"To Forget the Self and to Serve Others"
by Stephen Covell
In the modern period, the priesthood and institutions of Temple Buddhism have been challenged to recreate or reinvigorate Buddhist practice. One avenue pursued has been to engage society through such means as interfaith dialogue. Ven. Etai Yamada (1895-1994), the 253rd head priest (zasu) of the Tendai sect, played an instrumental role in addressing this challenge. Yamada strove to define the "proper" role of religion, especially Buddhism, based on his understanding of the Lotus Sutra and the teachings of Saicho (Dengyo Daishi, 767-822), the founder of the Japanese Tendai sect. The Religious Summit Meeting on Mount Hiei, first held in 1987, which was a watershed meeting of religious leaders from around the world, was arranged by Yamada and provides an example of his thoughts on what direction Temple Buddhism should take in the modern period.
Yamada's interest in interfaith dialogue stems from his faith in the Lotus Sutra, which was confirmed and deepened in a time of war. According to a story related by Rev. Nikkyo Niwano and others that is reminiscent of the miraculous tales of the Lotus Sutra from times past, toward the end of World War II, Yamada was returning from Okinawa on a ship carrying 1,500 schoolchildren. American submarines were known to be active in the waters around Japan. All on board felt uneasy. At that time, Yamada recalled a verse from chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra saying that those who call upon Kannon (Avalokiteshvara) when facing disaster at sea will be saved. Yamada chanted the sutra ceaselessly during the trip to the mainland. When the ship arrived safely in port, Yamada was firmly convinced of the saving power of the Lotus Sutra.
After the war, Yamada's faith moved him to promote dialogue among the religions of the world, and in 1987, under his leadership, the Tendai sect organized the Religious Summit Meeting on Mount Hiei. Religious leaders from around the world attended, and every year thereafter the sect has played host to a summit. Yamada's efforts did not take place in a vacuum. To be sure, globally and within Japan there was already considerable activity in the arena of religious cooperation. On the international level, in 1967, the World Association for World Federation (WAWF) set up a religion committee, and shortly thereafter a Japanese branch was opened. In 1970 the World Conference of Religions for Peace was formed and its first meeting held in Kyoto. In 1976 the Asian Conference on Religion and Peace (ACRP) was formed under the World Conference of Religions for Peace umbrella and its initial conference held in Singapore. Also in 1976 the Japan-Vatican Religions Meeting (Nihon-Bachikan Shukyo Kaigi) occurred. In 1979, Japanese delegates joined religious leaders from around the world on Mount Sinai to pray for a peaceful resolution to hostilities in the Middle East. And, in 1981, the World Religionists Ethics Congress (WOREC) was formed. Its first meeting was held in Japan. Within Japan, religious cooperation was also underway from the late 1940s. In 1946, the Japanese Association of Religious Organizations (Nihon Shukyo Renmei) was formed, consisting of the several smaller associations representing Temple Buddhism, Shinto, and Christianity. In 1951, the Federation of New Religious Organizations of Japan (Shinshuren) was founded through the efforts of Rev. Nikkyo Niwano. And in 1952, the Shinshuren joined the Japanese Association of Religious Organizations.
Activity in the field of interfaith dialogue and religious cooperation for peace was related to larger trends within Japanese society and the world. In Japan, the growing interest in social engagement inspired by such things as the Vietnam War influenced many Buddhists to become involved in religious cooperation. New religious organizations also found a need to organize in order to better respond to criticism from the mass media and the established religions such as Temple Buddhism. Members of the Temple Buddhist community, too, were faced with criticism regarding their role in society. One avenue pursued by Temple Buddhist sects to counter criticism was engagement in activities such as religious cooperation.
Although Yamada had long planned to hold a special event to commemorate the 1,200th anniversary of the opening of Mount Hiei by Saicho, he made it clear that it was not until the 1981 visit of Pope John Paul II to Japan that the idea of an international summit extending beyond Asia took root. During his visit to Japan, the pope gave a speech on religion and peace, and borrowed the words of Saicho, stating, "In the words of your most excellent teacher, Saicho, 'to forget the self and to serve others is the height of compassion."1) The pope's speech, in which he cited the teaching of moko rita (forget the self and serve others), which Yamada had long felt was one of Saicho's most important teachings, seemed to reassure Yamada of his own conviction that the Tendai Lotus teachings were of critical importance to the modern world and could serve as a platform for dialogue among the world's religions.
No doubt drawing on the parable recounted in chapter 8 of the Lotus Sutra, which tells of a destitute man who unknowingly carried a priceless jewel sewn in the hem of his garment, Yamada states that the pope's speech made him realize that "It was as though sometime in history we had stumbled for a moment and had swallowed a great diamond. We have always had it right here in our stomachs. So now we have to operate to take it out and use it for the sake of humanity."2) To counter sectarian views and defend the move to involve Tendai in international interfaith cooperation, Yamada drew on the teaching of expedient means found in the Lotus Sutra. He stated: "This just isn't the time to seal off the gate to the sect. We should look to the common goals of the world's religions, such as happiness for humanity and world peace, and open the expedient gate (hoben no mon) of religious cooperation."3)
In order to proceed with his goal of putting on an international conference and his even more basic goal of instituting a shift in Temple Buddhism away from a ritual life based primarily on the temple membership system and toward a life based on service to humanity, Yamada took care to define the primary purpose of religion and, as such, what the basic duties of a religious should be. The sources of his definition were his understanding of the teachings of Saicho and the Lotus Sutra. Within the Lotus Sutra, the teaching of cause and effect was the basis, according to Yamada, for understanding the teaching that one is a buddha by nature.4) The Lotus Sutra, thus, taught one to live a life of awareness that one is a buddha and to see all other sentient beings in a similar light. In doing so, one learns to empty the self.5) This is the foundation of wisdom. Niwano recalled Yamada saying, "As long as one is self-centered, one cannot make proper judgments."6) The teaching of cause and effect and its relationship to the teaching that there is no self leads to a view that all things are interrelated. This is a popular belief shared by Yamada's contemporaries. Ryusho Kobayashi writes: "Buddhism teaches that all creatures live in a relationship with [all] others. . . . When we turn our love of self toward love for others, sublimating it to an equal love for all, self-seeking love becomes compassion."7) The basic teaching of cause and effect found in the Lotus Sutra leads to wisdom and compassion. Together, these are the guiding lights by which Yamada expects the priesthood of Tendai to live and act.
In his Dharma talks Yamada stated that the goal of Shakyamuni was the salvation of all beings. This is a goal shared by Saicho. Yamada paraphrased Saicho's Ganmon as follows: "Even if I perfect myself and attain the enlightenment of the Buddha, I will not be satisfied. Until all people have obtained happiness, I will serve the world and the people. No matter what, I wish to create a true and peaceful world."8) The view that limiting Buddhist practice to the attainment of enlightenment is incorrect and that Buddhists must instead strive for salvation for all became a central part of Yamada's efforts to shape the identity of Buddhists in the modern period and the driving ideological force behind his decision to organize the Religious Summit Meeting on Mount Hiei.
Yamada noted time and again that "to forget the self and to serve others" is the key to moving away from sectarian, national, or ethnic identities. Regarding religious or group identity, Yamada stated that "Religion and faith originally come from the search for peace of mind and happiness in everyday life."9) As such, religion was at first an individual matter. Over time it came to encompass the family, community, and nation. Yamada believed that it must be brought back to its original concern--the happiness of individuals. This is where "to forget the self and to serve others" plays a role according to Yamada--group identities can be overcome, allowing individuals to cooperate to bring about peace and happiness on a global scale.
Yamada's view of Buddhism as a salvation religion faced considerable opposition from those who saw the primary role of the priesthood as the opening of satori (enlightenment) through religious practice. His efforts to redefine Buddhist practice and to shift Temple Buddhism toward an identity as a salvation religion were assailed by critics in part because his activities appeared to move the focus of the sect away from the priesthood and toward the laity. Yamada responded by saying that "Tendai Daishi [Chih-i] taught the truth of the Lotus Sutra to priests, but Dengyo Daishi sought to lead everyday people through the spirit of the Lotus Sutra."10) Opposition on Mount Hiei was vocal. Yamada recalled, "Ever since I became the head priest of Tendai, people close to me have been telling me that others are saying things like, 'The head priest this time is different from those before. Something's not right.' Looking into this, I found that those who were saying this also said, 'Our religion is one of satori, it is not a religion of salvation. But the head priest says things that ignore satori. What is this all about?' To that I responded, 'There is a difference in where we place our emphasis. What is religion? Didn't it come about for the purpose of saving people? If it is just about satori, you don't have to be a religious person, even philosophers have realized satori. Satori is not religion. It is through salvation that religion finds life. Without it, Buddhism would never have come into being.'"11)
Yamada's arguments bring to mind standard Mahayana arguments and, in particular, Lotus Sutra-based arguments that Buddhism must be about salvation for all, not only about the enlightenment of the individual practitioner. Elsewhere, in support of his claims, Yamada called on chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra, the Kannon-gyo: "The Kannon-gyo states, 'with true vision, pure vision, the vision of broad and great wisdom, the vision of pity and compassion.' This shows the order of things--that the opening of satori is the beginning, and the important point of religion is how to put that to use."12)
For Yamada, emphasizing the salvation aspects of Buddhism did not signal a shift away from the Tendai sect's identity as a sect of renunciates. The priests were essential. They were the guides on the path to salvation. Yamada drew on Saicho for support: "I explained [the move to focus on salvation] as what Dengyo Daishi meant when he said, 'Do not drink the flavor of liberation alone, do not give witness to the fruit of peace alone.' One should not just obtain satori but should instead use that satori to guide others and bring them happiness. This is what a priest must be."13)
As is evident, Yamada believed that the Lotus Sutra taught the law of karmic cause and effect. Understood in this light, practice is the repetition of good acts and, through such, the perfection of self. However, in keeping with his focus on salvation over individual perfection, Yamada insisted that for Saicho the self was understood as existing as part of a web of relationships. This means that perfection of self can only be understood within the context of the larger society in which one exists. According to Yamada, here, too, is where the teaching of "to forget the self and to serve others" fits in: it is the negation of self in service to others.14) Thus, "to forget the self and to serve others" is Saicho's call to live a life of service to society constantly engaged in good works. In his acceptance speech for the Niwano Peace Prize in 1989, Yamada stated, "Buddhism is Shakyamuni's teaching of a way of life and way of living for all people so that everyone can live in peace. Therefore, priests must guide people by practicing this philosophy and its methods so that everyone can lead a life in a stable environment."15)
Yamada directed his words at priests but his views mirror those of the new Buddhist lay movements of Japan such as Rissho Kosei-kai. Robert Kisala describes the worldview of these new religions as follows: "The world is seen as an interconnected whole, and activity on one level will affect other levels. Therefore, a transformation on the most immediate level of the inner self will have repercussions within one's family, the surrounding society, and eventually on the universe as a whole."16) Yamada's views were not unique; many within the Tendai sect and Temple Buddhism more generally share this basic worldview of interrelatedness. Where Yamada differed from his critics within the Tendai sect is that he believed that the sect must actively pursue the transformation of society. As we have seen, one area in which Yamada thought that the teachings of the Tendai sect were particularly well suited to such endeavors was in the field of interfaith dialogue and world peace. Where he differed from the lay Buddhist movements and new religions was his view, harking back to Saicho's call for a twelve-year retreat, that individuals require time to perfect this worldview and, therefore, that the priesthood is still necessary. He acknowledged the potential of lay practitioners, for example, through his championing of the Light Up Your Corner Movement, but still believed that the priesthood plays a crucial role in cultivating understanding.
Yamada's teachings, as we have seen, were inspired by Saicho's teaching "to forget the self and to serve others" and helped to lay the foundations not only for the Tendai sect to organize the Religious Summit Meeting but also for a shift in how the priesthood of Temple Buddhism viewed its purpose. Regarding the summit and its overt goal of bringing about interfaith dialogue and world peace, most critics declared the summit a success. Yamada countered critics who complained that merely bringing religious leaders together to pray for peace was an ineffective strategy by stressing that their meeting alone was an important first step. Continuing the process was critical. "In thirty or fifty years, in our children's or our grandchildren's time, war based on religious differences will cease if we keep meeting."17) Reflecting back on the summit many years later, Gijun Sugitani, advisor to the Tendai sect, stated that the summit was "a great success if only in that it brought together on the same stage leaders from different religions at a time when the typical view was that religions did not get along well."18) The year 2007 marks the twentieth anniversary of the summit, for which a major event is planned on Mount Hiei.
For Yamada the summit provided the means to emphasize his sincere desire for religious cooperation and world peace, but also the means to reestablish Tendai at the center of Japanese religious life and to reshape the identity of the modern priesthood. He sought to refocus the priesthood of the Tendai sect on salvation for all through engaging society and pivotal social problems such as peace. He clearly hoped that in so doing the priesthood would recast itself and move away from a self-identity overwhelmingly defined by the ritual demands of the temple membership system or modern images of a true priest as one who ardently seeks only enlightenment. Regarding the immediate effect on world peace that the meeting would have, Yamada used the image of a conjured city, which is the topic of chapter 7 of the Lotus Sutra. Yamada wrote: "It is my wish that this meeting will serve as a conjured city on the way to building religious cooperation."19 Perhaps this is also a fitting way to view his efforts to reshape priestly identity as well. From the time of his tenure as head priest of the Tendai sect, Temple Buddhism has been undergoing a slow but steady change. The summit was a significant benchmark in this process. Since Yamada's passing the process of change has picked up speed significantly. Recent changes in the laws governing non-profit and non-governmental organizations have begun to have an impact on how Temple Buddhism is able to address social ills and even how it can interact with other religions. Moreover, an increasing number of priests raised during Yamada's time identify themselves less with the maintenance of traditional institutions such as the temple membership system and more with ritual practices that are redefining how people view death, dying, and ancestor veneration, as well as with social engagement efforts in the areas of interfaith dialogue, peace, minority rights, and care for the elderly. Yamada's teachings regarding the Lotus Sutra and Saicho continue to resonate within the Buddhist community in Japan today and remain a pillar of interfaith dialogue.
1. Yamada 1993, 209, 213; 1995, 93; and Tendai Zasu-ki, 4th ed., 147.
2. Yamada 1993, 213.
3. Yamada 1987, 20-21.
4. Yamada 1973, 2-3.
5. Yamada 1994, 38.
6. Gyoshi, 178.
7. Kobayashi 2002.
8. Yamada 1986, 234.
9. Yamada 1993, 206, and Yamada, 1987, 31.
10. Yamada 1980, 130-31.
11. Yamada 1995, 113.
12. Yamada 1995, 113-14.
13. Yamada 1995, 86.
14. Yamada 1987, 16-18.
15. Yamada 1989, 2.
16. Kisala, 3.
17. Yamada 1995, 108.
18. Koho Tendaishu, no. 23 (March 2004), 10.
19. Yamada 1987, 22.
Kisala, Robert. 1999. Prophets of Peace: Pacifism and Cultural Identity in Japan's New Religions. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Kobayashi, Ryusho. 2002. The Role of Religious People in Building Peace [Internet] [cited July 28, 2006]. Available at: http://www.gnrc.ne.jp/NY2002MAY/RKobayashi.html.
Sugitani, Gijun. "Kokusai shukyo kyoryoku no rekishi to tenbo," in Koho Tendaishu, no. 23 (March 2004), 10.
Tendaishumucho, ed. 2001. Tendai Zasu-ki, 4th ed. Otsu: Tendaishumucho shuppanshitsu.
Yamada, Etai. 1973. Hokekyo to Dengyo Daishi. Tokyo: Dai'ichi Shobo.
------. 1980. Yamada Etai howa-shu. Tokyo: Heibonsha.
------. 1986. Jinsei, awateru koto wa nai: kokoro no yutori jusan seppo. Tokyo: Daiwa Shuppan.
------. 1987. Doshin wa kuni no takara. Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Company.
------. 1989. "World Peace and Daily Life," address on being awarded the Niwano Peace Prize.
------. 1993. Wa shite do zezu: "Akaruku, tanoshiku, takumashiku" ikiru 31 no chie. Tokyo: Daiwa Shuppan.
------. 1994. Ikasarete ikiru: Hieizan no kokoro yutakana ningengaku. Kyoto: Sagawa Shuppan.
------. 1995. Yamada Etai 100 sai o ikiru. Kyoto: Hozokan.
Yamada Etai Zasu Tsuito-shu Henshu Iinkai. 2000. Gyoshi: Yamada zasu o shinonde. Otsu: Zuio-in.
Stephen Covell is an assistant professor at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, teaching comparative religion. Until the summer of 2003 he was a visiting scholar at the University of Tokyo, where he was working on a project concerning Buddhism and morals education in Japan. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 2001. He is the author of Japanese Temple Buddhism: Worldliness in a Religion of Renunciation (University of Hawaii Press).
This article was originally published in the October-December 2006 issue of Dharma World.
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