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Working with the Homeless and Disconnected (mu-en)

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Towards Reviving a Society with Connection (yu-en):

Linking This Shore (shigan) to the Other Shore (higan)

The Sanyu Association grave stone at Kosho-in Temple
The Sanyu Association grave stone at Kosho-in Temple

It is estimated that in 2040 the number of deaths in Japan—due to the aging demographic—will peak at 1.69 million. As we approach this society of mass death, the scale of households is growing smaller, and the number of people living alone is increasing. As the problem of dying alone or “solitary death” (孤立死 koritsu-shi) increases, the Japanese Buddhist funeral system, as we have known it, will not provide a sufficient method of mourning. The funeral and memorial services that are handled by Buddhist temples and priests as well as by various specialized businesses have traditionally had the role of connecting “the shore of this world” (此岸 shigan) with “the other shore of the afterlife” (彼岸 higan). Nowadays, this work has the wider meaning of creating karmic connections (有縁 yu-en) in a society that has lost such connections (無縁 mu-en). This “spiritually disconnected society” (無縁社会 mu-en shakai) is posing new challenges to the time honored traditions of Buddhist grief care in Japan. In northeast Tokyo, we found a group that is responding to this challenge.

In the Taito and Arakawa wards of northeast Tokyo, a region better known as Sanya, the non-profit Sanyu Association (山友会 Sanyu-kai) is engaged in activities to support the numerous people living in the streets, such as free medical care, lifestyle consulting, and hot meals. The Director of the Sanyu Association, Jean Le Beau, came from Canada as a Catholic missionary over 30 years ago and has been working in Sanya for over 20 years. In 2015, he partnered with a nearby Buddhist temple called Kosho-in 光照院 (Jodo Pure Land Sect 浄土宗) to build a grave plot for these homeless people. Rev. Gakugen Yoshimizu 吉水岳彦is the vice-abbot of Kosho-in as well as the Secretary of the Hitosaji (“One Spoonful”) Association (ひとさじの会). Founded 8 years ago, Hitosaji gives out handmade rice balls (onigiri), basic medicines, and other simple necessities twice a month to these predominantly aging day laborers who live in the streets of Sanya.

The kinds of people who have ended up together in Sanya are those who have had their connections to family and also to society in general cut. Because of losing all connection with their families, when it comes time for them to die, they become “spirits with no karmic connection”, or what is called in Japanese Buddhism as (無縁仏mu-en hotoke). With no one to properly venerate them over the years through grave visits and memorial services, this is considered in Japanese culture the worst kind of post mortem fate. Jean Le Beau recounts the pain in his heart when one of his best friends who had lived as “homeless” passed away. While the relative of his dead friend accepted to take care of his remains, Jean felt their attitude was cold as they disliked being seen as someone related to a “homeless” person. In this manner, Rev. Yoshimizu asks, “What is the real meaning of wealth? There are many things we can learn from these aging day laborers.”

Rev. Yoshimizu creating connection outside of Kosho-in
Rev. Yoshimizu creating connection outside of Kosho-in

Having witnessed many of their comrades become mu-en hotoke after dying, this community of disconnected people began to feel a need for their own grave plot. Rev. Yoshimizu responded to this appeal by the Sanyu Association and in 2015 took in the Buddha altars of those mu-en people that the Sanyu Association had collected at their office, interred them at Kosho-in, and affixed pictures of the dead comrades with their death dates. By creating such connections, Kojo-in temple has become a place which is easy to visit for praying in front of graves. Rev. Yoshimizu explains, “Although there are people who are important to us who are not blood relations, we divide and establish our burial plots according to blood relation. The Sanyu Association has brought together those who basically have no close relations and provides a place for building relations from which one can speak from the heart. It is important to build connections even beyond our blood relations.” The Sanyu Association grave plot at Kosho-in is an embodiment of this sense.

In order to communicate this message to society, they raised donations for building the grave plot by using crowd funding. They received a major response from the LGBT and sexual minority community to this appeal. Rev. Yoshimizu explains, “This is not just about the aging day laborers in Sanya. There are many people nowadays who are dying without anyone knowing. It seems that people are dying alone and that this dying without any connections or bonds is very lonely and sad. There’s really no limit to who this can happen to.” Indeed, Rev. Yoshimizu tells stories of LGBT individuals who were not allowed to be buried in their family grave plots at death and became mu-en hotoke. The plots at Kosho-in are providing a space for new “intentional communities” to “be together even in death.” Jean Le Beau has also reported that for the first time a medical doctor who gave free treatment at the Sanyu Association has requested to be interred in this grave plot. In 2008, Rev. Yoshimizu erected the first such grave plot at Kosho-in working with the Shinjuku Connecting Association (新宿連絡会 Shinjuku Renraku-kai), an NPO that works with the homeless in western Tokyo. Paying for half of the grave stone from his part-time job earnings, the tomb is engraved with the Chinese character for musubu 結, meaning “to bind or tie together”. As the numbers of homeless, people with no family connections, and abandonded grave plots have continued to increase, Kosho-in also constructed in 2015 a large stupa to hold their ashes—a place where Rev. Yoshimizu has also requested to be interred at death. This stupa has encased a large statue called the Sanya Kannon 山谷観音 (Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion), who is wearing a Christian cross around his neck—further symbolizing the ecumenical spirit of Kosho-in’s work. Finally, in September of 2018, Kosho-in has erected yet another tomb funded by a local nursing station. The medical workers there have seen too many of their elderly patients die alone. Having developed relationships of loving care, they have also wanted to place to venerate them and express their own grieving.

Photo Jun 06, 6 12 19 PMIn Japanese Buddhism, it is understood that a new kind of relationship is born in the burying of the remains of the dying and the offering of regular memorial services. Rev. Yoshimizu explains, “It’s really terrible when someone who is important to you dies. But we can continue to grapple with different ways to create a world where we can mourn such important people while gradually understanding the pain that comes with it. In Buddhist memorial services, we can find such a process.” Finally, reflecting on the grave plots they have erected, Rev. Yoshimizu leaves us with the question: “Can we create a place for us to consider our friends as dear friends?”

This article is based on a Japanese article by the same name published in The Buddhist Bukkyo Times, February 9, 2017. Some of the information has been expanded and updated by the translator, Jonathan S. Watts, for publication on October 4, 2018. Rev. Chisa Yamashita also assisted with the translation.

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