Oak Park Oak Leaves: Faith delivers solace during Asian disaster

Local religious leaders say they are responding to the tsunamis’ devastation in South Asia through prayers, meditation and fund-raising.

Theology Professor Hugh McElwain at River Forest’s Dominican University compared the devastation in South Asia to the aftermath of the Atomic Bomb that hit Hiroshima, Japan during World War II. For those without faith, McElwain said, the healing process for survivors will be long.

“The Japanese in the areas of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had no belief in and after life and they couldn’t make sense of it,” he explained. “To them it was the end of the world. Everything was destroyed. They believed you live on through your ancestors and there was no one left. There was nothing there.

“Religion is an answer to tragedy. Buddhists believe you can transcend it. The Hindus believe in reincarnation. Muslims have a strong faith in Allah like Christians believe in God. They are able to find a meaning out of their tragedy.”

Survivors without faith likely will sit on the beaches in South Asia and wait for their loved ones to return, McElwain said.

“One of the reasons to have a funeral is that it is final,” he said. “It gives people a sense of closure.”

Santikaro, who heads the Buddhist meditation and learning center Liberation Park, 532 N. Ridgeland Ave., Oak Park, said he boarded a plane in Bangkok the day the tsunamis hit South Asia, Santikaro, who goes by one name only according to Buddhists tradition, returned home safely after a four-week trip to Thailand.

“I lined in southern Thailand for 20 years,” he said Thursday. “I returned to Chicago four years ago and moved to Oak Park this year. I don’t have close friends in Thailand, but I keep in touch with a man who runs an organization that helps small fisherman, who were almost completely wiped out. I’ve been thinking a lot about him today.”

Buddhists have several different practices for dealing with tragedy, Santikaro said.

“People in Thailand now are dealing with the shock of it and trying to deal with the sorrow of losing friends and family and also feeling fortunate to have survived,” he said.

The death toll continued to rise.

Traditions waived

Last rites for the more than 140,000 people killed in the disaster vary according to faith, but local religious leaders say in times of war and natural disaster traditional methods for burial can be waived regardless of a person’s faith.

A traditional Buddhist wake lasts four to eight days, with the body cremated on the fifth or ninth day, depending on various factors, Santikaro said. A wake in south Thailand is typically done at a private home or a local temple.

Buddhist monks in Thailand have been asked to perform chants and sermons over the bodies, Santikaro said.

“A wake for a lot of people at once s not common, but an exception is made during great tragedies,” he said.

There is a great economic hardship for families in Thailand who may live in the northern half of the country and need to travel to the southern coast to identify the body of a loved one, Santikaro said.

“South Thailand is an area with resorts and many children leave their community to work there,” he said.

A temple run by nuns in Thailand has asked to people around the country to chant prayers for the dead, Santikaro said.

“It’s as idea that Buddha did not teach, but that is a general belief. The belief is that if people do good things, publicly chant, meditate or donated to worthy causes, the good will be shared with the dead to aid them in their transition to a new rebirth,” Santikaro said. “A person could help a family member reach as good existence by benefiting the spirit.”

Santikaro said he is using the disaster as an opportunity to reexamine his own life.

“Buddhists believe birth and death are part of life,” he said. “We can use this tragedy to reflect on our own mortality and to remind us to live each day in the best way we can. It’s important to support and aid other countries, but we need to look deeply each day for people in need around us here in the Chicago area.”

Santikaro, who was scheduled to lead a New Year’s meditation retreat, said he will encourage others to give some thought to the people who died in South Asia.

Another local Buddhist, Sensi Robert Joshin Althouse, of the Zen Community of Oak Park, 163 N. Humphrey Ave., during his New Year’s retreat said he has dedicated the merit of retreat services to the victims of the tsunamis. In addition, he plans to organize a community fund-raising event later the year.

“South Asia is still going to need serious help six to eight months from now when the media attention has died down,” Althouse said Thursday. “There is a need for long-term aid.”

The Rev. M. K. Thomas at St. Gregorios Indian Orthodox Church in Oak Park said he planned to talk about the importance of helping those suffering during a sermon Jan. 1.

Parishioners of the eastern orthodox church looking for ways to deal with the tragedy cam say prayers, he said.

Yaser Tabbara, a spokesman for the United Muslim Association of Oak Park and River Forest, said the group is sending out action alerts with lists of charities and relief efforts.

“Muslims are and others across the country are mourning the tremendous loss of human life,” Tabbara said Thursday. “Muslims are organizing special prayers services. We are praying for the souls that were lost and their families, to give them strength to grieve.”

Muslim ritual calls for praying five times throughout the day.

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