Shin Buddhist Responses to Suffering

By Rev. Patti Nakai

In the face of the suffering of others, whether in large groups of people or as individuals, how do we as Shin Buddhists respond?

Describing relief efforts in eastern Japan devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Otani University president Prof. Yasushi Kigoshi gave two poignant presentations related to his personal involvement. The discussion took place at a March 10, 2018 seminar for Dharma Seeds (lay leaders from the North America district temples) held at the Los Angeles Higashi Honganji Betsuin temple.

In the morning lecture he spoke of the ongoing weekend trips made by student volunteers that he helped organize, and in the afternoon lecture, he spoke of his interaction with a woman dealing with the loss of her son in the tsunami.

The weekend bus trips of Otani University students began within months of the tsunami disaster. Initially the urgent need was for volunteers to clear mud and debris from buildings and sewerage gutters, but later student volunteers were assigned duties such as preparing and serving meals to survivors and providing recreational activities such as choral singing, tai-chi, and mochi-pounding. Although relief efforts program were supported with help and donations from members of the university staff and faculty, Prof. Kigoshi said some teachers opposed the program and told students not to participate.

The criticism seemed to surprise lay attendees of the Dharma Seeds seminar, but not ministers who’ve studied in Japan. There are many Shin Buddhist doctrinaires who not only dismiss any kind of meditation as “self-power practice,” but who also see any attempt to help other people as driven by egocentric delusion. Such critics cite Tannisho chapter four where Shinran says our compassion is limited as the reason why trying to help others is wrong.

In response, Prof. Kigoshi wrote a book on volunteerism and Shin Buddhism. He found that student volunteers also cited Tannisho chapter four in describing their feelings. Relief work made them realize they cannot help others as much as they want to. Yet with this awareness of the small impact of their efforts, they continued to sign up for monthly trips.

To Prof. Kigoshi, it was evident the experience of working in the tsunami damaged area helped students more deeply understand Shinran’s teachings. By stepping out of their affluent environment and interacting with those going through deprivation and trauma, they could identify with the aristocrat Shinran, who lived and traveled in the countryside with people dealing with poverty and plagues, warfare and exploitation.

Prof. Kigoshi also cited Tannisho chapter thirteen: “Due to karmic conditions, I might take any action.” For those students whose karmic conditions put them in a position to help in the tsunami area, it was appropriate for them to volunteer, but he would not press any student to volunteer if they had no karmic conditions to move them so. Prof. Kigoshi quoted Manshi Kiyozawa saying that by entrusting in the unbounded flow of life (Amida Buddha, suchness), we don’t have to worry about how much good or bad our actions cause; we just go ahead and do things.

In his second lecture, Prof. Kigoshi spoke of a Mrs. Tanno, whose junior high-level son was killed in the tsunami, along with some of his classmates. She created a makeshift memorial from a plastic bottle holding flowers and two classroom desks, writing the names of all of the students on one desk and a message on the other. In her message was the wish to feel their lives as “here.” Mrs. Tanno expressed the fear of grieving people that if their loved ones are forgotten, those lives will no longer have meaning.

In describing his interaction with Mrs. Tanno, Prof. Kigoshi shows us the Shin Buddhist response to those in mourning – simply listen and don’t preach. He said some critics would say as a minister he should be indoctrinating the survivors in the tsunami damaged area with Shinran’s teachings to “help” them. But Prof. Kigoshi felt it wasn’t for him to give sermons to Mrs. Tanno – all she wanted him to do was listen to her story and share it with others. In his listening to her pain, he felt he was the one receiving Dharma – the truth of impermanence and interconnection.

In Mrs. Tanno’s story, he found a parallel to the famous philosopher Kitaro Nishida’s realization, that he was just an ordinary foolish being tossed by irrational emotions when his son died. Prof. Kigoshi said that deeply spiritual people, whether Buddhist or Christian, recognize the reality of human lives and see the oneness encompassing all beings regardless of the differences of their philosophical principles.

Prof. Kigoshi concluded his presentation by saying: “We have to remember Shinran shared his life with people in the midst of human feelings and he never stayed on the sidelines. I think that’s the way we Shinshū followers should live. I’m sometimes at a loss about how to live as a Shinshū follower. But through my experiences in the disaster-affected areas, I have discovered a way of living as a Shinshū follower in continuing to be side-by-side with people as ‘us,’ the same ordinary and unenlightened beings like myself.”

​​​Rev. Nakai is a minister at The Buddhist Temple of Chicago.

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