Priests take up pen to stop suicides

by Takeshi Nishide


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.

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