VOX POPULI: Facing Natural Disasters


By Rev. Daigaku Rummé

More than a month has passed since the great earthquake and tsunami disaster struck the Tohoku area of Japan. As time passes, news reports in the mainstream press have become fewer and the whole matter of the tremendous destruction and loss of life has receded from the consciousness of many Americans.

And yet, for those in the Japanese community here in Los Angeles, media coverage remains high, so most people in L.A. have not forgotten it entirely. That would be especially true if we had relatives or friends, or friends of friends and so forth, who were directly affected.

A disaster such as this has lessons for us, I believe; lessons worth pondering, especially perhaps for those of us who live in the Los Angeles area, an area that is often said to be overdue for the next Big One. While seismologists predict that nothing on the scale of the recent Tohoku earthquake will hit L.A., even a much smaller one could cause great destruction.

People around the world have looked in amazement at the good behavior of the Japanese people’s responses to the disaster. There has been no looting and people have waited patiently in line for food and water. People around the world admire the order and civility of the Japanese people in the face of the chaos and despair.

When the Big One does strike the West Coast, how will our response compare?  For those of us living in the L.A. area, this seems a question worth asking: What shall my behavior be? What shall I do to take care of myself so that I can help take care of others and help the authorities to effectively take care of the work that will demand everyone’s energies and attentions?

There is a teaching with regard to our usual sense of time when such disasters occur. In reading a book review recently, I came across a quote from Dwight Eisenhower, president of the United States from 1953-1961: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Eisenhower was a military general and this is something he must have learned through his experience in battle, that I think also applies to our everyday lives.

We need to be prepared. There is a good website, 72hours.org, which has plenty of information about how to prepare for earthquakes, among other events. But even though I myself have stocked some food and water where I live, I have to admit that I’m not well prepared for a big earthquake.

The point of Eisenhower’s quote is that even when we are well prepared, the outcome, especially in the case of a disaster or some other emergency, is never the way we think it will be. It is important to plan for a disaster and the future, but it’s more important to be flexible and deal with an emergency as it arises.

All religions speak of eternal life, but does tomorrow really exist? That is the question we are fond of asking in Zen. We all think of tomorrow and often put off something we should take care of today, saying, “I’ll do it tomorrow.” But one of the essential teachings of Buddhism is not to put things off that should be done today.

The practice of Buddhism is to really do each thing single-mindedly now … now … now … and when we meet suffering, it’s best to face it directly; to be one with it without trying to avoid it. This is easier said than done, of course, but life has a way of constantly presenting us opportunities to put this method of practice into effect.

The Japanese are no strangers to natural disaster, and this is certainly another reason for their stoicism in facing disasters. The people of Tohoku could not have known that their lives would be turned upside down in an instant. Yet I do believe that underlying the stoicism and selflessness of the Japanese people in the face of this horrific tragedy, there is the sense that we never know when disaster might strike and when it does, it is necessary to face it completely. It is necessary to do what must be done today. It is necessary to be prepared and ready.


Bishop Daigaku Rummé is a Zen priest at Zenshuji Soto Temple in Little Tokyo. He can be contacted by email. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.


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