Japan Earthquake, Marcus’ account

Marcus, who posts here when time permits, was just caught in the earthquake in Japan. We lost contact with him for a day or so, but it turns out he’s fine, some modest hardships aside. He and Ikumi were together during the quake so they didn’t have to worry about not being able to contact each other, and Ikumi’s parents also came through things without suffering any damage. Here’s Marcus’ account of the earthquake.

(Joseph has already posted this at http://somewhereindhamma.wordpress.com/ but I’ll go ahead and repost it just in case someone’s missed it there.)

Calm though the whole earth trembles
I moved to Japan last week. I came here, after many years of living and working abroad, in Thailand and Korea mostly, to join my wife, Ikumi, to find a job, and to finally start putting something in the bank. I love Japan, the quiet, the cleanliness, the tiny temples tucked into odd corners between brand-new metal and glass skyscrapers. But the economy isn’t doing so well these days and my job hunt is turning out to be harder work than I imagined. Still, I have a few interviews lined up and on Friday morning left early to see a man about a job down in Kamiyacho.
The position turned out be not quite as I’d imagined, with a start date still months away, but promising all the same. My next stop was the Tokyo governments’s help and advice office for unemployed foriegners. They call it ‘Hello Work’, I call it The Job Centre, and Ikumi, taking a day off work to help me find it, came along too. It’s on a street near Shinjuku right next too Tokyo’s Korean town and just past some of Tokyo’s seedier streets. We walked warily around a group of half drunk gangsters going into a girlie bar, and looked into the Korean shops and thought about a second lunch.
The woman at Hello Work explained that the economy is not doing so well these days and that my job hunt might be tougher than I’d imagined it would be and I nodded politely as she took my details. We looked through the listings and after I’d rejected all the jobs that involve teaching two-year-olds (I kid you not) was left with McDonalds (must have fluent Japanese) or toilet cleaner (must be female and have fluent Japanese). But my Hello Work advisor did have a great list of places that offer free language lessons and I put a copy in my bag.
We all stood up and my advisor bowed to Ikumi. Ikumi bowed back. She began to bow to me. I began to bow back. The next thing I know is that me and Ikumi were crouched down under my Hello Work advisor’s desk, wondering how on earth I came to be on an ocean-liner on a particularly choppy stretch of open water. The room, and my stomach, gradually stopped moving and we thought about getting back on our feet. But not for long. During the next few lurches we scuttled over to a more roomier desk, Hello Work advisors really need more work space, and told each other that everything was going to be okay.
Watching the signs hanging from the ceiling was the only way now of knowing if the building was still moving around us as the internal balance mechanism in our inner ears or whereever it happens to be had simply given up on what it considered an unfair workload. We sat on the floor and waited and slowly, slowly, moved back out into the open office space of Hello Work. “If our life was a film or a book”, Ikumi managed to joke, “this would be a really crap ending”.
We walked out into the street and I noticed a temple on the other side of the road. I can’t pass a temple, in any country, without taking a quick look, and, thinking it was all over, we went across. It was a Soto Zen temple with a lovely statue of Kanzeon in the courtyard and we bowed in respect and wondered what to do next. The street was full now, with people in a state of real shock and we walked towards Shinjuku thinking we’d just get a train home. At least that was out plan until the street started moving under us.
The trees were shaking, signboards swaying, I noticed a crane on top of one the buildings swinging wildly from side to side. People were stood in total silence, many were sitting on the curb, the entire phone network was down and so not a single person was talking into their mobile. The oddest thing about the whole event was, for me, the silence. Yet at the same time no one was screaming or running or panicking in any way. The cars had stopped driving, and apart from the sound of distant sirens and the sight of trees flying about on a windless day, everything was somehow very still.
We decided to get as far away from buildings as we could and headed to the Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens. A picture of the crowds around the station made the front page of many newspapers the next day, but we skirted the edge and made for the safety of the trees. A few minutes later we were in a landscape of ornamental lakes and bridges, with not a person or office tower in sight. A group of elderly ladies in formal kimonos came out of a teahouse and asked what was going on. So absorbed had they been in their tea ceremony, they’d missed the entire thing. On the lawn outside a stone lantern had tumbled over, and had gouged a deep hole in the earth.
We left the park and hour or so later. It was getting dark, and bitterly cold, and we knew we had to find shelter somewhere. The entire transport network, buses and trains, was down and we didn’t want to sleep in a station. On my last visit to Japan I’d been deeply impressed by the interior of Tokyo’s St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral and I wondered if it might remain open for some of the many thousands of people like us with no way of getting out of the city. It took us about two hours to walk there and they did indeed open their doors to the city’s temporary refugees. All four of us.
We saw on the TV on my mobile phone (thankfully still working) that at nearby Ikebukero, one and a half thousand people were taking refuge in the underground passages of the train station. One hundred and fifty people were spending the night at the Jodoshinshu Tsukiji Hongwanji Temple. But at St Mary’s there were just the four of us. Me, Ikumi, and two students from a nearby university. The young priest and his team provided snacks and hot water and tatami mats to sleep on and turned the heating up and left it on all night for us.
In the end the floor was too cold to sleep on, but we managed a couple of hours and then passed a good night eating and reading. I read a couple of chapters of Ikumi’s novel out loud to her, she’s currently reading Joanna Trollope’s ‘Friday Nights’, and we went over some of the more tricky English. And I spent some time with Stephen Mitchell’s wonderful translations and adaptations of the psalms, a book I’m rarely without these days. And we watched more TV and waited for the morning to come.
We took a couple of trains to get to the outskirts of Tokyo, they weren’t running any further, that were so crowded the breath was literally squeezed out of us. When we got to our interchange though, as we shouted out “sumimasen, sumimasen”, somehow a passageway was found and other passangers pushed and pulled me and Ikumi through the dense crush of bodies to where we needed to go. I felt immense gratitude for the Japanese people here. At no stage had I seen anyone panic, or complain, or shout. The trains were heaving with tired bodies just like ours, but everyone was nothing but polite.
At the end of the line, we started walking. Around us were hundreds, thousands in fact, of people all doing the same, quietly and purposefully walking home. If a helicopter had flown overhead it would have seen all the main streets out of Tokyo, in the blinding early morning sunlight, full of tired commuters making their way on foot from station to station. At one point we found a train that was running and, from its window, looked out at a far off bridge made dark with its line of office workers on their way home.
We finally got back at about noon and had lunch, a hot shower and watched the awful devestation that the earthquake had brought. As we watched TV we felt small aftershocks run through the house. On the way home I’d joked about that being the last time I ever go to the job centre, but now it didn’t seem quite so funny. I checked my email and found my inbox full of messages of concern from friends and family, concern for me and Ikumi, for Ikumi’s family, and for all the people of Japan. Those good, calm, resilient people of Japan.
I’ve taken the title of this account from Psalm 46 of Stephen Mitchell’s adaptations.
The first verse of which runs:
God is our refuge and strength,
our safety in times of trouble.
We are calm though the whole earth trembles
and cliffs fall into the sea.
Our trust is in the Unnamable,
the God who makes all things right.

21 thoughts on “Japan Earthquake, Marcus’ account”

  1. It is good that they are ok.
    It is nice that people you know are ok, but there are other people too, and even if you don’t know them personally, there are many suffering and many dead.
    It would be nice to help them through practice, especially those who died, to help them to transition from this world, to help them with mind.
    People pray to God, but if there would be God there would be no suffering or disasters, etc. Prayers are useless, and throughout centuries it is obvious, it all moves according to karma and melting away that karma is the reason it changes for the better.
    Anyway, it is all one mind, it is all connected. Buddha does not pray to God, Buddha teaches to let go unconditionally to your own centre and foundation, that is your God, your essence and source. It is nice that Roman Catholic cathedral opens doors, but who knows why the earth shook, maybe people forgot about their foundation and look outward to an illusionary supreme being. And also people did not think properly when building nuclear plants on land above geological faults, they knew there will be earthquakes, why such arrogance .
    Recent earthquakes was in New Zealand and now Japan.
    Suffering is suffering, whether you knew the people personally or not it still hurts to see suffering

  2. Thank you Sunim, thank you Nat, and thank you Tanya.


    (But, Tanya, you don’t have to criticise other people’s beliefs and practices you know! Hold on to what is true for you, and you can then celebrate what is true for others.)

    1. there was no criticising on my behalf, because I think personal opinions and believes do not change reality, there must be one truth in universe, whatever it is, it is worth looking for it together, instead of insisting on some believes. All I know that I could feel certain things before the disaster happened, as I felt with other disasters, and if I could feel that, so far away, there must be one mind, so I just extrapolate that the teachings on one mind is true. Even if you can feel something like that is imminent, there is nothing you can do, besides I have my own problems, and I am not interested in arguments, only in finding solutions.

      1. If you have a strong feeling that something is imminent, then entrust that back inside with the thought that no one should be hurt and things should work out as harmoniously as possible.

  3. Brother, My Brother, Marcus,

    I am so happy you and Ikumi are well. I confess, I had forgotten you were in Japan already, so pardon my not asking after you until now!

    On a personal note, I am so happy you keep the dialog of philosophy and Religion so open, and I am sure you know why. Thank you for being a true student and open-hearted intellect in the face of what Dr. Einsten called, “The Mysterious”, and ofr mentioning TheDivine. BTW: Have ytou read Stephen Mitchell’s THe Gospel According to Jesus?

    Peace, Love, and Joy, Brother,


  4. Hi Marcus,

    I am happy to hear you and yours are safe and well. My prayers are with you and all who feel and know the pain and suffering of so many.

    Thank you for sharing your experience, you dealt with it all with a loving embrace it seems. Sense of humor is always good, no matter what…

    Many blessings to you and your family.

    With Heartfelt Love,

  5. Thank you so much Carl and Rachel, and deep bows to you both. Thank you.

    (And yes, “The Gospel according to Jesus” – isn’t it amazing?! Thank you for mentioning it Carl. For those that don’t know the book, I can’t urge you to get a copy strongly enough. Stephen Mitchell was a lon-time student of Sueng Sahn Sunim and brings all he learnt from that to a close look at the ooldest gospel passages. An amazing book!)

  6. Thank You and Metta to you all for your discussion here about our Buddhist response to the Japan disaster. So glad as well that your immediate friends and family were OK.

    I am troubled about my practice and am hoping some of you might offer me some helpful advice or guidance.

    I have Japanese family in Tokyo, Kyoto and Aomori and friends in Sendai. They have all now been found alive and OK. However, the first several hours we were very concerned that our family in Aomori were gone. They live near the harbor at sea level. When we called early, they answered “Hello…” and then the phone lines went dead. It was about 48 hrs. before we new everyone of our close family and friends had survived. No tsunami in Aomori. Our friend in Sendai was evacuated.

    I have practiced Vipassana, mostly off and on, for 42 years. But in the past 4 years I have been very committed. Daily practice, active leader in my sangha, several retreats and recently accepted as a student by a well respected teacher in another city.

    Here’s my dilemma: All my teachers, all the dharma talks, all the Sangha members are always talking about the importance of compassion for others and practicing metta.
    All the people in my sangha are always so appreciative about the many gifts of sushi my wife has made for their gatherings. But when this happened, for a full week after, only one person called or even asked when I walked past them on the street. I tried not to notice, to surrender, to accept. But the silence was deafening and painful. My wife understands and responds with the stoicism of the Japanese. I can only attempt to imitate it.

    In an effort not to go into victim hood I wrote a letter, describing the events and deep emotions for our family in those first few days of unknown. I added a very helpful letter I received from a Buddhist friend who was amongst the survivors at Sendai, describing all the enlightenment she and others were experiencing as they supported each other to recover and survive. I sent it t the one person who called. She sent it on to the entire Sangha. I then got about four very brief condolence emails. That felt a little better. But since then, nothing more… I myself lead a Tonglen meditation for the People of Japan the next week. There was good turnout. But since then, silence again.

    I sent a copy of our experiences with our family, the letter from Sendai and the materials I organized on “A Buddhist Response for the People of Japan” to my personal teacher. I suggested she might find it useful for any of her presentations or retreats. No response. Then last week she emails me that she wanted to reschedule our next 1:1 talk because she was too busy…again, no comment about our family or any of the events in or the Buddhist people of Japan. I checked her website, her sangha’s website, hoping to see that she had responded in some way with an offering of metta for Japan. No comment at all. I’m scheduled to attend another retreat this weekend with another prominent teacher. I checked his website. Nothing there either.

    I googled the internet looking for anything from Buddhists in response to one of the greatest disasters ever. Very little there either.

    I was so pleased to see your comments here, but I’m very troubled and honestly don’t know what the truth is about why our fellow buddhists, our world wide sangha is so silent at a time like this. Perhaps, what I’m hearing from myself, is that the lesson in this is to build my trust and faith only in my own daily practice. To not put other’s words or opinions, even teachers above my own mindful observations while following my breath, and through my own metta, even in the midst of such apparent mindlessness all around me. But so many teachers, even the Buddha, also urge us to take sanctuary in the Sangha.
    I honestly don’t know what to do with that now! I ‘m also unsure about how I should respond to my teacher when I do speak next with her. I know I need to surrender somehow and not add to the suffering. But it also seems unskillful and nonloving to simply repress this and never ask my sangha or my teacher to look more mindfully at what appears to be a pretty huge gap between their dharma talk and their actions in a time of real need amongst their fellow Buddhists in Japan. I have no idea what right speech or action, might be in the midst of this apparent silence.

    I’d very much appreciate, anything you’d care to offer here in the way of wisdom, understanding or guidance.

    In the meantime, my wife and I are going to Japan in a few weeks. We will roll up our shirt sleeves and pitch in what ever humble opportunity we can find there in our neighhood and I’m planning to go find the local monk, and ask him if he has something I or my sangha can help. “Gambarimasu!”


    1. Look to the unspoken, in the unseen, feel the love emanating from so many towards all of those in Japan, even if not in words or outward appearances/or actions…

      It seems to me that outward actions can be quite empty, but without any words a heartfelt thought can pack quite a wallop.

      With Heartfelt Love to All,

      1. My perspective comes from a Worldwide Sangha, as we have held many prayers here in our area for Japan, even if they are not heard in words or actions…

    2. Dear Ojichan,
      It’s good to hear you family and friends are okay, but you still must be a bit worried about them given the situation with the nuclear plants.

      I’m not sure if I can say anything that will help. I’m assuming that people would have known you had family in Japan? One thing that does come to mind is that in a certain sense westerners are a bit clueless (and I say this as a westerner who grew up in the US.) They aren’t always that great at picking up on what’s going on in the world right around them. This comes across as self-absorbed, and it might be true. But I think that at least some of it is a lack of exposure to people or cultures that do focus on what’s going on around them. I’ve seen the same with giving, that while westerners will feel greatful about something, they rarely just offer a donation on their own, or only a small amount. Yet if the idea is suggested to them, if they’re told they need to give something, then they usually come through. Hence my suspision (and far too reaching) statement that they’re a bit clueless.

      This leaves the larger problem of is the practice working, and what limitations might a particular practice have.
      If there’s some aspects your teacher doesn’t get, well that’s to be expected. A truely, deeply enlightened teacher is extrodinarly rare. That’s not a bad thing, because it teaches you not to abandon your own center. If you need to talk to her(him?) then you probably just need to state it outright. “No, I’d rather not move our time. I’m really stress about Japan, and would like to talk to you about it.”

      I’m reluctant to talk about specific forms of practice or Buddhism because 1) I’m not an expert in them all, and 2) a lot of same issues can be found in any of them. That said, as human beings one of the hardest steps is to truly realize our connection with other people. This idea that we are separate is so deeply rooted and pervasive thoughout our thoughts and behavior. It manifests in gross forms and very subtle forms.

      One thing I’ve learned is that I can’t make others behave well, and I can’t make them practice (I can barely make myself practice!) We all have this Buddha-nature or true nature or Buddha-essence, so for me spiritual practice is learning to rely upon this. Part of relying upon this bright nature is entrusting with the stuff that comes up in our lives, including the good and the crappy. Sometimes looking at things in a different way helps us get past the stuff that’s making it hard to let go. In your case, I would suggest that reminding yourself that “I also used to behave like that when I didn’t know any better.” This isn’t to look down upon others, but to remember that I too used to behave exactly like that; as a result it becomes difficult(?) to be hard on people for doing the same thing I used to do.

      As I think about what you’ve said, it occurs to me this might make a good guest post for this blog. Not to beat anyone up, but it could be good for getting people think about their own reactions and what they might like to do better in the future.

      thanks again,
      with palms together,
      Chong Go Sunim

  7. Chong Go Sunim

    I can’t say Thank You enough for your heart felt words, frank and sincere response. It brought immediate tears to my eyes, tears from finally feeling understood and heard, not like such “a stranger in a strange land”. You were willing to touch, own and share my discouragement, where I am/was and at the same time encourage me to rise to the occassion and respond with compassion back. So many of my American Buddhist friends, seem so afraid of anything that might appear conflictual or unenlightened that they either avoid entirely any discussion of anything negative or they offer some only quote from the dharma. This only comes across as some kind of higher than though placation, and hint that they hope I’ll change the subject as quickly as possible because any real emotion is making them too uncomfortable. Your response was real and palpable.

    I was thinking this morning, that manywesterners are kind of “clueless” about how “we”, my real “kazoku”=”family” interact in Japan. My family their, when I married my wife, asked me to come to their hometown, so they could provide for a proper wedding to honor me. Someone, they had never met. We arrived (my first time in Japan) and they all met us at the door, bowing (deeply and sincerely) when our cab pulled up. When we entered, and a few words of intro. were exchanged, we were both invited next to kneel and introduce ourselves to my wife’s father and her sister (whom had died several years past) at the family alter. There on the alter, were photos of these beloved ancestors. Also fresh flowers, and offerings of incense, fruit and rice. They all waited proudly and patiently, for me to bow to my new “Tosan” = “Father” and Sister and to offer my own words of introduction or prayer in respect of them.
    Later I saw them offer the same opportunity to the postman when he came with the mail. To bow and say a few words to Tosan.

    The next day we were taken to the local Shinto shrine ( about 1400 years old) where my wife was taken for naming and blessing immediately after her birth. I was dressed in her Grandfather’s wedding kimono. I was provided with some neighborhood friends to represent my side of the family at the ceremony. They paid for everything for the rest of our visit. When we were leaving, her “Okaasan” Mom bowed deeply to me and asking my wife to translate thanked me humbly for accepting responsibility to care for her daughter. She then apologized for a small envelope she wanted to give me, asked for my wife to make sure I would be comfortable accepting a “small” gift.
    This was not just formality. She was sincerely looking at my eyes as she rose from her bow. She clearly wanted to be sure her gift would burden or offend me in any manner.

    I was so honored,and had never before been treated with such respect, certainly never by my own family. I bowed quickly back and tucked the envelope in my jacket pocket without looking inside. I choked up and teared up. That only seemed to please them. They all smiled. That was clearly all they wanted back from me. Sincere, heartfelt, visible, loving compassion.

    Only later, on our honeymoon night, did I look in the envelope. I nearly fainted when I saw how large a gift it was…let’s just say, no one else has ever been so generous to me, and this after hardly knowing me at all. Truly selfless, unconditional, abundant giving. The understanding and the love was exchanged only by watching my actions, my tears, the look in my eye, how sincerely I bowed and prayed to their equally loved “Tosan”.

    I could share endless experiences of exchanges like that I’ve had on every visit I’ve made to Japan. Many with taxi cab drivers, or the person making me a paper cup full of coffee at a booth in the train station, or the girl in the white gloves who’s job it is to bow deeply and help you safely and respectfully onto the escalator. Or the others who served us so many times on the bullet train to Aomori, the same train that was swept from the tracks and out to sea with all it’s crew and passengers, and yet to be found.

    I must go for now, but I’d be very pleased if others would join us in the dharma talk. It would be so healing to hear from others’ mindful experiences with Buddhist Japan. Also any related suffering or questions amongst their own families or friends, here or there. Perhaps in this way, this tragedy can be turned into a gift of mutual growth, compassion and understanding amongst our larger world “kazoku”, our sangha family.

    Hontoni, Arrigato Gozaimasu.


    1. Hi Ojichan,
      Thank you for your kind words, I’m glad there was something there that was helpful to you.
      As I’m sure you saw, I went ahead and posted your first comment as a post. Not for any particular reason other than it might remind people to pay more attention to what’s going on around them.
      Likewise, what you have to say about family in Japan is quite touching, and I’d like to post something about this. What would you think about me posting your reply (minus the first paragraph), or would you like to write something more/different about this topic?
      One thing about life I’ve noticed is that it’s hard to be and behave like something you’ve never seen before. This style of concern for family is something that I think many westerners could learn something from.
      I have to run now, but I’ll try to get back to the computer in the next day or two.

      with palms together,
      Chong Go Sunim

  8. To Rachael,

    Thank You also Rachael for your to offers of guidance and support. Your assurance that there are worldwide sangha brothers and sisters out there now offering metta was helpful to receive. I have seen, when I’ve been most still, that all around us, just inches away there is a vast spaceousness, which operates always, perfectly, abundantly, miraculously, without any judgement, any fear, greed, concepts, beliefs, “no eyes. no ears no nose, no mouth…” It’s here right now between my nose and this screen. It surrounds and embraces , feeds and protects every one of us reading these comments equally, regardless of perfection or imperfection, “attainment or no attainment…” And that emptiness, that vast openness, feels helpful, an underlying, palpable and reliable truth. Thank you for calling me/us all back there, when it’s so tempting to run with the ego back into doubt, judgement, pity.


  9. “This style of concern for family is something that I think many westerners could learn something from.”

    Old people often die alone and abandoned in Japan, entirely neglected by their families. Elder abuse, and child abuse, is as much a problem in Japan, Korea, and all of Asia as it is in the west (where at least it is more openly discussed).

    I know what Ojichan is talking about when he describes his experiences, but, again, there is no clear-cut distinction between east and west here. My own western parents have infinite concern for me and I don’t believe they have anything they must learn about kindness and compassion for their children and parents from the east.

    The style may be different, but the substance is the same.


  10. Dear Marcus and Chong Go Sunim,

    Thank you both for your continued encouragement of this dialogue. So glad you said what you did, Marcus about how the same mistakes can and are made daily in both cultures. It is important for us all to keep working find only the truth here amidst this rubble. For me, there was such a profoundly visible and heart felt contrast between my parents in American and my new “kazoku” in Japan that it often takes my breath away.

    I’ve yet to live there full time, so I’m sure I’m seeing a somewhat romanticized illusion here that my own mind has craved since infancy. That I’m sure is a huge part of what attracted me to Buddhism at age 17 and miraculously, many years later, to my beloved Japanese wife, when I was 48.

    Eleven years later though, I must say that her family’s daily behaviors and attitudes toward one another (and I am very much included) continue to teach more than anything I’v seen before about true commitment, true respect and a kind of unconditional love that invariable puts others first.

    Please do keep clarifying as needed, and better yet, I hope others will, so we can all leap-frog our way here toward something as close as possible to the truth. Certainly not to blame or criticize any nation further, but only to identify and hopefully res-erect some kind of living model, here and now, in our current chaotic world, for true heartfelt, skillful, and concrete responsiveness toward all beings in need.

    Chong Go Sunim, I’m deeply honored that you’d care to share my words here in any manner or part there of. Please feel free to do so from here on.

    I would really love to hear and learn more from people’s personal experiences in mindful interactions with the people of Japan; or for that matter, anywhere else in the world.

    Metta to you all,


  11. PS from “Ojiichan to Marcus:

    Would love to hear more about your life in Japan and your relationship with Ikumi and her family. Please excuse me if Imy jump in here has taken away from anything you have already or were about to share. I’m just so grateful to you for helping to trigger this forum. I’ll send specific metta, for a wonderful job to come your way and many blessings to you both!!!

    Iro iro, Arigato Gozaimahita
    Ja Nei, Matta Nei

  12. Thank you Ojichan.

    And I think you might be right, a post about that might be called for. Thank you. Right now though I am just too busy to write. However, thank you so much for the metta, I know it is helping. Thank you so much and thank you for your wonderful contribution to this small blog.

    With palms together,


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