Of Earthquakes and Koans

Michael H. Fox

The great Hanshin earthquake of 1995 shattered the lives of thousands: 6,300 perished, 125,000 lost their homes, countless others lost their jobs and any means of maintaining their livelihood. The earthquake taught many lessons, and at the same time, left many questions, some of which are painful to contemplate.

On the positive side, the quake lead to cooperation and a shared sense of human warmth among complete strangers. People of different cultures and languages joined hands in a show of mutual concern. At a very basic level, the concept of ethnicity, nationality and group membership, all very strongly delineated factors in Japanese society, seemed to melt away. Everyone had the common goal of working together to salvage their lives from the rubble.

The earthquake revealed the better side of human nature, particularly that of the Japanese people. At the same time, it also revealed an ugly side of the Japanese government. A team of Swiss rescue workers and their sniffing dogs were held in custody of the airport for thirty-six hours while bumbling bureaucrats in Tokyo deliberated animal quarantine laws. A group of American medical personnel accompanied by seasoned rescue workers with experience in the California Northridge quake were shunned by Japanese doctors. The Americans were told unequivocally that they were neither wanted nor needed. The Japanese doctors also tried to petition the government to forbid the use of American medicines. The American government offered troops and equipment from nearby bases to help clear roads and deliver emergency supplies. This offer was immediately rejected. In fact, the chief of international affairs for the Kobe mayor's office told a U.S. consulate officer in a closed-door meeting that all the help being offered by foreign governments is "just a big headache and nuisance to us."

The earthquake has left me with many troubled feelings. Even during the Cold War, when the communist and capitalist spheres were dueling for control of the world, either side would have eagerly done its best to help the other in a time of disaster. Both sides shared the philosophy that the value of a human life exceeded political belief. At the time of this writing, the USA is set to donate nearly two million dollars of aid to cope with the famine which is ravaging North Korea, its ideological enemy.

What significance, if any, does this have for the student of Buddhism? Like many foreigners, I came to Japan many years ago to practice Zen. Japan has a great and long Buddhist tradition; the teachings of many hundreds of years ago are still practiced and made available in these harried times. Yet, those who probably need to heed these teachings the most, the bureaucrats in the corridors of power in Tokyo, choose to remain oblivious to their essence. The gut wrenching lesson of the earthquake was learning that the Japanese government would prefer to let quite a few of its citizens die rather than accept the good will of a foreign government.

If this is disturbing to ponder; it was much more shocking to see and experience. The western media offered explanations for the Japanese reluctance to accept aid and kindness from abroad. But none of these explanations really grasp the complexity of the problem. Yet, analyzing the reasoning behind these motives goes beyond the limits of my own rational mind. It cannot be summarized by the proverb: "A hungry samurai will chew on a toothpick to disguise his inner feelings." It is probably deeper than the first tenet of Arinori Mori's nineteenth century treatise on education, which clearly states "that Japan must never be reliant on a foreign country." Whatever the reason or reasons may be, the great Hanshin earthquake revealed the anti-Buddhistic nature of the Japanese government.

Those of us who practice the great Way have been attracted to the East for its practical, rational and liberating philosophies. Japan has given birth to many great patriarchs. In some ways, those of us who have been drawn to this legacy are quite analytical in nature. Because we analyze life, we have deep spiritual needs.

The disaster that rocked Kobe and its environs left much to analyze. But in fact, there is much which is beyond our cognitive analytical skills. Therefore, I have consciously chosen to stop analyzing both the misery and the government's reaction to it. I prefer to think of the situation as a kind of koan -- a paradox with a meaning for beyond cognitive thought.

As new koans are born, the older ones begin to burn even fiercely. Of the various koans I have encountered, perhaps none was more unsettling than my first meeting with Hisamatsu's fundamental koan, which was expressed like this: If everything you have worked and striven for ultimately fails, then what will you do? I can still remember the time and place of the encounter very well. It did not occur in the traditional auspices of sanzen, the formal meeting with a Zen master, but in a conference room at the University of Michigan in a special lecture given by Gishin Tokiwa during his term as visiting professor.

My initial reaction was one of instantaneous shock. I could not believe what I had heard. For a moment, I had the impulse to stand up like a trial lawyer, pound the table and yell "objection!".

When I think back in time, I attribute my shock to misconceptions I held about Zen. First, I thought koans were catalysts for meditation training; mystical questions meant to push us deeper and further in our practice. I envisioned them as paradoxical questions with no logical solution, the only solution being the eventual disintegration of the koan inside the mind.

A second misconception I held was the notion that Zen was ultimately an optimistic philosophy. Perhaps I had juxtaposed an American Judaic-Christian framework, one in which good always conquers evil, justice is always served, and the righteous always goes to heaven, onto a religion/philosophy where it does not fit.

Hisamatsu's koan transformed my understanding of Zen. First, his koan was not paradoxical but sharp and straightforward. Secondly, it indicated a stage in the human condition without a happy or optimistic ending; desperation and misery seemed to me to be the final scenes.

I have come to realize that Buddhism is not a religion of optimism -- one in which everybody lives happily ever after -- and that koans are not necessarily paradoxical catalysts meant to spur the hours spent in meditation. When we sit in zazen, we sometimes sit with the goal of attaining kensho-insight. To this degree, some of us are optimistic in the purpose of our sitting. But even this idea would draw the ire of many Zen masters, past and present.

Let us return to Hisamatsu's koan. As I mentioned above, my first reaction was one of shock. Perhaps, the koan ignited some psychological angst which I had never consciously considered. To ponder a world in which everything that one has labored and striven for suddenly turning to dust was more than I could imagine. It is probably no exaggeration to say that most people bury this angst outside their conscious world in an attempt to deny the impermanence of all things.

As I sit here on the outskirts of Kobe, I need not push any button to instantaneously replay the many images of destroyed lives, obliterated homes, or the cadavers of children. These have been eternally ingrained in my mind. Also ingrained is the reality of the impermanence of life, the possibility that everything and everybody we have worked and slaved for could indeed perish in an instant.

The great Hanshin earthquake was an experience beyond words. Surviving the quake was a great gift that has brought many spiritual rewards. Impermanence is more than philosophical meandering, it is an undeniable and unmitigable truth. I firmly believe that the degree to which we embrace Hisamatsu's koan, with all its terrifying ramifications, will lead us to greater spiritual fulfillment and to the heart of the human condition.

July 4, 1996