Following the quake, tsunami and nuclear problems in Japan, the question is raised what advice does Buddhism have for the distraught?
The answer might be considered somewhat discouraging.
As far as Buddhism is concerned, there is no ‘explanation’ that will satisfy. Natural disasters are just that – nature. The Buddha described times when the world burns up, when if floods, when it dries to a desert. He described ‘world systems’ that fold up and disappear layer by layer until even the heavens vanish. And the opposite process too, of the unfolding of heavens layer by layer down to the world we know – the Big Bang and the Big Crunch.
There is little rhyme or reason to it – the only answer is ‘Samsara sucks’. Because of this we should make the best possible use of this time of favourable circumstance to do the practise and find ‘the refuge’.
On a more worldly level, when people are asking for advice or help, as a practise of compassion there are things you can do. For the most part, when disaster occurs (including personal disaster of losing people you love or fatal illness) people want someway to understand it. A handle by which to operate.
Psychologist George Kelly noticed this back in the last century. He was treating people during the Great Depression with psychoanalytic methods – but noticed that people just wanted a way to understand their experience. It was the lack of a suitable construct or filter mechanism that was their suffering.
Kelly went on to develop the highly useful and underrated Personal Construct Theory, that was years ahead of its time.
From the religious perspective then, we can note that the ‘Buddhist’ explanation, the ‘Christian’ explanation, or even the ‘rationalist’ explanation are not better or worse than each other. One may be more accurate in one way, while another more compassionate, but at the end of the day they are just mechanisms to understand a seeming cruel and unfair world. Somehow we feel much better if we can ‘just make sense of it’.
What you can do though, is learn some basic counseling techniques. These will help you to help others. Just a few simple pointers and sensible guidelines are of huge value – and anyone can learn them. It would be a good part of any monk’s training to learn these, and perhaps then even if ‘Samsara does suck’ we can get through it together.