Listening Sessions and Running Along

Tohoku HELP wishes to be the support center for all areas of the Pacific coast in Tohoku that were hard hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake. This is our grand wish, but a wish that Tohoku HELP has held ever since its establishment. Our name “Tohoku HELP” carries this wish on its two words.

So, what do we need to do in order to be the supporting center for all of Tohoku? We need to be small.

We need to be as small as possible, remaining humble and not standing out, but helping and supporting.

By doing so, we believe that the Lord will hear our wish. We hold true to and are always encouraged by the scripture, “Whoever is faithful in small matters will be faithful in large ones. (Luke 16.10)”

Tohoku HELP is the nickname for “Sendai Christian Alliance Disaster Relief Network”. Our work is based on our Christian faith. We never hide this fact, and on behalf of this fact, we wish to serve others.

If we are able to be humble servants, Christian or not, even insignificant ones as us will be able to do the work of Christ.
And truly, the Lord provided us with a wonderful encounter for us at the disaster site; the Café de Monk, traveling attentive listening sessions held by Buddhist monks. Out of the sole wish to stand nearby those who suffer from the disaster, the monks raised funds, prepared pastry, and opened these sessions, deep in the disaster sites.

Together, we participated in the Café de Monk. When we set up the Counseling Room for the Heart, this became one of its central projects.

The Counseling Room for the Heart has now expanded its borders to radio broadcasts and university courses, but its basis lies in the encounter with those in suffering. As a matter of a fact, that is all it is.

Our respected friend, Reverend Morita, has participated in a recent Café de Monk, and has provided us with a report. I would like to introduce it below. The survivors of the earthquake disaster are in need of someone who can listen to them and can run along, and I am pleased to introduce that need being fulfilled in action.

Naoya Kawakami
July 18, 2012


Report on Café de Monk

Attentive listening session by Buddhist Monks
July 6th, 2012

Friday afternoon
“It’s nice to hear the voices of children,” someone hummed. This is from a conversation at the Café de Monk, a traveling attentive listening session held by Buddhist monks at neighborhood community centers.

Over sixty sessions of Café de Monk have been held since its first in May 2011, and this time, under the rainy sky that just held off long enough, the session began at a community center within a temporary housing quarter in Ishinomaki city. This was my fourth visit, and I would like to write a little bit about my own opinions on the Café, as Well as what I was able to pick up at the session.

The “Master” of the Café and the axis of the project, the Reverend Taioh Kaneda from Tsudai Temple of Sohtoh-Shu (school of Zen in Buddhism) wears a name tag that shows his nickname, “Gandhi Kaneda,” and listens to what the people visiting the Café have to say. In the several times I have spoken with him, I have seen that he is very full of ideas, sensuous, and always concerned about the survivors of the earthquake disaster.

Just below the signboard of the Café, made from rubble, there is a little pun that explains where the name “Café de Monk” came from.

Monk, is the English word for お坊さん (Japanese word for Monk).
It might take a while to regain the days of peace.
So why not take a break, and say a little “Monku” (文句/complaint)?
The monks will listen to your “Monku (complaint),” and share with you in “Monku (悶苦/suffering).”

Inside, one can hear the music of Thelonious Sphere Monk, an American jazz pianist. Along with the signboard, it is easy observe that Reverend Taioh Kaneda has much humor and creativity, filling the space with ideas for the visitor to enjoy and giggle with. When I first heard about this, I was impressed with the Reverend’s sensibility.

(Picture 1: inside the cafe)

Now, let us get back to the report. Someone had said that the members of the Café had been to the region on several occasions, but this time was the first time they actually held a session and opened the Café. Accordingly, for the first time in my several visits to the Café, it felt as though attendance was a little low. But even then, about thirty people came to the Café, hearing about the Café by word of mouth. As you can see in picture 1, many gathered around tables inside the fairly large community center, and each had their own wonderful time. Of course, it is a “café” after all, and those who gathered were welcomed with all sorts of beverage, pastry brought in by Reverend Taioh Kaneda, and even some “Sasa-Dango (Japanese sweet dumplings).”

As mentioned in my introduction, there were some young mothers who had brought their small children with them, and everyone was interested in the children (though it may have been a little frightening for the children). The mothers, at their own pace and timing, spoke to the monks about what they were feeling after the earthquake disaster. When it was time for the older children to start coming home from school, they too began gathering at the Café, and it was almost as though the Café was a place for the entire community to gather and relax at. I do not know if the people at the quarter had always had that kind of place in their home town, but I felt that having a place for the community to gather at was, unexpectedly, precious. The rain did hold off long enough, and the outdoor café was also a great success (picture 2). “Maybe some shaved ice would be nice as the summer heat advances,” someone said before we opened the café, and we were already looking forward to our next session, but this time, the temperature was mild, and everybody had a pleasant time.

(Picture 2: Outside the café)

Just when the people were beginning to relax, one of the monks took out a plastic case with rosary beads, and said “I think we can get started,” and began a lecture on rosary making. This lecture is a very popular one, and at every session, many participants gather around to make their own unique rosaries, each with different wishes, for themselves or for their family. When it is complete, the monks put in their wishes for them. Doing so makes these no ordinary rosaries and something very special.

Along with that, to those who desire, the monks gave out palm-size Jizo and mortuary tablets, and those who lost everything when the tsunami hit their homes truly appreciated this. I was impressed that Reverend Taioh Kaneda put his wishes into the rosaries and Jizo’s (stone statues) in a very unique fashion to make sure things do not look overly religious.

I was able to spend time with some of the Sohtoh-Shu missionary monks touring all of Japan that adjusted their schedule to attend the Café. They all appeared in their Samue (work apparel), and took every encounter with the participants very seriously. I have seen monks and pastors gather at the Café at multiple occasions, and I feel that this is a very good thing. I feel that religious leaders have less and less time each year to gather and spend time with each other.

Just as the Café was preparing to close for the day, one of the visitors said to me in a thin voice, “I was concerned, but didn’t have a chance to talk to monks,” thinking I was a monk. The concern was how to enshrine their family and ancestors in what limited room the temporary housing can provide, and how to prepare for the Bon season; surely not something that one can ask his/her neighbor. With help from the monk that led the rosary making, I gave a few words. Relieved, the visitor said, “My grandmother entrusted me with the duty but I never really knew how, and couldn’t ask anyone, but I was glad to be able to ask today. Thank you very much,” and left, with many thankful words.

Though it was the first time for the Café to open at the site, many participants requested that the Café come again. It seems as though the participants had a nice and pleasant time over their cup of tea.

The Café puts much concern and effort to make sure that the religious background of the Café is not overly strong, because participants of the Café do ask questions to “Buddhist” monks, and sometimes release words of pain and suffering concerning not only those who live but also the past and gone, I felt that though we need to be careful about the religious factors, we should never completely exclude them. This may apply not only to Buddhism, but religions overall.

Anyhow, seeing people give much feeling into rosary making, relieve after receiving a Jizo, and say words of sorrow and concern, I fully felt the call for help and the need for something to fall back on, and I join my hands in prayer.

Note: The article and pictures use some ambiguous expressions to avoid the identification of its participants, and I would like to ask for your understanding.

Atsushi Morita

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