The ideas, institutions, and practices associated with Confucianism and Buddhism, in particular, reinforce the notions that individuals exist interdependently with others as members of a group and that people carry within themselves deep wellsprings of spiritual potential that can be actualized through self-effacing behavior and collective discipline. In medieval Japan, the experience of disaster both confirmed people's sense that they were living in the era of mappō ("decline of the Buddhist teaching," a degenerate period in which salvation was increasingly difficult to attain) and encouraged them to seek relief in either the tariki ("other-power" of merciful beings such as Amida Buddha) or the jiriki ("self-power") of their own latent Buddha-nature. Either way, disaster could be transformed into an opportunity for cultivating one's gratitude and fortitude in service to others.

In many ways, Japan is one of the world's most secular societies. By Western standards of religiosity (personal belief, individual membership, embrace of doctrines and scriptures), most Japanese do not appear to be very "religious." But when monstrosity strikes, the character of a culture is revealed. In the case of Japan, the imagery of disaster also includes the visage of a Buddha, reflected in the faces of millions of ordinary Japanese standing in line for aid, searching ruins for loved ones, and lending a helping hand to others: calm, compassionate, and concentrated. Such an image still inspires Japanese and others who cope with the inevitable loss and suffering that living and dying as impermanent, interdependent beings entails.

This article was first published at Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. Reprinted with permission from Religion & Ethics NewsWeeklya PBS production of WNET. All rights reserved.