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Dai-En Bennage Roshi

Here’s an update on Dai-En Bennage Roshi, who has been volunteering in Northern Japan:

Dear Sangha,

I just spoke with NiOsho (Dai-En Bennage Roshi) over the phone.  Here is the update:

After departing from Koen Hunter and Nanshin White in Kyoto, NiOsho went to visit Fukan-san in Miyagi prefecture. Fukan lives just on the edge of where the tsunami hit. Dai-En spent three days with Fukan and Fukan’s family and was able to see first-hand the devastation from the tsunami. At one Pure Land Sect temple the gravestone markers were flung around as though styrofoam. There is a lot of debris everywhere.

Graveyard

Fukan’s family was very warm and welcoming to Dai-En prior to her departure for Morioka City to see her friend, Teiko Abe-san. Abe-san led Dai-En to Kannonji, Yamamoto Tessai Roshi’s (the Dharma brother of Maura Soshin O’Hallaran and teacher of Rev. Tenku Ruff) temple.  There she was given permission to use Yamamoto Roshi’s car. With Abe-san as her guide, she drove to the volunteer center on October 14th.

Dai-En has been riding in a caravan full of volunteers about a 2 hours’ distance to some of the worst hit regions of the tsunami.  Unfortunately, she is not allowed to take photos. All along the highways on the way to the site she can see debris, damage, and construction vehicles. At the volunteer center she was taught a method of “tapping touch,” a kind of gentle massage, to use on the earthquake victims to help them with the trauma of the earthquake. After doing “tapping touch,” Dai-En listens to the survivors’ stories. She was also able to give a Dharma Talk to the people she was ministering to, which was very well received. One older man commented that he could not believe he was hearing words of the Dharma coming out of a foreign woman.

Everyone returns in the caravan for the 2 hour distance drive back to the volunteer center.  At the volunteer center wake up time is 6:30.  Bed time is 10pm.  There are volunteers from all over the world staying with her at the center.  Basically, they have a microwave with which to cook their food.  Volunteers are expected to bring their own food or to go out for meals. Dai-En was given a lot of wholesome foods by Abe-san plus a futon on which to sleep.  There is also a public bath about 2 miles away from the center which she makes certain to go to every other day.

Dai-En sounds quite well.  She stayed at the volunteer center until the 29th of October, then returned to Abe-san’s home for the weekend before heading to the NiSodo (women’s monastery) in Nagoya for sesshin (silent retreat).  She plans to visit some of the older nuns she practiced with many years ago before returning to the States on the 12th of November.

Below are some photos of Dai-En with Koen and Nanshin, and Choro in Kyoto.

Gassho,
Daishin

(Dai-En’s disciple at Mt. Equity Zendo)

Dai-En Bennage with lay disciples in Kyoto

Offering Alms

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Last week Dai-En Bennage Roshi the Abbess of Mt. Equity Zendo in Pennsylvania left for Japan. She will spend a good part of her trip volunteering in the tsunami-hit regions of Northern Japan. I am happy Bennage Roshi will be going to Northern Japan for many reasons. First, she trained in Japanese monasteries for 12 years and is fluent in Japanese. She will be able to use her training to help the survivors who are still very much suffering. Second, Bennage Roshi trained with my teacher many years ago at Hokyoji Monastery and he admires her greatly. Finally, Bennage Roshi was partially responsible for getting the memoirs of Maura Soshin O’Halloran published . She had heard of Soshin through my teacher, who was Soshin’s Dharma brother, during the time they trained together at Hokyoji. Later, she was able to connect with Soshin’s mother and to aid her in getting the manuscript to a publisher. Bennage Roshi will be using Kannonji, the temple where Soshin practiced, as a home base for her volunteer work. I’m very much looking forward to sharing stories from Bennage Roshi’s trip on this blog. In the mean time, here are a few photos.

Tessai Yamamoto (front far left) and Dai-En Bennage (front middle) at Hokyoji in the '80's

31

Tenku, Daishin, Dai-En Bennage, Tessai Yamamoto (1997)

Meal time

Dai-En with my teacher in Pennsylvania

Tessai&Soshin

My teacher and Soshin after winter alms rounds (early 1980's)

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With Grandma

Reiko (Grandma) & Tenku

Reiko-san called me recently. I wasn’t able to find my phone quickly enough to answer it, so I got a message in an elderly voice:

Hello, [She doesn’t answer. What should I do? Oh, leave a message?] This is Reiko, Tenku-san. How are you? Please call me.

I called her back right away. Yuji, a volunteer who has adopted her as his grandma, was with her and had helped her call. Reiko-san said that she misses me and wished I could visit her again. She said she’s doing fine in the temporary housing unit, but very grateful for visitors.

Reiko-san is a lovely 83-year-old woman I met through Yuji when I was volunteering in Ofunato City. She has a clear, beaming face and speaks in thick Iwate-ben, the local dialect. Reiko-san’s back is bent nearly in half with osteoporosis and she can’t walk without a cane. Her back is bent so severely that her internal organs are compressed and she has stomach troubles. When we visited, Reiko-san was sitting on her bed by the window. Unable to walk far, the window is her connection with the outside world. She sits there all day long, calling out to passersby. My volunteer group offered her “tapping touch,” then chatted with her for a while. I fell in love with her.

Waving Goodbye

Reiko-san at the window of her temporary housing unit

Most days in Iwate Prefecture I volunteered by offering “tapping touch,” a kind of light, energy massage, to tsunami refugees. Teams of three to five volunteers would go around to evacuation centers and temporary housing units offering “touch” for about 15 minutes per person, then we would sit quietly and listen to their stories.

I offered “touch” to women, men, the elderly and children. I heard sad and terrible stories to which I sat quietly and listened. When offering “touch,” I practiced tonglen, a Tibetan Buddhist compassion practice. People often cry during “touch” or when telling their stories. Until this trip to Japan, in fifteen years’ time I don’t think I’d ever seen a Japanese person cry. On this trip, every day, many times a day I saw people cry.

Before going to Japan this June, I was unsure of what my role might be while volunteering in Tohoku. In the States, I am training in a hospital to be certified as a chaplain. I have learned to discern what people need from me while keeping my own religious views and background out of the picture. In Japan, I found what people needed most from me was for me to be a Zen priest.

I took about 500 malas (prayer beads), known as juzu in Japan, with me to Japan. Before I left, I sent out a last-minute request, which was answered by several American temples and Buddhist organizations, some of whom mailed the malas directly to my teacher’s temple in Japan. I also used part of the funds I collected to buy more malas at a discounted price, and I found more at the dollar store in my teacher’s town.

Before going I wasn’t sure exactly what I would do with the malas. When working as a chaplain in the States, I am very sensitive about proselytization, avoiding it at all costs. Zen Buddhists don’t proselytize. Japan is a Buddhist country, though, and malas are used by all Buddhist sects. They are also popular as secular items. Another concern was that sometimes the refugee centers don’t like items to be given out unless there are enough for everyone, and 500 malas are in no way enough for hundreds of thousands of people.

Volunteer Group

One day's volunteer group (Julie, Tenku, Junko, Yuji)

I needn’t have worried. The leader of the “touch” group said it would be fine to offer the malas to people after we visited, so I distributed the malas among our volunteer group and we all went our separate ways.

The malas came with a story: they were donated by Western people for Japanese tsunami victims. Over time, I watched the story grow. Most of the malas were Tibetan-style wrist malas made of rosewood. I told one of the volunteers how, upon hearing about the tsunami, His Holiness the Dalai Lama asked Tibetan monks to chant the Heart Sutra 100,000 times. Before long the story some volunteers told was that the malas were handmade by Tibetan monks as they chanted the Heart Sutra 100,000 times for Japanese tsunami victims. This made me smile.

Our small group of about 10 volunteers gave out all of the malas in under three days. If we had had thousands of malas, it still would not have been enough. I cannot express how much people appreciated them. People cried. The people of Northern Japan are very devout Buddhists. They are accustomed to making offerings and chanting in front of the Buddha every day. The malas they lost had often belonged to their mother, or their grandmother. Of course, they also lost their home altars, Buddha statues, chant books, bells, incense, and family refuge plaques. They are missing these very much as they begin to set up home in temporary housing units.

Temporary Housing

Temporary housing units

Though I thought the people might appreciate the malas, the overwhelming emotional response surprised me. An added benefit was that they allowed a window to open for people to speak about spirituality. At three months after the disaster, the timing was right for this. One woman I remember in particular carefully folded her new malas into a tissue, then wrapped the tissue in a clean cloth before placing them on the highest place in her cardboard corner of the gymnasium. She spoke of how she’d wanted to go back into her home as the waters came to save her malas and Buddha statue, but did not. This decision saved her life. She told me of others who tried to do the same and died. This woman was elderly and unable to walk quickly. As she hurried to escape, she appealed to Kannon Bodhisattva (Kwan-Yin, Avalokitesvara) to help her, and that help came. Before I left, I offered a compassion chant invoking Kannon. I left her unable to speak, silently sobbing with tears of gratitude.

View of a Shelter

Evacuation Shelter

Reiko-san also received malas and she wore them as if they were diamonds. When the tsunami came, she was visiting her husband in the hospital. I’m not sure of his illness, but she said he doesn’t seem to know she’s there. The hospital is on higher ground, so she was saved. Reiko-san’s entire neighborhood and all her friends there were swept away. Her daughter lives in Sendai and is safe, but with her husband ill, and Reiko-san has no one left nearby. Reiko-san is lonely and afraid.

Aunt & Uncle

This man and his wife look out for Reiko-san

One of the other “touch” volunteers told me that when Reiko-san first went to an emergency shelter, she wasn’t able to walk well enough to get food rations and blankets. Because she’d been away from her own neighborhood when the tsunami came, she didn’t know people in the shelter. Some of them laughed at her and made fun of her. She was isolated, cold, and hungry until one man took her under his wing and made sure she was cared for. Now, he and his wife live across from her in the temporary housing unit, and he still visits her regularly and looks out for her.

Sato-san & Reiko-san

Yuji, Grandma, & Tenku (Note Grandma's malas on her wrist)

Yuji calls Reiko-san “Grandma,” and speaks to her as one would a grandmother, with familiar language. The two of them obviously love each other and the relationship is very touching. Yuji took us to visit Grandma several times. One time we were even featured on national television.

One day as I was offering “touch” to Reiko-san, she grabbed my hands and held them tightly. I was sitting on the floor and she on her bed. I looked into her beautiful face and her story poured out:

“What are you most afraid of right now?” I asked her.

I don’t know how I’m going to live. I’m old and I lost everything. We lived on my husband’s pension, but now he’s in the hospital and . . . How will I get food? I can’t go to the supermarket. I have no money. Where will I go? I don’t know anyone. I’ve never lived anywhere but here.

Tears poured down her face. I wanted to take her in my arms and hold her, but I reminded myself Japanese don’t hug, and sat silently, holding her hands tightly, allowing her the space to speak.

Yuji asked Grandma if she’d like for me to offer chants for her new home. Her eyes lit up. “Would you do that?” she implores.

Of course.

We gathered some rocks from outside and made a small pile on the table. Reiko-san gave me one of the new tea cups she’d received the previous day, which I filled with water for the water offering, and I had some incense in my bag that a friend from Kyushu had given me. There was no lighter, so I lit the incense on the gas range. There was no Buddha image, so I asked Reiko-san to picture one in her mind.

Then I offered the Heart Sutra in Japanese and a dedication for peace, within and without. We left Reiko-san sitting on her bed as the scent of incense filled her new home. As we drove away, she waved to us from her window, calling out “Thank you!”

Yuji told me on the phone the other day that many of Reiko-san’s new friends at the temporary housing unit would also like to have malas. Please contribute malas or donate money to buy more here.

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This is an article from the Peace Boat blog about volunteers cleaning up a temple cemetery.

Volunteers cleaning graves in preparation for the equinox

September 7, 2011

Recently volunteers have become busy with cleaning graves, as local residents have requested help to have the graves cleaned by the time of the equinox. Mainly short-term volunteers have been involved with this and everyday many volunteers are spending time cleaning graves and the surrounding area. Today’s report is about such grave cleaning activities at Saikou Temple in Kadonowaki-cho.

It’s been approximately five months since the disaster occurred. This is a photograph of the area before cleaning activities commenced.

Although the cars that were washed into the cemetery by the tsunami have been removed, the cemetery was buried in sludge and debris of destroyed houses. One cannot tell where the cemetery begins and ends.

Volunteers began working in the area in the beginning of August upon receiving a request from Saikou Temple. Initially approximately 50 volunteers were coming each day to help, and since Obon (Obon is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honour the deceased spirits of one’s ancestors) there are almost 100 people helping every day.

The volunteers are ‘cleaning’ but it is not quite the same kind of cleaning as say for example cleaning gutters. It’s not possible to just simply pick up gravestones and move them. The work is physically straining and needs to be carried out carefully. Ichijou Kenji, one of the volunteer leaders, explains to volunteers that they need to change their mindset and understand that grave cleaning is not the same as other cleaning jobs.

On this day, in addition to the regular Peace Boat short-term volunteers, there are corporate volunteers from Mitsubishi Corporation’s CSR department, and volunteers from NGO Habit for Humanity (hereafter, “Habitat”) who have been providing ongoing volunteer assistance since the beginning of August helping with the grave cleaning.

The volunteers enter the area where they will be working whilst being careful of where they step.

First of all they need to make a path.

The volunteers look for where there would have originally been a path and start working to clear the way with shovels.

The volunteers work under a hot sun silently and gradually, taking short breaks often.

The work has to be done very carefully, and there are some situations where volunteers on their first or second day are unable cannot make judgments about how to proceed on their own. This is where the motto of “Report, Contact, Consult” comes in. This motto is important for volunteers to be able to work in an organized manner.

As the volunteers work, the original condition and layout of the cemetery gradually becomes apparent.

After 3 weeks of work, the changes that can be seen are due to more than just cleaning.

The next morning, there are flowers on one of the graves.

In order to get rid of all the mud and debris, it is put into sandbag bags and taken out of the cemetery by a chain of people. This requires many people to help. The volunteers from Mitsubishi Corporation, Habitat and Peace Boat all work together.

Sandbag bags (front), debris (rear left) and metal (rear right).

It is important to separate what is collected through the cleaning activities.

After the morning work is finished, the volunteers go into the grounds of nearby Saikou Temple, but they are not going there to worship.

Everyone is eating lunch together, thanks to the consideration of temple master Mr Higuchi who allows volunteers to eat lunch inside the temple like this each day.

It’s a nice break for the volunteers who have been working under the hot sun. The volunteers received gifts of chilled jelly and energy drinks which they appreciate very much.

Temple master Mr Higuchi (left) and volunteer leader Ichijou Kenji.

Mr Higuchi commented, “Earlier we received help from youth associations all over the country and we were able to clean up the temple grounds. We thought that if 100 people worked for 3 days that we would be able to clean up the cemetery but we underestimated the size of the job. After working on it for a day, we realized the massive amount of work that needed to be done and were worried that it might even take until the end of the year to finish.”

Mr Higuchi expressed his appreciation by saying, “We have thankfully been given the opportunity to get to know volunteers from Peace Boat and other organizations. We have been most surprised by the amount of manpower and organizational skills of the volunteers. It’s really helping us a lot!”

The original aim was to finish the cleaning activities near Seikou Temple by the time of the equinox. It looks like they will be finished well in advance.

The volunteers will keep on working so that people can come to the cemetery to pay their respects as soon as possible.

Photos: Kataoka Kazushi

via Peace Boat Emergency Relief Operation | 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake & Tsunami.

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July 3, 2011. Fukan and I got up early in the morning, sat zazen (meditation), then did morning service. My sitting position during service directly faced the rows of memorial placards lining the back of the hall. (The left wall was lined as well.) I felt so awed and so grateful and so sad to offer chants for the boxes, photos and placards representing so many lost lives. Fukan asked me to chant the dedication and, as happened to her at the funeral, I did not know my voice would work until it came out.

After service, we had breakfast, drank coffee, called a mutual friend in the States, and then went out. First, we offered the Daihishin Darani (Great Compassionate Heart chant) at the ruins of Kannonji Temple’s graveyard. GraveyardAll the stones were turned over and broken, and many of the graves lay open. The unbroken stones had been gathered into one area, which is where we offered the chant. A pair of black men’s shoes, a child’s toy, pink plastic flowers, and a woman’s purse (the contents neatly spread out on a wall), lay among the broken stones.Contents of a purseMan's shoes

Next, we drove about five to ten minutes along a rustic dirt road through what had once been a village but was now a flood plane, to Ryuukoku-in, the next temple over. The skeleton of a temple building, a shed, and the second floor of what had once been a two-story house remained. RyuukokuinFukan told me that the elderly Abbot and his wife ran to the second floor of their house, just behind the main temple building, as the waters rose. The waters lifted the house like a boat. As it floated, it moved close to, then away from, close to, then away from the foot of the mountain. When it floated towards the mountain once more they both jumped from the veranda, swam a bit, and made it to safety. It was freezing cold and snow started to fall soon after. The wife was injured, but apparently they’re both o.k. now. They live with a relative in Sendai. Since the tsunami, the Abbot has been very busy with ceremonies, and hasn’t been able to come to the area more than once or twice. (The makeshift road to this area had just opened the previous week.)

Behind the temple, I saw zafus (meditation cushions), priest robes, sutra books, ceremonial items, incense boxes, juzu prayer beads, and more in the muck. I found this very disturbing, as did Fukan, and also my teacher when I told him later. I think it must be so for any priest, including the Ryuukoku-an’s Abbot. I couldn’t stand to leave the things lying there in the mud interspersed with animal and bird carcasses, but Fukan told me strongly to leave them just as they were, so I moved the two juzu and two small robes I’d already picked up to a dry place and left the rest. Fukan told me that Ryuukoku-in had earthquake insurance and will rebuild. I wondered what they will build and why they will rebuild in the same place. Interestingly, the temple graveyard fared much better than Kannonji’s, and on our way out we saw families cleaning up their plots.Road to Temple

Next, we donned gloves, boots, protective clothing and masks, and visited the remains of Kannonji, the temple nearest to Fukan’s temple. It had been completely destroyed and the temple’s members have now been absorbed into Sho-un-ji. Heavy machinery had already been there, so the rubble had been roughly sorted. We searched for 1) the temple’s main Buddha statue, 2) the temple records book, and 3) (this was unsaid) corpses. We found none. We collected some family photos, a wooden Kannon statue, a few more statues, and a bag full of o-ihai (funerary plaques). We put them into large plastic bags, loaded the car, and left.Protective Gear

Near Kannonji, we met Abe-sensei. He used to teach at Ogawa Elementary School and loved the area and the children, but was transferred to another school two years ago. Fukan greeted him familiarly. Apparently, Abe-sensei returns to the area any time he has a day or some time off from school to search among the ruins. He stops by Sho-un-ji on his way home. Though I suspected the answer, I asked Fukan what he searches for. Bodies. Many of the children from the school were never found.

More photos

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