Tuesday, September 5, 2023

August 6th, 1945, Carrying the Flame

This is a continuation of my earlier post about the movie Oppenheimer.

On July 31st of 1995, I drove with Maylie Scott from Berkeley over to Mayumi Oda’s house in Stinson Beach, just below Green Gulch Farm. I remember the day because it is the Feast of Saint Ignatius, and my friend Ty Cashman was living with Mayumi at the time. Ty was a friend who, like me, had been a Jesuit. Then we were both practicing Zen Buddhists.

The purpose of the visit was to receive a small flame that Mayumi had carried from the fire that burns at the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima remembering the more than 140,000 innocent men women and children indiscriminately murdered on August 6th 1945. There’s an eternal flame in the memorial park commemorating the 15 kiloton bomb that burned at 4000 degrees Celsius at its center. Mayumi had kindled a candle there and somehow secreted it aboard her plane back to the US. My job in the passenger seat of Maylie’s small car was to guard that flame on the bumpy and twisty road back to Berkeley. From there it would be carried to light the candles for a ceremony that would begin the blockade of the Livermore Lab. Maylie had organized the protest with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship to commemorate the 50th anniversary. She and several others would be arrested and spend several days in jail.

I mention the Jesuits because one of the main reasons that a number of Jesuits have become dedicated Zen Buddhist practitioners is the leadership and inspiration of Father Hugo Makibi Enomiya-Lassalle, and Father LaSalle was in Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945. He was walking on a hill above the city, about 6 or 8 kilometers from the epicenter and was injured although I have no clear information about the nature and extent of his wounds. Another very important Jesuit Pedro Arrupe was also close to the epicenter, leading a class for the Japanese Jesuit novices. The windows and doors of the building were blown out, but I couldn’t find any record of reported injury other than radiation poisoning, and I don’t know the extent. Arrupe went on to be elected as the General of the Society after the Second Vatican Council, and was the General during my years as a Jesuit. LaSalle became a student of Harada Daiun Sogaku Roshi, and after Harada’s death, he continued to work with the lay master Yamada Koun Zenshin Roshi, a relationship that lasted for the rest of his long life. There have been more than 10 Catholic religious who have been authorized as Zen teachers who came to the practice through LaSalle. That is an amazing accomplishment. I could say that all three of these men, Arrupe, LaSalle, and Yamada have had a profound personal impact on my life though I never met them. And so did the dropping of the bomb. I was just 1 year and 72 days old. I have lived under the shadow of annihilation for 78 years along with the rest of humankind.

A woman friend thought that the most appropriate response to the bombing might be retreat to a cave or dark church. In fact LaSalle created a zendo for the Jesuits and other religious who sat with him. It is still beside a flowing mountain stream above Tokyo and he named it Akigawa Shinmei Cave. There is an appropriate time for the silent grieving along with an inner search. Arrupe and his novices immediately sprang into action, went down into the streets of Hiroshima and began to look after the wounded and dying as best they could. I don’t know what my response would have been. I do know that when Maylie went to jail, it was a work day for me and I could not join the protest. Besides, someone had to make sure that Maylie’s aging mother was taken care of whilst her daughter was being arrested.

When my friend David Weinstein was sitting with Yamada in Kamakura, he remembers seeing Father LaSalle coming from Dokusan often in the early morning. One day he was standing with Yamada Roshi and they waved goodbye to LaSalle. Yamada turned to David, and said, “there is the man who is always teaching me how to apply the koans to life.”

Father LaSalle is buried in Hiroshima in other "hibakusha," survivors of the immediate conflagration. They are the front line in our fight to ban these weapons, and why it was so important for Maylie to carry that flame from Hiroshima to the Livermore blockade 50 years later..

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