In April, twenty-six members of a German interfaith dialogue group led jointly by
Dr. Gotthard Fermor, visited Rissho Kosei-kai in Tokyo. They visited Japan to study
religious- and humanity-related themes in Japanese culture and discuss them
with Buddhists and Christians. DHARMA WORLD interviewed Dr. Fermor as
follows on the significance of interreligious dialogue.
What are the aims of your visit to Japan, or what background leads you to Japan?
Well, we are a group of people who are in different professions. There are lawyers, there are educators, there are teachers, there are theology professors, there are nurses, psychologists, and so on, and what brings these people together is the interest in practicing spirituality in Germany and in practicing spirituality in an interreligious way. So it is a dialogic spirituality. Most of the people in this group have trained in this spirituality for years. We have known them for quite some years, and it was a heartfelt wish to expose them to face-to-face dialogue. That means not only talking about Zen Buddhism or Taoism, which we do in the course work, but seeking face-to-face dialogue and meeting Buddhist organizations like Rissho Kosei-kai and others, to engage in direct dialogue. That is the main aim of this study trip.
What image do Germans have of Buddhism?
I think in general it is an increasingly positive image. We have to differentiate.
There are real Buddhist organizations that have a temple and practice according to the Lotus Sutra and other sutras, and meditate, and these are the confessional Buddhists. There is a growing number of Germans attending these temples.
And then Buddhist traditions like Zen meditation are becoming more and more popular in Germany. A lot of adult education programs do offer meditation; a lot of churches offer meditation in a Zen-like way. So because of that, Buddhism is becoming not a mainstream religious trend in Germany but quite well known among intellectuals. We have a growing number of people leaving the churches, who seek spirituality, and a lot of them find it in Asian spirituality like Buddhism. So I think it is a positive picture in total.
What do you think people in general require of religion, especially in your country, Germany?
I would approach this question as follows: In some terms, people speak of a secularized society. This is mostly misunderstood. Secularized does not mean "without religion"; it means people are distancing themselves from religious institutions like churches or even leaving them. So the membership of the Catholic and Protestant churches is decreasing and one-third of the population does not belong to a church. But this does not mean that these people are not religious. Many of them are spiritual seekers of a kind, and they need something for the practice of religion that they do not get from the church. This is why Buddhism, for example, is interesting for a lot of these people. It is spreading out in these "spiritual markets," so to speak, and they see what they can get.
And then other people have the expectation that churches should be open to a variety of spiritual approaches. So we do not really have a secularized society. We have a decreasing role of the church; that is true if you want to read "secularized" in that way, but not in terms of the religious seeking people do. I would say 80 percent of the people in Germany care about religion - having a confession or not. I am curious how many there would be in Japan.
Do you think there are a lot of people without a faith?
Maybe we can distinguish between religion and confession. If you ask people, "Do you have a confession?" in terms of belonging to a Buddhist group or church, one-third would say no. If you ask them, "Do you care about religion?" at least two-thirds and maybe more would say yes. Recently Germany came up with a lot of surveys in empirical studies on religion, and they asked people, for example: "Do you believe in God?" Up to 70 percent say yes. So that is a lot. Then the next question is: "Do you believe in God as the Christian church describes him: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost?" Only 18 percent of that 70 percent say yes. So this is the picture, and we have to open our eyes to the reality of that picture. There are some people who do not confess a faith, but they have some faith, and we have to engage in dialogue with them. That is my personal opinion. Or you may ask here in Japan: "Do you think we can believe that there is some higher awareness we can have access to, without naming this higher awareness?" Maybe some people will say, "Yes, if you do not say 'Buddha,' but if you just say 'higher awareness,' I agree."
We face global warming and destruction of the environment. There will be a water shortage in the near future. How do you think we should cultivate our awareness of the world's realities?
I have to say that what really convinced me following the discussion this morning is Rissho Kosei-kai's approach to everyday awareness of life. I think it is an educational purpose for the everyday life of communities to educate pupils at a very basic level; for example, where does water come from and what is happening to water, what is the difference between the taste of water without chemicals and, say, Tokyo's water. And human dignity. If all have buddha-nature and nature itself has this dignity, religion is a very good source for that kind of education. I think it is better to pursue it every day at a low community level than through a big political agenda. That is why we believe that if all people change at their own level, changing their own awareness, it may contribute to the changing of the world and maybe promote world peace.
We of Rissho Kosei-kai believe that religion should be more involved in resolving social problems. What is your stance on this?
I could speak for myself, but I will try to speak as someone with a church background as well, because I am an ordained minister and a theologian.
I think you cannot separate politics from religion, because if you are not political, that is, if you do not speak up, others will speak up more loudly. So I think, if you want to care for others, you have to also speak on the political level. That can be on the level of community services and local politics, but it must also be on a higher level. That is why the Protestant church, which I belong to in Germany, has an organized dialogue between the church and people in politics. Germany needs this voice of ethics in politics.
We come from a certain tradition, and I have to explain that. In the past in Nazi Germany under Hitler the churches were not as political as they should have been, and after the war we made a confession of guilt, an official confession that Protestant and Catholic churches had not been political enough. For that reason, after that history, we cannot afford not to be political as religious organizations. It is in general very important to be aware of the guilt of the government through history. Though Germany is not really comparable, I think. We killed six million Jews. No country in the world ever did that.
Guilt is not resolved by forgetting it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer [1906-45], the famous German theologian, said that whoever is not raising his voice for the Jews is not allowed to pray in a monastery. To pray and to resist, to practice spirituality and political activity - these both together are very important. And you can be a John Rabe, a German Nazi who changed and helped Chinese to flee from Japanese aggressors. Now being shown in Germany is a new international movie, John Rabe, which depicts this German Nazi helping Chinese people. So I would say, we as a church have to approve; it is good that this film is bringing up the topic and prompting a political discourse that is supported by education and that raises religious questions. Most wars are fueled by religious beliefs.
Jesus did not come up with a big political agenda but focused on the individual. He said people should purify their own hearts first and then point the way to others.
What is your stance on interreligious dialogue and cooperation?
In my own tradition I am obliged to interreligious dialogue, because, if we practice dialogue, we shed light on each other's beliefs, and we can strengthen them then. And when we encounter others, they ask questions we would not raise ourselves. From our own perspective alone we cannot get the whole picture. We need to encounter others to see more of the picture. For example, we have the mystic tradition within Christian tradition: practice in silence and the paradox of the unspeakable oneness, things we also find in Zen Buddhism. For example, the key dialogue between Buddhism and Christianity is about the concept of God. Is God a person or not a person? So if you ask us: "Can a person be the ultimate reality?" that's a good question, I say. And we ask you: "Can you think of ultimate reality without personal aspects, because you are a person?" So we need both questions, because neither is right by itself, to get further to the point of truth. We do not have a large tradition of dialogue practices of that kind through the centuries.
So when we encountered Zen Buddhism, we did not turn into Zen Buddhists, but we learned from them to be aware of our treasures of practice in silence, knowing the paradox, the unnameable, the one essence behind everything. So we profited from dialogue. And I think it works both ways.
Gotthard Fermor obtained his PhD in practical theology at the University of Bonn in 1999, and was ordained as a pastor of the Evangelical Church in Rhineland, Germany, in 2000. He is the author of Ekstasis (Kohlhammer, 1999) and has published widely on religion and music.
This article was originally published in the October-December 2009 issue of Dharma World.
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