Priests take up pen to stop suicides

by Takeshi Nishide

Kyodo

To help turn the tide against suicide, a volunteer group of Buddhist priests, both men and women, writes letters to distraught people to help keep them from taking their own lives.

People considering suicide “write to us because they want to live,” said Yusen Maeda, a 43-year-old priest of the Soto sect. “So we write back by hand, saying in our mind ‘We want you to live. Don’t worry by yourself.’ ”

The group was founded in 2007 and now receives an average of 60 letters per month from people in trouble.

The members of the group discuss the problems described in the letters, but there is no manual to follow, said Kenichi Yoshida, 44, chief priest of a Jodo-sect temple in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. “We write on a case-by-case basis.”

Yoshida joined the group five years ago. “I first thought I couldn’t do this,” he recalled. “But when I read a letter for the first time, I was switched on. Suicide, which is a general social problem, became a problem of ‘you and me’ as far as I’m concerned.”

After university, Yoshida thought little of his future. Without a job, he mainly stayed home, or occasionally went camping.

At the urging of his grandfather, a schoolteacher and priest, he then qualified to become a Buddhist priest. But his grandfather’s temple had too few financial supporters, so Yoshida began working at a funeral service company.

“I wanted to know about funeral services because I thought they were the same as the work of priests,” Yoshida said.

Over the next 10 years, he witnessed various kinds of responses to death. For example, a woman who had just lost her husband asked him, “Is my husband in heaven?”

Buddhist priests, who attend funeral services after all preparations are completed, often reject the word “heaven,” Yoshida said.

“It doesn’t matter,” he stressed, saying people who have lost their loved ones want priests to understand their sorrow.

“Our role is to side with their sentiment regarding life and death rather than having them comply with our teachings,” he said.

His experience at the funeral service company reinforced his resolve to live as a priest.

Bereaved people show different reactions, according to Yoshida. For instance, the widow of a man who committed suicide might be blamed by his relatives for failing to recognize his pain, while her children are concealing their sorrow out of concern for her.

Emotional support for people whose relatives have committed suicide is one of the core activities of the group.

The letters written by Yoshida contain “genuine and heartfelt messages” to people seeking advice, said Maeda, chief priest of the Soto-sect Shozan Temple in Minato Ward, Tokyo, who acts as secretariat for the group.

They are “warm letters and you should feel pleased if you receive them,” added Yukan Ogawa, 36, a priest of the Jodo sect.

While people who have lost their children often work hard to forget the grief, they can’t move on unless they have a place where they can unload, Yoshida said.

“They don’t have to understand Buddhist scriptures, when chanted, but sit relaxed and remember their lost children for an hour,” he said.

“We sit between Buddha and bereaved families to convey this thought to them.”

Suicide remains a serious national problem, though the annual number dropped below 30,000 in 2012 for the first time in 15 years. Since its foundation, the group of Buddhist priests has received more than 5,000 letters from people contemplating suicide.

  • kyushuphil

    Good luck to Yusen Maeda, Kenichi Yoshida, and the other priests.

    It’s so easy for people in the modern world to feel isolated — from grief at the suicides around us, or from larger pain at all the tatemae 建前 — all those games of kabuki — by which the modern world amps up the suicides, complicates the feelings of isolation.

    None of us can do anything about all the happy-happy lies of TV advertising, the happy-happy costumes of infantilizing kawaii styles, or the engineered happy-happy of robot-slick pop groups. All that sells. And mega profits, the scripted fake energy of all the forms of consumerism happy-happy, at least serve as some palliative for those otherwise without access to themselves, far, far from the honne 本音 like Wakayama Bokusui’s white bird also ineluctably drifting, floating in them.

    So good luck again to Yusen Maeda, Kenichi Yoshida, and other poets of the soul while all the machinery of our crammed, consumerism happy-happy, busy, busy goes on and on.

  • Me Piper

    The best thing going for the anti-suicide counselling group of Jodo sect priests
    of the Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture Buddhist temple is that they only respond to potential suicides who approach them, of their own volition, in print. They do not proactively interfere with people to export their ideas, to prevent suicide based on a presumption of overriding rightness to do so.

    I question the easy and common association of suicide and attempted suicide with mental illness. I mean that I object to the assumption that suicide and attempted suicide themselves are incontestable evidence of mental illness. Taking this as an incontestable premise, suicide prevention programs are framed as public mental health necessities and mental health advocates constantly lobby for greater penetration throughout society of their counselling strategies. And, the same lobby constantly campaigns for people to spy on their fellows and report others to various authorities based on certain behavioural criteria. But I suggest, first, that suicide is so extremely personal that it can never be comprehensively understood, second, that thoughts of self-murder are fairly common and therefore part of the normal spectrum of human thinking, and, third, that proactive counselling programs are therefore both terribly presumptuous and unwarranted intrusions into personal privacy. In America the popular myth of happiness seems to drive the movement to counsel everyone who isn’t deemed to be conventionally happy and render them down to a condition of homogenized emotion, theatrical emotion and artifice. The power of American culture is exporting this ridiculousness. I suggest that conventional happiness is over rated and that there is a happiness fetish at work there (among their many other fetishes) that deserves suspicion.

    I suggest that one’s body and one’s life are largely one’s own to treat at personal discretion. Unlike more conventional deaths suicide is especially miserable for survivors. Its measurable economic costs and emotional and economic impacts go beyond the individual, especially if the victim is socially connected and a family bread-winner. But that does not warrant or excuse uninvited preemptive intrusion into personal privacy or spying on our brothers and sisters.

    Advocates call it reasonable and overwhelmingly appropriate preventative
    intrusion. Although one’s emotional, social and economic relationships might be
    said to compromise one’s freedom – the freedom to choose death in this case
    - and that a compromised condition excuses uninvited intrusions by various
    counsellors of one stripe and another who are dedicated to endless fiddling with
    individuals in society, I do not agree. I respect people enough to leave them
    alone. Maybe others should do the same.
    Suicide and attempted suicide ARE NOT evidence of mental illness.