When the devastating tsunami struck northern Japan on March 11, 2011, destroying cities and structures, ravishing farmland, and sweeping away the lives of more than 20,000 people, I was at the Samadhi Center in Prague, leading retreats. My heart was torn between my commitment to the people who had travelled to attend the retreats and the requests I received to join the relief efforts in Japan. I decided to compromise, cancelling some of the retreats and travelling with my good friend, Daiun Iba, a Japanese monk, to Tokyo in June. We knew we would find many still-grieving and impoverished people in need of spiritual counseling and blessing ceremonies to comfort them and honor the memories of their lost friends and family members. We also knew that these people would open to us as they would not to many other people, because we were experienced monks. The Japanese are very private people and it is not easy for them to speak to strangers of their deep feelings, sadness, and pain.
In Tokyo, I met with the chief monk of Koyasan Tokyo Betsuin, who was delighted to serve as our guide and issue us a special pass, which would be recognized by the authorities and Japanese people. Without it, it would have been nearly impossible for us to travel around or gain access to the areas we wanted to visit, such as Sendai, where most of the devastation had occurred. There, we settled in one of the few still-standing motels and, early the next morning, travelled further north to meet with Reverend Gomi, the special rescue team leader, who had been sent to the area by the Koyasan Temple headquarters in Tokyo. After briefing us, Reverend Gomi led us to a local community center where people came for help and to grieve.
I remember especially, and feel particularly privileged, to have met a woman in her early sixties, the sole survivor of her family. Her husband and children were all gone without a trace. With the help of Reverend Iba, who spoke Japanese, we had a long dialogue in which she described the horrors of her experience and how she had managed to stay alive. She was amazingly calm and courageous as she reflected on that awful time — although I did notice how she struggled to hold back tears when she spoke of her husband. When we finished speaking, I chanted blessings for her and her departed family members. I could see and sense the great relief she felt and how grateful she was for our time together.
We can never predict what will come next, can we?
That evening, as the sun was setting, exhausted and overwhelmed by the sight of the devastation around us and the sad stories we had heard, Iba and I drove along the shore to our motel. As we turned into the driveway, I heard a tremendous bang as another car smashed into ours. We spun around and I was tossed from side to side, banging my head violently. I was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where I remained for several days. Though I was then flown back to Europe for further medical care, I was immensely grateful for the time I had spent in Japan, knowing we had brought peace and healing to those we encountered.