Posts Tagged ‘Iwate’


Reiko Sukiyama & Gretel Erlich

Gretel Ehrlich and her translator visited Reiko-san this past week. I have only this photo so far. I can’t wait to hear all about it when Gretel returns to the States.


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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.


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.


(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


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

Meal time

Dai-En with my teacher in Pennsylvania


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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Thank you so much for your donations and support for Japan. Returning to Portland this week, I find I have seen so many things and heard so many stories I don’t quite know what to share. I experienced six weeks of intensive compassion training that I know will fuel my practice for years to come.

I went to Japan without nervousness or excitement, but more with of a sense of being compelled–as if there were no choice. As soon as my plane touched down at Narita Airport I was immersed. Nothing I have seen on TV or read in the news prepared me for what I found in Japan. Sure, the images were the same, but TV can’t capture the energy. Tokyo appeared fairly normal on the surface, but the atmosphere was muted. The trains were slower, donation boxes sat on every shop counter, people seemed somehow more polite, and signs of support and concern popped up in random places–on billboards, in taxi windows, hand-stenciled at the airport, and on candy wrappers.

The newspapers publish a daily radiation report next to the weather. Friends with children study it closely and worry. There is so much conflicting information that people aren’t sure what to think–especially those people who can read news in more than one language. Should we make our kids wear masks? What about the rain? (I was there in rainy season.) Should we wipe our shoes when we get home? My friends’ children in Tokyo broke open their piggy banks to give their money to the people of Tohoku (Northern Japan). The boy is having trouble paying attention in school and is fearful.

At my teacher’s temple in Iiyama, a woman told me about her daughter and grandchildren, from whom she’d heard nothing for ten days following the tsunami. Mid-story, my friend switched to her own tragedy, many years previously, when the Chikuma River flooded. “We watched people, pillows, animals, and debris float by, just out of arm’s reach. We didn’t know whether we would live or die, if we would ever eat again, or if anyone even knew we were there,” she said. When my teacher asked if she was speaking about the tsunami or the flood, she didn’t answer, but sat silently with vacant eyes.

And, thus began my trip. My zuise ceremonies went smoothly. I made arrangements and saw friends. Nearly everyone is worried about radiation, and I observed a collective anger toward the government. Friends in Oita want to set up safe houses for mothers and children from Fukushima. People told me their stories–where they were when they heard the news of the tsunami, how they responded to the earthquake, how they couldn’t stop watching television after the disaster, and how their kids cry every time a large aftershock rattles the house.

When I finally took the train north, tent in hand, I wasn’t sure what I was going to, but I understood that my first two weeks in Japan had been as important as shoveling muck would be. As one friend pointed out, rather than “Ganbare Tohoku!” we should say, “Isshoni gambarimasho” or, rather than “Hang in there Tohoku!” we should say, “Let’s all do our best together.” [From ganbaru: to persevere; to persist; to keep at it; to hang on; to hold out; to do one’s best.] Over and over, I heard people say, “We are one.”

I arrived at Kannon-ji, my teacher’s temple in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, in the early afternoon, and within the space of an hour I was driving to the volunteer center in Tono City. The volunteer center is housed in the city’s community center. Volunteers sleep in the gymnasium or in a large tatami room. There are portable showers, working toilets, washing machines, two microwave ovens, a refrigerator, and other amenities. We were crowded but comfortable. I slept between a woman from Kobe and a woman from Aceh, Indonesia.

Each day volunteers choose an activity, and then gather in groups to drive to the coast. Most people do heavy cleanup work–shoveling muck, sorting debris, cleaning roadside drains, and removing the remains of houses. The weather was hot and humid and the work very difficult. Other activities included everything from cooking food for refugees and making aid deliveries to cleaning muddy photographs, offering foot baths, supporting the volunteer center, planting gardens, and more.

I did heavy cleanup work one day, but my efforts mainly focused on offering my ears to hear people’s stories. We would go around to evacuation shelters and temporary housing units offering light massage, and then sit and listen to what people had to say. At first I wondered how we would get people to talk, but that concern dissipated as soon as the first story spilled out.

The word I heard over and over was nagasareta, which means “washed away.”  I heard stories from a two-year-old who watched his parents wash away in their car (his great-grandmother told me), from a teenager whose school friends were gone (she longed for summer festivals), from a woman about my age who grew up in the mountains and was shocked at the power of the sea (not one item from her home was recovered–she most craves her children’s baby pictures), and from an old woman who lost her friends, her home, her garden, and her husband. She worries how she’ll survive without her husband’s pension. She has no place to go, she’s bent in half and she can’t walk far.

The scale of the destruction was more than my mind–more than any human mind–could take in. When I first arrived in Rikuzen Takata and saw one destroyed house, I felt I might cry. Then I lifted my eyes and saw the destruction of thousands and thousands of homes and entered a dream. Or, I opened my eyes to the dream around me. There are great fields of endless debris–crushed cars and boats, twisted metal, piles of concrete, clothing, dolls, wood, toys, plastic bins, and more–remnants of thousands of lives. For weeks, I’ve dreamed of upside-down floating cars, being lost in a maze of debris, and the force of water moving in slow motion.

There is so much more I want to say about this trip–my visit with my friend Fukan and her temple’s role in the disaster, the nearby elementary school that was washed away (with its children and teachers), the volunteers I met, the creative ways I found to distribute your donations, and the countless stories I heard.  I will leave them for now, though.

I could not have volunteered in Tohoku without the support of many people. The recovery in Japan will be a very, very long process on so many different levels, and I will continue to collect donations. If I think of all the suffering I encountered, it is overwhelming. If I remember one person at a time, though, I can see that the benefit of our contributions is immeasurable.

With gratitude,


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