A modernization of the story "An Account of a Ten Foot Square Hut"
Many, many years ago, it is said that the Buddha went out into the world, seeking to free himself from his cloistered palace -- and saw sickness, old age, and death. Upon seeing this inevitable suffering, he resolved to free the world with his philosophy, and lead us all to Enlightenment. Although our land is filled with fine Buddhist shrines and many people pay for fine Buddhist funerals, we have forgotten the central truths of Buddhism, which stress the impermanence of all material things. The only thing which is permanent is the persistence of suffering and the truth of the Buddha's philosophy of non-attachment.
Because we can create great structures out of metal and wood; because we can prolong life slightly longer than before; because we can disguise the effects of aging, we believe we are immune from the suffering of our ancestors. We are not, we are merely less wise.
It was on a fine day in March, at precisely 2:46 P.M. that the world changed. Yes, there were warnings, but the warnings mattered little. The earth shook and suddenly, what was formerly secure crumbled. Buildings caved into one another. Houses were snapped in two like twigs. The seemingly impenetrable earth cracked, swallowing cars whole.
Then the water came, making the hungry sea part of the land. What the great quake did not take, the ocean swallowed up. Extraordinary stories of survival abound from this time: a man who was stranded for two days upon the roof of his house, and was finally found. There are other, tragic stories: a woman running back to check on her elderly parents in their home, only to discover that they were no longer there, never to be seen again; there were not even bones to bury. Beloved pets left in the home were also taken away -- yet one woman was reunited the cat she was sure had been sucked away with the rest of her belongings and home.
What the water chose to take and chose to leave was entirely arbitrary. The good lost everything and so did the wicked. Some people were reunited with husbands, sons, mothers, and daughters, while others now live, forever haunted with the notion that if only they had been with their family that day, the tragedy might have been averted.
Signs of compassion in the universe are everywhere, however. Seared upon my mind is one film clip I saw on television. A thin dog, crying and whining to tell rescuers something. At first it was assumed that the dog wanted food. But the dog refused and kept gesturing to the men to come with him. They found a sick, weak dog -- the animal's apparent friend -- lying amid the rubble. These signs of caring and selflessness, however horrific, show that even in the worst of circumstances there is hope. Many people headed to the areas most affected by the tragedy to provide aid, rather than turned away, as might be expected.
Yet even in the face of such caring, evidence of human folly was still manifest. To satisfy the world's insatiable appetite for energy, our country has installed nuclear reactors to power our homes, schools, and businesses, and keep us every connected electronically, so we can avoid being really connected to each other face-to-face. Tragically, the Fukushima nuclear reactor experienced a meltdown of unprecedented proportions, destroying the natural world in which we live with dangerous radioactivity. In ages past, when Japan was hit by an earthquake and tsunami, all we needed to worry about was damage to our homes and bodies (which is worry enough). Now we must worry that the castles to our vanity we have created will come crashing down amongst our ears, rendering the earth uninhabitable not simply to ourselves but to later generations. The possibility of rebuilding seems grim indeed.
And what of I, myself? Currently I am living in temporary housing, for those who cannot return to their homes. I wait for my home to be declared 'safe' by the government, but I am dubious that this will occur any time soon.
I am living in an abandoned school building in what was declared a 'safe' zone. Every day, I wake to people aimlessly wandering about, mostly elderly people (the tsunami hit the hardest in an area of Japan populated by many retired men and women). No place to go, nothing to do. I was acutely aware of how much the routine of my job had structured my existence. Before, every day I had woken with a sense of purpose and assurance, knowing that I had to get to the train on time, get to work, and immediately begin delving into my in-box at a frenetic pace. Lunch was a bowl of noodles slurped down, followed by running to make the train yet again. This pace gave me no time to think, and even though I was vaguely dissatisfied, it did not occur to me to question what I was doing, or the necessity of living this life.
Now, the hours of my day are structured by the light -- when the sun rises and when the sun sets. Power has not yet been restored. I have no time clock, no structure, and yet no choice, for what I eat and drink is provided by the relief agencies that have come to assist my country. Once upon a time, I felt as if the entire world rested upon my shoulders, and that everything would be destroyed if I were a moment late turning in something for work, or if I offended my boss. Now I am not even sure if he is still alive, and I realize how meaningless my unpleasant duties were. Even without my work -- without my office building itself -- life still goes on.
And yet how I long for that old routine! How I long to be back at my desk, in a clean, dry, and sweet-smelling office, counting down the hours until I could get my favorite lunch. I even think of fondness at the colleagues I used to despise, as vestiges of my former life. Yet I must learn to detach from what has left me. I have learned the true nature of suffering -- not because my pain is much greater than others (it is not, and I am rather better off than many of the victims of this terrible event) but because I understand how the human mind attaches to things both good and bad. It is not because our lives are so pleasurable and stuffed with modern comforts that we love them -- we cling, instead, to some semblance of order, even though it does not exist.
My life now, I daresay, is far more real, authentic, and truly lived than it was in the past. I am trying to achieve a state of tranquility and accept what I cannot change, for I have no choice. It is impossible to change one's external circumstances -- I have learned that -- all we can strive is to change the mind through meditation. By shifting our mental state, we shift our perceptions of our external conditions and accept them.
Things will change. I will find another place to stay and another job. Yet just as easily again, everything could be destroyed. Instead of mourning and fearing this, I must learn to regard all the events in my life equally dispassionately and find tranquility, even in my current state.
Today, one of the relief workers offered me some canned spaghetti. I accepted it with a smile as if it were my mother's famous rice balls -- something comforting, and made with love. I stare out the window and try not to hope and anticipate that things will be different tomorrow. Even if they are, I know that everything is fundamentally the same under the surface: ever-shifting yet utterly unaware and uncaring about my status as an individual. Just like the sea.
Japan is a land that has been struck by many earthquakes over the course of its history. One thing which struck me when reading "An Account of a Ten Foot Square Hut" by Kamo No Chome was the degree to which the experiences of the author resonated with stories of the recent natural disasters in contemporary Japan. Just like many Japanese people today, the author was struggling to find a sense of peace, even in the face of witnessing horrific natural events. I believed that many Japanese persons who are professed Buddhists no doubt likewise struggled when they were affected by the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown that occurred two years ago.
Kamo No Chome juxtaposes images of horrific natural calamities with the peace and serenity he feels living in his self-made hut. In his hut, he has been stripped down to his barest essences, and can focus on what he…