Rather than cling to a particular religion's protocols, ceremonies, and doctrines,
we should be like Mother Teresa and simply ask ourselves how we can best help the people we meet.
The hope to liberate others from the pains of birth, old age, sickness, and death: upon achieving enlightenment, Shakyamuni is said to have taken this great hope to heart and set out on a journey of dissemination.
During my infancy and youth - "birth," according to those four stages of life - my very existence was one of painful insecurity. I am also a person who made the decision to live as a result of my encounter with the teaching of Shakyamuni.
I started training for the priesthood at the age of thirteen. I am presently active with the Zenseikyo Foundation for Youth and Child Welfare, through which I try to help, in the spirit of Buddhism, young people with problems of suicide, bullying, futoko (refusal to go to school because of bullying, social anxiety, or other reasons), hikikomori (young people who shut themselves in their rooms and refuse most human contact), and so on. Our foundation cooperates with some two thousand Buddhist temples in Japan to hold Sunday school classes and carry out research on the problems of youth. We are working in many directions to extend a safety net for young people. For example, concerned people associated with these temples who have received training in concentrated listening act as youth counselors, and some temples cooperate with local NGOs to run alternative schools.
It warms my heart to see a smile break out on a child's formerly expressionless face. This may be because it reminds me of myself in the past. To care and work for others brings me new life every day.
A Life Bereft of Meaning
The pain of living. When I was only a year old and knew nothing of such things, an uncle whom I loved very much died. At only twenty-six years of age, he chose suicide. The adults' feeling of loss hung over us like a fog that failed to disperse, and this atmosphere penetrated my skin. When I was six years old, my parents divorced and the family broke up. At this time I had a younger brother just a year old, and he went to live with my father and his second wife. I had just started elementary school and was sent alone to live with relatives of my father in Yamanashi Prefecture.
At this age I was still very much in need of parental affection, particularly from my mother, but I was suddenly sent to live in an unfamiliar environment. Young as I was, my feelings of insecurity and isolation led me to suffer psychosomatic symptoms.
When I was ten, I was returned to my mother and we were able to live together, but she had also remarried. In time my younger brother also came to live with us; fifteen years had passed before we became able to live together as brothers. When so much time has passed, it is not easy to fill in the gaps.
Now an adolescent, for a long time I worried myself every day thinking deeply about the question "What is the meaning of life?" Everything I did seemed empty, and I trusted neither people nor society. However, underneath my mistrust of people and society lay the fear of isolation, and the tension between these feelings wore down my nerves. I distanced myself even from my friends and for six months sequestered myself at home in a state of acute social isolation.
What liberated me from that situation was an encounter with a certain book by Masahiro Mita, a winner of the Naoki Prize (a semiannual Japanese literary prize). In this book, he looks back on his own troubled adolescence and describes the world opened to him by the teaching of Shakyamuni. In this book I read that Shakyamuni affirmed our solitary existence, saying, "You must walk the Way by yourself." My thoughts turned more and more toward Buddhism and the teaching of Shakyamuni.
A Ray of Hope
An undeniable change in my spirit was effected by Buddhism's concepts of transience and dependent origination. Simply put, these concepts teach that there is nothing fixed in this world but that all things are constantly changing. All things ceaselessly change because they are linked interdependently and affect one another.
Even though I had felt that my family bonds had been severed and I was alone in the world, I realized that this situation itself was changing. I realized that through dependent origination I was in fact linked with my family, with other people - in fact, with all the people of the world, all mutually having effects on one another. When I realized that I was living in a network of bonds that further linked me to greater beings beyond the human realm, such as the gods and the buddhas, and that I was being protected by my many ancestors, I was enveloped in a feeling of security. A person with these thoughts may not be experiencing pure Buddhism, but for me at about twenty years of age, they allowed me to recognize the pain that comes from seeing the world as fixed, when in fact it is constantly changing, and to experience the warm currents of feeling flowing through the network of dependent origination.
In my quest to understand Shakyamuni's teaching and read the original texts of the sutras, I learned Sanskrit and Pali and studied abroad at a graduate school in Benares, India. Without studying the original texts, and without perceiving with my own senses the natural features and cultural climate of the country where Shakyamuni lived, I could not correctly understand his teaching. Or so I thought.
If I were asked whether or not I understood Shakyamuni's teaching by going to India, I would have to say I returned to Japan still without having done so. Most of the Buddhism being taught in India has long since been Hinduized, and the bits of Theravada teaching that remain have been secularized. Confrontational tensions among India's various religions are high, and just walking through a dangerous zone in a priest's robe could easily invite injury. The chaotic state of modern India surpassed the understanding of the youth I was at that time.
When I was on the verge of losing my motivation for further study, my younger brother died of a drug overdose. His death might even be called a suicide. He was twenty-seven years old. On top of that, my stepfather suddenly fell ill and after a while passed away.
My brother's death in particular was a shock. I felt as if he had taken away the suicide contemplation that had remained in my heart since infancy by substituting his own self-caused death. Seeing my mother now left alone brought me to the realization that my own position in life had changed. The time to seek for myself alone the answer that would bring liberation had now ended.
Until then, I had been seeking my own liberation in religion, but because I had continued to seek it outside myself, I was unable to find satisfaction. In fact, the important thing was what and how I myself believed and lived. Because I happened to encounter Buddhism, that is where my faith found refuge, but I think the same truth can also be found in Christianity and Islam. All religions teach the way of life that can make people truly happy. That "truly" is the important part. Rather than cling to a particular religion's protocols, ceremonies, and doctrines, we should be like Mother Teresa and simply ask ourselves how we can best help the people we meet. As a Buddhist priest, I decided to pour my energies into grass-roots volunteer activities.
However, I suppose I must be by nature rather inept. While throwing myself into volunteer work, I failed to realize how tired I was becoming and five years ago experienced burnout.
With that, I learned the lesson that I must care for myself while also caring for others. The self and others are one and the same, and I now try not to forget that what I am doing for others I also do for myself. And because everything is transient, I do not think much about tomorrow but on each and every day try to be flexible in responding to the question, "What can I do right now?"
Creating a Society Where We Feel Truly Happy
The disastrous earthquake and tsunami that occurred in Japan in March 2011 claimed nearly twenty thousand lives and left a great many more people without homes or jobs. Since then our foundation has actively worked in the disaster areas to support victims with care for both body and soul. We have worked to improve living conditions at temporary housing facilities and hope to continue our ongoing efforts to secure a happy future for children from the areas affected by the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. For example, we have been working with mothers to find Buddhist temples to which they can be evacuated away from the disaster zone in order to protect their small children from radiation exposure. Also, I feel we have a role to play as Buddhists in communicating the true meaning of life to people living now as well as to the generations yet to be born, which I trust will constitute memorial services for those who lost their lives.
In present-day Japan there is a powerful trend toward judging one's happiness by measuring one's economic wealth and comparative advantage over others in aptitudes and abilities. We need to create a society where a person can more easily choose a way of life that is rooted in spirituality and affirms the value of thinking about what constitutes true human happiness as a part of everyday life. Our role as Buddhists should be to create the motivation for that shift within society. I feel this would be the true way to remember and pray for the many people who lost their lives in the disaster.
Hitoshi Jin is executive director of the Zenseikyo Foundation for Youth and Child Welfare in Tokyo, a cooperative entity of more than sixty Japanese Buddhist denominations. He is also senior research fellow at the Institute for Engaged Buddhism. He works to support young people who contemplate suicide, refuse to go to school, or have other problems. He has also been involved in activities supporting the victims of the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011.
This article was originally published in the April-June 2012 issue of Dharma World.