Bringing compassion into action – some Buddhists’ response to Japan

Here’s a guest post from Ojichan about his experience (and lack of) with people’s reactions to the disasters in Japan. I’m posting it here not to embarrass anyone or beat anyone up, but just to encourage us all to be a bit more aware of what’s going on in our surroundings.  I’ll post a link below to the original comment and my response, but for now I’d like to let people think about this for themselves.
     And congratulations to Nat, who raised nearly 8,000 bhat for Japan through her yoga classes!

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 knew 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 neighborhood and I’m planning to go find the local monk, and ask him if he has something I or my sangha can help. “Gambarimasu!”


Link:  the original comment and responses

10 thoughts on “Bringing compassion into action – some Buddhists’ response to Japan”

  1. Hi Ojichan,

    First off, I’m glad to hear your family is safe. Reading your story was painful – I can see how the response of your sangha, and also what you saw online, would cause such distress.

    My Zen center here in Minnesota – in the US – has held special services for Japan in recent weeks. We also collected some money to send at least one Sunday I know. Every dharma talk I have heard in the last three or four weeks has included a connection to the disaster in some way as well. And I have written a few posts on my own blog, and I know several other Buddhist bloggers who also wrote about what happened. In addition, Shambala Sun has multiple posts on their blog, as does Tricycle magazine.

    Point being, I do think the wider Buddhist sangha is paying attention.

    But I do find your sangha’s response troubling. Especially the teacher, who is in a position to lead a different kind of response.

    It might be worth considering what you initially expected from your sangha, what parts of that expectation were reasonable and what parts weren’t, and then move from there in terms of how to address the situation.

    Take care.

  2. That kind of responce is NORMAL with people, don’t expect much and don’t think that you can rely much on others. Don’t rely much on your teacher either, chances are the teacher is nothing special and thus cannot provide you with compassion. But what you could take from all of this, is to RELY on YOUR own ROOT, that is the only one thing you can be sure of. Also, think about how much did you help in the past, did you help much, with money and compassion with Haiti, or Tibetan earthquake and do you even care that Tibet is being destroyed, or that whales are killed in Japanese waters, do you really felt for others strongly, things happen all over the world all the time, or you just noticed when YOU were close to disaster? Maybe you do care, or maybe not as much. There is a saying in Russian that says about that you learn who your true friends are when the times are bad. At least now you know that those smiling people who were happy to eat your sushi are not really friends. I go to one temple for like 10 years and I don’t have real friends, nor they care much and many children in that temple are mean and say evil things to my child, but a few kids are nice, but I don’t come to temple for people. nor do I care for socializing, the only reason I come there is for teachings and those teachings taught me to rely on myself, my own inner root, so all those people who are not nice or don’t care actually helping you to go in the right direction towards your inner self. It is like life beating you in a head, so you turn inward.

    When you were googling for some responce, what did you expect to find, that Buddhists in some way superior or something? And why think only about your family and their story? Didn’t others suffered too? Many people died and many suffered loosing family members, and now ocean is polluted with radiation, which is totally peoples’s fault, because building nuclear plant on an island with earthquakes is totally stupid and irresponsible. Do you know when the sad anniversary of Chernobyl? April 26th. Send your metta for the whole world.
    By the way, Dalai Lama did respond with the statement and special service.

    Although I’ve recieved alot of help in my life, I learned to never rely on others, the only one you can rely on is your own centre, find it and rely upon it, it’s diamond strength will never betray you.
    And as of teachers, there are many, they can teach you only elementary level, if you want to go further and evolve as you should, find a better teacher, do your research, and above all rely on your own inner teacher. If you look for other for help and acknowledgment you would never stand on your own two feet, and when you would die from this world, you could be lost, so rely on your own centre and foundation, which is your source.
    And also people all over the world donated money and countries sent crews to help.
    I met my teacher in person only once, but compassion I was given is still present with me, true teacher never abandons you and true teacher teaches from experience.

    This is my opinion and I do not wish to argue with anybody, a person asked for advice and so I gave it, from the bottom of my heart, so please don’t respond with nasty arguments, life is too short.

  3. T

    There’s a fierceness in your manner which I imagine does generate a bit of reactivity from others, but mostly, I find it refreshing, more open and vulnerable than others around me who are busy trying hard to sound enlightened.

    You’re correct, I did mindfully and expressly ask for advise, so thanks very much for your courage in steping up to the plate and offering it so frankly.

    It was especially helpful to receive your challenge to look back at my own actions, responsiveness and willingness to reach out in active involvement when other’s were caught in trauma or disasters not so close to my own life.

    It’s true that I too in many of those times, was hesitant to call or reach out personally. Honestly I can see now, when I look inward, that mostly I hesitated because I feared I’d say or do the wrong thing, or wouldn’t know where/how to set my own healthy limits if they did say, “Absolutely you can help right now!” and then handed me way more than I felt ready to handle. Still deeper, under that, just fears of unadulterated inadequacy and powerlessness!

    Being honest about this now, does help melt away the “innocent victim” vs” those other cruel uncaring people” polarity that my ego was trying earlier to build a case for.

    Once again, I hope both our sharing here will help others to look more deeply, more honestly in return, into what it takes to really be a living example of metta, not just in one’s internal process, or sitting practice, but also in real concrete outward action for others and our planet. My heart I know yearns for something more, than just repeating practiced quotes, chants or safe dharmic discussions, while we remain safely on our chairs or futons.

    In Japan, there’s a phrase that’s used a lot in times like these. It’s, “Shikatta ga nai”

    Most modern Japanese have been taught to translate it as “Oh, it can’t be helped.” They too often think it means, “Oh it’s OK. There’s nothing we can do about it!”, and then use that as their excuse, as do we, to do nothing.”

    Somewhere, I read however, that the phrase is a very ancient one with much more profound meaning.

    What the unknown author said, was that in old Japan, there was a “kata”, a formal technique, or mediative practice for perfecting almost everything: “Chopping wood, slicing with a sword, making a pot, cooking noodles, bowing to a guest, learning a martial art, painting calligraphy, almost everything.

    Just as in sitting Zazen, after the person had practiced daily for say 20 years, then the true master was free to act spontaneously, free of any fore thought, “no mind” and only then would true mastery be a reliable result. These daily practices for skillful action in every daily act were called “shikata”.

    So apparently what “Shikata ga nai” was originally intended to say in response to some unexpected, unforeseeable situation, was, “Oh, whatever spontaneous action you took or yet take is honorable, because this event goes beyond any predictable form! Therefore just act, now, no mind!”

    Now I’m no scholar, so take my understanding here with a grain of perhaps more current personal myth, than researched fact. If their are any Japanese scholars out their who care to correct or clarify further, please humble us further, and step right up, “Shikata ga nai!”

    But for now, I think the idea is still useful, especially as a thankyou, again to you to my now world-wide sangha brother,”T san”, for your bold and spontaneous response to my eartlier cry for help. It has further stretched, healed and warmed my (and I suspect a few others’) broken (now open) heart(s).

    Mada mada desu kedo,


  4. Arigato Nathan,

    Don’t know how I managed to miss your kind words of support as well. But just spotted them.

    Thank your zen sangha for me. I checked Shambala and Tricycle just now and was cheered by the abundance of response there. Looking at the dates of the posts. I can see now, that it’s just taken people a lot longer to sort through their feelings. Because of my family there and our Japanese satellite TV, which I and my wife watch more than US TV, of course that one of my now two nations would be in the forefront of my mind and is also what has so increased and influenced my practice in the past 11 years. And of course, especially for nonzen practioners, Japan wouldn’t be so “familiar” (like the family) nor immediately important to them.

    That’s so obvious to me now. A bit humbled as to why I couldn’t see it, even a few days ago, before you all offered your kind feedback and acceptance. I suspect now it was mostly just the fog of such threatening trauma and the emotional aftermath of very personally anticipated grief.

    I had a wonderful meditation this morning, felt so uplifted from that fog and this afternoon went to help with the preparations for a vipassana retreat with my sangha this weekend.

    I’m now encouraged and looking forward to all that quiet sitting.

    Namaste to you and your Zendo

  5. Hello everyone,

    Thank you for this post and for the discussion. Thank you Sunim, Ojichan, Nathan, and Tanya.

    Tanya, you know we often disagree but I can honestly support everything you have said in your comment. You speak with feeling from real experience and understanding. Thank you.

    Ojichan, Nathan is right, there has been a good response from many places. Tanya is right too, the best response is the one that comes from you. And this can take many forms and does not mean excluding Sangha.

    There’s one person here who I have not mentioned yet and who shows us exactly what a kind and meaningful response can look like. Nat doesn’t get involved in online debates, she doesn’t expect anything from anyone, she just quietly and purposefully organises a fundraising event and raises money for the Japanese Red Cross. A true Bodhisatva.

    And Bodhisattvas like here can be found in temples and churches all over Japan and the world, they are much less often found in Internet debates!

    Wishing everyone well,


    PS – life here in Tokyo is pretty much normal except that people are very much shaken up with anxiety – the aftershocks don’t help – and from here even it is difficult to appreciate the scale of events in the areas hit.

  6. Ojichan,

    I am surprised by the response of your sangha but I understand that addressing and connecting with disaster is often a difficult thing to do.

    Our small sangha dedicated all of our sessions to the people of the Japan and those peripherally and directly affected by the disaster (for whatever that is worth from a bunch of land-locked South Dakotans). I can echo Nathan’s comment in that I saw many bloggers and online individuals spreading hope and concern, information and support to everyone (even those that tend to squabble and debate).

    I am unsure if any advise from me would be worth anything concerning your teacher except to say that it is a topic that would be worth bringing up in a 1:1 meeting and may not be as dire as you think. For someone connected to suffering that suffering sometimes requires silence and introspection before it can be expressed properly.


  7. John and Marcus,

    Your continued support and responsiveness, both here and more importantly, in metta or action for the people of Japan is mostly what I needed to see somewhere and palpably. Arrigato. Nathan, not sure if Nat is perhaps your partner and perhaps Japanese. The way you describe her reminds me of my wife and actually her mother, our “Okaasan” in Aomori as well. My wife just remains largely silent, and loving and understanding as always. She continues to pour love into every roll of sushi as she has done, and has acheived some degree of worship for in our town in America despite her avoidance of any focus or attention. You could say she’s a sushi bodhisatva!

    I am getting quieter now.



  8. LOL!

    No, Nat was my Japanese yoga teacher when I lived in Bangkok! My wife is called Ikumi!

    Next time you’re in Tokyo, let’s meet up!

    All the best and with palms together,


  9. Marcus, and others,

    I finally got to my next scheduled 1:1 with my teacher and we had a very serious talk where I basically challenged her somewhat fiercely on her commitment to our teacher/student relationship, and she challenged me to be honest with with myself how I insert in others minds, that because they make no comment or show no outward signs, that means they don’t care or are not concerned or praying for Japan, and in turn, those thoughts I inserted, cause my suffering. I saw she was right in that. Now I can hope, choose to invest once again, in the belief that she is equally able and willing to learn and grow from what I asked her to reevaluate about how her own choices may effect others.

    This working through between us actually took two sessions and the morning before her second call, I was sitting in Jhana practice. In this concentration technique there is a “light” that can appear when the focus gets strong. I’ve been having trouble doing it at all, because of all my invading grief and thoughts about Japan. This morning, I knew however that I must find some way to surrender these obsessions and suffering regardless of what I decided later about my teacher. It was just too painful to stay angry any longer and I had no idea what to do with this in the midst of attempting Jhana practice.

    Just then though the “light” I mentioned did happen to arise ever so faintly in my mind’s eye. And next, the insight arose, “just throw it all, like chord wood, into the light…don’t try to figure it out any longer. It’s just dukka. Throw it in and see what happens!”

    So out of sheer desperation and exhaustion and just having absolutely no idea what else to do, I did just that. And when I did, the glow of that light, immediately flared up, becoming very intense, very real, very clear. I could feel the heat of it on my face and I was breaking into a sweat, breathing faster, almost panting.

    I next had the thought/vision of the huge fires I’d seen built by the Shingon monks at the top of Hagurosan in ritual celebration, and the floating candle lanterns of Bon,
    and a wave tears came to my eyes. A quaking sigh of relief and surrender to my chest.

    So I decided to invite in my mind, as a metta practice all the dead from this disaster to sit with me, right then and there, round that blaze to throw in all their burdens as well, and to warm themselves, be comforted, relieved and healed, and no longer alone nor ignored. Next, it seemed only obvious now that I should invite all my teachers, and all of you, who’ve offered you help and concern as well, and finally, all the others suffering in the world, either because of tragedies inflicted upon them, but also all those who were blind to the suffering they were causing.

    In this light it was readily apparent that anything, anyone, so-called “good” or “bad” could be invited just as well to throw their dukka in. And the flame, and the warmth, and the clarity, and the healing of that light only got brighter…and I also saw that everyone one of us there care a little or a huge spark of that light within us. We all have the choice, at every turn of events to either contribute to the dukka, or the light…

    Right about then my phone rang and my teacher was on the other end. Needless to say, our conversation went just a bit differently than the one of the day before. She was very helpful in contributing to my confidence in what I’d just received and how I might work further with it via both Jhana and vipassana practice. I especially noted that she kept repeating something to the effect that, “everything, all the time, in or out of practice, can be used to take us either toward dukka or compassion and enlightenment”.

    Once again, it’s always so amazing and encouraging how when we just surrender and commit everything to the light of our practice how all the teachings of the dharma, of the truth, become so suddenly obvious. And oh, what a relief!

    We decided we will continue our work together upon my return from Japan. Yes! My wife and I decided, we simply had to go, to take some kind of decisive action, to go and try to at least help our own family, our “furusato”=hometown, and neighborhood, in some small way.

    I will repair the shoji and realign the doors and windows of our Okaasan’s home. The house has been leaning more every year and now with all these quakes most of them won’t close properly without repair. It’s a great adventure for me to walk to the local hardware store and try to figure out which tool, glue or paper to buy when I can’t read a single label or sign.

    Because I’m taller, I can make myself very useful cleaning the upper walls, shelves and ceilings that others can’t reach.

    I will try this time to introduce myself to the local Buddhist monk (my wife tells me he’s very old and drinks a lot) and offer my help in any small way he will allow.

    If nothing else, I can sit, I can chant, I can sweep the tatami or rake the stone pathways…I’m sure some fateful and memorable opportunity will present itself.

    I’ve never been there in the Spring before, so I’m hoping maybe the family will agree to allow me to treat them to a bus ride and day or overnight visit to nearby Hirosaki Castle and their cherry blossom festival which should be in full bloom.

    Thank you Marcus for the offer of our meeting. I’d love to introduce you to my wife, Tomoko and meet your Ikumi. That would certainly be another amazing and joyful opportunity to arise from the midst of this crisis.

    We will arrive in Tokyo on April 29th. Will spend the first night in Asakusa at a small “Kabuki-style” ryokan called, “Sukeroku no Yado Sadachiyo”and the next night, April 30th., visiting and helping my wife’s nephews in Chuorinkan (1 hr. from Shibuya, in Kanagawa prefecture) , Then we fly to Aomori on May 1st., as the bullet train we normally take was swept away by the tsunami.

    I suspect we’ll be pretty rushed, and it may be difficult to squeeze in.But, if you happen to live very near these areas and the dates work well for you, perhaps we could try. Or perhaps we could at least, if you’d like, talk on the phone while we’re in Aomori. We only have 12 days total. We return on May 10th, out of Tokyo again, but then we’re just jumping from one airport to the next, with no stay in between.

    If none of this works out, I also have Skype. If you do too or care to download it we can video chat all we want for free. I won’t have my laptop with me in Japan. But we could talk before or after our trip that way. I’d definitely like that!

    Kiotsukete to Gambate (Be careful and Hang in there!)

  10. LOL! It sounds like you won’t have much free time in Tokyo Ojichan, – plus, I’m working on the Friday and Saturday. Perhaps another time, another trip, when we both have more leisure! Hope it all goes well mate,


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