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Reconnecting with Everyday Life:
Buddhism through Simple Gestures in the Café de Monk

by Levi McLaughlin


Buddhism, in practice, need not be formal or dramatic, and perhaps Buddhist ideals are realized most clearly when they manifest in informal settings that encourage honest, extemporaneous expression.

Images of tonsured Buddhist priests in Japan as rigidly disciplined keepers of arcane knowledge and mysterious rites prevail in popular media and in a remarkable amount of scholarship as well. Similarly, representations of Zen, Pure Land, Nichiren, and other Buddhist lineages often center on clearly defined institutions with discrete rules and practices. Here I provide a thumbnail sketch of a distinctive project called the Café de Monk that sees Buddhist priests and other religious professionals put aside formal doctrinal and institutional distinctions to develop innovative ways of helping survivors of the March 11, 2011, earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters. Following the guiding question "Where does the Buddha live now?" I suggest that events like this café show us that the Buddha may manifest within simple social interactions that encourage nonjudgmental compassion. Enjoyable Buddhism-inspired community events separate from institution-based rituals or doctrinal instruction help traumatized people regain equilibrium. Humble social interactions that are guided, but not dominated, by Buddhist practices introduce survivors to the possibility that ordinary life can be regained by engaging in simple pleasures.

Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, June 13, 2012: Rev. Yozo Taniyama, a True Pure Land (Jodo Shinshu) priest who also teaches at Tohoku University, drives his van past row after identical row of temporary housing units, looking for the location of this week's Café de Monk. After driving nearly two hours from Sendai, our motley collective of Buddhist priest, foreign researcher, and students from the United States has reached the town of Ishinomaki on the coast of Miyagi Prefecture. At first it is difficult to tell that Ishinomaki was one of the communities that were close to the epicenter of the March 11, 2011, earthquake that devastated this region and that it has lost an estimated 70 percent of its population since that terrible day - thousands dead and missing immediately after the tsunami that wiped out more than twenty-nine thousand homes, and many more who have left the town since. As soon as we get close to the shore, however, the devastation becomes apparent. It does not seem as if more than a year has passed since the earthquake and tsunami. Mountains of debris still loom in places, and patchwork outlines of concrete foundations, some no more than a few inches high, trace all that remains of entire neighborhoods that were scoured away by the relentless surge of water that dwarfed the buildings it destroyed.

Outside one of the numerous community halls built in the temporary housing complex, the eerie silence that ordinarily hangs over the disaster area is broken by cheerful conversation among a group of Soto Zen Buddhist priests who are busy unloading tables and other supplies from a small truck. Seven Zen priests from Iwate Prefecture have just come from a study tour of temples in Fukushima to help their fellow Soto priest Rev. Taio Kaneta with his distinctive disaster relief project: the Café de Monk.* Every ten days or so, Reverend Kaneta - sometimes joined by Zen priests or clergy from other Buddhist denominations and at other times by Christian ministers, Shinto priests, or lay volunteers - serves tea and cake to residents of the temporary housing units as he engages them in fun Buddhist-themed activities and free-flowing conversation. The café's sign displays the word monku in katakana (Japanese phonetic script) to offer a playful double entendre - monku as "monk" and as a homophone for the Japanese word for "complaint" - implying that guests can take advantage of a chance to complain to a Buddhist cleric. However, the playfulness of the name and the entertaining events of the Café de Monk belie its serious intent: to offer disaster victims the crucial opportunity to open up to compassionate listeners in order to stave off real dangers that accompany their trauma, such as debilitating mental illness and suicide.

As the volunteers set up low tables on the tatami mats and begin lining up cakes, coffee, and tea, Kaneta plugs in a portable CD player and the sounds of jazz piano fill the space: Thelonious Monk, naturally. Kaneta is an amateur jazz guitarist, and he is also enthusiastic about classical music. "I was on my way to Sendai to take a cello lesson with a musician in the Sendai Philharmonic on March 11 of last year," he tells me, comically miming a passionate cello solo. "But I haven't played since the tsunami." Kaneta started the café after one of his former Zen students, a foreigner, gave him ten thousand Australian dollars to use for disaster relief. More money followed, but the donors imposed no conditions other than that he should use the funds to help victims in the disaster area. In the absence of clear directives, Kaneta responded in the best way he knew how: namely, by making the most of his own interests to help others. His love of music and a knack for communicating Buddhist ideas in accessible ways inspired him to start the café. The Café de Monk is now one of several activities supported by the Kokoro no Sodanshitsu, or "Consultation Room of the Heart," an initiative administered by Tohoku University that brings together academics; clergy from Buddhist, Christian, Shinto, and other religious organizations; medical professionals who specialize in grief care and hospice work; and a number of others within and outside the religious world. "I think I will keep the café going for one more year," Kaneta tells me. He smiles as he talks to me and to everyone else here, but the cumulative experiences of caring for the dead and bereaved immediately after the tsunami, followed by months of operating the café, have clearly taken their toll; he looks completely exhausted.

Soon the first guests begin to arrive, and the jazz is quickly drowned out by cries of "Welcome!" from the priests. As the refugees file in, the priests invite them to take tea and cake and to avail themselves of items that have been set out along one low table. These include tenohira jizo, or palm-of-the-hand figurines of the Bodhisattva K?itigarbha (Jpn., Jizo), revered for centuries in Japan as a protector of children. Amanda and Terrance, the two students I've brought from the University of Iowa, drink coffee with an elderly gentleman who grips a small clay jizo tightly. He tells us that he has accepted one of the figurines to serve as a memorial for his child, a son who died decades before the tsunami. It seems as if memorials for the 2011 calamity bring up lifetimes of accumulated grief. Earlier traumas are not replaced by this most recent calamity but are amplified in an atmosphere of constant mourning.

The priests also offer to inscribe ihai, or memorial tablets for deceased relatives that are enshrined at home altars. Along with family photos, these are among the most cherished possessions that survivors search for in the rubble of their lost homes. Bestowing kaimyo, or posthumous ordination names, on the deceased for the purpose of inscribing ihai is ordinarily an expensive serv­ice, but the priests here offer it for free, and they present it in a lighthearted way as an option that accompanies the refreshments, warm social interaction, and group activities they are otherwise providing.

I see no one receive an ihai today, and the atmosphere remains casual, but the event has a clear Buddhist thread running through all of its planned activities. Once the small hall fills, Reverend Kaneta invites everyone to take part in the first of these: making juzu, or Buddhist rosaries. Everyone gets the chance to make two types of bracelets - larger ones for men and smaller ones for women. Each of the different colors of beads we begin stringing onto plastic wire has a meaning, he tells us: one for good health, another for making money, a third for the benefit of family, and a fourth for a desire of our choosing. If the desire is realized, then we must pass the lucky juzu on to another person. The twenty women present immediately begin making juzu of both types, and the four elderly men who have come along follow them, hesitantly at first. I sit next to an older resident whom I will call Mrs. Okabe, eventually asking for her help with stringing together a single rosary as she and the women around me effortlessly produce one after another. Mrs. Okabe wears three larger juzu that she has made for her sons. "My wish is for each of them to get married," she says, laughing. She speaks with her friend, whom I will call Mrs. Ota, who smiles and commiserates with her about the difficulty of finding brides. These two women have clearly formed a close friendship through their shared life experiences, something they explain with remarkable openness to me and one of the Zen priests from Iwate who sits down with us. To my surprise, they speak frankly about the fact that they are both batsuichi, or "once divorced," a topic that is frequently taboo in Japan, particularly among women of their generation. They are both mothers of adult children, and they both lost their homes, most likely for good. The land where Mrs. Okabe's house once stood is soon to be paved over by a new highway.

It does not take long for their conversation to turn to their shared experience of the disaster. Tears streaming down her face, Mrs. Okabe tells us that she crawled from the wreckage and found shelter for the first five days with other refugees who had managed to salvage only half an onigiri (rice ball) - no more than a mouthful - between them. "We barely made it," she tells us, and then breaks down. Mrs. Ota cries with her. As these two women continue sharing memories of their survival and the loved ones they lost, they confirm something one of the priests tells me after the café wraps up: more than a year later, survivors here have not yet begun to recover. For them, the disaster is not a memory per se. It is a living reality that remains almost unchanged more than a year after the tsunami.

However, as I look around, it appears as if some survivors are seeking ways to move beyond this state. One of the elderly men has moved to a smaller room off the main hall, accompanied by three priests. I can't hear what he is saying, but I see his anguished face as the door slides quietly shut. The café begins as a casual gathering, but it obviously transforms into counseling sessions for those who are willing, or able, to open up to the compassionate listeners who have come to help them. I learn later that once the itinerant café packs up, the priests sometimes take leftover cake to the homes of some residents who are too overcome by posttraumatic stress to attend social gatherings or, in some cases, to leave their homes at all. Kaneta and his companions are sometimes successful in getting a chance to visit with these survivors, to chant a sutra for them or just to chat. "These are the people we're most worried about," one of the regular Soto Zen priest participants tells me. "The ones who don't come to the café."

Having set aside juzu making, Mrs. Ota produces one beautiful origami lotus after another, each with at least four intricate layers of petals, and the Zen priest seated beside her offers gentle compliments. Mrs. Okabe tells us that Mrs. Ota has been giving origami lessons to her and some other women in the housing complex. In exchange, Mrs. Okabe has been teaching women in the neighborhood how to sew zori, a type of traditional Japanese sandal, and another refugee who ran a beauty salon before the tsunami has been gathering small groups at her tiny housing unit to pass on affordable beauty tips. The women here have clearly worked hard to stitch together a new social network that transforms their shared status as refugees into productive forms of mutual support, ones that integrate with events like the café.

As we continue speaking, a possible reason for Mrs. Ota's particular attention to the lotus emerges. She is a Soka Gakkai member, and she speaks of chanting the daimoku mantra and sections of the Lotus Sutra as a means of persevering as a refugee. An entirely surreal scene unfolds as Mrs. Ota launches into a full-bore attempt to convert Mrs. Okabe while we are surrounded by our Buddhist priest hosts - priests who belong to sects that have engaged in decades of intense conflict with Soka Gakkai. Mrs. Okabe smiles and nods, evidently accustomed to this line of conversation from her friend. It almost appears as if the bonds she has forged with Mrs. Ota in these extreme circumstances, when so many social conventions have been upended, supersede conventional concerns about hard-sell conversion attempts. She listens patiently to her friend, but I do not get the sense that Mrs. Okabe will be converting to Soka Gakkai anytime soon. It is also apparent that Mrs. Ota has put aside concerns that, in ordinary circumstances, might have prevented her from attending an event run by priests her religion deems heterodox. She too does not appear all that concerned with whether or not her friend converts or by the fact that she is attending a Café de Monk. She seems mostly happy to be spending time with her close friend and meeting new and compassionate people. All manner of divisions, religious and social, seem petty in the face of the trauma that these survivors endure, and they seem willing, even eager, to look past these barriers to regain human connections that the tsunami washed away.

For his part, the priest seated at this table seems to understand this, and he continues to smile at Mrs. Ota during her testimony. During the drive back to Sendai, when I tell Reverend Taniyama about the surprising Soka Gakkai appearance at the Café de Monk, he bursts out laughing. He laughs again when he tells me that he performed brief hoyo services (Buddhist services for the dead) for four of the women, clasping his hands around theirs that were wrapped in their newly made juzu and chanting a sutra incantation to infuse them with the power to invoke the Buddha Amitabha. In his capacity as a Jodo Shinshu priest, he essentially made the Soto Zen rosaries into True Pure Land Buddhist implements. None of the other priests there noticed - and most likely would not have cared if they had. It is also likely that the women receiving the sutra incantation may not have known the difference. All of the guests left expressing their gratitude for the event, having spent an enjoyable afternoon that allowed them to suspend temporarily the difficulties of their lives as refugees.

Buddhism, in practice, need not be formal or dramatic, and perhaps Buddhist ideals are realized most clearly when they manifest in informal settings that encourage honest, extemporaneous expression. They are perhaps best realized when delineations between doctrines and institutions remain fuzzy, allowing human feeling to transcend sectarian concerns. The Café de Monk shows us that people's lives can perhaps be improved most effectively through simple gestures of friendship and compassion. The event speaks to the most heartfelt desire of disaster survivors, and indeed of all people who suffer loss and trauma: to return to everyday life. Perhaps ironically, low-key Buddhist events aimed at a return to the everyday may involve radical challenges to temple-based ritual norms and a willingness to ignore long-standing institutional conflicts. The Café de Monk is, like the temporary housing communities it serves, most likely an ephemeral project that may be remembered as an outstanding religious representative of the immediate aftermath of the 2011 disasters. However, it represents a useful model for activists who seek to look past rivalries in order to cultivate much-needed human connections - ones that survivors of future calamities will certainly cherish.

* The Café de Monk has two primary manifestations: itinerant gatherings like the one described here and a Japanese radio broadcast that can be accessed at its dedicated YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/Cobrapool?feature=watch. Some of these broadcasts have been transcribed and published in Chieko Itabashi's book Rajio kafe de monku (Kokoro no Sodanshitsu, 2012). Information on Reverend Kaneta's Café de Monk activities and related initiatives overseen by Tohoku University's Kokoro no Sodanshitsu can be found at http://www.sal.tohoku.ac.jp/kokoro/diary.cgi, and a more-detailed analysis of this activity and related ventures is available in Levi McLaughlin's, "What Have Religious Groups Done After 3.11? Part 2: From Religious Mobilization to 'Spiritual Care,'" Religion Compass 7 (2013), http://religion-compass.com/sections/east-asian-traditions/.

Levi McLaughlin is Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, North Carolina State University. He received his PhD from Princeton University after studying at the University of Tokyo, and he holds a BA and an MA in East Asian Studies from the University of Toronto. He has been a visiting research fellow at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore and the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Iowa.

This article was originally published in the July-September 2013 issue of Dharma World.

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