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Hiroshima: Fire Sermon

“All things, O priests, are on fire.”

Monks sitting zazen. Hushed recesses of a temple. Summer morning in 1945. Birds chittering. Drone of an airplane.

“The eye, O priests, is on fire; forms are on fire; eye-consciousness is on fire; impressions received by the eye are on fire….”

Last breath of silence. Precarious equilibrium. In the temple: teetering universe of silence, poised on tip of silence before the sudden—  

***

Buddhist temples stood at ground zero in Hiroshima. Cloistered for centuries behind white stucco walls in the boisterous Nakajima district, among banks, street front markets, sake bars and shops, the temples offered oases of quiet and contemplation. Gardens of combed sand. Ponds of irises and goldfish. Monks in the Pure Land temples, the Tendai, and Zen temples would have roused before dawn. By 8:15 on the morning of August six, those in the Zen temples would have completed formal oryoki breakfast; some may have been raking leaves in courtyards, or performing kitchen chores; maybe they had resumed sitting on their zafus, in the breathing stillness of zazen. Beyond the walled temple compounds, unsuspecting people of Hiroshima jammed trolley cars, or settled by open windows at their office desks, or queued at vendors’ stalls, or walked along the sunlit thoroughfares beside the Motoyasugawa River. Soldiers flagged trucks through checkpoints. Hundreds of school kids, mobilized to help demolish wooden buildings and widen streets through the city, huddled in work crews as the airplane poised on its tip of silence before the—  

***

Monks in Buddhist temples vaporized instantly. Vanished in a sky wrenched open, a white noise of deafening light.

From the “Fire Sermon” of the Buddha: “The ear is on fire; sounds are on fire…the nose is on fire; odors are on fire…the tongue is on fire; tastes are on fire…the body is on fire; things tangible are on fire —”

A light flash not of satori; a light flash of atoms cleaving apart. Enlightenment: hurling shockwave. Bone-melting furnace of exploding light.

“The mind is on fire; ideas are on fire…mind-consciousness is on fire; impressions received by the mind are on fire —”

***

It’s the fall of 1997 and I’m in Hiroshima. I sit on a bench under maple trees, at the epicenter of the blast, and I look straight up into heaven. That sky is where the God of my childhood Sunday school lessons does not live. That sky is where the sun burst in cataclysmic bloom, unfolding its million lotus petals of thermonuclear fire.

Conspicuously American, I’m sitting in the Peace Park. I’ve traveled from Kanegasaki, seven hours north of here by bullet train, where I’m currently living and working and where I often sit zazen at Taiyo-ji Zen Temple.

Now in Hiroshima I’m watching a few wives and husbands wheel baby strollers. Here where the city lay charred flat, some high school girls consult and giggle then disperse; a jogger passes; pigeons wagtail huffily and peck the sidewalk. The smell of stale mud emanates from the river. Traffic and city noises mingle with the distant tong of the struck Peace Bell. Women workers sweep ginkgo leaves. A vagrant grabbles around a trash pail for cigarette butts. Heaped at the wrought iron fence lie tribute wreaths and garlands of folded paper cranes.

I had not originally planned to visit Hiroshima. Then I understood I needed to make this pilgrimage. In 1982, when I joined nearly a million people in a historic march through the streets of Manhattan in support of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze, an elderly Japanese woman from a busload of Hiroshima survivors handed me a banner. It pictured the bomb-demolished shell of the city’s Industrial Promotion Hall. Now, seated on this bench, I watch ravens flocking it. They’re black as the black rain that sizzled over Hiroshima after the fireball dissipated. The birds roost at vacant windows of the rubbled brick edifice. They perch on the tortured steel armature of the dome. This structure, well-known from postwar photographs, has been declared by the United Nations a World Cultural Heritage Site, enshrined forever as a memorial and emphatic warning to future generations. 

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial today | Photo by Rap Dela Rea

Every person working inside this shell of a building on that August morning of 1945 disintegrated in the heat glare of the Doomsday Bomb. Hundreds of dazed survivors from surrounding neighborhoods, blinded, their skin barbecued, shrieking, ran or fell into the river just a few yards from where I’m sitting, and they drowned. I have not fortified myself emotionally. Seeing this building has slammed me in the chest. It requires twenty minutes, perhaps longer, to recompose myself once the tears begin.

The unimaginable scope of human suffering.

It’s astonishing to imagine everything within the range of my vision—buildings, bridges, trees—obliterated in a mere quarter-second. People like these people ambling past me today, smiling, talking…

Nearby, close to the Atomic Bomb Museum, I discover a hummock of origami paper cranes, thousands of them heaped in bright pastels. They festoon the base of the “Children’s Peace Monument.” This shrine commemorates the thousands of infants, toddlers, and school kids who died when “Little Boy”—a fiendish nickname the American military conceived for the uranium bomb—dazzled the sky above them in that fatal instant before their world collapsed. The shrine also commemorates a little girl, Sadako Sasaki, who perished from leukemia caused by atomic radiation in the brute aftermath of Little Boy. Sasaki endeavored to fold a thousand paper cranes for peace before she died. According to Japanese custom, a person who creates a thousand origami cranes receives one wish. She wished for a world free of nuclear weapons. I glance at tags affixed to long strands of gaily particolored, festive origami cranes—prayers for peace from children throughout the world. I find none from the United States.

I venture inside the Atomic Bomb Museum, braving its exhibits. Torn, blood-smeared jackets of children. A cement wall bristling with glass shards hurricaned by the blast. A boy’s fingernails that slid off his maimed hands before he died, preserved by his mother. Photos of the flattened city of ash. Photos of comatose men and women, of victims gasping in hospitals, their bodies torched to carbon. A white wall drabbled by streaks of the radioactive black rain. It looks like an execution wall stained by blood of liquid tar, the blood of humanity’s festering heart… Broken wrist watches stopped at precisely 8:15 a.m., the moment when Hiroshima erupted as hell unto the earth… A bicycle like the mangled skeleton of a prehistoric beast… A section of a bank’s front wall, seared permanently with a human shadow flash-printed by the bomb explosion when it turned the person’s flesh to superheated mist… A shattered bell from a Buddhist temple.

Outside the museum, shaken, I page through a thick guest book signed by visitors from all over the world. France. Germany. Canada. Belgium. Brazil. India. Nigeria. Egypt. China. Poland. Again I see no names from the United States. It occurs to me that I’ve never met a person in America who’s visited Hiroshima.

***

During World War II, my dad, Gene Ruhl—a nineteen-year-old rural kid far from the cloistered hills of our native Appalachia—endured two years as a gunner’s mate on the USS LST 743, witnessing death and dive-bombers in the South Pacific. He manned the boat’s front machine guns when troops landed on the exploding beaches of New Guinea, the Admiralty Islands, the Philippines, and the jungle shores of Borneo, air slit with shrapnel and flares. After two years of fighting to wrest sweltering, mosquito-ridden islands from the Japanese, the next stop was Japan itself. American troops dreaded the invasion, expecting unparalleled slaughter. My father shared that dread. “We thought it would be a bloodbath. Our fleet was off the coast of Japan, getting ready to go in.”   

On the evening of August 6, 1945, rumors spread through the LST. Then news came over Armed Forces radio. A few days later newspapers arrived in the ship’s small library. Gene took one to his bunk, where he learned the United States had detonated a futuristic science-fiction bomb. Its target, the Japanese industrial city of Hiroshima, had simply vanished. A few days later, another of the new bombs dropped on Nagasaki. Abruptly, the war in the Pacific ended.

Soon after, as the American occupation began, my father and his buddies got shore leave and walked through the Japanese port city of Sasebo. “All we’d been hearing for years was how terrible the Japanese were,” my dad told me. “But we went into Sasebo and my God – the kids were so cute and the people so friendly, and you’d think, ‘This is the enemy?’” He always chuckles when he relates this, wagging his head in disbelief. “It made you realize, people are just people, all over the world.” He strolled the streets with his buddies, giving away Hershey bars, taking photos of beaming children and Shinto shrines. Then my father and a friend hopped into an Army jeep and hitched a ride to Nagasaki. 

When they arrived my father gaped incredulously at a wide lowland of scathed and flattened rubble. The city and its people had been swept away, clear to the cinder-gray horizon, as if by a mop. 

Years later my dad told me, “Every politician, every one of these damn loudmouth congressmen, and every president who rattles on about winning a nuclear war should be made to go out and look at what one of those bombs can actually do. The destruction—it’s practically incomprehensible. And hell, the one they dropped on Nagasaki was just a little pop-gun compared to what they have now. It’s just unbelievable.”

***

“And with what are these on fire?” asked the Buddha. “With the fire of hatred, with the fire of…death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief, and despair are they on fire.”

Excerpted by permission of the author from Appalachian Zen: Journeys in Search of True Home, from the American Heartland to the Buddha Dharma (Nov 2022) by Steve Kanji Ruhl, Monkfish Book Publishing Company, Rhinebeck NY

Original author: Steve Kanji Ruhl
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Friday, 19 August 2022