Japan is a country famous for suicide (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/06/24/130624fa_fact_macfarquhar). Its many suicide spots have become tourist attractions, including the Aokigahara forest, the Sea of Trees at the foot of Mt. Fuji, where bodies can lie undiscovered for months, and where tourists come to photograph corpses and to scavenge.

There is no religious issue about suicide in Japan, unlike in the West. On the contrary, the act of suicide is usually seen to restore honour, and is viewed more as a constructive than a destructive act.

A Japanese Buddhist monk, Ittetsu Nemoto, has set himself the task of confronting his country’s suicide culture. He conducts death workshops for the suicidal, where those affected are encouraged to imagine how they might feel if they were unexpectedly given a cancer diagnosis, with only three months, one month, one week, or minutes, to live. Within this imagined scenario, participants are challenged to consider how they might spend the limited time remaining in their lives. This approach, which encourages a shift of focus away from the desire to end life to a consideration of the act of living, appears to be both cathartic and therapeutic.

Nemoto did his training in a Rinzai Zen monastery, which was particularly rigorous and harsh – ‘Apprentice monks are treated like slaves on a brutal plantation’ – and seems to have had all the components of both extreme physical and psychological suffering. Few trainees manage to complete the programme. The aim of the training process is to eventually achieve a throwing away of the self, thereby ultimately discovering who you really are:

‘A well trained monk, it is said, lives as though he were already dead: free from attachment, from indecision, from confusion, he moves with no barrier between his will and his act.’

Nemoto is now abbott of a temple that is much less austere. Priests drink, smoke and marry, a deliberate move to ensure that they are not distancing themselves from their community.

In his work with those who feel suicidal, Nemoto advocates confronting rather than avoiding the fact of death. He has succeeded in opening up talking about dying, in a country where so many choose to kill themselves, and where notions of ‘talking therapies’ are far from commonplace. Nemoto has learned much about his own suffering since he embarked on this project. Initially, through his practice of Zen listening, he found that he became overly involved, and was deeply affected and distressed by every story he heard. He felt responsible for all those whose suffering he witnessed. He became seriously ill, with heart disease, and had to temporarily withdraw from the project. He was deeply shocked when his followers appeared to have no interest in his ill health, and persisted in seeking his help for their own needs, rather than enquiring about his. Nemoto felt he was dying, and that nobody cared, despite all that he had given of himself.

However, through this period of personal suffering, Nemoto discovered another truth: too much should not be weighted on the act of helping others; rather than it being something special or significant, helping others should be something one naturally does in the course of one’s life.

Today, following his recovery from illness, Nemoto only reaches out to those whom he physically meets. He no longer communicates by mail or email. As a result, those affected often have to travel very long distances, and need to be very committed, to seek him out in his temple. He interacts with fewer people, but Nemoto feels he achieves more. He also takes notes when listening to those who come to see him, an approach that has allowed him, he believes, to distance himself sufficiently from their distress and suffering. He also believes that such distancing has facilitated greater resolution for those he attends.

Nemoto ‘believes in suffering, because it shows you who you really are.’ I believe that to live, to truly exist, is to suffer, not in a penitential sense such as Nemoto might have experienced in his training, but in the sense that personal suffering, however one likes to interpret it (and it is a subjective experience in the end), is inextricably linked to living and to humanness.

Taking on the suffering of others, as Nemoto learned, can be a destructive and not altogether helpful act. Empathy, and the capacity for being there for the other, does not necessitate such…

CQ

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