Filed in Death & Dying

The Counselor

Japanese priest Ittetsu Nemoto has made suicide prevention his life’s work.

Buddhist priests in Japan have always dealt closely with death. They are the officiants at funerals for the majority of the population, counselors to the grieving, and partners through the long series of memorial services that follow a death. Yet few priests have made it their business to confront suicide, which last year claimed close to 28,000 lives in Japan. Ittetsu Nemoto is an exception. “If one path leads toward suicide, I want to do anything I can to lead people in the opposite direction,” says Nemoto, who serves as chief priest at Daizenji, a small temple nestled between rice fields and forested hills in rural Gifu Prefecture.

The 41-year-old Tokyo native grew up with no particular connection to Buddhism. A wild child who loved to ride motorcycles, dance late into the night at discos, and pick fights, Nemoto studied Western philosophy in high school and college, then drifted from job to job. By his mid-twenties he was questioning his path in life. When by chance his mother pointed out a newspaper ad for entry-level work as a monk (it read, literally, “Buddhist monks wanted”), Nemoto—who had been intrigued by zazen on a karate retreat—applied. Several years later, wanting to engage more deeply with Buddhism, he entered a secluded Rinzai Zen monastery in the hills of Gifu. The training there was ascetic in the extreme: monks begged their meager diet of rice and vegetables, worked and meditated for long hours, and related to one another within a strictly hierarchical framework. Pushed far beyond what he had experienced in the outside world, Nemoto came to understand the workings of his mind and heart with a new clarity. He left the monastery in 2004, after four and a half years of training, and the next fall became priest of Daizenji.

The relentless energy that once fueled all-night dance sessions now allowed him to counsel thousands of deeply troubled people, organize gatherings for the family members of those who have killed themselves, and hold countless retreats, pilgrimages, and meditation sessions. The work drew media attention (last summer he was profiled in The New Yorker), and more requests for help flooded in. Between all of this he performed the ordinary duties of a country priest and grew organic rice in a field beside his temple. Even for Nemoto, it was too much: by 2009 he had developed severe heart problems, and he spent the next few years in and out of the hospital.

Today Nemoto continues his work at an only slightly slower pace. Yet on an autumn morning in the quiet, clean temple he and his wife watch over, he seemed to have all the time in the world to talk, and a hundred stories to tell.

Winifred Bird

How did you get involved in suicide prevention and counseling work? There are people around us who are troubled, right? I can’t just ignore them. It has nothing to do with my being a monk. I think it’s a feeling that every human has, the desire to help people who are suffering.

But most of us, myself included, do ignore them, unless they are our friends or family. My uncle committed suicide, as well as several of my friends. Suicide is really tough. The killer and the killed are the same person, so you don’t know what to make of it. You don’t know where to direct your anger. The wound stays with you for a long time.

Suicide is hard to understand. For instance, my friend, she didn’t seem like the type to commit suicide at all. She was a good student, good at sports. She had a very happy life. I got a call: she had killed herself. I went to see her, and she was completely changed—turned into skin and bones. Why? I felt a very strong desire to understand why this kind of thing happens. I still do. Why does a person stop being able to live?

You’ve written about the societal roots of suicide. Do you think that’s the central problem, or does it have more to do with individual issues? Both play a role. In terms of societal problems, the workplace is changing. Japan used to have lifetime employment in large companies, but that’s fallen apart and been replaced with contract work. People move around every year or two, and the companies can fire them at will. In the past people would go out drinking with their coworkers and could talk about things, but now they work alone, eat alone, come home and are alone. Chances to really talk are decreasing.

And with Internet communication becoming more widespread, particularly social media, you can’t show the darker parts of yourself, your suffering, because people won’t “like” your post. You just show the fun parts of yourself, the good parts, and increasingly you put on a mask. Your spiritual balance begins to disintegrate. The gap between your true self and the self you show to others grows wider and wider.

To address societal problems, I’ve started something called ittetsu.net. There are plenty of hotlines and counselors and psychiatrists for people to go to if they are depressed or considering suicide. But if you look at whether these responses lead people toward better lives—well, people go home and they’re alone again. Their environment hasn’t changed. So what I want to do is create a network where many different people, both suicidal and not, can get together for different activities like dancing, yoga, singing, or cooking—to start living once again.

How do you help people deal with problems on the individual level? I’ll tell you a story about the person who gave me this air-conditioner. She was a 30-year-old woman working for a government agency in Tokyo. She became very anxious and couldn’t sleep. She checked into a psychiatric hospital for three months, and after leaving she continued to see all sorts of counselors and doctors. She’s very smart, so whatever the doctors said, she understood even better than they did. She made this huge file of papers concerning herself and brought it with her when she came to see me. It was all very interesting, but none of it was taking her in a positive direction. Her condition only became worse and worse.

She started to have visions. At night she’d see a person at the foot of her bed, or she would hear noises in the bath. Eventually she learned about my work through a documentary program. I think she thought that maybe since I’m a monk I would be able to give her advice about these spirits she was seeing. So I listened to her talk about her problems, but nothing jumped out. Since I couldn’t find anything that she was fixated on, I suggested that we sit zazen. Zazen is a form of training to lessen attachment to the thoughts and images that arise in our minds, but it is very difficult to bring our minds into a state of emptiness. When you sit still you start to think of all sorts of things. The idea is to watch the thoughts pass by as you breathe. At times the thoughts disappear for a moment, and you realize you weren’t thinking anything at all.

For this woman, practicing zazen was a very interesting experience. She had thought she was always anxious, but in actuality the feeling of anxiety was in flux. It would arise, and then perhaps a feeling of reassurance would arise. She hadn’t felt that way in a long time, without any worries. Or perhaps the worries were there, but they were just flowing by. When she realized that, a load was lifted off of her.

She had been suffering deeply, and through zazen she was able to understand what was happening in her own mind, that she herself had been creating the suffering. She gave me that air-conditioner as a token of her thanks.

You said you’d probably be doing the same work even if you weren’t a monk, but it sounds like much of what you are able to do is specifically because you are a practitioner of Zen. Are you doing it because there’s a need, or do you feel you are particularly suited to it because of your training? People who are in crisis and feel that they want to die have had many negative experiences. In actuality, I think that they have become full to the brim with accumulated experiences and ways of thinking, and they are on the verge of a sudden transformation. They are like caterpillars about to become butterflies, about to take flight, but because it is painful they try to suppress the pain with medicine, and they often believe something bad is happening. But I think that the self that has taken them through life up till now is in the process of being killed, and a new self, their real self, is being born. I want to be there at that moment of transformation and understanding, because through that I also understand myself.

Zen training is extremely difficult. You are put under a tremendous amount of physical and emotional stress. Being under stress, all sorts of thoughts and feelings arise, but because you experience this many times you are able to overcome it. Suicide prevention is one element of my training, or my search. Most people don’t want to do this sort of work because they feel uncomfortable listening to others talk about suicide. They don’t know what to say, or they fear that if they say the wrong thing the person will die. But I’ve been doing this work for a long time, and I’m not afraid.

Has anyone you counseled committed suicide? Yes.

I imagine that would be very scary and create a lot of pressure. In that situation, do you feel like you’ve failed the person? I don’t think failure exists in this context. I’ve talked with many suicidal people—over 5,000—but just one has committed suicide that I know of, although I have lost touch with others. I first met that man through a social media page for suicidal people that I started about ten years ago. His wife was from this area, so we got to be friends offline. The three of us had actually been talking about how to reduce suicide rates among the young women his wife oversaw in her job at an ice cream factory. One morning she called me and asked me to come over. When I got there her husband was lying in bed like he was sleeping, but he was dead. It was a real shock for me. Why hadn’t he been able to explain to me why he felt he had to die? I thought he had been improving, but although he seemed fine, he killed himself.

After performing the funeral, I was very depressed. I felt like what I was doing was no good. I let his family know that he had belonged to the group for suicidal people. We talked about what he may have been thinking and feeling toward the end of his life, and they felt some resolution. If a priest they didn’t know had performed the services, they wouldn’t have been able to talk about what had happened. Normally when there is a suicide everyone tries to hide it. They’ll say the person died in an accident. Some families don’t hold funerals for a person who killed himself or herself, and everyone tries to suppress the memories. If a father commits suicide, children worry that they won’t be able to get married or get a job. They hide it, and therefore they aren’t able to talk about their pain or sadness. There is no place for people to think about those issues together. Suicidal people, too, avoid talking about their feelings because they don’t want to trouble their loved ones.

You’re trying to do whatever you can to prevent suicide, but do you believe people have a right to choose death? Is it something inherently negative? I want to avoid saying that suicide is bad or wrong. Does that message really get through to people? I’d rather focus on asking why people think committing suicide is the best choice.

The Buddha taught that there are two kinds of suffering: that which comes from the outside world, and that which comes from within you. With the latter, only you can do anything about it. Where does that suffering come from? Emptiness. It does not exist in babies—they do not feel anxious about the future or worry that they are ugly. Examining the thoughts and feelings that arise from emptiness is one tenet of Buddhism. Why do we suffer? What is at the root? Where did it begin? When we see the answers to those questions, our suffering, which has arisen from emptiness, returns to emptiness.

Those concepts seem to fit naturally with suicide prevention. But isn’t there a need to address the roots of suffering that exist in the outside world? I tell people that if they are in a really tough situation they shouldn’t stay there. That might be different from the Zen way of thinking, but if you’re in a place where you’re getting abused every day, or a place that really is wrong for you, it’s okay to leave. There is something I did learn from Zen, however. When we are training at the monastery, we put on straw hats and go from house to house reciting prayers and collecting food, which is the only food we are permitted to eat. Some people are glad to see us, but some get very angry. When I was training, one of the places I had to beg from was a clothing shop that made kimonos. When I went there the proprietress threw water on me and became very angry. I had only begun my training a short time earlier, and I didn’t understand the meaning of going to a place where I was not welcome. So I talked with a senior monk, and he agreed to go instead of me.

I was watching from across the street to see what would happen. But he just did what he always did. This happened several times, and every time the woman would lose her temper and tell us to get lost. Finally my fellow monk said to her, “Negative relationships, too, are relationships.” She became quiet, and then began to sob. After that she would send handsewn robes to this monk. I think that watching us come every day and go from house to house with our heads bowed had irritated her for some reason. But when the monk did not respond to her with hatred, something inside her changed suddenly so that she wanted to support us. I’m very interested in this possibility: that the things you have been suffering with up until a certain moment can change in an instant to a new way of thinking. In the course of my counseling, I see people become full of energy who just a few hours ago seemed on the verge of death. Seeing that, I feel that the process is very similar to the training that I went through as a monk.

I typically think of Zen monks as simply sitting and meditating, searching for self-understanding. But you are very actively engaging with the community. Is this a traditional role for a Zen monk in Japan, or is it a new way of thinking about your role? During our training we cut our ties to the outside world in order to intensively look inward. Some people continue this training for years with the goal of becoming Zen masters, while many more go on to become priests at Buddhist temples, like me. As priests we are involved in grief counseling, dealing with problems of the human spirit. In the monastery we train in the metaphorical darkness, but we are also training when we work in the outside world. We take what we have come to understand through our long period in the dark and use it to lead those who are suffering toward an understanding of the roots of their pain. There’s no big difference between these two forms of training. I think that both are necessary.

One very important role of the monk is to train disciples. If you don’t, the tradition ends. Those who strive to be Zen masters become experts in this kind of training. Those who work in the outside world, on the other hand, are dealing with people who are busy with work or raising families. We are not exactly training these members of the community, but we can point things out in their daily lives. So in a loose sense these are also disciples.

Do you think of the suicidal people you counsel in the same way? I think that we are training together. Sometimes I am the teacher and sometimes the student. We are companions in the search for happiness.

This interview was conducted in Japanese and translated by Winifred Bird.

Winifred Bird is a freelance journalist who has written for The Japan Times, Yale Environment 360, and Dwell. Raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, she now lives in rural Nagano Prefecture, in Japan, where she grows organic rice and vegetables.

Photograph by Pari Dukovic (Trunk Archive)

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Dominic Gomez's picture

The article describes the blossom of suicide but omits the root: karma.

rosemary.franklin's picture

How is suicide rooted in karma? Can an illness be simply karma? Cancer, too?
With respect.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Life is eternal, spanning past, present and future. All causes and effects are embedded in each person's present moment. Buddhism teaches people to face such realities of life (illness, mental disarray, etc.) with courageous faith to redirect our karma (actions stemming from behavioral tendencies).

Schmoopie's picture

As the mother of a daughter who has suffered all her life with a serious mental illness, I found the story of the kimono worker transformative. "Negative relationships, too, are relationships," said the senior monk. My take on it was that the woman resented the younger monk who begged for food but offered nothing in return that she valued. The senior monk was in the moment and responded perfectly and calmly to her bucket of water. The shock of his response cut through her own negative feedback loop. She received a priceless teaching and responded with her own form of generosity. We need to meet people who are suffering where they are and offer something for their benefit. And have the depth of practice to not take rejection or anger personally.

I am also an MBSR teacher and appreciated the perspective of training disciples "in a loose sense" so as to preserve the teachings. And the interchangeable roles of teacher and student.

Rangdral's picture

I can see the resentment but underlying the resentment I imagined a fractured relationship. Perhaps her spouse was abusive or perhaps she was abusive to her spouse. In the instance of hearing "Negative relationships, too, are relationships" she had a flash of understanding and compassion shone through. It was obviously a moment of transformation where an obstacle had become an opportunity.

bodhimom's picture

Yes -but the example of babies is not a good one. A baby who is unloved will feel very anxious.

meditatortoo's picture

Thank you, this has made me rethink my idea of emptiness, it is different to nothingness, almost like a dwelling from which thoughts come and go.