It’s spring now and soon the cherry blossoms will come to Japan. It’s a big deal. The entire nation celebrates with festivals, and viewing parties and picnics, and after dark, the parks always seemed to be filled with strolling couples admiring the trees in the moonlight. The newspapers and the TV news carrying special features each day updating everyone on the “sakura front”, charting the progress of the cherry blossoms as they bloom their way across the country.

To say that the Japanese appreciate the beauty of the sakura is an understatement. I imagine that for many this year they will as excruciatingly poignant as they should be exquisite, for cherry blossoms, which drop from the trees soon after blooming, represent the transient nature of life.

Some Japanese poems on the subject of cherry blossoms . . .

We cannot behold
the beauty of the blossoms
enshrouded by haze –
yet steal us their scent, at least,
spring breezes blowing from the hills.

Yoshimine no Munesada (816-90)

How many times now
have I crossed over hill crests
with the image
of blossoms leading me on –
toward nothing but white clouds?

Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114-1204)

Everyone feels grief
when cherry blossoms scatter.
Might they then be tears –
those drops of moisture falling
in the gentle rains of spring?

Otomo no Juronushi (late 9th century)

The pathway I marked
when last year I made my way
into Yoshino –
I abandon now to visit
blossoms I have not yet seen.

Monk Saigyo (1118-1190)

Thoughts still linger  –
but will those who have parted
return once again?

Evening is deep in the hills
where cherry blossoms fall.

Shinkei (1406-1475)

A fallen blossom
Returning to the bough, I thought –
But no, a butterfly.

Arakida Moritake (1473-1549)

From Traditional Japanese Poetry An Anthology, translated by Steve D. Carter

Ah, it’s St. Patrick’s Day, when anyone can put on some green and be Irish for a day, even Alfred E. Neuman. Whenever I think about my Irish heritage, I am reminded of that great quote by William Butler Yeats:

Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.

Yes, we Irish do have our special charm.

Yesterday’s post included a quote from Petra Nemcova, a survivor of the 2004 tsunami in Thailand. I don’t know how many people clicked on her link, but I thought it deserved special mention.

After her experience in the tsunami, which she survived by clinging to a palm tree for eight hours with a broken pelvis, Ms. Nemcova, a Czech model and television host, founded the Happy Hearts Fund, “a non-profit foundation dedicated to improving children’s lives through educational and sustainable programs in natural disaster areas.”

HHF has directly helped children in several post-disaster areas, including Haiti, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Peru, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Hurricane Katrina-affected areas of the United States. Globally, HHF is active in eight countries and has built/rebuilt 46 schools and kindergartens. Its programs benefit more than 12,000 children and 230,000 community members annually.

As we all deal with the anxiety over the events in Japan and send thoughts of loving-kindness to the victims, we should not forget that in this saha world, money can be a useful tool to help relieve suffering. The Happy Hearts Fund looks like a place where donations are put to wise and effective use. You can check them out here.

However, I think there might be a need for more immediate donations to help those affected by the earthquake in Japan and tsunami throughout the Pacific and the Red Cross is a good place for that. However, if you text your donation, be aware that text donations can be delayed by a month or more, because organizations typically don’t receive the cash from the phone company until after donors pay their bills.

Remember, be as generous as you can, it’s the Irish thing to do.

Erin go Bragh!

I was in a major earthquake once. Not as devastating at this one in Japan, but it was close enough. As I watch the news, I can’t help but think back to the Northridge quake. It is one of the rare times in life when you can say like you know how it feels and come close to meaning it. I also keep thinking about Nichiren, the 13th Century Japanese Buddhist upon whose teachings the Soka Gakkai is based.

Nichiren calming the sea. (Note the title of the Lotus Sutra on the waves.)

Nichiren (Sun-Lotus) was a pretty feisty guy. Opinionated, stubborn, hard to get along with, didn’t play well with others. Not your typical laidback Buddhist priest. I believe he was largely self-educated, especially in regards to Buddhist doctrine; a Tendai priest who became a street preacher. His was an outlaw sect. Later on, he probably had a small army around him. Most of Buddhist sects in Japan at that time did. Japanese Buddhism has gone through some violent periods.

Nichiren’s claim was that the Lotus Sutra was the supreme sutra, the one and only sutra, and all other Buddhist teachings were dangerous. Here’s his famous declaration from Senji-sho or “The Selection of the Time”:

There can be no doubt that the Nembutsu [Pure Land Buddhism] leads to the hell of incessant suffering, and that the Zen school is the work of the heavenly devil. And the True Word [Shingon] school in particular is a great plague to this nation of ours.

He once said that the priests of other schools should have their heads lopped off. Definitely not a inter-faith kind of guy. Nichiren believed that since Japan had turned its back on the Lotus Sutra, it had invited disaster. In the same work quoted above, he says,

Now the great earthquake and the huge comet that have appeared are calamities brought about by heaven, which is enraged because the ruler of our country hates Nichiren and sides with the Zen, Nembutsu, and True Word priests who preach doctrines that will destroy the nation!

Nichiren lived during a period when Japan was hit with a series of natural disasters. He thought he knew what lay behind it. In “A Sage Perceives the Three Existences of Time”, he says,

The entire populace of Japan has in fact [slandered Nichiren and] had their heads broken. What else do you think caused the great earthquake of the Shoka era [1257] and the huge comet of the Bun’ei era [1264]?

Yes, Nichiren thought he was the one all right. But here, from “Letter to Akimoto”, is my all-time favorite:

I, Nichiren, am like the great earthquake of the Shoka era (1257), a freak of the earth that had never before occurred in this land.

Well, he might have been a freak, or maybe the person who chose the wording of that line should have had their head broken.

In 1268, Nichiren warned that if Japan did not see things his way, the country would face foreign invasion by the Mongols. He was so acrimonious about it that he was sentenced to death, a penalty later rescinded in favor of exile. The Mongols did try to invade Japan but their fleet was destroyed by a typhoon-like “divine wind,” which is where the Japanese term kamikaze comes from.

Anyway, in light of recent events, I thought some readers might find this interesting. Nichiren was a superstitious, like most people in medieval times, and he believed in a lot of nonsense. Unfortunately, he built his entire doctrine on that nonsense. In all fairness, he wasn’t a total freak. At times, he could be quite poetic, and when he wasn’t self-aggrandizing or being overly dogmatic about the Lotus Sutra, he could make a rather good point. As in this passage from “Letter to Niike”:

How swiftly the days pass! It makes us realize how short are the years we have left. Friends enjoy the cherry blossoms together on spring mornings and then they are gone, carried away like the blossoms by the winds of impermanence, leaving nothing but their names. Although the blossoms have scattered, the cherry trees will bloom again with the coming of spring, but when will those people be reborn? The companions with whom we composed poems praising the moon on autumn evenings have vanished with the moon behind the shifting clouds. Only their mute images remain in our hearts. The moon has set behind the western mountains, yet we shall compose poetry under it again next autumn. But where are our companions who have passed away? Even when the approaching Tiger of Death roars, we do not hear. How many more days are left to the sheep bound for slaughter?

Deep in the Snow Mountains lives a bird called Kankucho which, tortured by the numbing cold, cries that it will build a nest in the morning. Yet, when the day breaks, it sleeps away the hours in the warm light of the morning sun without building its nest. So it continues to cry vainly throughout its life. The same is true of people. When they fall into hell and suffocate in its flames, they long to be reborn as humans and vow to put everything else aside and serve the three treasures in order to attain enlightenment in their next life. But even on the rare occasions when they happen to be reborn human, the winds of fame and fortune blow violently and the lamp of Buddhist practice is easily extinguished. The squander their wealth without a qualm on meaningless trifles but begrudge even the smallest contribution to the Buddha, the Law, and the Priest. This is very serious, for then they are being hindered by messengers from hell. This is the meaning of “Good by the inch invites evil by the yard.

Nichiren quotes:

In some other Japan related news . . .

Daisaku Ikeda, President-Soka Gakkai Intl.

There’s an interesting article at the OC Weekly, a sort of expose dealing with some controversies at Soka University, the liberal arts college in Orange Country California run by the Soka Gakkai International, a lay Buddhist organization centered in Japan. I’ll post the link at the end.

The SGI is a very complicated subject, one that really calls for book-length treatment. I was involved with the SGI for many years, so I know that it is difficult to take a single aspect, in this case Soka University of America, and paint an accurate picture in an article of four or five thousand words.

This is the largest, most well organized, wealthiest Buddhist organization in the world, with branches in over 192 countries and 12 million members, numerous associative and sub organizations, an education system, which according to one SGI website ( “includes kindergartens in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Brazil, a complete school system in Japan as well as Soka University in Japan and the United States,” a concert association, an art museum, an institute of “Oriental Science”, a couple of institutes for “Global Peace and Policy Research,” and a political party

More than anything else, Soka Gakkai is Daisaku Ikeda. He built the modern day organization and it is his words, his spirit, his ideas, and his agenda that permeates every aspect of it. Fanatical is not too strong a word to use to describe the respect, love and devotion his followers feel for him. In recent years, the concept of the “oneness of master and disciple” (I forget the Japanese term) has become a central part of the faith, the doctrine.

Ikeda receiving the Leonardo International Award from the Leonardo Club (?), Russia 1994

I think Ikeda holds the world record for most academic honorary degrees. At last count, he has racked up a whopping 300. He gets a lot of prizes and awards, too. Some of these are the result of intensive lobbying efforts on the part of the SGI, and in a few cases, allegedly, extensive gift giving.

I haven’t mentioned the relentless recruitment efforts – or the money. Tons of it. One time the SGI “lost”  a million dollars. It was found at a dumpsite in Yokohama.

So, it’s a complex story to tell. To try to capsulate even the Soka University part of it in a single article is a daunting task, if you want to do it with accuracy and balance. So, I have some mixed feeling about the article. For me there seems to be some pieces missing, some parts that are rather hazy, and some of it doesn’t ring true, based on my experience. I don’t doubt that there is something to the allegations, it’s just that I have questions about the way they are said to have been played out.

The SGI is a multi-tiered organization. At the level of Soka U, which is extremely important to the SGI, things are done with finesse. Frankly, when I hear allegations about threats and intimidation, I wonder. The typical SGI strategy is to marginalize people. They are highly skilled at subtle manipulation and manufacturing consent. Masters of public relations: scour the net and you will find very little negative material. How they do that, I don’t know. It’s a bit different in Japan, where a lot of the skeletons are already out of the closet. And they are sitting on top of a Mt. Fuji of controversy. One of these days, someone is going to put all the pieces together and present it the world. It’s inevitable the way things are today.

In reading the article it is important to keep in mind that Soka University of America is just one spoke in a very large wheel, and as such, and with all things Gakkai at that level, no decision is ever made or action taken without the knowledge and approval of higher ups in Japan. Often, the leaders in Japan give the direction, and they are not always sensitive to the cultures of other countries, and in the case of the U.S., political correctness, especially in regards to administrative, legal and financial matters.

I won’t go into all the other fine points that the article does not make, and I am not really judging the author, for as I said, it is a complex subject, and too, I have no idea what editorial judgments were made. One glaring error is that the Hare Krishna is not “an alternative Buddhist sect.” Those are not the author’s words, yet I would think that including a clarification would have been the more professional thing to do – maybe that’s just nit-picking, I don’t know.

Soka Gakkai has many positive aspects, but some disturbing ones. The question is whether the bad outweighs the good, and that is why it deserves scrutiny. Make no mistake about it, no matter how positive the SGI’s image is publicly, there is a dark side.

Ikeda is quoted in the article saying “I am the King of Japan.” Sounds pretty grandiose, but there is a grain of truth in that. His influence on his society is underrated outside of Japan, and perhaps within, as well. This is why, when someone does publish a well-researched, thorough “expose”, no matter how well balanced, it’ll be like a tsunami hitting the world of the Soka Gakkai, and I think, Japan itself.

Here’s the article.

By the way, a satellite designed by Soku U students in Japan, called  Negai (“wish”), was launched on May 10, 2010 by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The satellite is operated by Soka U and now orbits the earth, supposedly as a technological demonstration transmitting pictures to children participating in an outreach program. I don’t think this is part of any plot by the SGI to take over the world, but I’m not sure that I would rule it out.

Author of Ikeda portrait photo: SGI

I had another post planned for today. I think I will save it for some other time, because for the last few hours I have been watching on live television a tsunami devastate the Pacific coast of Japan, and now the entire west coast of the U.S. is under a tsunami warning . . .

It is extraordinary, and heart wrenching, to watch:  A tsunami wave carrying mud and debris (some of it burning)  went up a river to sweep over homes and farm land, cars speeding out of the way, cars and huge trucks swept up and carried along, boats crashing into bridges, buildings filling with water, fires in Sendai, Tokyo . . .

A tsunami warning has been in effect for Russia, Marcus Island and the Northern Marianas, and a tsunami watch issued for Guam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Hawaii. By the time you read this, who knows what the situation will be.

I have never been to Japan. I have spent a great deal of time with Japanese people, and I am very fond of them and love their culture. May they and all people in the regions affected be free from suffering.

Whenever there is a natural disaster, people struggle to find an explanation. However, the truth is that there is only the scientific explanation. Earthquakes and tsunamis are not caused by supernatural forces. Buddhism certainly doesn’t try to provide an explanation other than that it is suffering and this is a world of suffering.

Somehow, though, that doesn’t seem enough. There should be ideas or words that comfort, that heal. That’s the compassion part of Buddhism. The Japanese word for compassion is jihi. I believe it corresponds with the Sanskrit karuna. Ji means “to care, to cry” or to have empathy. Hi means “to remove the suffering.”

It is not enough to simply know there is suffering. We must also remove suffering whenever we can. Or make the attempt. There are times, however, when we are helpless, too far away, unable to render any direct service. In such cases, all we can do is heal and comfort ourselves, and those immediately around us.

In that regard, we have two powerful tools. One is the aspiration to remove the suffering. We may not be able to help, but we can still want to help. An aspirational wish, or prayer if you will, can be very effective. Just ask the Dalai Lama:

The root of [aspirational] prayer is compassion. To be interested in one’s own welfare and to desire happiness for oneself is natural. But it is more important to be concerned with the happiness of others. What an altruistic aspiration like this does is counter the self-centeredness that neglects others. If you are centered on your own well-being, and ignore the well-being of others, you will never find true happiness. The act of wishing others to be free from suffering brings great benefits and blessings to you, even though you do not seek them.

Secondly, we have practice. Tibetan Buddhism has a meditation called Tonglen. It means “giving and taking” or “sending and receiving.”  You visualize taking into your own body the suffering of others on the in-breath, and on the out-breath you send out warm thoughts of loving-kindness. There are different ways to do Tonglen. Some are a bit ritualistic. I do “giving and taking” very simply, as I described it here.

Healing and comforting oneself is not selfish. It is an essential requirement to practicing compassion, empathy and removing suffering. Again, the Dalai Lama:

Whether this meditation really helps others or not, it gives me peace of mind. Then I can be more effective, and the benefit is immense.

If you would like to learn more about Tonglen, Pema Chodron’s explanation is a good place to start.

All that mass of pain and evil karma I take into my own body. I take upon myself the burden of sorrow; I resolve to do so; I endure it all. I do not turn back or run away, I do not tremble,  I am not afraid,  nor do I despair. Assuredly, I must bear the burdens of all beings for I have resolved to save them all. I must set them all free.

- Shantideva