Buddhist priest uses 9/11 experience to help victims

by Seana K. Magee

Kyodo News

After the March 11 quake jolted the Tohoku region and deadly tsunami swept away coastal towns, New York-based Buddhist priest T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki shifted into gear, drawing from work with locals after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks a decade ago to initiate memorials and other events around the city.

“If there is something important that I feel like I should do, then I just do it,” Nakagaki said recently, explaining how he applied post-9/11 lessons to the disaster.

Now vice president of the Interfaith Center of New York, Nakagaki was about to leave for California to attend seminars that day – his 50th birthday – when he caught glimpses of the Tohoku tsunami horrors unfolding on TV news programs.

Forced to watch helplessly, but feeling the need to do something, he put his desire to serve temporarily on the back-burner in order to first lead the West Coast seminars.

Two days later, at a Fresno temple in California, he participated in a memorial service, further cementing his determination to organize a Manhattan event as soon as possible.

Targeting March 18 to mark the one-week anniversary, he made numerous calls to quickly pull together a basic program for a service before flying out on the night of March 14.

It included Christian, Buddhist and Shinto priests, Japanese and Japanese-American leaders, as well as a classical pianist, and was held at a Christian church near the United Nations. The event later evolved to include a last-minute candlelight vigil as well.

“I think in spite of the time factor, it looked like a well-planned ceremony,” the priest said.

With one success under his belt, Nakagaki then coordinated with the Riverside Church to assemble an even more diverse crowd on March 27.

There he joined Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu and Christian leaders to organize a service titled “Interfaith Time of Reflection for Japan.”

Despite incorporating various religious elements into the program, the priest said he purposely maintained an “Eastern” tone.

In addition to a haiku reading and a shakuhachi performance, three Japanese from the most heavily damaged areas also gave speeches..

Among them was Yoji Shikama, who was visiting his hometown in Fukushima Prefecture when he was nearly killed after a highway opened up during the magnitude 9.0 quake.

As the lead organizer of the events, Nakagaki emphasized the importance of conveying to the Japanese just how much New Yorkers stood by them during their darkest hours.

“I would like to carry the message through the media that New Yorkers are thinking about Japan,” he said.

Such quick actions were what he learned in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Although thousands of kilometers away from the scenes of destruction, the March disaster reminded him of the unforgettable day the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers fell.

As resident minister of the New York Buddhist Church and president of the Buddhist Council of New York at the time, he learned to serve in ways he never imagined – even participating in a Columbia University campus service for an overflowing crowd that afternoon in the fall of 2001.

Attending countless memorial services in the days and weeks afterward, the priest was a firsthand witness of the important roles religious leaders play in offering solace during chaos.

On the first Sunday after the attacks in New York, the Osaka native contemplated closing the temple. But he kept the doors open.

“This was something different in New York,” Nakagaki said, noting that many people sought spiritual guidance during the distressing time.

“Instead of waiting for someone else to do something, you did it,” he added, remembering occasions when he and other clerics stepped in when needed.

Adopting a “New York attitude,” he took on new initiatives — even volunteering as a ground zero chaplain while fires still raged there.

Rather than being discouraged when a citywide memorial service held at Yankee stadium did not include the Buddhist community, Nakagaki later organized one to honor the victims, who included 24 Japanese nationals.

As a result of his firsthand experiences with 9/11 survivors and emergency workers, Nakagaki is now deeply concerned about the well-being of Japanese survivors who are struggling to rebuild their lives.

He is also worried about their relatives who may be living in New York or elsewhere, as well as for concerned New Yorkers.

“A lot of people talk about fundraising, but what about a cure for the hearts and minds?” Nakagaki asked.

Although no longer with the New York Buddhist Church, having retired from the post, Nakagaki continues to teach and lecture as a Buddhist priest.

The prominent interfaith leader is now looking to mark the 49th and 100th days after the twin catastrophes, which have so far claimed over 13,000 lives and left nearly 14,000 missing.