Earthquake in Taiwan
A talk by Master Sheng-yen (From Chan Magazine/Winter 2000)

(Transcription of a talk given by Shifu at the November 5th Dharma Gathering after his return from Taiwan.)

On September 21st there was a major earthquake in Taiwan. More than 2,300 people died, tens of thousands were injured, and property loss amounted to 100 billion U. S. dollars. It was a terrible disaster in a country whose population is only 22 million. So, on average, each person in Taiwan lost about $3,000 U.S.

The earthquake occurred around 1:45 AM. Three hours later, I arrived in central Taiwan, the earthquake's epicenter, to lend my support to the victims. I visited the families of people who had died, to give them my condolences. I went to hospitals to visit those who were injured, to give them my encouragement. A lot of them were in intensive care wards, very seriously injured. I visited some people very shortly before they died. In the open area in front of the hospital, there were hundreds of corpses laid about. At first, it seemed like a lot of those rescued from the rubble would survive. But many died on the way to the hospital. They could only be put here, in the open area outside the building. Very few of these corpses were completely intact. Most of them were crushed by falling concrete blocks or rubble during the earthquake, pretty much disintegrated.

I went to the area where the fault line lay. On one street right on the fault line, I looked at all the houses and there was not one that had not collapsed. The earthquake itself only lasted for around thirty seconds. Not even a minute. All these houses collapsed within that time. The houses collapsed in different ways. In a lot of them, the pillars of each floor broke. The top floor would then collapse onto the next, lower floor and just keep going down in succession. There were other tall buildings where the pillars broke at the bottom level and so the entire building collapsed sideways. When these buildings fell, they did so onto the next building, breaking that neighboring building as well.

One victim there told me exactly how the earth was shaking during that thirty seconds of the earthquake. The earth shook up and down, then shook sideways. However strong a building is, it will collapse with this kind of shaking in all directions. There was no time to escape. The only people who could escape were the ones who lived on the top floors of the multi-story buildings. Even when the building collapsed sideways, they were injured, but could still escape because the upper floors were intact.

When the building collapsed straight down, the people on the top floors still survived. But there is no way that people who lived on the bottom could survive.

The way these buildings collapsed is very interesting. Imagine a dog in the snow; the dog is covered with snow. When the dog shakes his body the snow flies off. When these buildings collapsed, they were pretty much the same way. When the building was shaken up and down and sideways, all the concrete got shaken off. At the end there was only the steel frame left. Under these conditions, it is impossible for someone to survive.

The scene over there is very, very sad. In some households there were survivors but in some, the entire family died. Only friends or distant relatives could be depended on to take care of their funerals. The whole situation was very sad indeed, the most sorrowful thing I've ever witnessed in my life. I wanted to cry, but I couldn't.

What I'm going to tell you next may be very difficult to imagine. There was a hill, about 100 meters tall. A large hill. There were people living atop the hill and at the bottom. Down the middle of the hill ran the fault line. During the quake, this hill was divided into two. Half of the hill stayed where it was but the other half slid for two kilometers. During the process, it actually rode over another hill and stopped on the other side of that hill. The households on top of the first hill felt the quake. They were fine and their houses were intact. But when the residents came out, they found that they had moved two kilometers. People who lived at the bottom of the hill were all dead, totally crushed during the process of the sliding. This half of the original hill had slid two kilometers and formed a new hill, about a hundred meters tall. This is something I've never heard of, myself. What happened to this piece of land was that one side was subsumed, and the other side was raised, covering the side that went down. So the owners of the piece of land that was covered no longer have that piece of land.

There are about 300,000 people without homes. The victims in the disaster area were left without water, without electricity, without food, without a transportation network. All the roads were disrupted. Dharma Drum Mountain in Taiwan, and a lot of the local organizations worked very hard to help the victims. I, myself, went to the disaster area four times. When I left Taiwan on October 18th, a lot of people would still not return to their homes. They lived in the park, on the side of the road, slept in tents all because they were afraid that the houses would collapse. They were not sure if they would collapse, because there were tens of thousands of aftershocks after the September 21st earthquake. There are still aftershocks now.

This disaster really affected everybody in Taiwan. The buildings of Dharma Drum Mountain did not collapse, but a lot of our followers and people related to us were affected. In central Taiwan, there is a very well known scenic area. All the houses there collapsed, so for the next two or three years it won't be possible to tour that area and enjoy the scenery. In central Taiwan, there are over 100 temples, and more than ten of them were completely destroyed. Those that collapsed were all large monasteries with a few hundred people living there. But in all those collapsing temples, there was not one person injured. This was very strange.

There are two stories I will tell about. The first one is about the Buddhist Study Institute, in the Monastery of Ten Thousand Buddhas. Right after the earthquake the monks in this monastery decided that they should get out of the building, and so they did. As they were getting out, the building began to collapse right behind them. A few of them did not leave right away, and the part of the building they were in stayed intact for that little moment while they were still there. It then collapsed right after they got out. None of them got injured. It was very strange. The second story is also very strange. In a two-story building, the people on the ground floor escaped, but those on the second floor were trapped there. The building had partially collapsed and so there were no staircases. They couldn't walk down. All the doors and windows were broken, so they crawled out of the windows. These windows were pretty high, more than the height of 2 people, over 10 feet above the ground. I asked them "The ground is pretty far away. How did you get out and not get hurt?" They said, "Well, at that time it just looked like it was really close to the ground and we just got out." This was very strange.

The abbot of this monastery had been in his room during the quake. All the doors and windows had been destroyed. He remained in his room, with no electricity, in total darkness. There were some documents that he needed to take care of, documents related to the property of the monastery. He wanted to make sure that he had organized these documents and taken them safely out with him. When he was in that pitch-dark room he could see the documents clearly as if in daylight. He organized everything and after he finished, he couldn't see anymore. It was dark again. At that time, other people who had escaped came to rescue him. When he was asked how he saw in the dark, he said, "I am not sure. I don't know how that happened."

These are two stories that I wanted to share with you. In the earthquake, these practitioners, didn't get hurt or lose their lives. After they escaped, the monks didn't have anything except the clothes on their bodies. But they went to help the victims in the local area right away.

The earthquake had a serious psychological effect on the people of Taiwan. From very young children to adults, the people are still traumatized by this experience. A lot of them see the fragility of life, impermanence, and how property and life can be lost overnight. They feel hopeless and they are in despair. A lot of them have begun to have mental problems, some hallucinating. Those who were helping the victims began to have problems, themselves, and had to receive treatment.

To help these people in Taiwan, who have suffered so much, Dharma Drum Mountain is training 5,000 people who will go to the victims and help them with their mental problems. During this period, I was very busy, from Sept 21st until I left Taiwan on Oct 18th. In less than a month I had given a lot of talks and written a lot of essays. These have already been compiled into a book and published to assist these people. Here in the U.S., a lot of volunteers have also collected donations to help the victims of the earthquake. At the Chan Center, we have collected over $90,000 U.S. to date.

There are two ways we can go about supporting the victims. One is helping materially and the other is to help them psychologically. Rendering material assistance is a little easier, though it's not that easy. However, to help psychologically, to heal from this experience, will probably take about ten years. The occurrence of this disaster seems to be giving us a lot more work. However the Buddha comes to this world because it is impermanent. There is suffering here. That is why the Buddha has been busy alleviating the suffering of sentient beings in this world, especially psychological suffering. So in this catastrophe, I find that our organization is very useful in helping the victims. Instead of thinking, 'well, there is a disaster in Taiwan, so we'd better leave,' we should see this as an opportunity to tread the Bodhisattva Path, to practice helping other sentient beings, and to give more of our time and our heart in helping these individuals. At this time, the use of wisdom in handling matters of life and the use of compassion to care for others is very appropriate and useful in what's going on in Taiwan.