chan and Zen Buddhism.

This article was originally published in the April-June 2012 issue of Dharma World.
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