Posts Tagged ‘Miyagi-ken’

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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This story was in the Mainichi Daily News today. It’s about the mother I mentioned in The Saddest Day post who got a heavy machinery license to search for her daughter’s missing body. Her daughter was finally found several miles from Okawa Elementary School.

Mother determined to keep up search for missing children after daughter found dead

Naomi Hiratsuka, pictured here on Sept. 6, acquired a license to operate heavy machinery to search for children missing from the March 11 tsunami. (Mainichi)

ISHINOMAKI, Miyagi — Human remains found near a fishing port have been confirmed through DNA testing to be that of sixth-grade student Koharu Hiratsuka, who had been missing since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, giving a measure of closure to her family.

The parents of 12-year-old Koharu — Shinichiro Hiratsuka, 45, and his wife Naomi, 37 — had been desperately hoping to locate at least part of their daughter’s body, and the confirmation brought both sadness and relief.

The remains were found near the fishing port in Naburi Bay by local fishermen, several kilometers from Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, where Koharu was when the tsunami struck. Shinichiro and Naomi headed to Naburi to identify the body on Aug. 9, confident that they would know whether it was their daughter by looking at her navel. Upon arrival, however, they found that the body had suffered more damage than they’d expected.

They did, however, recognize the multiple layers of underwear on the body as their daughter’s; it had still been cold when the quake and tsunami hit. They took the body home with them the next night, and had it cremated on Aug. 11.

Relieved by the confirmation that the body was indeed his daughter’s, Shinichiro says, “We can hold a proper funeral and send her off to be with everyone else.” Meanwhile, Naomi vows: “I will continue doing what I can to find other missing children.”

Search efforts for missing students continue near Okawa Elementary School (far left background). The mounds of dirt indicate areas that have already been searched. (Mainichi)

Of the 108 students at Okawa Elementary, Koharu and 69 other students were killed, and four are still missing. The school was completely submerged immediately following the tsunami, preventing those searching for missing loved ones from getting close.

Once the water had subsided, Shinichiro and Naomi shoveled through the soil looking for Koharu, along with the parents of other missing children. After Shinichiro returned to work, Naomi attended a driving school and obtained a license to operate heavy machinery in late June. She went on to dig through the ground with other parents of missing children, using machinery rented from the Ishinomaki Municipal Government.

After the March disaster, Shinichiro and Naomi’s other children, son Toma, 6, who this spring started attending Okawa Elementary School, and 2-year-old daughter Sae, whose vocabulary has expanded since she started going to daycare, continued to thrive. The Hiratsukas could not revel in their surviving children’s growth, however, with their eldest still missing. The longer Koharu remained unaccounted for, the more it unsettled them. It was already nearing the Bon festival, a Buddhist tradition honoring the dead, when Koharu finally came home.

On Sept. 11, six months after the quake and tsunami, police search operations were scaled back, with the Metropolitan Police Department’s back-up squad pulling out completely. Wondering what would happen to the four children still missing from Okawa Elementary, Naomi bid farewell to the squad in tears. After they left, she got back to digging.

Naomi says that until her daughter was found, she had been worried that her family would never find Koharu, and that they would be left behind as others turned to the future. The support of the other parents who continued to help her efforts is what drives her now. On behalf of those families who are busy searching for their missing children, Naomi says, “There are still more places that need to be searched.” She plans to continue supporting the search until all of the remaining four children from Okawa Elementary are found.

Click here for the original Japanese story

via Mother determined to jeep up search for missing children after daughter found dead – The Mainichi Daily News.

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Though I visited Fukan-san toward the end of my trip, I want to write about her now. Fukan is a friend from my training days at the Aichi Senmon Nisodo (Women’s Monastery) in Nagoya City. She is not what I thought of as a “nun’s nun,” but rather, a breath of fresh air in an environment that emphasizes similarity. Her robes are never quite straight, her posture is a bit slumpy, and Fukan prefers a joke, delivered in deadpan, to austere silence. I fondly remember her raucous laughter echoing through the silent hallways after lights-out. Though at first Fukan wasn’t too keen on training at the Nisodo, she gradually shifted, coming to appreciate zazen (meditation), Abbess Aoyama Roshi and her teachings, and the lifestyle offered there.

Fukan had just completed five years of training at the Nisodo when the earthquake and tsunami struck. In fact, her completion ceremony took place on March 13, two days later. After the disaster, there was no electricity, gas, telephone access, or running water at Sho-un-ji, Fukan’s home temple in Ishinomaki, nor was there any entrance or exit by road or sea. You can look at this map to get a sense of the landscape. Because the temple is located next to the Kitakami River, and not the ocean, no one expected the tsunami to strike there. As such, Fukan had no idea how badly the area had been hit until she made it there in person many days later. I heard Sho-un-ji’s story from Fukan’s shisho, or Zen master/teacher, an 80-year-old monk.


July 1, 2011. It was cold the afternoon the earthquake and tsunami came. Yaguchi Roshi, Fukan’s shisho, was at home with his wife.They felt the earthquake hit and then heard the general alarm announcing a tsunami. Like others in the neighborhood, though, they did not expect a tsunami to come up the river. In fact, many people in the area died because they were standing on the river wall or the stoops of their homes, watching it come in.

Yaguchi Roshi did not know what was going on when people started to show up at the temple. What was happening becomes more clear from the map. As the waters rose from the river, people fled upriver until the escape road also was flooded. The only place to go was into the mountains away from the river, which is why they came to Sho-un-ji. Members of the small, close-knit community began showing up on the steps of the one local temple that was not destroyed.

Almost as soon as the first people arrived in a panic, more came, and then more. It was bitterly cold, and soon snow began to fall. In almost no time at all between 70 and 80 people were huddled into every available space in the temple. Fortunately, the temple had just filled up their large kerosene tank, and they had five or six kerosene heaters to offer some warmth. Blankets were distributed and the temple’s stores of food offered. With no gas, people were not able to cook, but they made food on the heaters and over fires. Some used seawater to cook rice.

After the waters receded and dusk came, more wet and bedraggled survivors drifted in. Two elderly women in their 90’s were drenched to the bone and shivering violently. Yaguchi Roshi worried they would die, but after they received dry clothes, tea, and warmth, they slowly recovered.

Sho-un-ji is not a designated evacuation site, so the authorities did not know to look there for survivors. Some people ventured out, reporting back to the group on the horrors they encountered. When the police did not show up, people waded into the icy water to retrieve corpses themselves. The temple offered its land to bury them, and people from all different sects of Buddhism were interred on its grounds. Though the temple offered every bit of food and supplies it had, it only had about three days’ supply for so many people. People were forced to move to a formal evacuation shelter further away from their former homes.

Only after time, as the days blurred, did the story of the tsunami slowly reach the survivors. When electricity was restored and people could see or hear the news, they were shocked. Kannonji, the neighboring temple had been completely wiped out, as had the next one. The local elementary school, just around the corner from Sho-un-ji, was destroyed, killing 74 of the 108 students and 10 of the 13 teachers.  Twenty-six of Sho-un-ji’s members have been confirmed dead; Kannonji lost at least 90. More than 20 people from the immediate area remain missing.

Not long after the tsunami hit, Yaguchi Roshi became gravely ill with pneumonia and had to be hospitalized in Sendai for two weeks. It was to this environment that Fukan, freshly minted as a full priest, returned. When I visited Sho-un-ji, a steady stream of visitors arrived throughout the day and into the evening for tea, coffee and chocolates sent from a Columbian nun and her community, and conversation. Fukan estimates that she and her teacher visit with about 30 people each day.

The first funeral at which Fukan was the officiant was for multiple people. Japanese people usually cremate the bodies of the deceased, but after the tsunami the crematoriums could not keep up, so people were buried in the ground. Most Japanese people have never seen coffins. As Fukan stood, surrounded by coffins and mourners, she felt her voice would not come to offer the chants. She told herself, “I think I can do one chant, but no more.”

The chant came. And then the next one, and the next. Then she thought, “ . . .but there’s no way I can offer the eko (dedication).” The eko came.

It is customary after a funeral service for the priest to offer a few words. In this situation, Fukan had no idea what to say, and only a few simple words about returning to the sea came out. She felt like a failure as a priest.

When I told this story to my teacher, he was deeply moved, remarking reverently, “That was the best priest training (shugyo) possible. Your friend is going to be a nun among nuns.”

Fukan in car

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