Saturday, March 26, 2011

Japanese Soto-Shu Not Helping Earthquake Victims

Jundo Cohen from the online zendo Treeleaf, and who lives not too far from the worst hit areas in Japan during the earthquake and tsunami, is trying to get the word out about the current actions of the Japanese Soto-shu. As the head organization of the Japanese Soto Zen sanghas, and which also has offices in North and South America, and in Europe, it's an organization with a lot of potential to be doing beneficial work for those currently suffering in Japan.

However, it seems they have chosen to focus internally. They have decided to "re-donate" 70% of incoming funds for earthquake relief to the Red Cross, and use the remaining 30% to repair/rebuild temples. Now this isn't an organization lacking in people or resources. As Jundo writes:

However, I am also sure that the Soto-shu in Japan, with its 14,000 affiliated temples nationwide, universities with medical and dental schools, thousands of priests and lay followers, substantial financial and material resources, could be doing --just as much, if not more-- than other religious bodies do, even smaller and less organized.

Under the circumstances, re-donating is a lazy approach which delays much needed support. In addition, the Red Cross is not exactly the most squeaky clean organization itself, and certainly some of that money will be lost in "overhead" costs alone.

Personally, I'd recommend that anyone currently desiring to send money to aid earthquake victims in Japan consider Tzu Chi, a Buddhist relief organization, or Doctors Without Borders.

It's disappointing that the leaders of Soto Zen in Japan aren't leading their sanghas into the center of the fire of suffering, to offer support to those in need. Not only are they ignoring the great need of their fellow citizens, but they are also failing to support the priests and members of individual temples who could do much more than they already are with increased resources. I wish it were surprising, but the Soto-Shu's actions seem consistent with those of other large religious and secular bureaucracies. When times are tough, they look to save their own asses first, and sometimes only.

Update: Here is another report from an American Zen priest living in Japan about Soto efforts from individual temples. It seems clear from this letter that individual priests and monks are doing their best, and that there is more confusion this time around than during the 1995 Kobe earthquake, during which over 6000 people lost their lives.


Jack Daw said...

I am not surprised at Soto-Shu's lack of compassion. When a religious organization gets too large it forgets its actual mission and instead focuses on self-preservation, new temples, better infrastructure, etc.

Before giving though, I would recommend this article by Charity Navigator

As it shows some decent charities that are willing to give ALL donations for Japan directly to that cause.

Cheers and thanks for the post,

Nathan said...

Thanks for offering the charity navigator. Always good to have resources to check up on these issues.

Bruce Behnke said...

Here's a more direct link (via Tzu Chi U.S.A.) for those interested in donating to the organization's tsunami relief in Japan:

Note that all donations made during this time will go to tsunami disaster relief.

Bruce Behnke said...

Nathan: not sure if the entire link got into the last comment. If it did, you can ignore this one. Thanks!

jundo cohen said...
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jundo cohen said...
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jundo cohen said...
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jundo cohen said...

Hi Nathan,

Just to clarify ...

I do -not- think that Soto-shu's actions are intentionally meant to be misleading or callous to the suffering people who could use the money. I would instead describe it as a misguided and clumsy attempt to use the money to rebuild temples which the Soto-shu believes is the right thing to do. Some see it (and perhaps rightly in less urgent times) as catering to the spiritual needs of the homeless and injured people to do so ... although I rather think that, before altars, they could use rebuilt homes, schools, hospitals, nursing homes ... and lives. I cannot see collecting money now for temple buildings when people have more urgent and immediate needs ... and that is certainly what most people are donating for.

I would also say that "Soto-shu is doing nothing" is too strong. There are hundreds of individual and groups of priests around Japan trying to raise money and such, and many up in the impacted areas working day and night to help people as best they can. However, it is true that there seems to be a lack of coordination as seen among many other Buddhist and Christian religious groups, and simply re-donating to the Red Cross, and keeping 30% for temples ... when people have real "where is my next meal coming from" needs out there ... seems to defeat the purpose of many of the donations who might not understand that so much money is going to fixing the goldleaf on temple buildings.

Gassho, Jundo

Nathan said...

Jundo -

I was particularly calling out the leadership of Soto-shu, as opposed to individuals and groups from temples around the country. Which is why I included the letter from Dosho Port's site. Perhaps "Nothing" is too strong still, but I'll let it be.

It seems that Soto-shu has clearly stated their intentions, so it's right to say they aren't misleading people. But if I were a temple in Japan, I'd really hope to have more leadership on all of this, instead of having to make do as individuals or small groups.


Thanks for the more direct link.


kevin said...

Soto-shu is not a relief aid organization, why should they be expected to serve that purpose? I think re-donating the money to the Red Cross is appropriate as they have the infrastructure to do a (more) efficient job.

As to the remaining percent being used to rebuild temples, people don't live on bread alone. Having x-amount of money to spend on reconstruction, they could choose to rebuild a handful of homes for a few individuals or they could choose to rebuild the spiritual home for hundreds.

What people need right now is community. From this community the strength to push on will come.

Thank you for drawing attention to this side of the coin, but we must remember there's always another side.

Nathan said...


Please read my current post. Petteri said similar things to what you did on another blog in response to my post.

I hope the current post offers a more in depth view of my initial response.