Buddhist nun Koshu Hirao helping the homeless
by Pino Cazzaniga
After she had to leave her convent because of her opposition to nuclear power, she devoted herself to the sick, old, homeless, refugees and society’s rejects. Hers is a story of real compassion in post-tsunami Japan.
Tokyo (AsiaNews) – Koshu Hirao, 58, is not your ordinary Buddhist nun; actually, she is not even a nun even though she keeps her head shaved and wears a religious garb. She is famous for helping society’s marginalised.

Her interest in Buddhism began in elementary school when she read about an itinerant Buddhist preacher, Ippen (1234-1289), founder of the Jishu sect, in a history book. She was captivated by his missionary activities.

After she became a nun at the age of 26, she took up residence at a Jishu temple, where she met Ryogen Takada, a priest who had been imprisoned before the Second World War for distributing antiwar fliers.

Under his guidance, she became involved in protests over nuclear power—activities that eventually led to her departure from the Jishu sect.

Despite having to leave, Hirao still follows the teachings of "jishuseikai," a collection of sermons by Ippen. "I look to this for a warning against myself. When we set ourselves to do welfare work, we tend to indulge in self-satisfaction," she explained.

Although she no longer belongs to any group, she continues to live like a nun, shaved head, religious garb and all.

Unorthodox in her ways, the nun found her mission in helping the needy, finding shelter for the homeless and refugees and providing assistance to the sick.

Hirao has been doing this for years. Increasingly, her activities have come under the spotlight as people realised the importance of social bonds, especially after northeastern Japan was hit by an earthquake and a tsunami on 11 March 2011.

As part of her activities, she heads Street Workers Co-op Potalaka, a non-profit organisation that supports the homeless. Potalaka means utopia in a Dravidian, an ancient language of India.

Earlier last month, Hirao attended a "shijukunichi" (49th day after death) memorial service at Myoshoji Temple in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture, for a man who died of colon cancer in November at the age of 61.

After moving from shelter to shelter, the man, a native of Hokkaido, spent three months at a facility operated by Tokyo-based Potalaka, before being hospitalised.

Just before he died, he expressed a wish to return to Potalaka, and died peacefully the next morning after being assured he would be allowed to return there.

"I wanted to do my part by seeing him off in an appropriate manner, as a divine bond made our paths cross," Hirao said. "Potalaka is a home for homeless people and the staff are their family."

Located inside an old converted warehouse, Tokyo’s Potalaka presently houses 18 elderly men. Another facility for women is found close.

Some of the residents suffer from serious illnesses such as advanced dementia and schizophrenia.

Since Potalaka accepts people who are shunned elsewhere, Hirao receives a constant stream of applications for shelter.

Shoko Tokumoto, a manager at a care service facility, expressed admiration for Hirao's iron will in carrying out her relief mission as a Buddhist.

However, feeling pity for the needy is not enough, Hirao said. "Like Ippen, we must stay with them, mourn with them and cry with them."