Japan, March 2011


Japan’s been on my mind.  Your’s too?   Words fail to convey the depth of our sorrow for and horror at the loss of life, home, livelihood, basic necessities, and connectedness for countless families.  Words fail at conveying our admiration for the heroism of the workers risking their lives struggling to bring six runaway nuclear reactors under control.  Words fail to express the depth of our cynicism about the nuclear power industry’s assurances of safety.  What more is there left to express?

As Zen practitioners, we have a natural affinity for Japan as an ancestral home of our practice.  I’m not the praying type, so I haven’t offered any prayers.  But I’ve done something practical: donated to the Japanese Red Cross Society.  Google has made it easy to do at this URL:


Please do more than metta and tong-len.  Let’s put compassion into action.

I’ve never been to Japan, but I found myself free-associating this morning on the word ”Japan” and all that it signifies in my imagination.  It’s not exactly a poem, but maybe it will remind you of whatever Japan signifies for you.  Feel free to add your own associations below in comments.

Japan — Land of…

Shinto, Shingon, Jodo Shinshu, and  Zen


Hakuin, Basho, Ryokan, and Dogen


Honen, Ryonan, Shinran, Nichiren


Sega, Sony, Nintendo, and Canon


Seiko, Toshiba, Yamaha, and Nikon


Bushido, samurai, ninja, and ronan


Honda, Toyota, Mazda, and Nissan


Kagemusha, Yojimbo, Ran, and Rashomon,


Gojira, Mothra, Gamera, and Rodan


Sushi, sashimi, miso, and daikon


Kurosawa, Miyazaki, Murakami, Mishima


Pillow book, floating world, samisen, and geisha


Nanking, Guadalcanal, Burma, and  Iwo Jima


Karate, Ju-Jitsu, Sumo, and Aikido


Hirohito, Tokyo Rose, Matsui, and Tojo


Rock gardens, cherry blossoms, chrysanthemums, origami


Kobe, Sendai, earthquake and Tsunami


Hiroshima, Nagasaki — now Fukushima Daiichi





20 Replies to “Japan, March 2011”

  1. Can’t resist . . . toshiro mifune, sessue hayakawa, haiku, waka, Hello Kitty, The Ring, Miyamoto Mushashi, Mr. Moto, and tofu (although it originated in China) . . .

    Like you I have never been to Japan but it has been just as heart-wrenching to watch the scenes from there as it was to watch Katrina strike New Orleans where I did live for a number of years.

    Words fail to convey our feelings and yet we feel compelled to try to put them in words . . .

  2. David — they all ring the familiarity bell. Mr. Moto (who began with John P. Marquand before being incarnated by Peter Lorre) was a favorite of my youth. And how could I leave out Hello Kitty! My granddaughters would be appalled!

    As I write this, conditions at Fukushima Daiichi continue to deteriorate at an alarming rate.

    I’ve also heard that Americans are donating far less money to Japan than they did after the Haiti earthquake. Part of this is due to the perception that Haiti, a destitute country before their earthquake, was in greater need than Japan. While this perception is true to a certain extent, I hope it doesn’t continue to constitute a barrier to traditional American generosity. Buddhists should remember that dana, or generosity, is the first Parami (Pali)/Paramita (Sanskrit). There should be no barriers to our generosity and compassion. Opening hearts and hands for the benefit of beings is our prime directive.

  3. Couldn’t agree with you more about dana, Seth.

    Mr. Moto (the books) was one of my favorites, too. In fact, I still have a few of the paperbacks I got way back when. Could never stand the Peter Lorre movies, although they gave you got a lot more of Mr. Moto.

  4. A friend of mine who teaches at a zendo in Tokyo communicated to me yesterday that he’s leaving the city with his family and is urging others to do likewise. A nuclear physicist he knows has told him that the danger is much greater than the authorities acknowledge, especially for children, and that Tokyo is at risk. I heard the same concern from a friend, a local scientist who has been monitoring the situation. This is another part of the tragedy. Japanese authorities have not been fully forthcoming. In a most unusual action, American government scientists have called out the Japanese. It turns out that one of the reactors harbors not only uranium, but plutonium, and that no one knows how this element will behave in a meltdown. Now American officials are evacuating Japan. And still we hear the same assurances about the same type of nuclear reactors on U.S. soil and the Obama administration pledges to go forward with its commitment to building nuclear power plants. They have or will have additional safety features, we are told. Can we believe them? Even if true, will they be enough in light of the next, unexpected cataclysm? Didn’t the Japanese believe two weeks ago that their reactors could withstand any reasonably probable natural catastrophe? It is most frightening that (1) almost a week has passed without an effective remedy; (2) there is no solution in sight; and (3) at bottom, no one knows how this situation will play out.

  5. Thanks, Amaury. Does TEPCO’s handling of Fukushima Daiichi remind anyone of BP’s handling of Deepwater Horizon? Corporations that build and manage nuclear plants cut corners, prevaricate, and fudge tests just like other corporations when profits are at stake. What a surprise! Yet we act as if we can trust them or that federal regulators will keep them honest (just like the SEC keeps Wall Street honest :-)). There’s no way to keep human beings honest when large amounts of money are involved, yet operating a nuclear plant without mishap requires everyone involved to be honorable all of the time. Since people can’t be trusted, nuclear power can’t be trusted. I wish it could. I grew up on Disney’s “Our Friend the Atom,” and it would provide an easy way out of global warming. They say nothing’s foolproof because fools are so inventive — but greed is just as big a problem here. Hmmm… greed and ignorance… does Buddhism have anything to say about this? BTW, I live close to Indian Point, the nuclear plant that lies on a seismically active fault line and supplies NYC with 30% of its electricity. Most of the time I manage to forget that. Not this week.

  6. Likewise, we live about 20 miles from the Turkey Point nuclear plant, which was once declared by the NRC as one of the nation’s ten worst nuclear plants. Yet we heard a few days ago from a company spokesman that “Florida nuclear power plants are built to withstand all potential environmental hazards, including earthquakes, tsunamis, and the most powerful hurricanes.” The protection against tsunamis consists principally in elevating the reactor 20 ft. above sea level. During Hurrican Andrew, there was a storm surge of 18 ft. in that area, not much room for comfort. And geologists know that there is a significant danger of a much larger tsunami hitting the east coast of the U.S. when there is the inevitable breakoff of the Cumbre Vieja volcano in the Canary Islands. What will happen then to Turkey Point and all other plants located near the coast? We don’t even have a tsumani warning system for the Atlantic.

  7. Hi Seth!
    I have just found your blog here and I really like it. I like also buddhism but without all the dogma. I like to be open and having an “I don’t know approach” until I find out myself. I am involved with Tibetan buddhism and they have a lot of metaphysical views and for me it can be a burden. A lot of people can feel provoked about my agnostic approach and it can feel like I am not allowed to think for myself.
    Anyway I like also simple approach to buddhism and just have a few techniques to worry about and I liked your 5 points. I have started to disengage more and more from Tibetan buddhism because for me it is just too much of everything, I get stressed out. So now I looking on different traditions like Zen and Theravada. I don´t know so much about them and if it is “allowed” to practice buddhism without the religion. So I am a little curious about how you found your way in buddhism with your approach…

    The things in buddhism that I don´t believe in automatically is longterm karma, enlightenment, rebirth. I don´t say that buddhism is wrong, I just say that I don´t know yet.

    I would really like to hear your story. You can e-mail me or just answer here.

    1. Carina,

      Welcome to the club for people who don’t belong to a club. Keeping “don’t know” mind sounds just about right. Your practice is your practice. If you are diligent at it and sincere you will soon discover whether it is working for you or not. Having teachers to point you in the right direction is important, but so is maintaining your own judgment and trusting yourself. I am currently practicing with a Zen group in Kennedy Roshi’s lineage that calls itself “non-denominational.” Sometimes I think I’m the most traditionally Buddhist member of the group.

      I don’t know what part of the country you live in. I’m from the Northeast. In the past I’ve found the Insight Meditation Society, the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, and Toni Packer’s Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry very sincere places for serious practice that are both open and non-dogmatic. They’ve allowed me to develop my own practice without making me feel I have to follow a “party line.” Within the Tibetan community teachers like Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, and Mingyur Rinpoche have also been promoting a more open way of practicing. They say there are 84,000 dharma doors — a door for everyone. If you keep looking you’ll find the one that feels right for you.

      You might enjoy reading books by teachers like Charlotte Joko Beck, Toni Packer, or Stephen Batchelor to get a feel for what a less religous, non-dogmatic Buddhism might look like.

      1. Thank you for your answer Seth!
        I just feel more free and at ease without the burden of dogmas. I don’t know if the dogmas are dogmas or if they are the truth, but I will just keep on being open.

        Nice that you have found a group that is not so traditional. It is okej for me if it is traditional but I am not so found of when people say what you have to believe to be a buddhist. I don’t need to call me a buddhist, I am just a person who is looking for the truth and the end of suffering.

        I live in Sweden so I am far from the groups your mentioned. I have met Tsoknyi Rinpoche in retreat and I liked him. But I just feel that tibetan buddhism is so vast and complicated. It stresses me out with all that information. I like it simple but deep.

        Thank you for your book suggestions! I will look them up.

  8. Carina, you may want to check this center in Stockholm: http://www.goteborgzencenter.se. At least one of its spiritual directors belongs to my teachers’ Zen lineage, which is traditional but non-dogmatic. It’s a blend of Soto and Rinzai. I have not met Sensei Kanja Odland, but if she’s anything like Roshi Philip Kapleau or his dharma heirs, she should be excellent.

    1. Thank you for the advice! I will look that up. Are Theravadan buddhists very dogmatic? I heard something that Mahayana have a more metafysical approach and theravadan has more a psykological approach.

  9. Carina: the Buddha’s original teachings are non-dogmatic. For example, “be a lamp unto yourself,” he said. And only a provisional faith is required to practice and uncover the inner truth by your own efforts. I don’t know which teachers or sects are more dogmatic; they shouldn’t be dogmatic at all. I wouldn’t worry too much about it. What is important is that you–as the turtle in the fable that comes up for air in a vast ocean once every few kalpas and just happens once to have put its head through a life saver floating in the ocean–have encountered Buddhism. Just practice. If what you mean by dogma are ceremonies, rituals and other outward trappings, I would note that they have a place too. I had a hard time with these at the beginning myself, but came to appreciate them. If you don’t feel comfortable in a particular context, find another one. But give these outward forms a chance for you to grow into and see if they help. It doesn’t happen overnight, however. What is perhaps essential is to find a teacher that you trust and feel a karmic affinity with. You will know it when it happens.

    1. When I think about dogmatic, I don´t think about rituals or ceremonies. I think about believing in long-term karma, rebirths, bardos, gods etc. When I study tibetan buddhism they talk a lot about this. I have more an open approach to this. I think noone can be sure about life after death regarding if there is rebirth and bardos. Tibetan buddhism seems very sure how everything is.

      1. I like to travel dogma-lite too. Unfortunately, no form of Buddhism is 100% dogma-free, but some carry their baggage more lightly than others. Looking at the list of Buddhist Centers in Stockholm on Buddhanet, I see there are a variety that might meet your needs, including Vipassana centers, Zen centers (including two in Amaury’s lineage), and several connected with Thich Nhat Hanh. Many treasures to choose from. Good luck! Let us know where your search leads.

  10. Carina:

    Zen is not like that. Zen may be described as the nugget at the heart of religion –any religion– stripped of everything that is superfluous, including beliefs. In the words of Bodhidharma:

    No dependence on words and letters;
    Direct pointing to the mind of man;
    Seeing into one’s nature and attaining Buddhahood.

    The key to it is practice, practice, and practice. This means mostly zazen, because Zen is the Buddhist sect that emphasizes the fifth paramita, “Dhyana” in Sanskrit. The word “Zen” is the Japanese corruption of the Chinese word “Chan”, which in turn is the Chinese pronunciation of “Dhyana,” which means “meditation.”

    So it’s an action, not a belief. Something to just do.

    1. Amaury: True. And yet in Zen we chant the Purification Gatha that refers to “all evil karma created by me of old” and the Enmai Jukku Kannon Gyo evoking the Bodhisattva of Compassion. In Zen no one asks you to believe in anything, yet the form includes karma and celestial beings. I don’t mind that. Hell, I even enjoy it! I endow these chants with my own personal significance, which is easy to do — or else I chant just to chant — but the shadow of dogma still lingers.

  11. Seth: Perhaps significantly, the translation of the purification gatha in our lineage does not mention karma. Only “all evil deeds committed by me since time immemorial.” I recognize this could be a difference without a distinction and we are close to splitting hairs. And I don’t deny that, besides the element of faith that must exist in any religion to be considered as such, there are some implicit or explicit beliefs in Zen, but this does not necessarily mean dogma. A dogma is, for example, “the pope is infallible.” Even in the context of Tibetan Buddhism, we don’t see this. The Dalai Lama has explicitly declared that if a conflict arises between his beliefs and newly established scientific principles, he would discard the beliefs. And to cite another sutra(Hsin Hsin Ming or Affirming Faith in Mind):

    If you would clearly see the truth,
    discard opinions pro and con.

    [ . . .]

    The more you talk and think [about alternative propositions]
    the further from the truth you’ll be.

    Keep up the good work.

    1. For the record, I do believe in some sort of afterlife, but I know that it is a believe.

      But I don’t believe in a specific detailed bardo like tibetan buddhism explain. I don’t say they are wrong, I just say that I don’t believe anyone can know if rebirth exist and the details around it. I am also very sceptic of long-term karma even if I believe in rebirth. So I think a belief has to be personal or make sense to ourselves, and tibetan buddhism’s way of bardos doesn’t make sense to me.

      I will look up Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition and the other Zen group. I like Thich Nhat Hanh and his style because he is very open to other religions. I like open non-dogmatic people so maybe his tradition will be interesting to me.

  12. Personally I don’t consider concepts such as karma and rebirth to be dogmas or even beliefs. I see them as points of view, from which we can learn from regardless or any beliefs. Zen can be dogmatic at times, although not quite as much as I have found Theravada to be. Even a statement like “Zen is the Buddhist sect that emphasizes the fifth paramita, ‘Dhyana'” seems somewhat dogmatic to me, and elitist, as if Zen were the only sect that emphasizes meditation. I know it was not intended that way, but that just show you how easily we can slip into dogmatic modes.

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