76 years ago today our atomic bomb obliterated the city of Hiroshima, the blast stretching a mile radius from the hypocenter, killing at least 70,000 people instantly and at least 60,000 others over the next few days, weeks and months. That statistic doesn’t include the significant number of people who died from various radiation-related illnesses in subsequent years. It doesn’t take into account the trauma, grief, and ostracism suffered by survivors. The bomb dropped three days later in Nagasaki led to similar casualties.
Today we try to come to terms with the legacy of that bombing. We share the collective human burden of having invented a weapon that can reduce entire cities to rubble, devastate ecosystems, and vaporize life in an instant. We now have more than 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world, most of them more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More than enough to destroy our planet. We share the collective human responsibility of examining how the cause and effect of the 1945 bombings stretches through time and intesects with our lives today. We share the collective human imperative to ensure that something like this never happens again.
The story of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings isn’t a story about heroes and villians. It’s the story of how aggression, nationalism, exceptionalism, and righteousness can gain momentum in our hearts and in our society. It’s a story of the tragedies that can result when we allow that to happen. Yet, when we can see the seeds of violence in others and in ourselves, we can work to replace them with seeds of peace. I invite you now to hear some names and memories from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and from the years of violence that preceded those events. As you listen to these names and stories, focus on where you see their shared suffering. Rather than distinguishing between good and evil, meditate on the internal and external roots of their pain. With each breath you take, call up understanding and compassion within yourself.
Let us pause now to remember….
Takeo Teramae. She was a 15 year old student on August 6, 1945. While she was working, she suddenly heard the noise of the blast and felt the walls of the building collapse around her. Surrounded by darkness, and vomiting from the toxic smoke, she heard the voice of her teacher, Chiyoko Wakita, calling out words of encouragement to her students above the noise. Teramae managed to escape the building by jumping out of a second story window and climbing down a telephone pole. Her teacher found her outside, helped her swim across the river to safety, and then returned to help other students. Teramae survived, but Wakita died from related injuries three weeks later.
Suburo Nishida, a parish priest, was heading into the Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki to receive the sacrament when the bomb fell. He and several other church members are assumed to have died instantly.
Major Claude Robert Eatherly. An American soldier who flew the weather reconnaissance plane on the Hiroshima mission. For years he would wake up screaming, haunted by images of cities burning, buildings tumbling, and people running.
Captain Robert A Lewis. Co-pilot of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Horrified at the time of the bombing, he remained convinced throughout his life that the bombs ultimately saved more lives than they took by forcing Japan’s surrender.
Haruyo Nihei. An 8 year old girl living in the northwest part of Tokyo with her family during the catastrophic Tokyo Firebombing five months before Hiroshima. When the bombs began to fall, her family fled through the burning city. Nihei was eventually separated from her family, and she took shelter behind a wall while a stream of other refugees piled on top of her. The next morning, her father found her and pulled her out from a pile of corpses, still alive.
Second Lieutenant Jim Marich. A 20 year-old US airman who dropped fire bombs over Tokyo during that March 10, 1945 raid. He said, “We hated what we were doing, but we thought we had to do it. We thought that raid might cause the Japanese to surrender.” He recalls how terrifying the event was and recalls the smell of burning flesh.
Takehiko Ena. A 20 year old university student, he was drafted to be a Japanese kamikaze pilot. He managed to escape death on three missions in a row: each time his plane suffered mechanical problems. Years after the war he said, “On the surface, we were doing it for our country. We made ourselves believe that we had been chosen to make this sacrifice. I just wanted to protect the father and mother I loved. And we were all scared.”
Paul J. Cascio American soldier captured in June of 1943 by the Japanese army, and sent to work as a smelter in a prisoner-of-war camp near Tokyo. He suffered extreme hunger, malnutrition, and physically gruelling work conditions during the two years he was imprisoned.
Aiko Yoshinaga. A Japanese-American 12th grader living in the Los Angeles area in 1941. She was denied her high school diploma because the Japanese army had bombed Pearl Harbor. She was imprisoned at the Manzanar Internment camp until the end of the war. She was one of 120,000 Japanese-Amercans (mostly citizens) incarcerated in internment camps during those years.
Yong Soo Lee. A young factory worker in Taegu, Korea was abducted by the Japanese military in 1944. She was raped, beaten, and tortured by her captors and eventually forced to work as a military sex slave in Japanese-occupied Taiwan. She was one of up to 200,000 women, mostly Koreans, who suffered a similar trauma.
Mr. Tse. While walking near a park in Nanjing China in 1937, he heard the noise of a truck behind him and turned to look. When he accidentally made eye contact with the Japanese soldiers driving the truck, they tied him up, forced him to kneel on the ground, and beheaded him. The aggression and violence he suffered was not unique. Somewhere between 40,000 to 300,000 Chinese civilians and surrendered soldiers were killed by Japanese soldiers in the 1937 Nanjing Massacre.
When we can see the seeds of violence in others and in ourselves, we can work to replace them with seeds of peace.
These are the stories of ordinary people who are linked together by the karma of violence. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not a singular instance of violence. It was embedded in the context of wartime aggression. When we look at the bombing as just one event, we risk seeing it only as something that happened in the past and might have the potential, if we aren’t careful, to happen again in the future. We overlook the now. When we recognize it as a result of multiple violent actions committed by multiple people over time, we begin to understand the importance of paying attention to every moment. While we share in grieving the catastrophic actions that hold our collective attention, we should give equal attention to the more mundane acts of violence we might witness or commit ourselves on a daily basis. It’s these smaller acts that accrue over time, building up, leading to the larger ones.
I’m here today to offer a Buddhist perspective about cultivating peace, but I can’t talk about peace without also talking about karma. I often hear the word karma used in a vernacular sense to mean “fate” or to express a conviction that a person deserved what they got. But from a Buddhist perspective this is actually an incorrect understanding of karma. What karma really means is cause. Multiple causes come together in any given moment and lead to multiple effects which then become causes of future effects. Every action we take every day sets karma in motion. The more we engage in one particular kind of action, the easier it is to engage in that same kind of action in the future. We tend to form habits of violence or habits of nonviolence.
We can trace the collective karma that manifested in the atomic bombing back through the years. There is a link between the atomic bombs and the Tokyo fire bombings, where the American miltary killed 100,000 Japanese civilians in one attack. That links back to the hundreds of thousands of Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese civilians abused and killed by Japanese soldiers as they sought to create a Japanese-led Asian empire, in competition with the European powers, throughout the fifteen years war. That unchecked violence and aggression might link back to the WWI peace negotiations in Versailles when the Japanese government called for racial equality to be part of the founding covenant of the League of Nations, but President Wilson and the other allied leaders refused. We could go back further and further and see how actions led by desire, fear, and delusion tend to give rise to more of the same. All of these actions were carried out by individual people. Along the way, there were countless opportunities for politicians, soldiers, and citizens to individually and collectively act in a different way to give rise to different karma.
Those same harmful seeds that gave rise to the Hiroshima bombing have also been planted in our society today. The seeds of violence show up as religious intolerance, ethnic hatred, family abuse, racism, and exploitation of the world’s resources. They show up when we absolutize our own experience and perspective, seeing our way as THE truth rather than as a perspective shaped by our years of experience and social conditioning. They show up when we set ourselves apart from others, seeking kinship with only those who share our same outlook on the world.
The same potential to cultivate peace instead of violence that existed during the years leading up to the Hiroshima bombing is here with us today as well. We see this in acts of kindness to strangers. We see it in moments when, filled with a wave of annoyance or frustration about someone’s words or actions, instead of acting on our emotion, we focus on developing an understanding of the roots of that other person’s perspective. We work on generating compassion for their situation.
Within Buddhist teachings reality is shaped by what we see, hear and take in through our other senses. It’s shaped by our past experiences and by our ancestors’ past experiences. What we take in conditions us to see the world in a particular way. This gives rise to our thoughts, speech, and actions. We tend move through the world steeped in our own habits, often with a notable lack of intentionality. To practice peace from a Buddhist perspective requires us to recognize that our reality is actually a filter through which we understand the world. We must take moments to pause, to attempt to recognize how our perspective is being conditioned by our past experience. We take a breath and notice the sensations, emotions and thoughts that are arising. We examine whether those thoughts trace back to a harmful or helpful root. We put some space between the thought and action to ensure we are fostering peace and compassion.
From a Buddhist perspective, the external peace we are seeking, the peace that will ensure we never see the use of another atomic weapon, can only be achieved if we are working to develop internal peace. The two are inseparable. The more we cultivate peace within ourselves, the more likely we are to see peace take shape in people and society around us. The more we work toward promoting safety, freedom, and justice for others, the more we’ll experience an internal sense of peace. True peace is the cultivation of understanding, insight, and compassion, combined with action. It is not an end state, but an active process that requires ongoing practice.
We live now in a nation that has become accustomed to being a global superpower. It’s possible that dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki reinforced our sense of moral authority over other nations. We should stay aware of how this sense of righteousness shows up within us as individuals. Are there times when we stay fixed in our views, unwilling to listen to others? How much time do we spend on social media amplifying our own message rather than forming genuine connections with those from different backgrounds in order to expand our understanding?
Our world today has become increasingly polarized. We get caught by our cultural values, our political ideologies, our religious doctrine and our moral and ethical norms. We increasingly set ourselves above and apart from those who are different from us. As we’ve moved into the pandemic during the past year and a half, our physical separation has also reduced the frequency of any “chance” interactions with those who are different from us. This has exacerbated our sense of “rightness” and our negation of differences.
To truly achieve peace we need to transcend the issues that are currently dividing us. One way to do this is through compassionate dialogue. We need to cultivate the ability to pause. To take a breath. To put space between the habitual thoughts and reactions that arise when we encounter difference and work to develop an awareness of our shared humanity.
If we are truly committed to shedding the aggression, nationalism, exceptionalism, and righteousness that survived the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and continue to shape our world today, we should seek to listen more than we talk. We must reach out to those with different experiences and different views and listen to each other with openness, humility, and compassion. The work of cultivating peace is right in front of us, moment to moment and day to day. May we all have the strength and determination to practice.