Notes from Nerima: Putting Interfaith Dialogue into Practice
by Kotaro Suzuki
Members of a local Rissho Kosei-kai branch in Tokyo have become actively involved in meaningful interreligious dialogue with representatives of other faiths who are also their neighbors.
The Nerima Interreligious Forum was founded six years ago in order to deepen mutual understanding through promoting dialogue among the clerics of several faiths who are resident in Tokyo's Nerima ward. Through their participation, those who took part in the forum began to think that even though they were only a small group of local religionists there must be some way in which they could put dialogue into practice.
From the beginning, Nerima was home to the Faculty of Theology of Sophia University as well as to the Jesuit Theologate, so there were many opportunities for Rissho Kosei-kai members to interact in exchange activities with the priests. That kind of exchange laid the groundwork, because friends told friends who all took part, so that it naturally led to the birth of exchange on an interreligious level. Today the participants in the forum are not only from Nerima but from the entire Tokyo region, and it is gradually becoming a venue for dialogue.
In January 2000, I invited some Jesuit priests and Franciscan monks to join me at a hotel in Hakone, where I had the first chance to meet and talk with them as the head of the Nerima branch. I told them that I wanted to create a venue for interreligious discussion in Nerima, and they all agreed with me with glowing eyes. In February, we set up an organizing committee consisting of Catholic priests and clergy from the Shingon and Nichiren sects, and in May we held the first meeting of the forum in a conference room within the Nerima branch; and from that time, using the Nerima branch as our meeting place, we met about once every two months.
Each time, around ten people attended, mainly Jesuit priests, Franciscan monks, clerics of the Shingon and Nichiren sects, as well as Tenrikyo clergy, Shinto priests, leaders from religions belonging to Shinshuren (Federation of New Religious Organizations of Japan), and members of the Jodo Shu Research Institute of Buddhism, including the director of the St. Gregory House Institute for Religious Music. Furthermore, many of them taught Buddhism or theology in universities, and served as chancellors of universities and colleges, and among the Shinto priests there was a trained psychiatrist. It was truly a group of talented individuals.
Respectful Attitude and Sincere Prayer
We tend to use the term "religious dialogue" rather loosely, so I wonder what "interreligious dialogue" really means. In fact, I wonder if there has been any real dialogue up until now. If anything, I feel that often it might have been more a debate of religious doctrines under the name of interreligious dialogue. Of course, all people believe that the religion they follow is the most correct. Therefore, there have been several cases in which people reject other religions as of a lower order. In such a situation, there can be no true dialogue.
Fundamentally, religious dialogue must be based upon a respectful attitude toward other religions and their followers, and it must also be built upon a foundation of sincere prayer. Preconceptions and prejudices must be eliminated and participants should pray and work together, for this will allow them to gain a deeper understanding of one another. Together, these "children of God" and "children of the Buddha" should respect one another, for this is an indispensable requisite for religious dialogue. In the case of Nerima, the dialogue is surrounded by a peaceful and harmonious atmosphere, for everyone has the spirit of tolerance needed to listen with open minds to the opinions of others. For that reason, we were all able, as individuals, to have free and open discussions on such themes as: "Prayer," "What Religionists Can Do for Peace," "Science and Religion," "Religion and Violence," "On Life: Life Ethics and Japanese Culture," "The Spirit of the Mandala," and "Hospices in Japan: What Is Expected of Religionists in Medical Care."
Making Life Meaningful through Gratitude
On many occasions I was truly inspired by what the other participants had to say. Through the deep faith and prayers of each and every participant, we were able to enlighten one another. Each time we took part in a dialogue, we always learned something, without fail. In an atmosphere that was always exciting, and that sometimes had laughter, sometimes had tears, and was always filled with emotion, all of us were able to share our faiths with one another, which helped us all as individuals to strengthen our own faith.
Fr. Juan Masia, S.J. (former director of the Bioethics Department, The Pontifical Comillas University of Madrid; currently professor emeritus of Sophia University) was one of the members of the organizing committee of the forum and is still a very important member, and many times his words taught me about the oneness of spirituality in both Christianity and Buddhism. One morning, while I was on my way to the Nerima branch, I happened to look down, and there sticking out of the asphalt pavement was a single small white flower--I do not even know what it is called--in bloom. If it had been a field, I never would have noticed that little blossom amid the other plants and grasses. I was very moved by the power that that little flower had that allowed it to grow right through the asphalt, and I was momentarily glued to the spot.
Since ancient times, Japanese have felt the hand of the Divine in the workings of nature. The twelfth-century monk Saigyo, who had been born into a samurai family but took the tonsure after reaching adulthood, traveled throughout the Japanese countryside and left behind numerous excellent waka (31-syllable) poems, in which his deep feeling of gratitude toward life is evident. When I spoke about this with Fr. Masia, he told me that once when St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, was walking in a garden, he turned to the flowers, saying, "Thank you, flowers, for I have understood what you are trying to tell me."
Surely people of every religion experience a sense of awe through becoming aware of the mystery of life in the rustling of the wind, the murmuring of flowing water, or the beauty of a single flower. It might be said that for Buddhists, it is to live with the Tathagata and the Dharma (Truth), just as for Christians, it is to live with Christ and realize the workings of the Holy Spirit. Through my discussion with Fr. Masia, I was able to reach the point at which the terms "God" and "Buddha" pointed to the same source.
Revering the Dharma
Immediately after his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, Shakyamuni Buddha described it thus:
"I have realized this Truth (Dharma), which is profound, difficult to perceive, difficult to understand, tranquil, sublime, beyond analysis, and intelligible only to the wise. But the people of the world are sunk in attachment, delight in attachment, rejoice in attachment. . . . There is no way for them to understand this Truth. Even if I were to expound it to them, it would only become a source of complete exhaustion to me."
The Truth that was realized by Shakyamuni developed over the course of Buddhism's history into the concepts of the Tathagata, the buddha-nature, and the Original Buddha of the remote past. Rev. Nikkyo Niwano, founder of Rissho Kosei-kai, once said: "Should we look upon all things as manifestations of the Buddha? If we believe this, then that is how the world will be for us. Every person we encounter, however briefly, will be like an enlightened buddha appearing before us." Whether we talk about the Dharma or the Buddha, they are both great manifestations of the workings of life. They pervade the universe; they exist within me. And yet, ordinary people cannot become aware of their existence, because they are sunk in attachment. We cannot understand the Tathagata or the Dharma unless we immerse ourselves in deep prayer or meditation. It is only when we acceptingly face God or the Buddha that the Dharma and the Tathagata become apparent.
Also, the Founder taught all members that it is our mission "to help all people become aware of their own buddha-nature." The buddha-nature equals the Tathagata. That is, it was his hope that all members will take up that mission by revering the Tathagata that exists within all people, so that all beings might become aware of their own buddha-nature and attain enlightenment. For myself, I pray each day that all my encounters with people may be like that--and the field of interreligious dialogue is no exception.
Whenever we talk about religious dialogue, it is based upon the premise of the Founder's spirit of revering the buddha-nature of all beings. Because this premise exists, our dialogue does not end in just formal debates among theologians. If all participants proceed in the dialogue on the basis of sincere prayer, we will be able to hear the words of the other participants as though they were the voice of the Dharma. In actual fact, it is there that a real movement toward salvation begins.
The Results of Dialogue
One thing that I should add about our religious dialogue is that, through assistance from the local community, we were able to develop support activities abroad.
No one can forget September 11, 2001, but it is a fact that numerous Afghan people became victims of the aerial bombings carried out by the Allied forces, due to which many schools and hospitals were destroyed. A voice arose among the religious leaders of Nerima asking whether or not there was anything that we ourselves might be able to do to help the children of Afghanistan. Among the members of the meeting were the leader of a group of young Buddhist monks studying Buddhist music and shomyo chanting, as well as the director of the St. Gregory House Institute for Religious Music. Then, almost spontaneously and naturally, it came about that a plan was devised to give a charity concert consisting of shomyo, Gregorian chant, and Gagaku (ancient Japanese court music) and to use the proceeds for aid funds. The Gagaku was performed by Rissho Kosei-kai's own Gagaku troupe. So it came about that three completely unrelated groups specializing in religious music came together in harmony for world peace and gave charity concerts at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space in 2002, 2003, and 2004 under the title, "9/11 A Prayer for Peace: A Charity Concert for Love and Hope," and over 6,000 people attended each time. Thus, while these concerts served as a venue for prayer, they were also an expression of a social movement for peace.
Through the funds thus obtained, we were able to build a school in Afghanistan that was named Hope Elementary School. And furthermore, it was built in the region of Bamiyan, where the Taliban had destroyed the colossal ancient stone buddhas. Living in that area are many people of a Mongoloid minority group of the Shia sect known as the Hazara. Throughout history, the Hazara have suffered discrimination within Afghanistan, to such a degree that no school had ever before been built in the area. So our charity funds were used in the part of Afghanistan that had the greatest need for education. For the first time, some 350 children were able to attend school, and seven teachers were dispatched there by the government.
When I look back, it seems to me that several things took place that can only be thought of as due to the blessings of God and the Buddha. We did not know anyone in Afghanistan, and we did not have even a clue as to how we should go about building a school. But our activities gained the attention and sympathy of a member of Japan's Diet (parliament), who introduced us to the Shuhada Organization, which was experienced in building schools and operating hospitals. The person in charge there was Dr. Sima Samar, the first woman ever to attain appointment to the high position of minister within Afghanistan.
The aid that we gave through the Shuhada Organization was not temporary; indeed, it continues even now. One thing that I decided within my heart is that the light that was lit in the hearts of all those who gave assistance must never be allowed to go out. I do not know how our support will develop from here on, but one of the results of our interreligious dialogue and prayer is that we are continuing to support this school in Afghanistan. Through the warm support of everyone who extended a hand to help us, I very strongly feel the movement of the Tathagata and the Dharma.
From now on, I will revere every person with a feeling of respect for the Buddha within, and will continue the interreligious dialogue in Nerima with a spirit of gratitude and great joy.
Kotaro Suzuki, head of the Nerima branch of Rissho Kosei-kai in Tokyo, acts as the secretary of the Nerima Interreligious Forum.
This article was originally published in the October-December 2006 issue of Dharma World.
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