From the Road: Interfaith Rituals

Among the greatest gifts of crossing religious and cultural boundaries is that we come to understand ourselves more clearly. On this trip to Japan I had the opportunity to visit briefly other religious partners: the Konko Church of Izuo (a modern Shinto movement), the Tsubaki Grand Shrine (one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan and in the care of the Yamamoto family for 97 generations), Mitsumi-kai (a modern Buddhist movement), and Ittoen (an intentional community based on Gandhian values).

In most of these quick visits we (I was traveling with my wife Phyllis and my assistant Dea Brayden) participated in some religious ritual. This is an appropriate sign of respect. One of these is the “Misogi” ritual at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine. This ancient ritual is a purification ceremony that involves standing in a pool of water outdoors under a waterfall. I am told that every UUA president participates in this ceremony, so the pressure was on. The Tsubaki Grand Shrine is in a beautiful setting on a mountainside, set among majestic cedar trees. The waterfall where the Misogi ceremony is held is on a stream that comes down from the mountains. In early March it is cold. It had rained a lot two days before, so the waterfall was especially large and powerful. And the water, I am told was eight degrees centigrade (or 46° F). At any rate, it is breathtakingly, numbingly, cold.

The other ceremonies we attended were quite a contrast. All of them—Rissho Kosei-Kai, Tsubaki Grand Shrine, Konko Church of Izuo, Mitsumi-kai—were complex and beautiful. The Japanese, whatever their religious preference, value elegance and beauty.

As I reflect on all the ceremonies I attended as the ambassador of our faith, the role of ritual in religion is very much on my mind. An ancient faith has rituals with centuries of tradition. These rituals connect people over time and, with repetition, induce a state of reflection and centering.

Rituals in a heretical faith like ours are a different matter and a huge challenge. Many UUs, and I count myself among these, have a love/hate relationship with religious ritual. On the one hand, we realize the importance of ritual. On the other hand, lots of us grew up with rituals that have a lot of theological baggage we want to leave behind. (I recall being taught that during communion I was literally partaking of the body and blood of Jesus. That disturbing association will never go away, no matter how I intellectually re-frame communion.)

There is a real danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, however. Ritual and ceremony, after all, are an essential part of religion and of life. Just think about how the lighting of a chalice has taken hold in Unitarian Universalism. That simple ritual reminds us of who we are. It helps us enter into a sacred space, a special time. A congregation that regularly strikes a chime to enter into a period of silence has created a ritual that its people anticipate and come to value. In the congregation I served as minister a Christmas Eve service without ending with “Silent Night” while we all lit candles was unthinkable. I witness the deep resonance of singing “Rank by Rank” at the opening of the Service of the Living Tradition at General Assembly.

I think the role of ritual in our faith needs much reflection and much discussion. How do we create and sustain rituals that have depth of meaning and that are authentically ours? I, who have been averse to rituals most of my adult life, am coming to see how important they are. The rituals that have deep meaning are rituals that invite us into a shared time together, that remind us of who we are and what we hold sacred. They are rituals that we create together and that build resonance over time.

Cross-posted from Beyond Belief

From the Road: Kamaichi and Sendai

The visual parallels between the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima and the tsunami that hit Japan’s northeast coast a year ago are eerie. In Hiroshima we saw once more the famous photographs of Hiroshima before and after the bomb. In Kamaichi and Sendai the signs of breathtaking devastation are everywhere. While the photographs are stunning, they did not prepare me for the experience of driving through the affected areas. I recall a similar feeling while touring New Orleans’ Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina.

We pass acre upon acre of house foundations. Once in a while a building, badly damaged, stands. The work of clearing debris continues methodically. Enormous piles of collected crushed debris dot the area. The physical healing has only begun. It is going to take years.The emotional wounds are less obvious, but just as real. They, too, are going to take years and years to heal. We attended three memorial services commemorating the passing of a year. Two services were held at the Dharma centers (what we would call a church) of the Rissho Kosei-kai in Kamaichi and Sendai. These ceremonies included a solemn procession in which people who had lost loved ones brought plates of a favorite item of the person who died. There were favorite foods like fruit or sake. One of them included even included two bags of Starbucks coffee!

We heard poignant stories of survival and search for a missing person. Many people, of course, simply disappeared: they washed out to sea as the waters receded.

The third memorial service was organized by the youth of the Sendai Dharma Center and was held outdoors. It many ways it was more emotional, as the ceremony was held in the middle of a huge area that had been leveled.

The special fund we created for tsunami relief has had impact far beyond the actual monetary value. In these villages RKK used donated money to buy vehicles to assist in the rescue and relocation efforts. Just as important, our donations were tangible evidence that they were not alone, that friends in a far off country cared. The gratitude expressed was overwhelming. I wish you could see their faces. I felt a deep pride and gratitude to all UUs were were so generous.

We are part of the healing. I believe our reaching out is more healing in the long term than the important financial help we gave.

We UUs and Buddhists share the conviction that we are all connected to one another. That sounds so abstract. In northeast Japan, our connections are very real. They are person to person and faith to faith.

Cross-posted from Beyond Belief


From the Road: Hiroshima

The word “Hiroshima” has become synonymous with the horrors of nuclear war. Unfortunately, we need to be horrified now and then. We need to see and feel just how terrible war is and how particularly horrifying nuclear war would be.

A visit to Hiroshima’s Peace Park and the Memorial Museum both succeed and fail in horrifying us. The sickening images of Hiroshima immediately after the blast, the stories of the survivors, the artifacts like shards of clothing and a watch stopped at 8:15 when the bomb went off are powerful. Part of the reason the park and museum fail is not their fault. The truth is that the bomb dropped on Hiroshima has but a small fraction of the destructive power of a “modern” thermonuclear weapon. A hydrogen bomb of about the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima has about 60 times the force. We cannot imagine 60 simultaneous Hiroshima blasts.

In Hiroshima I laid a wreath at the memorial and spoke to several hundred people at the local Rissho Kosei-kai (RKK) Dharma Center. In my remarks I said that if peace is to be more than a dream, then we must wage peace with the determination, courage and cunning we summon to wage war.

Peace which is durable comes into being when people know one another, respect one another and have compassion for one another. Peace also requires a foundation of human rights. We cannot have a lasting peace when there is exploitation and injustice.

I also said that religious bodies have a special responsibility, for religion has too often been used to motivate people to fight and to justify violence. If we are to have peace, the world’s religions and religious leaders must embrace mutual respect and appreciation.

I was overwhelmed by the response of the Japanese RKK congregation in Hiroshima. They are clearly hungry for interfaith cooperation. The task of leaders like myself is to seek ways to expand and deepen our interfaith connections. We need lots and lots of allies in order to wage peace.

Cross-posted from Beyond Belief.

From the Road: Rissho Kosei-kai

Kyoto, 5 a.m. March 6—

I have often spoken and written about the importance of hospitality–about how hospitality is a spiritual practice. In the first two days of our visit to Japan I have felt as though I were attending a workshop in advanced hospitality. Our friends and partners from the Rissho Kosei-kai (RKK) have extended hospitality that is both touching and humbling.

First, a quick word about the RKK. They are a Buddhist religious movement founded in 1938. While the RKK is relatively new, its size dwarfs the UUA. There are about 6.5 million followers. The ties between between our two faiths go back to the 1960’s, when the founder of the RKK, Nikkyo Niwano, and Dana Greeley, the UUA’s first president, formed a friendship. Their collaboration led to much interfaith work, including the founding of the World Conference ofReligions for Peace.

My visit, then, is an extension of a long partnership. You may recall that the Rev. Kosho Niwano, the president designate of RKK, spoke at our 50th anniversary celebration at GA in Charlotte last summer. I had made a very quick visit to RKK headquarters in Tokyo a year and a half ago while on my way to the Philippines and a conference in India (where I met the Dalai Lama, among other things!). I had been most impressed then and expected a gracious welcome.

However, I was not at all prepared for the welcome we have received. It began with being met at the airport by staff and and a van. I am traveling with my wife Phyllis and Dea Brayden of my staff. Not only has our every need been met, it has been anticipated. The level of detail of their preparations and thoughtfulness is breathtaking.

For example, upon arriving at their beautiful hall to participate in their Founding Day celebration, our car is met outside and we are escorted to a sitting room. Tea is brought immediately. We are given headsets that have an English simultaneous translation as we are taken to our seats. Later, as I am taken to a “green room” before speaking, a couple of volunteers appear immediately to help me take off my shoes and put on the slippers that are worn on stage. Tea is again served.

After the ceremony, we are whisked away to the main train station. Again, two RKK staff help us with our luggage and guide us through the maze of the station. They accompany us to our train and help us place our luggage in the car. They show us our seats. As the train pulls away, they stand waving smiling goodbyes on the platform.

The effect of all of this is powerful and unforgettable. This level of hospitality is so very far beyond politeness. It isn’t about me. Indeed, hospitality at this level is a way of extending a welcome to all UU’s. In a way it isn’t even about this journey. It is a way of honoring the friendship and collaboration of two traditions, a way of honoring the work of our predecessors and all who have followed. It is a way of expressing respect and of laying a foundation for the future. In a deep sense, you were being welcomed; you were being offered tea; you were being helped onto the train.

I also realize that we have much to learn from our RKK friends about taking ourselves seriously. The attention they give to beauty, to every detail of their environment and their celebration, is a way of affirming that their spiritual path is vitally important and is worthy of their very best. Hospitality is, after all, a spiritual practice. Attentiveness to detail can be a form of worship. We have so much to learn from our friends.

Cross-posted from Beyond Belief.

The First Visits with UUA Partners in Japan

UUA President Rev. Peter Morales is in the midst of a week-long visit with interfaith partners in Japan.  On Sunday, Rev.  Morales attended the worship service at the historic Universalist church in Tokyo: Dojin Church.  Members of the Tokyo Unitarian Fellowship (a largely ex-pat group) met with him there as well.

After lunch, Rev. Morales visited Rissho Kosei-kai (RKK) headquarters in Tokyo and joined its leaders for dinner. RKK is a six-million member, lay-Buddhist organization.

On Monday morning, Rev. Morales delivered a congratulatory speech during the RKK annual “Founding Day” event.

From Tokyo, Rev. Morales traveled to Kyoto to visit with other interfaith partners, including Mitsumi-kai, a recent member of the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF). See previous blogposts about the visits here.

A photo album from the visits that have happened so far is available:

UUA President visits interfaith partners in Japan

From the Road: Preparing for Japan

From March 3 – 12, 2012 Rev. Peter Morales, UUA President, will travel to Japan to visit with a number of historic interfaith partners. The visit will also provide Rev. Morales with an opportunity to extend congratulatory greetings to Rissho Kosei-kai during its annual “Founding Day.”

The event will begin at approximately 6:3opm Eastern Time on Sunday, March 4th. And, Rev. Morales’s speech will begin at approximately 8:30pm. Tune in for a live broadcast of his speech; a recording of the speech will also be available following the event.

I write this as I prepare to leave on a 10 day trip to Japan for ceremonies commemorating Rissho Kosei-kai Founding Day and the one-year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, 2011.

The Great Sacred Hall at Rissho Kosei-Kei.

Rissho Kosei-kei is a liberal Buddhist organization with 6 million members in Japan. We have a long and enduring relationship with this group, beginning with the Rev. Dana Greeley, first president of the UUA, whose passionate work for peace and civil rights became the foundation for this interfaith partnership. Last year, RKK President-designateRev. Kosho Niwano addressed our General Assembly in Charlotte, NC. In a few days, I will return the favor. Portions of this celebration will be simulcast and the greetings I will bring on behalf of all Unitarian Universalists will be posted on the UUA web site shortly thereafter.

Rt. Rev. Mitsuo Miyake, Chief Priest of the Konko Church of Izuo, with devastation from the earthquake and tsunami.

Later during this trip, I will be visiting some of the most impacted areas in the Sendai region from last year’s earthquake and tsunami. UUs have held the Japanese people in their thoughts and prayers as they struggle to rebuild their lives and homes. To date, UUs have also contributed over $500,000 to relief efforts. I will bring a symbol of that financial support as well as your continued good wishes.

While I will share my experiences here, more information about the Japan itinerary can be found on our Faith Without Borders blog.

Cross-posted from Beyond Belief.

UUA President Prepares to Visit Japanese Partners

UUA President Morales visits Japanese interfaith partners - Click for more information

From March 3 – 12, 2012 Rev. Peter Morales, UUA President, will travel to Japan to visit with a number of historic interfaith partners.  These include:

  • Rissho Kosei-kai (RKK) – a 6-million member lay-Buddhist organization headquartered in Tokyo.  RKK Dharma Centers in Hiroshima, Kamaichi, and Sendai will also be visited.
  • Tsubaki Grand Shrine – one of Japan’s oldest Shinto shrines located in Suzuka.
  • The Konko Church of Izuo (a member of the Konko-kyo movement) located in Osaka.
  • Dojin (Universalist) Christian Church – a Tokyo congregation that descends from Universalist missionary efforts in Japan beginning in the late 19th century.
  • The Tokyo UU Fellowship – an English-language based UU community in Tokyo.
  • Ittoen – an intentional community with Gandhian ideals located in Kyoto.

The visit also provides Rev. Morales with an opportunity to extend congratulatory greetings to Rissho Kosei-kai during its annual “Founding Day.”  The event will begin at approximately 6:3opm Eastern Time on Sunday, March 4th.  And, Rev. Morales’s speech will begin at approximately 8:30pm.  Tune in for a live broadcast of his speech, and potentially other parts of the event on the UUA website.  A recording of the speech will also be available following the event.

At the end of the trip, Rev. Morales will visit RKK Dharma Centers that were deeply impacted by the 2011 Earthquake/Tsunami and attend the Memorial Service for the Great Eastern Earthquake in the Sendai region.

Updates from the trip will be posted here and on Rev. Morales’s blog Beyond Belief.