Blossoming through shared suffering: Examples from Japan

plum blossomMIXED IN with the disturbing images coming out of Japan is a flower seen by a woman in Tokyo as she walked home from work after the earth shook and the waters poured in. Yuka Saionji saw a little flower and thought, “all of us can now try to run away from radiation, but what of this flower? I bent down to the flower and just felt moved to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ ”

I read this on Yuka’s blog post and my eyes filled up. It made me want to thank her publicly for being able to maintain such sensitivity in the midst of tragedy. This is the act of a true flamingseed: one who uses difficult conditions to blossom into awareness and compassion. And she isn’t the only one. She reports on so many others using this time of deep, shared suffering as fuel to open their hearts and serve others in whatever way they can. Here are a few examples from her post:

—I saw an old lady at a bakery shop. It was totally past their closing time, but she was giving out free bread.

—There was a lady holding a sign that said, “Please use our toilet.”  They were opening their house for people to go to the restroom.

—My co-worker wanted to help somehow, even if it was just one person. So he wrote a sign: “If you’re okay with a motor cycle, I will drive you to your house.” He stood in the cold with that sign. And then I saw him take a gentleman home, all the way to Tokorozawa!

—When I was waiting at the platform, so tired and exhausted, a homeless person came to us and gave us a cardboard to sit on. Even though we usually ignore them in our daily life, they were ready to serve us.

—An old man at the evacuation shelter said, “What’s going to happen now?” And then a young high school boy sitting next to him said, “Don’t worry!  When we grow up, we promise to fix it back!”  While saying this, he was rubbing the old man’s back.

We promise to fix it back. That one really stung me. We have left behind nuclear waste and dangerous reactors, global weather changes, oil spills, and failing economic systems for our children to fix. I want to say to that boy and to all those who will be born in the future and inherit these things, “I’m so sorry.” Thinking of them now — the future children and the future flowers as well as the good hearts inside all of us who are alive now — I want to use this tragedy as Yuka and the everyday people of Japan have been using it: to join with others and find a way to live that honors and cares for us all. Not just those living now, but also those to come. Not just the humans, but the animals, the flowers.

Andy Couturier wrote in a blog post that in Japan, it takes one nuclear reactor just to power all the drink dispensers that allow people instant 24-hour access to hot and cold drinks. I wonder how many it takes in America? Am I willing to give up instant hot and cold drinks to prevent nuclear fallout? Each of us have to make this choice, and I notice that when others around me continue to be wasteful simply because we all have trouble seeing the consequences, I find myself thinking that my little choices won’t make a difference. But just like the small choices these Japanese people made to do what little they could to help, our small choices do matter. They add up to a way of life, as they did for the inspiring Japanese people Andy profiles in his book.

In the tradition of the Menominee (a Native American tribe from Wisconsin that I am descended from), every person is taught as a child that before they take anything — even a blade of grass — they need to make a prayer that explains why they are taking it and what good they will use it for to benefit all beings. And for everything they take, they need to offer something in return. Because I want to become more conscious of my consumption patterns and do a better job of distinguishing what helps from what hurts, I’m thinking that this might be just the prayer to use before going shopping, before buying a drink in a styrofoam cup from an automatic hot drink dispenser, before casting my vote for anyone who advocates continued use of nuclear power, before following my conditioning toward a lifestyle that requires a great deal of resource use. I don’t know what the Menominee call this practice, but I think of it as “The Prayer before Consumption.”

The prayer before (or instead of) consumption

1-Give thanks for all that is given to me.
2-Make an offering in return.
3-Explain why I need this thing now, and how I will use it not just for my own benefit, but to benefit all. (If it fails this test, then I leave it where it is.)

I vow right now to adopt this practice wholeheartedly and with great care, in honor of all the Japanese — but especially, in honor of the boy who rubbed the back of the elderly man in the evacuation center and said, “Don’t worry! When we grow up we promise to fix it back.”

May he be given far less to fix — and far more to build on.

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13 comments to Blossoming through shared suffering: Examples from Japan

  • Judy

    Oh, beautiful! Thank you, Jane.

  • Nandikesha

    I really, reeeeally needed to read this right now. Thank you so much for sharing.

  • Yes, Nandikesha, that’s how I felt when I read Yuka’s post–it was like balm, so I had to share it.

  • Al Jordan

    Spoken like a true Bodhisattva

  • Cheryl

    Thank you Aunt Jane!
    I think it is way to easy to not think about our consumption. Marketing is so relentless and fills your head with “you really need this”,”you deserve this”. I wonder what it would be like if all marketing and advertisers advocated for the prayer before consumption practice? I think it would help make today’s products last longer, instead of the throw-away mentality. I pray that I am able to teach Jack to be cautious and thoughtful about the items he chooses to place value in, and what it means to really NEED something.

  • The gift Japan is giving the world is their grace in the midst of helpless destruction. They are living out what the Hopi prophecy declares will save the world in this time of transition: compassion, caring, kindness.

    Thank you for sharing this. It’s healed a sore spot on my heart.


  • Coleen

    Beautiful, Jane. Beautiful Jane. thank you.

  • Thanks, everyone, for reading and taking in the depth of what Suka offered.

    @Cheryl, I love the idea of advertisers and business people promoting the “prayer before consumption.” And what if they really looked at whether the thing they are selling/promoting was for the good of everyone, or just for their own profit? We make the collective reality together. It seems to me if we all take responsibility for living by what we really value–even if others around us do not–that is how the world will move toward being a kinder, saner place.

    @Erin, I think our first impulse is toward kindness and compassion–and the anger or hardness or fear comes in after, almost as protection against feeling that tenderness. My hope is that when things get tough, we can all learn to tolerate the broken-hearted feeling that gives birth to compassion instead of hardening into blame and fear. It seems counter-intuitive, to stay soft in the midst of danger, but as the Japanese people Suka told us about demonstrate, softness is what is most needed at those times.

  • Ken

    I liked what you said about businesses functioning with this kind of reverence. They could start identifying themselves not as a for profit or nonprofit, but as for benefit. When does the accumulation of things turn to gluttony? And if it’s justified in the name of good business, is it still gluttony? Perhaps it really is time to investigate what truly nourishes us. The accumulation of more and better, or the way of being in the world that you are exploring. I’m not really saying more and better is wrong, but it seems really so valuable to explore what kind of exchanges with the material world keep us connected with our hearts and our spirit. I love what you are exploring.

  • I remember hearing that Ben&Jerry’s ice cream was advocating for an official category called a “for benefit” corporation after they were required by law to sell their company to people they felt were less socially responsible and aware than another company they preferred–only because the first offered more money. Being “for profit” meant that by law they had to sell to the highest bidder, regardless, because they had a “duty to shareholders.”

    Isn’t that the trouble with using profit as the main benchmark? It doesn’t say anything about what kind of citizen a company is–and we as a culture don’t hold them to being “for benefit.” Your use of the word gluttony is apt–it’s as if we have elevated one of the 7 deadly sins to the highest status in our organizations.

    I notice here in Bali that many of the traditional Balinese have far less interest in material gluttony than others. My guess as to why: their culture is still giving them deeply satisfying ways to interact through wide participation in art, dance, family, public ceremony, and a robust, shared spirituality. Materialism truly pales in comparison to all of that, even with its benefits. We all ought to be apprenticing with them instead of trying to get them to sign on to western values!

  • HI Jane, I just linked to this post, with an excerpt. Here’s my whole post:


  • […] first met Jane through one of her blog posts which a friend posted on facebook. It was called Blossoming through Shared Suffering, and was about inspiring acts of generosity taking place in Japan in the wake of the nuclear […]

  • […] first met Jane through one of her blog posts which a friend posted on facebook. It was called Blossoming through Shared Suffering, and was about inspiring acts of generosity taking place in Japan in the wake of the nuclear […]