Tsunamis and Radiation: a matter of history and perspective

While turning off the computer and cooking some oatmeal a while ago, I was reading Prof. Bodiford’s history of medieval Sōtō Zen, and I stumbled upon a fitting passage.

In Tōtōmi Province in 1498, the countryside had been ravaged by war and bad weather, when the worst happened: on the twenty-fifth day of the eighth month a powerful earthquake hit Japan followed by a tsunami. This is very likely the same tsunami that hit the Kamakura Buddha statue in the neighboring provinces.

According to records presented by Bodiford, people were in a great state of despair “waiting to die, while the elderly called out the name of the Buddha” (pg 119). Among them was a monk of the Sōtō Zen sect named Shōdō Kōsei (松堂高盛 1431-1508) who lived among them and sought to calm them with these words:

This old man [himself] has spent more than thirty years in the rinka [monasteries], sitting in Zen meditation, quietly withering away my desires, without expectations for the morrow. When hunger comes, I eat. When the time comes, I sleep….The present does not persist. The past and future do not exist….Eternally, I dwell in Nirvāṇa. This is the called the mind that is not possessed by the three states [of time, past, present and future]. This mind-not-possessed (fukatokushin) is itself the diamond wisdom (kongō hannya). This mind withstands the blowing storm winds without moving, withstands eons of rising flames without burning, and withstands the tremors of earthquakes without cracking….This is why the scripture says: “The Tathāgata [Buddha], having left the burning house of the three states [of time], lives in quiet seclusion within the woods. Now within the three states [of time], everything belongs to [him]; All the beings therein are [his] children.” As this old man reflects on recent events, I keep recalling these two lines. (pg. 119)

These may seem like strange words for some, but I think it touches upon something important in Buddhism: life happens whether we want it to or not, but what matters is how we perceive and interpret it. A mind that is untrained, unable to see the bigger picture and wobbly will fret and get upset over the things they lost, what they will do tomorrow, etc. Even though they still live and breathe, people worry about so many other things.

But a mind that is settled, like a mountain, is unmoved by the things that are out of control anyway. Instead, they focus on the things they have control over, focus on the here and now, and do what they need to do. This does not make someone aloof or detached. It does not make them a robot. You can see the example of Shōdō who actively sought to placate and help the people in the village, or in modern day efforts by Buddhists in other countries to help Japan. The point is that one doesn’t get caught up in their own petty selfishness. This is what Chinese master, Yin-Shun, explained as the benefit of training the mind so that it is not scattered and unstable.

Training in Buddhism won’t make problems go away, it won’t lessen the severity either, but it does provide some very helpful perspectives, and helps one in any situation, severe or just annoying. Also, it’s very interesting to see a similar tragedy happen to Japan centuries ago, a time when things like Red Cross, bottled-water or Twitter didn’t exist, and how people coped with it then. Five hundreds years from now, if a similar tragedy happens, I wonder how people will judge our actions now.

Namu Yakushi Nyorai

P.S. I wrote this post almost two weeks ago, then deleted it because I just didn’t feel it was appropriate. But I rescued this from the trash, polished it up, and decided to post it afterall.

About Doug 陀愚

A Buddhist, Father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.
This entry was posted in Buddhism, Japan, Religion, Zen. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Tsunamis and Radiation: a matter of history and perspective

  1. Niki says:

    That was a good thing done. this post doesn’t deserve to be deleted. You have actually mentioned about living i9n the present and not to bother about the rest. Those words are very soothing to hear, but practically impossible. Any person in trouble will first think about his life. If everyone stops fearing the death or for tomorrow, then there won’t be any value for monks:). That is the last step to achieve in any spiritual activity. Stop fearing for tomorrow, literally means the death.

  2. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Niki and welcome to the JLR!

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