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Kyoko Muramatsu, a Soka Gakkai member from Kobe, Japan, and survivor of the Great Hanshin-Awaji (Kobe) Earthquake in which she lost her entire family and her home, recalls her struggle to regain the courage to live. She hopes her story can encourage those affected by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami and victims of other natural disasters.
On January 17, 1995, at 5:46 a.m., I heard a tremendous rumbling noise and the ground began to shake. My husband, my two daughters—who were elementary school students—and I were lying side by side. As our house began to collapse on top of us, my husband threw himself over our eldest daughter to prevent her from getting crushed. He, himself, was killed instantly. Although we couldn’t see each other, my eldest daughter and I exchanged words until gradually, she stopped responding to me. Then it was just my youngest daughter and I, and although we could not move as there was debris pinning us down, we chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and sang songs.
I could smell gas, and at one point I started to get very drowsy from the fumes. “Mama!” cried my daughter and her voice shook me awake. After some time, we heard someone calling from outside. “Help is here!” I exclaimed. “Mama, I’m so glad,” she said. Those were her last words, and as though relieved, she quietly faded into a sleep from which she never awoke. I was rescued at 11:30 a.m., five and a half hours after the quake. I felt as though my daughter had departed only after saving me.
In Buddhism, no effort is made in vain; everything has meaning.
One year and then another year passed, yet my tears would not cease. I found myself unable to move on or make sense of why this had to happen. The four of us, my husband, two daughters and I, had been so happy together, and the earthquake had rendered me all alone. If only they had taken me with them, I thought. Although I felt happy while attending Soka Gakkai meetings, as soon as I returned to my small, dark home, I felt terribly alone. Every day was an exhausting struggle just to keep living. Unable to feel in the least bit positive or optimistic, I wondered how long my suffering would continue.
Then one day, a senior in faith said to me, “If you don’t get yourself together, who’s going to offer memorial prayers for them?” I couldn’t understand why she was so harsh. Later I learned that she had been chanting sincerely for me to get past my grief and tears. She knew that mere sympathy wouldn’t help me to move forward. Behind her seemingly tough words was a deep belief that I would definitely get back on my feet again.
Throughout my struggle, these words from SGI President Ikeda have really stuck with me over the years: “In Buddhism, no effort is made in vain; everything has meaning,” and “Those who have undergone the bitterest suffering have a right to become happy . . . Everyone has the right to become happy.” Though I couldn’t immediately grasp the true meaning of these words, with time I slowly began to understand what President Ikeda meant.
On January 17, 2005, exactly ten years after the earthquake, I had a breakthrough. Hyogo Prefecture held its regular memorial service for the victims of the earthquake that took the lives of my family. On behalf of all the bereaved families, I was asked to give a speech. In it I shared these words:
My husband and children continue to live eternally in my heart, warmly watching over me. They would be so sad and worried to see me crying all the time. The moment I determined to be strong and persevere for the sake of those who are struggling in similar situations, I felt as though the heavy clouds lifted from my heart . . .
The past decade has been one of painful struggle and suffering, but it has also been filled with encouragement from many friends. From now on, I’m determined to exert myself wholeheartedly at work and to live with all my might to become a shining example of hope for others.
related article My Life is My Greatest Treasure by Fern Brown, Canada Fern Brown describes how her Buddhist practice has helped her to come to terms with an unhappy childhood and become a stronger person and a campaigner for pedestrian rights. After my speech, I was approached by many who said they realized how tiny their own struggles were in retrospect and how they were encouraged to move forward. I realized then that if I am strong and cheerful, that alone could encourage others to stay strong. Perhaps I was left to keep on living in order to fulfill this one mission. In this way, I began to think more positively.
To my friends in Tohoku,
Right now must be a very difficult time. Though the sadness may not fade in a year or two, my hope is that you try to advance, even if just one step at a time. There’s absolutely no need to rush. If there are times when you feel like crying, just cry. Be honest about your feelings. There will be times when you feel sad, and there’s no need to force yourself to be tough.
But no matter what happens, don’t isolate yourself from others . . . I promise you that there will come a time when you can see meaning in your struggle. Until that time, I will always be sending my deepest prayers for you.
Whatever happens, please don’t distance yourself from the Soka Gakkai or the encouragement of President Ikeda.
[Adapted from an article in the January 19, 2013, issue of the Seikyo Shimbun, Soka Gakkai, Japan; photo courtesy of Seikyo Shimbun]
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