The Japanese people are suffering after a 9.0 earthquake rattled the islands on March 11th. As a survivor of a natural disaster (I was left homeless by Hurricane Katrina), my heart goes out to the people of Japan in this difficult time.
I remember watching the news in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when looters broke through storefronts with bricks and fire, taking diapers and plasma televisions back to their devastated homes. Perhaps it was the dissolution of their reality that incensed them to the violence and thievery. Or perhaps I am giving humanity too much credit; and it was merely the greed taking precedence over moral reasoning. I watched with distaste during those first two days, before I was allowed to return to my own home. For I lived in an upper-middle class neighborhood, and people were civilized there.
When I did get to return to my home, it had been ruined by six feet of water, a tornado and a damaged roof. Anything that was susceptible to water damage received just that, and many things that were not, were missing. And as I returned to the scene, day after day, I returned to fewer and fewer retrievable belongings, as people took residence in my home, taking what they desired, and leaving a toilet full of waste and Penthouse magazines. Civilized.
So why, after last Friday's earthquake, did the Japanese people remain with their families, help their neighbors and wait six hours in line at food banks for food that they could have stormed a supermarket with bricks to obtain? Why did they not take the easy way out?
I believe that, since the majority of Japanese celebrate Buddhism, their belief system is so ingrained in their daily lives that it kicked in when they needed it most. For it's during times of human suffering that a strong belief system shows its strengths. Buddha's enlightened teachings stressed the importance of striving to end suffering for one's self and of those that surround us. The foundations of practice, which include the "Three Jewels" remind followers of the insightfulness of the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings) and the Sangha (community). Add karma to the mixture, and the Japanese people are more concerned with helping the whole rather than satisfying the individual.
The Three Marks of Existence stress impermanence (that all things are constantly changing, so attachment to them is futile and leads to further suffering); suffering (a loose translation into English that encompasses sorrow, affliction, frustration and discomfort, among other things); and non-self (that the concepts of "I" and "mine" are merely labels that are constructed by the mind). With these beliefs stressed in the Buddhist path of enlightenment, it's no wonder that the people thought of others first, and of themselves last.
I am not one to state that anyone deserves to endure such devastation as the Japanese people are enduring at this moment, and whether by divine infliction or by natural causes, it's a lesson that most Americans could learn about community, love and devotion to others. I doubt you'll see much of this line of thought detailed on our plasma televisions, so let's hope the world does a little reflection on its own.