Monthly Archives: March 2011


From Kobe, Jan. 17, 1995 to Tohoku, March 11, 2011

The news in Japan has catapulted me back to my time in that country, my memories of that place.

I lived in Osaka and Kyoto from 1990 to 1993. I have a master’s degree in Japanese Studies, and initially went there on a Japanese Ministry of Education fellowship to study at Doshisha University for a year and a half. I extended my stay for another 18 months, because I fell in love with the culture and the people.

Eventually, in September 1993, it was time to return to the U.S., It was a hard decision to make. I was deeply conflicted about leaving Japan and upon arriving in California, I experienced severe counter-culture shock, mourning the streets, smells, and sounds of Japan, as well as the loss of my friends and connections.

So on Jan. 17, 1995, when a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck Kobe, also severely damaging nearby Osaka and Kyoto, I was devastated. The pictures in the newspaper, and those flashing across the television screens, were places I knew – collapsed highways I had driven across, flattened neighborhoods familiar to me, all the sights of “home.”

The brother of one of my closest friends lived in Kobe. His wife was pregnant, and near her due date. As was the custom, she had gone to her mother’s home in the country to wait for the birth. Her son was born that morning, the morning of the earthquake. Thankfully, he and his mother were not in a Kobe hospital. His father was among the commuters in the city, dealing with the chaos.

The Kobe earthquake was the biggest to hit Japan in 47 years. Nearly 6,500 died, and 27,000 were injured. More than 45,000 homes were destroyed.

And now we have the Tohoku earthquake of March 11, 2011, named after the region most affected in northern Honshu. The quake was of 9.0 magnitude, and geoscientists are saying it is the most massive event to have occurred in the last 1,200 years. With the compounding factor of the tsunami, at this point, there are an estimated 10,000 people dead or missing. Another 440,000 have been evacuated, and 88,000 buildings have been damaged. The most frightening unknown, of course, is the nuclear reactor plants, threatening meltdown.

Japan is one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries, and experiences thousands of minor tremors each year. Nothing, however, can prepare a country for a disaster of this scale.

After 18 years, I have lost touch with all of my friends in Japan. I see their faces now – Yukari, Nariko, Machiko, Tomio, Nakamura-san, Sonoda-san, Sayaka-chan, Kenji-kun, and many more. I am praying they are each in a safe place, with food, electricity, water, and heat. I am holding them in my thoughts when I meditate, hoping that can somehow help keep invisible radiation from finding them, wherever they are.

Simon Winchester’s book, “A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906,” tells the tale of that historic San Francisco quake. Winchester’s book delves into the science of seismology, and speaks specifically about the San Andreas fault. It is a fascinating read for those who want to learn more about this awe-inspiring movement of the earth.

That is the scientific part of the brain working. The heart/mind, though, is split open with grief over this event – and it will take some time before all of this human suffering can be absorbed into our world consciousness. A lot of time on the cushion.

(The Japanese kanji at the top is jishin – it means “earthquake.”)



Our sanghas have, in the last weeks, completed the final ceremonies in farewell to our teacher Darlene Cohen. On Feb. 25, her funeral was held at Green Gulch, and on March 1, we conducted her 49th day service at the Healdsburg sangha, the day signaling her spirit’s departure from this world to the next.

I had never been to Green Gulch Zen Center before. The zendo is a beautiful, spacious, high-ceilinged building, with a large Buddha at the center altar. The room was packed with people. I learned later that nearly 300 people were in attendance. Tony told me he had only seen the zendo that crowded on one other occasion – when the Dalai Lama came to speak. That gives you some idea of the far-reaching appeal of Darlene, the number of lives she has touched.

The service was surprisingly simple, despite the 20 or more people involved in the opening procession, and the large number of priests in black robes. We ended it with a group shout for Darlene – of joy and of grief – which felt entirely appropriate.

I was surprised to find myself unemotional. I think it was too big a group, with too much going on. I tend to shut down in those kinds of situations.

On March 1, we had a more private service, for the 49th day recognition. I acted as kokyo (chant leader), and we offered chocolate, tea, and incense, as I then chanted these words:

Through the power of your wisdom and compassion,
aid Darlene at this time of transition. She has taken
a great leap. The light of this world has faded for her.
She has entered the vast presence, borne
by her karma into the ocean of all existence.

Compassionate ones, care for your daughter, Darlene,
with the endless merit of your great vows. May she
together with all beings be completely enlightened.

It was at this service I felt tears in my eyes. Because this is my home sangha, the one where I imagine Darlene sitting next to Tony, giving a dharma talk. It is here I was looking directly at Tony, seeing his pain and loneliness. Here, I was feeling our mutual loss.

May we all find strength and comfort with each other.
Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved