Green Koans Case 37: Myoe's Letter to Japan

Clark Strand

Japan, satellite

CASE #37:    Myōe’s Letter to Japan

The monk Myōe wrote a letter to the Island of Japan:

Why do we need to seek anything other than your physical form as an island since it is the body of the radiant Buddha? Even as I speak to you in this way, tears fill my eyes…I am filled with a great longing for you in my heart, and take no delight in passing time without having the time to see you. And then there is the large cherry tree that I remember so fondly. There are times when I so want to send a letter to the tree to ask how it is doing, but I am afraid that people will say that I am crazy to send a letter to a tree that cannot speak. Though I think of doing it, I refrain in deference to the custom of this irrational world.

    A monk of the Japanese Shingon school, Myōe (1173-1232) borrowed freely from other traditions, including Kegon and Zen. Most of his life was spent in seclusion, following strict observance of the precepts at a monastery in the mountains outside Kyoto, located far from the shorelines he loved to play on as a boy.
Letter to the Island    Myōe’s letter, which can be read in its entirety in Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism (Shambhala, 2000), is a short masterpiece of Buddhist environmental writing. Near the end, Myōe concludes that his “Island,” compared with any actual living person, however wonderful, is “truly an interesting and enjoyable friend.” He then writes:

Having observed the ways of the world for some time now, I think it suitable that there were those in the past who followed the custom of digging a hole in the ground and speaking into it. These are ancient matters. These days no one does anything like this, but when we speak of it there is a certain yearning that we have for it.

When asked by the messenger he had summoned who he ought to deliver the letter to, Myōe replied: “Simply stand in the middle of Karma Island; shout in a loud voice, ‘This is a letter from Myōe of Tonganoo!’ Leave the letter, and return.”


Who digs a hole and talks into it? Who writes a letter to an island? Who talks to the Earth as if they were speaking to a buddha or to God?

You’d be surprised. There are more Myōe’s every day. What the world calls crazy is really sane; what it calls sanity has no future, no beauty, and no home.


Wanna talk to Earth?
It couldn’t be simpler!
Just stand on your head
Like this, and wiggle your toes!
Let others laugh if they will.

Find all the Green Koans here.

Read about three practices for the benefit of Japan here.

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Mat Osmond's picture

Really interesting article Clark, thanks. It reminded me of hearing about a massive earthquake in Portugal - 16th C perhaps? - that devastated a city there. The Catholic authorities decided it was Divine judgement, and had the few survivors burnt at the stake. (I can't verify this, but if anyone else can i'd be interested.)
Your article also brings me back to Derrick Jensen, the Dark Mountain Project, and the overwhelming mass of evidence around us of the irredeemable, destructive insanity of our globalised industrial culture. I realise that, despite comments above, I do think of collective karma, and its in those terms.
Perhaps 'biology, not ideology' applies here too. The plastics accruing in the oceans, infesting the planktonic food-chain that is the cornerstone of so much else, the acceleration of deforestation, species extinction...just picking up these at random, to stand for the whole elephant in the room. (That seems deeply unfair to elephants.)
The notion of collective karma works on that level, for me: there is no justice in it, no retribution, just inexorable cause and effect. It is often a term attached to national cultures, but that suggests the nation state as a continuous entity of some kind, rather than an ephemeral cultural construct that refers to a constantly changing river of human lives. But maybe I've got that all wrong. I think of Blake's Albion...he would have seen it quite differently, I'm sure.
What it doesn't seem about for me, is anyone getting 'what they deserve', or about fairness, justice. Whose justice would that be? Rather, the unavoidable reaping of what has been sown, the coming around of what must eventually come around. Whether it was sown by 'us' or 'them' makes no difference, just as it makes no difference to glaciers who or what warmed the air around them.

Philip Ryan's picture

Hi Mat, Lisbon had a big earthquake in 1755 that had some of the effects you describe:

ClarkStrand's picture

Here's the link for the Religion Dispatches piece...

ClarkStrand's picture

Hi, Mat & Will. I just wrote a piece for Religion Dispatches about this. It'll probably go online tomorrow. I'll keep you posted.

Mat Osmond's picture

The Myoe passage is extraordinary, I'm grateful to learn of him.

I hope it is not too abrupt to say that I find even speculating about collective karma, even as the suffering in Japan is being played out before our eyes, quite bad taste.
The confrontation these images present with our human frailty and vulnerability, and the simple possibility of compassion , of empathy with others with whom we are all 'brothers and sisters in suffering' is as far as I am willing to go in reading anything into such events. The rest, to me, is all conjecture, and most toxically so when reading such events in terms of punishment and reward.

Still absorbing, meanwhile, the provocative discussion on the previous koan. Reading Derrick Jensen's first Endgame Vol, and glad to have found him here.

Best wishes,

ClarkStrand's picture

You're in for a wild ride with that book, Mat. After you finish Vol.2, try James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency, if you haven't already read it.

Will.Rowe's picture

I do not believe it is divine retribution either, but the thought did come to me that it was collective karma for all of the bad actions Japan did during the 1930s and 1940s with their attempted take over of Asia and the murderers of tens of thousands in China, Mongolia, Manchuria, and throughout much of the rest of Asia. (Also Unit 731 and Pearl Harbor attack on US).

I cannot say that I honestly believe in collective karma; however, I am curious to hear what others think of this concept of collective karma and Japanese past crimes. Of course, many of the guilty in Japan are now dead, and most of those who now suffer were not responsible for the torture and murder carried out under Japan decades ago. Do others think they may be linked, or do they believe there is collective karma?

I think we humans desire some resolution or answers as to why bad things happen to people who do not deserve the disasters, such as the earthquakes or the subsequent Tsunami and its devastating effect. So the mind accepts explanations that may seem reasonable from one perspective, yet seem absurd from another.

If this is off topic, then fine. Personally, I know suffering is an inevitable part of life, yet still it is hard to watch it on such a large scale. Best wishes to the people of Japan.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Myoe and his contemporaries seem worlds apart from a few in Japan today with regard to compassion for their country:

Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara told reporters Monday that "Japanese politics is tainted with egoism and populism. We need to use tsunami to wipe out egoism, which has rusted onto the mentality of Japanese over a long period of time. I think (the disaster) is 'tembatsu' (divine punishment), although I feel sorry for disaster victims."
Ishihara, who is seeking re-election for a fourth term on April 10, later apologized for his remark.

okamotosensei's picture

Dominic - he is prone to make remarks like this. This is nothing new for him. Take it with a grain. 石原さんの言葉を話半分に取るよ。

ClarkStrand's picture

Thanks, Dominic. I may refer to this remark in a piece I've been asked to write for Religion Dispatches. This is actually a pretty common response to events of this kind throughout Japanese history. For instance, my friend Bill Alexander, who has a blog on the Tricycle Community, just sent me a poem by Ryokan that expresses a similar sentiment in response to an earthquake that shook Japan in his day. But, then, we see this same phenomenon in the U.S. when something truly terrible happens, most often among fundamentalists. There is such a strong desire to regain control in such moments (especially moments when the Earth itself seems to have intervened to disrupt human events) that we will put ourselves back in charge even at the expense of claiming responsibility for it--either by accepting the blame ourselves, or by assigning it to another. I'm sure the Tokyo governor (a very powerful person under most circumstances) must be feeling his limits, and therefore his vulnerability, at a time like this. Frankly, I'm sympathetic. Although I do not feel that this is divine retribution.

Anreal's picture

Wonderful! :) Thanks. Big Grin.