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Love, Gratitude, and the Essence of Zen

A few weeks ago, my friends Mave and Elaine, from Singapore came to visit us in Kesennuma. They had visited once previously in 2016, after watching Discovery Channel’s: “Beyond the Tsunami” in which Ken Watanabe visits Kesennuma after the Great East Japan Earthquake. The documentary features Otokoyama Honten, a local sake brewery which was devastated in the tsunami. Mave and Elaine were so moved by the resilient spirit of company president Akihiko Sugawara, that they felt like they had to come to Kesennuma to meet him in person.

When in Shark City…

Last year, after reaching out to Akihiko-san, they were able to get in touch with him and they made a stop in Kesennuma during their trip to Tohoku to talk to him and get a tour of Otokoyama Honten’s brewery. Because they were only able to spend a short time in town on their previous visit, they came back to visit us again this year. This time around, I had a chance to spend a day together with them. Mave asked me if I could take them to my favorite place in the city.

The Cherry Tree at Seiryoin, a popular spot for flower-viewings as well as barbecues!

Kesennuma is full of places I love, but one of my favorite places to bring new friends is Seiryoin Temple in the southern part of the city. The temple itself is beautiful, with over 300 years of history, and the three monks who run the temple (a father and his two sons) are some of the friendliest, most generous people I’ve met anywhere in the world. Seiryoin’s grounds are also home to Hamawarasu, an organization dedicated to teaching kids to live in harmony with nature and giving them the skills they need to fend for themselves in the event of a natural disaster. In the summer you’ll often find kids from the neighborhood scampering and giggling around the Hamawarasu Treehouse

The Hamawarasu Treehouse is open to the public for viewing, so if you’re in the area, I’d recommend checking it out!

We were visiting on a Sunday afternoon, so I wasn’t expecting any of my friends to be around. However, as we were walking around the temple grounds, we happened run into the abbot, who just happened to be doing some work in the garden. He asked us to come in for a cup of tea.

The monks of Seiryoin. Abbot Miura(called juushoku 住職 in Japanese), and his two sons Kendo-san (left), and Shodo-san (right)

The core philosophy that the monks at Seiryoin live by is “to be a temple for the common people.” Shodo-san, the younger brother says, “In modern Japanese society, the main role of a Buddhist temple is to provide funeral services for the deceased. But in the olden days, temples served as the main place for members of the community to assemble. From providing a place for traveling musicians to perform, to serving as mediation centers for resolving civil disputes, temples were a mainstay in the everyday lives of ordinary people. We want our temple to provide that function again for the members of our community; a temple that exists, not only to send off the deceased into the afterlife, but also to enrich and bring joy to the lives of the living.”

Seiryoin’s main building serves as the monks’ home. In the days following the Tohoku tsunami, however, Seiryoin became an emergency evacuation shelter, and the monks gave up the rooms of the main building to residents who had lost their homes, and made their own sleeping quarters in a smaller separate building at the back of the temple. “We didn’t perform any of our normal religious services at this time,” the head monk says, “We didn’t want the locals to see us as religious figures, but as friends and neighbors that they could rely on during this terrible crisis. When the emergency supplies were brought by the Japanese Self-Defense Force, we came outside to eat together with the evacuees.” He says with a smile, “I called it the Blue Sky Dining Hall. Out in the open, sharing together with everyone, because under the blue sky, all of us are the same.”

Seiryoin has welcomed volunteers, musicians and all kinds of visitors from around Japan and all over the world. One of the primary reasons for this is that the abbot loves drinking and singing karaoke together with new friends! The abbot’s love for music has brought all kinds of performers to the temple, from jazz musicians to enka singers.

The Abbot says, “I don’t often like to sing in front of people. Because people are always shocked by how good I am”
Kesennuma Street Jazz Festival @ Seiryoin, April 2018
Inoue-san, a famous tsugaru-jamisen performer from Morioka

“Ichi-go ichi-e,” is a famous Japanese proverb, that the monks at the temple always repeat back to me when I introduce them to someone new. This proverb emphasizes the importance of treasuring chance encounters with the people in our lives. Because Mave and Elaine came all the way from Singapore to visit Seiryoin, the Abbot said, “these are the very meetings we must hold dear, because they might never happen again.”

The abbot was so glad to have met these new friends that he invited them to come and stay at Seiryoin the next time they’re in Kesennuma!
After a tour of the temple, the abbot insisted on taking us out for sake and sashimi. All three of the monks have a great sense of humor. I’m not sure how well I translated the jokes, but it didn’t seem to matter, because everyone was doubled over laughing. 

“People think Zen is just about sitting quietly and meditating. But to express gratitude and love from the bottom of your heart, this is the true essence of Zen,” Shodo-san, says. 

Today, I got a package from Mave and Elaine, and I think I’m beginning to understand what the “Heart of Zen” means…

3 Bottles of Kaya! Coconut jam from Singapore! One of my favorite breakfast food items in the world. (The seal on the third jar is broken because I already had some this morning… haha)

Why three bottles? Here’s the accompanying note:

Thank you guys so much! And see you back in Kesennuma soon! =)

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