IN NOVEMBER, 1965, after my return from the meeting of the Vatican Council, I made a trip to my home village of Suganuma. It was the first time I had been there in a year and a half. The season of autumnal foliage had already passed, and the mountain trees were bare as they awaited the arrival of winter. The red earth of the six kilometers of unpaved, winding road from Tokamachi to Suganuma lay bathed in the pale sun of late fall. Perhaps for strangers from the city this road is rough and sad; but for a person raised in the area, its color, the nature of the sunlight, and the smell of the dried grass are familiar and dear. I like to return to the land where I was born and raised as often as I can because being there and breathing the pure air of unspoiled nature help me recover the spirit I had when I was a child. As I recall times gone by in my native village, I am able to observe myself calmly and quietly. But I rarely have a chance to relax there long, for I am able to make these trips only in the limited amount of time I can spare from my religious duties.
The occasion of that particular visit was to hold memorial services for the fiftieth anniversary of the death of my grandfather Jutaro Niwano and for the thirty-third anniversary of the death of my uncle Shotaro Niwano. Memorial services for both men were conducted by the priest Tetsuei Maruyama from the temple Shinjo-in in Tokamachi.
On the night of my first day home, we sat around the brushwood fire in the central hearth of our house and listened to the sound of the icy, sleety rain falling in the darkness outside. My elder brother turned to me and said in a soft voice, "There are only twenty-three families in Suganuma now."
In the past there had been forty-two families in the village; but it seems that increasing numbers of young people were running away from home in the hope of bettering themselves and escaping from the severe conditions of rural life. Wrapping their belongings in cloths, they would sneak from their houses when their parents were unaware of what they were doing. Not all of the runaways stayed away, however. There were even cases in which young men left and came back as many as five times.
As long as some of these people returned, the village did not suffer much. But after World War II increasing numbers left for the more convenient life of the city; and with the passing years, Suganuma has become a sadly wasted place. Though I realized that this phenomenon is nationwide and that rural villages all over Japan are losing their population, it made me sorrowful to hear that Suganuma had dwindled to half its former size.
On the following day, we made a trip to the cemetery. On our return, I found two of my classmates from primary school days waiting for me. Smiling and commenting on how none of us had changed, we immediately started reminiscing about the snow houses we used to build and the wrestling matches we used to hold. No matter how old one grows, carefree conversations of this kind always start up at once when old schoolmates get together.
As we sat laughing over old times, we heard a voice from the entranceway. I went to see who it was and found Mohei Ikeda at the door. Though he had grown old, had a wrinkled face, and walked with a cane, the smile on his face was still warm and bright. "I heard you were back and came to have a look at you," he said as I put my arm around his shoulder and led him to the hearth. Both of my classmates greeted him courteously. Being considerate of the elderly is an old tradition in Suganuma. Mohei called me by my boyhood name, Shikazo, when he said, "The village has become a lonely place. No more young people around to do the kagura dances. Things were at their best when you boys were young. I'd like to watch Shikazo do the tengu dance one more time." While speaking, he seemed to be looking at clouds on the top of a faraway mountain peak.
The two most common family names in the village of Suganuma are Niwano and Ikeda. Mohei's family is the head of all the Ikedas in the area; and he was in charge of the ceremonial dancing that took place during the festivals held at Suwa Shrine, where the guardian deity of our village is enshrined. Mohei Ikeda had been my dancing teacher when, in my young years, I learned the lion and tengu roles for the festivals and took lessons in beating the drums that are an in dispensable part of Japanese ceremonies of this kind.
After two or three cups of sake had begun to show in his face, Mohei began to talk more expansively about the past. Turning to me, he said, "Your dancing was good. You were skillful and more eager to do well than most other people. If I showed you something a couple of times, you remembered it. You were too tall for the role of the woman, but you were a first-rate tengu. I really liked watching you work - but now I don't have anybody to teach."
While I listened to him, I remembered practicing dance movements as I walked to the mountains to cut weeds or when I rested from work in the fields. Mohei continued: "Your sword dance was good too, and you could sing. Not the kind of voice you use in reading sutras now. You had a cool, strong voice. And when you put on makeup, tied a towel around your brow, and danced, all the village girls blushed, looked shy, and sighed." Then Mohei's voice grew faint and trailed away.
When the young people liked to dance and sing at the festivals, the village was lively. The old traditions flowered afresh then. I remember those times clearly. Mohei's talk made me sentimental about the old days, but it also seemed to tell me something profound about the village and about the nature of the Japanese approach to religion. From ancient times, the people of Japan have gathered together to pray to nature and to the gods for good harvests and again later to offer thanks when the harvest is in. We sat talking for a long time without being aware of the late hour. As I listened to Mohei's recollections, I sensed a kind of comfort that he and other poor country people derive from religious observances of the kind represented by shrine festivals. This feeling reminded me of something I had once written: "The ancient religion of the Japanese people took the form of worship and celebration of the infinite divinities of the natural world. Such nature faith and reverence for ancestors created the sentiments that fostered Buddhism in Japan. It was reaching this substratum of the Japanese mind and spirit that enabled Buddhism to take firm root here."
The next day, I visited Oike Primary School, which I had attended. In those days the school was very small and had only about twenty pupils. Denkichi Daikai was principal and teacher as well. In my day, I wore straw sandals, carried my lunch in a wooden box, and wrapped my schoolbooks in a piece of cloth. Today the school is large. It contains both primary and middle schools. Food is served in the cafeteria, and none of the pupils wear straw sandals or know what a wooden lunch box looks like. But the natural setting still includes all the things I remember.
The natural environment exerts the greatest influence on children in their formative years. Understanding our contact with nature and reverence for one's ancestors lead to the development of the buddha-mind, without the person's being consciously aware of the process.
On the day of my visit to the school, about one hundred fifty young people gathered to hear me make a talk that lasted about thirty minutes. During the speech, I made the following remarks: "When you do something bad, something that your conscience says you ought not do, it lodges in a corner of your mind and makes you spend a gloomy, dark two or three days. But when you do something good, you feel bright and cheerful. I want you to remember this and to behave always in a way that makes you bright and cheerful."
The eyes of my young audience looked unwaveringly at me, and in them I saw all kinds of possibilities for the world of the future. I spent only three days in my home village, but the contacts I had there with the natural setting and with old friends made the three days very full and meaningful.
Copyright © 2009 by Rissho Kosei-kai. All right reserved.