Autumn Sunlight: His Holiness in Japan

November 15th 2006

Japan, 13 November 2006 (By Pico Iyer*) - Japan has for many years now been the most powerful Buddhist country in the world. And ever since His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama first visited Japan in 1967 -- on his first journey outside Tibet, China and India -- he has been telling the Japanese that they have an extraordinary potential to bring their highly sophisticated modern technologies together with the ancient traditions that are still so visible here and there across the country. Material conveniences offer comfort and ease for the body, he points out; spiritual and philosophical teachings offer balm for the soul. If the two can be brought together in a healthy balance, Japan can not only help itself but offer a model for the world.
 
It was this theme, among many others, that he frequently sounded on his most recent visit to Japan, last October and November, visiting the nation, as he often does, just as the brilliant blue skies and the first edge of color in the leaves bring home a Buddhist message about how everything is constantly changing on the surface, but something more fundamental never really shifts deep down. On this most recent trip, he gave some public talks in Tokyo and visited a school in Osaka. But the heart of his journey came in a two-day conference on peace that he attended in Hiroshima and the several days of teaching and initiations that he offered, at the invitation of a Japanese Buddhist group, on the holy island of Miyajima.
 
Japanese audiences tend to be much quieter and shyer--but also more attentive--than audiences elsewhere, and like to keep their feelings to themselves. Yet wherever His Holiness went in the bright autumn sunshine, the grey roofs of temples rising like mist above the maples as they began to show some red, large crowds showed up to greet him, in part perhaps because his message and wisdom are ever more popular around the world, and in part perhaps because Japan feels an empty space inside itself it needs to fill. At many events, people stood up and asked him about the ever more urgent problem of shut-in kids in Japan, so estranged from society that they do nothing all day but sit in their darkened rooms and mope.
 
In response, His Holiness spoke often about the virtue of volunteering. If you think only of yourself, he said in Hiroshima, then even a small problem becomes something almost unbearable. Those in Japan, he said in Miyajima (suddenly breaking into English during a question-and-answer session), have more skill and education. So you can help people in different countries. So, more of your people should go to these areas, volunteer, do something useful. When you see the difficulties there, you will see that your own situation is much better, more fortunate. Also, doing something, then you find the purpose of your life. You can think, `I have made some contribution. I have done some service. Then you feel some kind of fulfillment.
 
For those most inspired by His Holiness's temporal, universal wisdom--the secular ethics he brings audiences who have no knowledge of Buddhism--the Hiroshima conference was surely a highlight. After paying a visit to a small Tibetan temple in the hills outside Hiroshima, where a rinpoche has been steadily offering instruction for twenty years--the climb up the steep path through the trees making one feel that one was in Dharamsala again, the bare Japanese temple at the top flooded with the rich colors and symbols of Tibet--His Holiness went to a large conference hall for a day and a half of discussion with his old friends, and fellow Nobel Peace laureates, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Betty Williams of Northern Ireland. All three of them have been through harrowing challenges and seen suffering, warfare, bigotry first-hand, and yet all three of them had come to the city that is a byword now for nuclear destruction to share a steady, warming sense of community, delight, even excitement.
 
When one young woman from Mexico got up--much of the audience was international and college-age--and spoke through sobs about her concerns for a wall being built along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep Mexicans out of America, urging the three laureates to help her, Betty Williams sent an assistant up to give the girl a hug. Bishop Tutu offered words of commiseration drawn from his own struggle against apartheid and the temptation towards revenge. And His Holiness shared a typically realistic and practical distillation of Buddhist thought that at once transmitted sympathy and presented a vision of Buddhist self-reliance. 'You have to work,' he said. 'There are thousands of people who will help you. You are never alone. But the main work is on your own shoulders. You should not lose hope. You should be optimistic, and have self-confidence. In our own example, in spite of overwhelming challenges, we have never lost our confidence.'
 
Over and over, in fact, His Holiness always found ways to share his characteristic gift for finding a positive--some potential--in everything. The current war in Iraq, he said, was a symptom of a great mistake, some negligence in the past, even in the 19th century. Therefore, on the other side, if we start some effort with vision now, then some positive result may happen even end of this century, beginning of next one.'
 
For those who turn to His Holiness for instruction in the great Sanskrit and Mahayana tradition of Buddhism--the Nalanda tradition, as he often calls it--the six days in Miyajima were no doubt a high point. The small island forty minutes away from central Hiroshima features a shrine that sits on the water like a golden dream, and temples all along its hills, as well as two thousand deer grazing among its shrines as if to bring back the park where the Buddha gave his first discourse. The central shrine dates from the 6th century, just as Buddhism was beginning to arrive in Japan. And the hillside temple where His Holiness was giving teachings, Daisho-in, was celebrating its 1200th anniversary, having been founded by the Japanese monk Kobo Daishi after he returned from Chang'an in the year 804, bringing a tantric Buddhism which he called Shingon (True Word) and which, with its mandalas, its mudras and its Vajrayana thinking, is, not surprisingly, very close to Tibetan Buddhism.
 
Every morning, great streams of pilgrims climbed up the narrow stone steps that lead to the temple, the polished stillness of the Japanese landscape giving a haunting shine and quiet to the scene. One room in the main temple--where a flame is said to have been burning for more than a thousand years--had been turned into a piece of Tibet, with a great new golden Maitreya statue at its center, and thangkas and mandalas all around. As listeners packed the courtyard and the temple where the Dalai Lama was speaking, and the days dawned cloudless and blithe, again and again, it felt often as if Dharmasala itself had come to Japan, among the Tibetans with their white scarves extended, the large Mongolian sumo wrestlers excitedly coming into the temple for a photograph with His Holiness, the foreign Buddhists and travelers scattered among the hundreds of quiet Japanese women and fashionable young girls with their Vuitton bags.
 
His Holiness consecrated the new chapel on his first afternoon in Miyajima--a group of twelve monks from Drepung Monastery in southern India taking care of all the preparations, and then sitting beside a line of Japanese monks, all in lustrous purple robes, first the Japanese sharing their chants, then the Tibetans. Over the next two days the Dalai Lama spoke about basic Buddhist ideas, especially shunyata and the interdependence it suggests. The audience, seated cross-legged before him in the temple, and on grey folding chairs in the autumn sunshine all around, sat so quietly and attentively that at one point he joked that he had forgotten that they could not follow the Tibetan he was speaking.
 
The next three days were devoted to empowerments and initiations, of a special kind that drew scholars from around the world. For someone like myself, an Indian from England raised in California and living now in Japan as a journalist, it was a remarkable gift to feel that Tibet and its traditions were flooding into our midst, so that we might feel that Tibet was part of the world, and the world part of Tibet. Listening to His Holiness in the piercing, aromatic, bright blue autumn days reminded one that Japan and Tibet share a tradition that Japan is in a unique position to support and to share with the rest of the world, one young rinpoche from California offering Chinese simultaneous translations to an excited group from Beijing, someone else delivering the teachings into Korean (and someone else, of course, into English). And as people brought their daily concerns and problems to His Holiness, as they do at every stop on his travels, he always offered immediate solutions, talking of schools attached to temples in Japan as places where children could be instructed in values, as well as in a traditional curriculum, and calling on Japan as well as India to recall where it came from, spiritually and philosophically, as well as where it is going.
 
As His Holiness returned to Dharamsala, and prepared for his next big trip and set of teachings, it seemed possible to entertain the hope that Japan might wake up a little to its better, deeper potential, and that the principles of selflessness, self-confidence and hard work that he had stressed as ever might seem a little stronger and clearer to us that they had been before. As I returned to my desk near another deer park in Japan, where His Holiness had come three years before, it was easy to believe that the warm and cloudless sunshine that was still in the skies might now be found somewhere inside the heart as well.
 
*Pico Iyer, a writer for Time magazine for twenty-four years and the author of eight books, is just completing a small book on the XIVth Dalai Lamas global journeys.
 
 
 

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