On March 11, 2011, Japan was devastated with a gigantic earthquake, and the following unprecedented tsunami engulfed the northeastern coastal regions, bulldozing buildings, fields, and thousands of precious lives. The damage has been catastrophic with nearly 16,000 lives lost and thousands still missing.1 On top of that, the radioactive fallout of nuclear plants in Fukushima—the extent of its damage still not being accurately assessed—has not only caused many serious concerns in Japan but also sent alarms throughout the world.
In times of such great tribulations and trial, religious groups have stepped up their disaster relief efforts to help people survive, to alleviate their suffering, and to facilitate their relief/recovery processes. While Japanese media coverage of such sincere emergency efforts have been minimal or nil, especially for so-called New Religions including Ternrikyo, foreign scholars and journalists have acknowledged some sizable contributions made by these religious groups. To begin my speech, I should like to quote from a more objective article written by Barbara Ambros, Associate Professor of North Caroline University, who specializes in Japanese religions. She writes to CNN:
The group’s (Tenrikyo’s) long history of volunteering is rooted in its religious practice of hinokishin, a contribution of voluntary labor through which adherents express their gratitude toward the divine. Tenrikyo Disaster Relief Hinokishin Corps is equipped to work with local governmental agencies and provide assistance in emergencies. A division from Niigata Prefecture is now at work in quake-ravaged Sendai to repair broken water lines. In addition, Tenrikyo has organized a vast, multinational fundraising campaign through its branch churches in Japan and around the world 2
Before going into detailed developments along this line, however, I would like to first explain Tenrikyo’s doctrinal stance towards unfortunate natural disasters like this.
What is Tenrikyo’s theological understanding of natural disasters such as an earthquake?
First, we must couch this question in a religious language of compassion and love as well as to place it in the world of religious meaning as imparting a universal message for all humanity. Pains and sufferings are real and persistent; we must not be arm-chaired theologians.
Having said that, however, I should like to quote two scriptural verses that will shed light on the spiritual meaning of natural disasters as we Tenrikyo believers see them.
This universe is the body of God. Ponder this in all matters. Ofudesaki III: 40, 135
All human bodies are things lent by God. With what thought are you using them?
Ofudesaki III: 41
Our worldview rests on these two verses. This whole universe including a variety of natural environments in which we live are part of God’s body. We are kept alive in the very bosom of God’s providence and benevolent workings; furthermore, if we look at our microcosmic world of our own beings, these bodies are precious bodies borrowed from God, yet we have our own thoughts and feelings at work and it is this mind that identifies who we are. This is the fundamental truth of reality according to the Tenrikyo teachings. We all share this basic reality as brothers and sisters with the same God as our Parent.
How do we then respond to this condition of our physical being, which is lent by God? God encourages us to engage in hinokishin, a uniquely Tenrikyo term designating devotees’ pious action based on true joyous gratitude for this indebtedness, going outward to help people and help society. It is this voluntary expression and attitude of joyous faith filled with sheer gratitude that is at the core of hinokishin.
Now what does our Scriptures say about natural disasters? In our primary Scripture called “The Ofudesaki” it is said that thunders, earthquakes, great winds, and floods are all due to the anger of God and this anger of God stems from our ignorance of not knowing the origin of everything and that we as children of God are covered with dust of the mind—wrong, selfish usage of the mind based on self-centered imagination. We understand it to be “an instructive manifestation of God’s urgent regret for our spiritual lackluster or gap that creates a crevice between our minds that are inadvertently tipping towards selfish human thinking and the parental mind of Oyasama,” who is the foundress of Tenrikyo, single-heartedly intent on saving all humankind, children of God.3
What is the remedy then for our spiritual impasse or regression? Much to our sadness and regret, God had no choice but to awaken our minds by causing such a calamity so as to urge us to live up to the truth of universal brotherhood/sisterhood and to the axiom of “By saving others, you shall be saved.” God thus encourages us: “If you are truly of a mind to save others, there is no need for the persuasion of God” (III: 32), and “If you are truly of a mind to save others single-heartedly, I shall firmly accept you, even if you say nothing”(III: 38). The path of Tenrikyo is indeed to promote “mutual help among all people in all matters”(XIII: 37) .4 If the world converges to help one another as equal children of God, then God will work earnestly in all matters to hasten world salvation.
How have we Tenrikyo responded to disasters like this in the past?
These basic tenets of the teachings—namely “we are all children of God and thus brothers and sisters unto one another” and “mutual help among all people”—are at the basis of launching our “disaster relief corps” back in 1891. Beginning with Nobi Earthquake in that year, we have been dispatching this disaster relief corps” to affected areas in emergency times of earthquakes, tsunamis, windstorms, volcanic eruptions, great fires and so forth. We have named this corps “Disaster Relief Hinokishin Corps”, alluding to the spirit behind the mission, that is, altruistic action of mutual help with the joyous gratitude expressed for the healthy bodies. This spirit permeates all Tenrikyo social activities, and in fact all Tenrikyo activities ideally rest on this purely joyous motive.5
Until recently, this Disaster Relief Hinokishin Corps was organized only in Japan where Tenrikyo has a traditional stronghold. To respond to major disasters outside Japan, we have sent donations to reliable organizations like the Red Cross and sent personnel on a few occasions under the auspices of “Tenrikyo International Mutual Help Network.” However, the Taiwan Disaster Relief Hinokishin Corps was officially organized in 2001. It is noteworthy that this Taiwanese corps dispatched members to northern Japan in June to engage in relief activities. We hope to replicate this development in other regions and countries of the world in the future.
One of the unique features of our Disaster Relief Corps is to go into disaster-stricken areas with a full array of equipment, with emergency food, clothes, shelters, tents, cooking utensils, trucks and other living necessities, so as not to burden the already heavily damaged area and local people or governmental agencies in dire need of help.
This Corps has dispatched relief corps on over 100 disaster occasions since 1971. In the recent years, notably, over 20,000 corps members were dispatched to the affected areas over 4 months in the aftermath of Hanshin-Awaji Great Earthquake, which struck Osaka-Kobe regions back in 1994.6
How have we Tenrikyo responded to this particular disaster?
And then this year, the massive March 11th earthquake struck and jolted the entire nation. The news along with shocking video clips disseminated by the media immediately caught us aghast with horror and disbelief; however, in the midst of Japanese Self Defense squads going in with strict quarantine measures prohibiting private sector relief corps from entering the region at the onset, we conducted a three-day prayer service with the Shinbashira, the Central Pillar of our Church, presiding at the Church Headquarters. Our strength lies in prayer and our social contributions are also first and foremost grounded in, and motivated by, our faithful prayer to God to heal the damage. We cannot undo the tragic damages but we can minimize the extent of sufferings experienced by the victims by means of expressive actions of sincerity, its most appropriate religious expression being the powerful form and channel called “prayer.”7
With our passionate convictions of universal brotherhood and mutual help as our spiritual backbone, our relief efforts beganI should like to summarize some of the main relief efforts during the first four months. In the first week after the earthquake, our initial relief efforts had thus been primarily physical and material, providing necessities including precious water, going into three hardest-hit prefectures, Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima.8
In addition, in the hope to reach out to people so as to uplift and console their hearts and minds, we set up a bureau of psychological care for the victims and their families, and dispatched a series of groups to various shelters to conduct recreational activities for children and youths at nursery centers, kindergartens, and shelters and offered counseling sessions. These less visible efforts are still ongoing.
From April to mid-July, we expanded our coverage of relief efforts as well as diversified our activities as situations called for. Some of the activities carried out include removing debris and rubble from damaged and torn houses, scooping sludge from ditches and gutters, dismantling houses torn beyond repair, and conducting soup kitchens at shelters. Upon request from a municipal government, we also engaged in less visible activities such as sorting out relief materials pouring in from throughout the world for the ease of delivery to the needy. Our 4-month relief activity conducted by the Disaster Relief Hinokishin Corps came to a close as most diocese corps disbanded in early July.
During these 4 months, we were active for 125 days and over 20,000 followers and members took part in the relief efforts as hinokishin, joyous expressions of our faith. These efforts were primarily funded by donations and contributions collected from members and non-members alike. It was truly an all-Tenrikyo effort to alleviate the pains of those suffering in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake and tsunami. The flagship of these Tenrikyo relief efforts was definitely the Disaster Relief Hinokishin Corps. As mentioned earlier, it has been motivated and fueled by, the genuinely religious spirit of “All human beings are brothers and sisters” and “mutual help among all people.”
Shift from the emergency relief activity to longer-term recovery efforts
As we continued to manage these diversified relief activities, we the Church Headquarters decided to dissolve the relief response center to install anew a Post-disaster Recovery Committee to shift our attention to longer-term recovery efforts. The first move was to donate monetary aids each to three hardest-hit prefectures as relief funds to assist in their local recovery endeavors.
Although our official relief efforts came to a close, we wish to sustain our local efforts to assist recovery processes that will continue into the future in the hope to make this disaster a “knot from which a vigorous bud shall sprout” by accelerating salvation work in these respective locales where there are still many in need of physical and spiritual support. In emergencies or non-emergencies, our religious lifeline rests on salvation work.
It is a mission entrusted to each member of the Tenrikyo community to make our individual efforts of support and salvation in our immediate surroundings in a steady and substantial manner so that the mind of a joyous living and the quiet but effective action of helping our brothers and sisters will be shared and promoted by an ever wider circle of people.11
In Tenrikyo, for several years now, we have been promoting three qualities leading to true joyous living. These qualities are “Gratitude, Moderation, and Mutual Help.”9 We promote to be grateful to God for what we have available around us as God’s provision, starting with our borrowed bodies, to receive gladly and put to good, sustainable use all the bounty blessings of God in moderation, and to extend sincere help and support to fellow brothers and sisters in the spirit of universal brotherhood. I would like to conclude my speech, therefore, by expressing our sincere desire for continuing our individual and communal commitments for the sake of those afflicted in the post-disaster recovery years ahead as befitting believers in universal brotherhood, promoting these three principal qualities of the mind and corresponding actions. Thank you so much for your kind attention.