A Trip to Rome and Assisi with Shinmon-sama

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By Dr. Kenneth K. Tanaka

Musashino University, Tokyo

Article from the 2012 February Edition  of the Wheel of Dharma

I had the privilege of accompanying His Eminence Otani Kohjun, Shinmon (henceforth, Shinmon-sama, which is how I address him) to participate in the gathering of world religious leaders convened by Pope Benedict XVI on October 27 and 28, 2011. Named the “Day of Reflection, Dialogue and Prayer for Justice and Peace in the World,” this gathering marked the 25th anniversary of the “World Day of Prayer for Peace” first convened in 1986 by the late Pope John Paul II.

For Shinmon-sama, it was the first international gathering of this kind. As the next Monshu (Abbot) of Hongwanji, he is well aware of the importance of taking part in such events, given the heightened need for mutual understanding among religions in this globalized “village.”

On Oct. 27th, we joined the Pope and approximately 300 delegates of various religions and boarded a special train from the Vatican (located in Rome) for the hour and a half ride to Assisi. Assisi is the home of St. Francis (1181-1226), known for centuries as the man of peace and, thus, serving as an appropriate location for the event calling for world peace. I also felt a special bond to St. Francis, for he is the source for the city of “San Francisco,” where the first Jodo Shinshu priests arrived in 1899 to initiate the Buddhist Churches of America.

During the train ride thousands of people lined up at the stations along the way to greet the train. They came out to get a glimpse of the Pope in the last car and to welcome us delegates from around the globe dressed in religious apparels. I could not help but to be impressed by the expressions of joy and exuberance on their faces as they cheered and waved at the train.

At Assisi, we gathered at a large cathedral (Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels) in town where ten representatives of the major religions, including a Korean Jogye Order monk representing Buddhism, gave short speeches. I found it interesting that included among the speakers was a representative of the humanists, who normally are not considered religious and even anti-religious.

We then were served lunch, which was purposely simple in keeping with St. Francis’ life of poverty. It was also a way for the delegates to symbolically participate in “the suffering of those persons and populations deprived of the basic necessities of life and of peace.” Ironically, I found the simple bread, salad and soup one the most delicious and meaningful meals on the trip.

In the early afternoon, we broke off into our separate traditions to spend an hour and a half in silence dedicated to reflection and/or personal prayer. We were assigned separate rooms in a huge dormitory building. The separation was intended to honour the uniqueness of each tradition while our sense of bonding was maintained by spending the time in the same building. Shinmon- sama, Rev. Ogushi (Hongwanji Headquarters staff) and I spent that time in quiet sitting and then in Nembutsu recitation as we each contemplated on how we can work more earnestly for peace.

Speaking for myself, I realized the difficulty of contributing in any significant way to world peace on account of my obligations to my own work, family and community. Nevertheless, I also realized that to do the best in my daily obligations would constitute my way of contributing in some small way to world peace. So, I felt encouraged to continue to do what I can, to share the Dharma in an effective and meaningful way through my teaching and writing.

At 3 PM, we got on the buses to move to the top of the hill to Piazza San Francisco in the monastery compound where St. Francis once lived. As delegates walked up the hill, we were greeted by thousands of well-wishers along the narrow street; they enthusiastically welcomed us with rounds of applause and cheers. I imagined how this must be the way movie stars feel when cheered and greeted by their adoring fans!

The program included inspirational singing by young Catholics of all races, invocations and prayers by religious leaders, and final words by the Pope expressing his gratitude to the participants who came from all corners of the world. We then boarded the train to return to Rome around 9 PM.

The next day was set aside for the heads of the delegates to have an audience with the Pope. We gathered in one of the exquisitely elegant buildings in the Vatican behind the St. Peter’s Cathedral. The Pope personally went around to some fifty head delegates to exchange words with each person. Shinmon-sama was among them. (Please see photo.) After the audience, the Pope once again encouraged us to confirm our resolution to work harder for peace.

We then walked to another building for the last meal sponsored by the Vatican. The salmon was unforgettably tasty! With the end of the luncheon, the gathering was officially over.

In reflecting back on this memorable gathering in Italy, I was able to renew my pledge to do what I can to contribute, no matter how small, to making this world little more peaceful. But this effort can start at one’s home and at work. Also, I was reminded of the fact that the world is filled with so many different kinds of religious traditions and that Jodo Shinshu Buddhists cannot be isolated but be aware of the rapid changes taking place and to be in active communication with others. For example, we met delegates from a rapidly growing Chinese based Nembutsu group that now has followings in Australia, Singapore, Japan and elsewhere.

When Shinmon-sama takes the leadership of the Hongwanji in the not too distant future, I am sure that he will look back to this event as a resource for determining his views and action on the vital issues related to dialogue, justice and peace.