Sendai, Japan, 5 November 2011 – His Holiness went out into a grayish morning in Sendai, his seventh full day in Japan, and drove for an hour or so the 30 miles that lead to Ishinomaki, the area most devastated by the tsunami of March 11. As his car approached the area, the scene took on an air of unutterable sadness: houses sat like empty sockets, their first floors shattered and ravaged by the storm (while their second floors sat untouched); telephone poles stood at 45-degree angles, and cars could be seen still floating on the water. His Holiness’ car passed crumpled gas stations, houses that were just gaping holes, huge boats keeled over in the sea. What was once clearly a busy neighborhood was now a ghost town, rows upon rows of houses buckled over and crumbling, cars piled up in mountains of scrap meal.
Roughly 12,000 people died on a single day here, and only 4000 of their bodies have been found.
In the middle of the desolation–there was rubble everywhere, graves were crushed with their headstones falling over, pieces of washing still hung out in front of skeleton houses, and a chair sat in a hollowed-out living-room–His Holiness got out of his car and walked right over to the people who had gathered in the street to see him.
“What do you feel?” he asked them, extending a strong hand and arm. “Are you still sad?” Women broke down weeping in front of him, some sobbing, “Thank you, thank you.” In this scene of high emotion, His Holiness said, “Some sorrow befell you here. That’s all finished now. You can’t change what’s happened. Please change your hearts, be brave. Please help everyone else, and help others become more okay.”
The people in the crowd fell quiet and nodded as he spoke. “Too many people died,” he said. “If you worry, it can’t help them. Please work hard; that is the best offering you can make to the dead. I’m so happy I could come and see you.”
As he turned around, His Holiness took off his glasses and wiped away some tears.
Then, in a long procession of black-robed monks, to the sound of solemn chanting, His Holiness walked in from the road and slowly up the path towards the local temple, Saikoji, past wreckage on every side, more gravestones crushed or tilted over, greeting a group of kindergarten children, all in blue uniforms, who had been at school the day of the calamity and so survived. Around him trees were torn into stumps and a line of small stone Jizos (the Japanese god of children) sat with red bibs around their necks, protecting the living and the dead.
Walking between the long lines of people seated on chairs outside the front entrance, His Holiness entered the temple, prostrating three times before its central Buddha. Then a packed audience within recited the Heart Sutra in Japanese, and His Holiness led some Tibetan monks in chanting the sutra in Tibetan.
His Holiness began by speaking about how he had come to share the pain of the people here, “particularly those who lost one of their dear friends or relatives,” and reminded them how, as the tragedy unfolded, “many people in all parts of the world, as soon as they heard of the situation, thought, `You are not alone.’
“As soon as I heard of this tragedy, on the BBC news, I instantly felt, `How much pain!’ And remembered my many trips to Japan since 1967.” Beside him, next to the altar, were fifty or more colored packages neatly lined up, with the bones of the dead inside them, and in front of them framed portraits of the deceased, both young and old, with bottles of tea or keepsakes to remember them. “On the way here,” His Holiness went on, “I asked the driver if the tsunami had come here. Then I noticed, suddenly, everything was completely different. I was very much moved. When I shook the hands of the people here, tears came to my eyes.
“But, it already happened. And as humans, we have intelligence. When such a thing happens, we must think. With our intelligence, combined with self-confidence, we can overcome all these problems. So tragedy certainly, naturally, brings sadness and demoralizes us; but now you must transform it into enthusiasm an self-confidence and work hard to rebuild your lives, your country. Particularly with these young children here: provide them with education and let them lead another happy new generation.”
As he went on, in front of hundreds in the temple, and many hundreds more seated outside, and standing at the back, following his every movement on screen, His Holiness recalled how, in his own life, leaving Lhasa in 1959, he had left behind many friends “and one small dog” and then heard, two days later, that many of them were dead. “Of course I felt a lot of sadness. But, as I mentioned earlier, I had my intelligence, and also my belief in truth. So the tragedy could be transformed into a source of inner strength. Now, 52 years have passed, and I always keep determination, enthusiasm.”
He remembered, too, how Japan, through hard work, had rebuilt a new country from the ashes of war, particularly through “your very good sense of co-operation.”
Then, walking to the front of the temple, he addressed directly those sitting outside. “Whether we are believers or not, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “We must be realistic. So one Buddhist teacher, in the 8th century, explained: `If a tragedy happens, look at that tragedy holistically. Then you can overcome it. So don’t worry. Work hard. Try to work things out. If there’s no way to work it out, there’s no need to worry.”
For those in theistic traditions, he said, “all these mysterious events are actually God’s creation. So there must be some meaning. So look at it that way. And in non-theistic traditions, such as Buddhism, everything is due to its own causes. Karma may come from this lifetime, but it may even come from previous lifetimes. From the Buddhist point of view, we must make forceful positive karma, which can be stronger than the previous negative karma. This can reduce or even eliminate the previous negative karma.
“So look forward. Lead some kind of new life, full of determination. Lead your life in an honest way, a truthful way. By truthful acts, by compassionate acts, increase positive karma.
“This is not the time for worry, for sadness. But with determination, and a Japanese sense of co-operation, you must rebuild this town; this is a good chance to show the world Japanese efficiency, Japanese ability. And, after rebuilding a new happy town, please send an invitation to me, and I will come and we will have a big festival.”
Everyone in the large audience was clearly moved, and after five children presented His Holiness with flowers, one after another, he asked them to pose for a picture with him, saying, “Smile, smile” to one shy little boy, and tickling him on the cheek. By the time he emerged from the temple, it was possible to see the scenes of destruction in a different light, as His Holiness walked slowly back, holding older people who reached out for him, for a long, long time, comforting women carrying framed pictures of their lost ones.
In the afternoon, in an atmosphere of sonorous bells and dark lanterns, His Holiness spoke inside Koushoji temple, at the center of the city of Sendai, and delivered a Buddhist address about overcoming suffering to a large audience, many in monastic robes and suits. “If some tragedy comes,” he explained, “you must look at it carefully. And you must try to transform it, even though you can’t change the event itself. I met many victims today: at first their pain was perhaps on the outside, but now it’s inside, invisible. For external pain, you can take medicine, see a doctor. But for inner pain, you must practice and make it better yourself.
“If you only think about your loss, for example, it increases the pain. But if, when your house is gone, you think about making a new, beautiful home, you can transform it into a positive. If you think, `Why is this suffering coming to me?’ that, too, increases the pain. That kind of thought is a delusion. See things in a wider perspective, and you can make you pain smaller.”
In the morning, before sobbing crowds, he had spoken from the heart and reached the hearts of many; in the afternoon, he gave the complementary, and more analytical Buddhist teaching, of how we must look at suffering realistically and transform it into possibility. He might have been a doctor, first offering sympathy and then, a diagnosis. In the diagnosis lay the cure, and the sense that in each of us is the capacity to begin to heal ourselves–in part by tending to others.