Nuclear Power Is Incompatible with the Way of the Buddha

Nuclear Power Is Incompatible with the Way of the Buddha
A Declaration from Critical Self-Reflection on Mistakes

Rev. Taitsu Kono

Rev. Kono Taitsu & A Fellow Sentient Being

Rev. Taitsu Kono, born in 1930, is the Chief Priest of the Myoshin-ji branch of the Rinzai Zen Denomination and the former President of the Japan Buddhist Federation (JBF), which brings together all the major traditional Buddhist denominations in Japan. He is also author of numerous books such as Toko-no-ma-no-Zengo (Words of Zen from the Scroll Alcove, Institute for Zen Studies), Tatakau Bukkyo (Confrontational Buddhism, Shunjunsha), and Funi-no Myodo-wo Iku (Treading the Mysterious Path of Non-Duality, Shunjunsha)

Buddhists Must Send a Message

Q: After the nuclear incident at Fukushima happened last year, Rev. Kono, as the President of the Japan Buddhist Federation (JBF), made the following comments in August about nuclear energy while considering the people who had become victims of the incident: “Who is making sacrifices to ensure our convenient lifestyles? Each person, individually, must think more about their responsibility. So that this kind of incident does not happen again, we all must adjust the way we look at our daily lifestyles.” Rev. Kono, then, in your role as the Chief Priest of the Myoshin-ji branch of Rinzai Zen in September issued a declaration calling on the abolition of nuclear power and then further in December helped to draft the JBF declaration entitled “Appeal for a Lifestyle without Dependence on Nuclear Power.” Today we would like to hear about Rev. Kono’s thoughts since the time that these declarations were made.

Rev. Kono: In a manner of speaking, it is about causes and conditions (hetu-pratyaya, innen). Two years ago I became the Chief Priest of the Myoshin-ji branch of the Rinzai Zen Denomination and then I became the Chairman of JBF. Since this latter position is a rotating one among the chief priests of the traditional Buddhist denominations, I couldn’t turn it down. Then the Great Eastern Japan Disaster struck, and there were critical victims whose lives and lifestyle rights were affected by the nuclear incident. I thought then that Buddhists should not become silent on this issue.

For myself, I would say that the fundamental teaching of Buddhism is to value life and respect human rights. The year before the disaster in November (2010), the World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) bi-annual general conference was held in Sri Lanka. At this time, I gave a speech while keeping in mind the armed conflict between the Tamils and Sinhala in that country. J.R. Jayewardene, who served as President of Sri Lanka from 1978-89, had been the Finance Minister during the time of the San Francisco Peace Accords of 1951 formally ending the Pacific War. As the representative of the Sri Lankan government at the time, he suggested waiving the rights of reparation towards Japan, citing the words of the Buddha from the Dhammapada that go,” Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.” (Vs. 5). I not only have a feeling of gratitude for this act, but also, while speaking about the critical self-reflection and confession for the enormous suffering brought on the various countries of Asia by Japan during the war, I wish for Sri Lanka to also open the way to world peace by following the teachings of the Buddha in these further words from the Dhammapada, “All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.” (Vs. 129)

Around the same time at the WFB meeting, JBF held a conference in here in Tochigi, a province just south of Fukushima. At this time, there were deliberations in the Japanese diet amending the laws on human organ transplants. There had been debates concerning the thinking of Buddhists on this issue, but the result was that we concluded the conference without issuing a perspective from the Buddhist world on the matter. The issue is related to the view of sentient life, and this point was not sufficiently debated in the national diet. The law was changed to that even if an individual has not made their intent clear, if the person’s relatives consent, then their organs can be harvested. The transplanting of organs from children was also a new change included in the law. So then how do we look at the human rights of people who have had their organs harvested? I myself have some doubts about when the death of sentient life happens and brain “death” (upon which this new law is based). However, I also question why the Buddhist world did not express any viewpoint on this matter.

From this context, the Great Eastern Japan Disaster struck, and then the Fukushima nuclear incident occurred. Still now there are tens of thousands of people who cannot return to their homes. First of all, as my own personal remarks as Chairman of JBF, I expressed my concern that our world which creates human life is not compatible nuclear power. Therefore, I helped issue Myoshin-ji’s anti-nuclear declaration and then afterwards JBF’s declaration.

There was talk about why something wasn’t said more quickly. However, the issue is not about waiting for someone to say something, but rather that anyone who has such awareness should have the courage to just go ahead and say something. I think there are common points with the previous situation of the silence of the Japanese Buddhist world in development of the Pacific War, such as thinking about what is right as well as look into what is around us.

Speaking Out About A Way of Living that Does Not Shift with the Conditions of the Time

Q: In the JBF declaration, there is the assertion, “We must choose a path in which personal happiness is harmonized with human welfare, instead of wishing for prosperity at the expense of others.” Isn’t this kind of thinking along with an anti-nuclear stance the same as the one that critically self-reflects on the Pacific War?

Rev. Kono: The year after I was born, the Manchurian Incident took place in 1931. When the war finally ended, I was 15 years old and in the fourth year of junior high school under the old pre-war system. So I grew up and came of age exactly in the midst of the Pacific War. Raised as a youth of a militaristic nation, I thought that the nation would always be at war and that no matter what happened, my reason for living was to sacrifice my life for the nation. People of the same generation more or less thought this way.

That country is now extinct, as well as that reason for living for myself. From that time, the question arose among us of what is it good to live for now? Amidst everyone’s confusion about this, there was rebellion among the schools kids with them breaking windows; strikes broke out everywhere; and a rage with no outlet permeated society. Amidst debates with friends who held these same sentiments, we ourselves came to understand about the militaristic education that we were raised in. We ourselves had been raised according to this kind of “ideology”. Then we had to change to a world in which democracy was considered the right thing.

During the war, I had a teacher who pushed me very strongly to into militarism. After the war, he said, “From now on, this is the age of democracy.” He then repeated to me in English Abraham Lincoln’s famous words, “Government of the people, [by the people, for the people].” This same teacher during the war had said, “After we win the war, Americans will also come to speak Japanese.” In this way, we came to be unable to trust our teachers and other adults. This teacher was simply adopting the stance of the era, and as the situation fit, saying, “We don’t need to use English” was nothing more than words. In this way, when the situation turned bad, this teacher of course changed his way of speaking. Among our teachers, there were some who said, “Before long, socialism will become the center of the world, and we will become Communist.” Amongst these people, they began to wear red badges, and a teacher whom I was close with lost his job for declaring that he was a Communist. I thought to myself, “Will the center of the world change again? Is there a way to live that doesn’t fall victim to the vicissitudes of change?”

As my father died when I was still young, I was raised in the ancient capital of Kamakura by my maternal grandfather. He was the head of the parishioner’s association of both the great Tsurugaoka Shinto Shrine and the great Kencho-ji Temple of the Rinzai Zen denomination. In this way, the monks of the temple would have their meals near my home after going out on alms round. For the mind of a young child, they appeared as mysterious people. When they ate their meal, they made no sound, only chanting the sutras beforehand. They solemnly put on their straw sandals and then departed. Looking at their bowls, they had eaten in such a way that the bowls appeared as if they had already been washed.

In primary school, I was made to listen to the story of Sogen Mugaku (Ch. Wuxue Zuyuan, 1226-1286), the Chinese monk who founded the great Rinzai Zen temple of Engaku-ji in Kamakura. He came to Japan in 1279 following the invitation by Hojo Tokimune,[1] the regent and defacto head of the Kamakura military government. Tokimune studied and practiced Zen meditation from Mugaku, and it is said that this training helped him to develop the strength and courage to lead the way in repelling the Mongol invasions of Japan at this time, subsequently popularizing Zen amongst the warrior class. I too had instilled in my young mind the desire to become such a great person that would practice Zen meditation and save a troubled nation. With this kind of role model, I came to want to practice Zen as a way to come to an end of the suffering and anxiety of the path of life.

Through a karmic connection, I ended up becoming a novice monk at a Zen temple in Kyushu in the southern part of Japan. I had been thinking that after graduating high school, I would move on to a normal university. However, as the temple was poor, there was no way to go to university. At this time, temples everywhere were poor. Simply, since the tuition for the university affiliated with our denomination was cheaper, that was the way to go. So I entered Hanazono University in Kyoto, where I met Prof. Hakugen Ichikawa and Roshi Mumon Yamada. It is from my encounter with those two that I am what I am today.

The War Responsibility of Buddhists

I remember taking Prof. Ichikawa’s class on the History of Contemporary Buddhist Thought when he told students about the war responsibility of Buddhists. The core of his thinking was a heartfelt self-reflection and feeling of shame for how those children raised as Buddhists were “persistently” encouraged and dispatched to the war zones. Beyond the critical self-reflection towards oneself, there was also a criticism directed towards the Buddhist denominations. It was a heavy class. There was one other jarring incident that happened to me. At my temple in Kyushu, I heard a layperson call out to our chief monk, “Commander, Commander.” Thinking about what he was saying, I realized that our chief monk had gone off to the war as a soldier and that the layperson had been his subordinate.

One of the particular tenets of Buddhism is explained as valuing human life. But this teaching is not only about human life, because the Buddha taught an awareness of the equality of all sentient life from animals all the way to a single tree or blade of grass. Buddhist priests who gave such teachings also participated in the war carrying weapons and taking sentient life. This became a shocking thing to me, because I had been enthralled by a way of living that sacrificed itself to the one life of the nation and had abandoned the body of the Buddha’s way that calls for valuing sentient life. Nevertheless, the Buddhist denominations took part in the war and in pushing the young people to join it. I, therefore, became confused about becoming a Buddhist priest.

I continued along in this confusion for some time. After leaving university, as I hadn’t thought of pursuing a different path, I entered a special training temple and immersed myself in Zen meditation and practice. I came to follow Zen meditation as a way of life. Since I practiced for a long time after leaving Buddhist university, everyone around me thought I would become a monk and expected that I would eventually become the abbot of a temple. However, I never had thought in this way for myself. I came to think that mistakes had been made in the past and that if I were to become a member of this denomination, it was not about me rejecting it but rather the denomination having to fix its mistakes.

At the time of the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, I did something out of character and became President of Hanazono University. As it was also the 450th anniversary of the death of Soshun Nippo, who revived the Myoshin-ji denomination, there needed to be a public message from the headquarters at ceremonies for this event. At this time, every organization was trying to draw attention by summarizing their social activities over the 50 years since the war. Although we had delayed this for too long, both the headquarters and I thought it best to offer a confession of our mistaken participation in the war and so prepared a public talk on this.

The 400th anniversary of the death of Soshun Nippo came in the spring of 1945 as the war was coming to an end. At this time, the headquarters did a number of embarrassing things, such as responding to a request from the military authorities by appealing to followers all over the country to raise money as an offering (dana) to pay for two fighter planes. So this public talk in 1995 needed to properly confess such a past and express the importance of sentient life. However, from that point it took the headquarters seven years to draft a public confession that was finally issued in 2002.

Valuing Sentient Life and the Incompatibility with Nuclear Power

Q: So from this critical self-reflection on the war, we now have the declaration against nuclear power.

Rev. Kono: Yes, I feel that the war issue and the nuclear issue are the same. They both involved national policy, but not everyone agreed with such policy. There were only a handful of them in both cases, but there were people who opposed and courageously made warnings. However, this never became a large voice, and so we met with disaster made by this massive mainstream. On this point, nuclear power and the war followed the same trend.

When looking at the teachings of the Buddha, how should we regard atomic energy? Right now, who is it that is taking control since the Fukushima incident happened? It is an incredibly dangerous task, but the people who promoted atomic power are not the ones dealing with this task. Isn’t this some kind of discrimination?

We can now hear calls for the restart of nuclear facilities within Japan. Until we directly face the victims, we cannot think of restarting other nuclear facilities. Fundamentally, there has not been enough critical self-reflection. Although everyone must understand at this point the dangerous nature of nuclear power, there is a push for the restart of facilities based on what is called, “The Highest Safety Standards in the World.” The engine of profit that exists within atomic energy is being restarted. It is said that it costs 500 billion yen (roughly $6 billion) to build one atomic energy station, yet they were built every year to the point that we had 54 such stations. Although the legacy of the burden of managing these facilities remains a huge issue, “The Highest Safety Standards in the World” keep being talked about.

I would especially like to call upon the critical self-reflection of the scientists involved in the promotion of atomic energy. While understanding the extent of the danger, they silently became involved in its promotion. Shouldn’t they be making a confession?

What is called atomic energy is energy produced by a nucleus. When uranium is burned, electricity is produced. If you create electricity by using one ton of uranium, there will be leftover the same amount of contaminated manner which has an appalling amount of radioactivity. Humanity does not possess the techniques to make this harmless and non-toxic. There is already a massive amount of contaminated matter stored here and there all over Japan that we absolutely cannot make harmless. Where is it “safe” to put it all? This contaminated matter will be the heavy legacy that will span into the future for our descendents to bear. While we understand this, we continue to work for nuclear power. The greed of humans is truly frightening.

Everyone wishes for happiness. To secure such happiness, we have pursued economic benefit, but since this is simply a matter of our physical nature, it will certainly collapse. Mustn’t the pursuit of individual happiness become a part of the benefit for all society? Wouldn’t it be good if we took all the money for making nuclear reactors and the billions of dollars it requires to make them “safe” and used it instead for the research and development of renewable natural energy? The abilities and interests of the people who work for Tokyo Electric Power Company should be used for the happiness of all people and future generations. Coming out of a critical self-reflection on the Fukushima incident, Japan should become the world’s leader in natural energy. I think it would be good if this happened.

Q: As it must have taken courage to make such a social comment, what would you say to young Buddhists today?

Rev. Kono: Young people entering the way of the Buddha must hold fast to and install in their gut the fundamental idea in Buddhism of the value of sentient life and respect for human rights. I want them to speak and act with courage in anything they do. Not just in the time of the war, but even today, there are many people who do not speak the truth because of the prevailing stance in society.

There are so many people in society who want to say something but don’t. Workers are in a difficult situation. They have bosses who are keeping an eye on them. They must provide for their families. Buddhists don’t really need to care about prevailing social trends, so they should speak out clearly. What is it that they are worried about? Unless they commit a crime against the laws of nation, they will not lose their jobs as abbots (he laughs). I would like to them to think that their role as abbots is to say what is right and to protect sentient life and human rights.

Q: There is a wide spread consensus against the restart of nuclear facilities, but on the other side there are politicians saying things like, “We will return to the Edo Period (1603-1868)”, and “We cannot have a lifestyle in which e have to live in the total dark.”

Rev. Kono: This talk about total darkness is a threat, but I would be perfectly fine with a little more darkness. At any rate, we lived through the war when the regulations on the use of lights at night made it totally dark. Even if we didn’t restart the nuclear power plants, it wouldn’t come down to “total darkness”. Rather, the way we now use bright lights during the daytime would become unusual.

By not understanding the fear of atomic energy, we use as much electricity as we like. So first we have to engage in critical self-reflection. I think it is not about returning to the Edo Period but dealing with things in different ways and how it would be good to develop a simpler lifestyle. In Buddhism, we speak about this by saying, “Know what is enough.”

Published in Sekai (World) magazine (June, 2012, No. 831) by Iwanami Books, Tokyo. Interviewed and compiled by Shin-ichiro Kumagai. Translated by Jonathan Watts (International Buddhist Exchange Center, Yokohama).


[1] Digital Dictionary of Buddhism. Edited by Charles Muller. http://www.buddhism-dict.net/ddb/