“Shikata ga nai”

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By Rev. Ryuta Furumoto, San Mateo Buddhist Temple

The Japanese phrase “Shikata ga nai,” or “shoganai” is often used among Japanese and Japanese Americans. “Shikata ga nai” means “It’s beyond my control, so it cannot be helped.” I find myself saying, “Shikata ga nai” at least once a day. When I am late for a meeting because of traffic, when I talk to a person who lost a family member, or when my investments go down in value, I say “shikata ga nai.” Traffic, illness, the stock market, etc. are beyond my control, so they cannot be helped. It’s useless to spend time complaining over what we cannot control. By saying “Shikata ga nai” instead of complaining, we can accept a bad situation and then try to find a solution to deal with the problem.

American journalists often comment on the expression “Shikata ga nai” when writing about difficult situations in Japan. They tended to interpret the expression as a loser’s mentality that ran counter to the “never give up” spirit; however, about ten years ago, they began referring to “Shikata ga nai” as a positive phrase for overcoming difficulties. In a recent column in the New York Times, the writer talks about the aftermath of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Northeastern Japan mentioned how it seemed the “Shikata ga nai” perspective helped the victims endure the hardships and focus on the recovery process.

A few years ago, there was an article in the Japan Times about the Japanese people’s longevity. The writer theorized that the “Shikata ga nai” perspective helped to keep blood pressure down, and therefore contributed to their longer life expectancy.

“Shikata ga nai” is an acceptance of the situation as it is, and making the best of the bad situation, which I feel enabled the Issei and Nisei generations to persevere. When they were sent to internment camps, they said “Shikata ga nai, It cannot be helped.” At the camps, they cultivated the desert soil, educated their children, created Japanese gardens and built ponds in front of their barracks, cleared away the brush to make baseball diamonds, etc.

After the internment many discovered that all of their property was lost, but again with a sigh of “Shikata ga nai”, they began to rebuild their lives and helped guide their children to becoming successful and responsible members of society.

Today more people have come to understand “Shikata ga nai” as a positive idea due to the increase in Buddhism’s influence and popularity in this country.

The “Shikata ga nai” view and the teaching of Buddhism are strongly connected.

In the first of the Four Noble Truths taught by Shakyamuni, it clearly states, “Life is duhkha, (generally translated as suffering), or life does not go as we wish.” The Buddha identified eight conditions of suffering:

  1. birth
  2. aging
  3. sickness
  4. death
  5. separation from beloved ones
  6. not getting what we want
  7. interacting with disagreeable people or undesirable events
  8. physical and mental disease.

Shakyamuni Buddha realized that we cannot avoid these conditions. Stating that “Life is suffering” sounds very pessimistic, but identifying the truth of the human condition is a very valuable and compassionate act. If the teachings emphasized that “Life is fun”, it would cause us to despair at being otherwise, which is an unkind act. In our everyday life experiences we encounter situations beyond our control, like tsunami, economic downturns, loss of loved one, aging, etc.

Fortunately as Jodo Shinshu Buddhists we are made aware of being grasped never to be abandoned in Oneness with Amida Buddha who embraces our “Shikata ga nai” life as we are. This true mind of acceptance of the challenges of our life of duhkha expressed as “Shikata ga nai,” and our powerlessness against that which we cannot control, is the working of the Nembutsu.

Shinran Shonin composed a hymn;

“Seeing the sentient beings of the Nembutsu, throughout the worlds, countless as particles, in the ten quarters, the Buddha grasps and never abandons them, and therefore is named Amida.” (“Hymns of Pure Land” CWS, p. 347)

Through being awakened to Amida’s True Mind (Shinjin) as the cause of our rebirth in the Pure Land we are able to accept that regardless of what happens in our lives, we can feel deep gratitude and joy for all of the events in our lives as contributing to that awakening.

With “Shikata ga nai,” and “Namoamidabutsu,” we live with peace and tranquility.