I recently spent some time volunteering in Rikuzentakata which is in Iwate Prefecture, Japan. On March 11th of this year a massive tsunami, a result of a 9.0 earthquake out at sea, tore through the city leaving heaps of debris and at least 1211 people dead. As of April 9th there were still 1183 people missing.
Needless to say, it was shocking at first to bear witness to such destruction. Everyone has seen photographs and videos of disaster zones before, but seeing it in real life is something else. Moreover, sorting through and cleaning up debris brings the disaster to a more personal level as one finds photographs, toys, homework assignments, clothes and other personal items scattered inside massive skeletons of metal wrapped in transparent plastic which were once productive greenhouses. You really do find everything and anything inside the debris. The tsunami picks up building materials, fishing nets, cars, cannisters and soccer balls, and then sends it deep inland several kilometres. The result is a tangled mess of immeasurable fragments of things which once belonged to ordinary people.
In Buddhism one often hears of impermanence. Impermanence being that all things and phenomena are fleeting, temporary, ephemeral, evanescent and transient. While it is quite simple to understand this, the problem is that we fail to realise our tendencies to cling to impermanent phenomena which results in suffering. This goes beyond concrete physical things. We even reify abstract concepts such as relationships and personal identity into objects which we cling to. The result is mental friction when the inevitable decay or change becomes apparent. Things change or go away and we suffer. It follows that we should cease clinging, but this is easier said than done.
I was cleaning up rubble outside this one home that had been destroyed and thought what a beautiful garden must have been here prior to the tsunami. You could tell that there were various stone sculptures, bonsai trees, a pond and a tidy plot of vegetables. It is sad to think how in less than a minute all those years of work put into the garden were erased. To add salt to a wound, the soil probably cannot grow much anymore due to the contamination from salt water. An honest and decent lifestyle and hobby brutally crushed by nature. Life is seldom ever fair even to good people. Samsara is not fair and does not play by the rules.
Ultimately, there is nothing to rely upon or trust in the samsaric world. There is no happiness in samsara. All things are impermanent. Old age, sickness, dying and death are suffering. Clinging to that which is impermanent is suffering. Not obtaining that which is sought is suffering. When we feel we have attained happiness it is but the suffering of change - the failure of worldly happiness to last.
The experience left me feeling a few things. The first was that of sorrow for those who died and those who mourn them. I looked over the vast expanse of ruin and said a few prayers. When the tsunami struck in March I was in Kathmandu, Nepal. I had made offerings at Boudhanath Stūpa on behalf of the victims. In Rikuzentakata I was able to lend what little practical aid I could and with my own hands carry out my aspirations to be of benefit to the victims.
The other thing I felt was how fragile life and worldly pursuits are. This is not original thinking, but just an echo of what the Buddha and countless other sages have said before. There is no certainty in this sea of suffering. Relationships, money, home ownership, hobbies and any other worldly pursuit can be obliterated in a few moments. It all comes to nothing in the end. To seek liberation through appropriate means is really the only worthwhile pursuit in life. What springs forth from genuine spiritual cultivation, virtue and wisdom carries one away from the tsunami of misery which is the samsaric world onto the solid ground of enlightenment.