Rev. Gustav Ericsson (Sweden) and Jonathan Watts (USA/Japan). Gustav will speak on the significance of friendship on the spiritual path, building from an etymological exploration of the word religion, traditional and contemporary images of pastoral care, as well as Buddhist and Christian scriptural references to the significance of friendship on the spiritual path. He will also present examples and reflections from his years of pastoral counseling and service in the Church of Sweden’s suicide prevention helpline, as an invitation to discussion and sharing on the meaning and relevance of friendly connection in suicide prevention work and spiritual/contemplative counseling. Jonathan will present on this situation of suicide in Japan, especially its structural and cultural factors. He will then present the work of a number of individual priests, including Rev. Fujio, on the issue and how this has built into a national network of priests supporting one another in their work and engaging in collective activities and training of new priests.
Buddhist Suicide Prevention in Japan
Dr. Prawate: Suicide is like the final act of those whose needs have not been met. The WHO are moving towards a more medical model based on data that 80% of the suicidal have mental disorders. However, from Jon’s presentation it seems that religion plays an important role in helping those in crise.
Rev. Fujio updated some of the most recent work of the Association of Buddhist Priests Confronting Self-Death & Suicide. In October 2021, they began a program with teenagers. During the Covid pandemic, most school classes are now online, and students are split into groups. This has reduced the amount of social interaction that the teenagers used to get on a daily basis in all those moments outside of class. Most of the students living in local areas have a very dense network of relationships but Covid cut this rapidly. The function of the school has become one more purely of studying than of social interaction with friends. In Japanese society, in particular, real in-person communication is essential so this shift to online study has been a major and difficult one. Further, the wifi in many Japanese homes could not handle the overloaded of networks from parents also working online, so student online communities were further disturbed. After getting accustomed to such digital communication, students came to realize that it isn’t as satisfying and so they became increasingly depressed. This cumulative effect appeared after 3-4 months, and there was a spike in teenage suicide in the first year of the pandemic, but it has been going down a bit as students adapt to the situation.
Spiritual Friendship & Suicide Prevention
Rev. Komura recounted his experience at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, where there are greeting rounds every month for young doctors in residency with the hospital chaplains. The meeting is facilitated by experienced doctors to deal with the psycho-spiritual challenges young doctors are facing and to prevent burnout. The previous week there was more than one death per day in the ICU ward, which had a big impact on the young doctors. The meeting started with the young doctors sharing their experiences, some of them tearing up. Rev. Komura teared up himself as well. He sensed their strong heart of compassion and the difficulties that they had gone through. Such a group counseling experience is called “group processing” in CPE training. After this meeting, they increased the frequency of them to twice a month. Medical students are now actually being offered a certificate in spiritual training.
Rev. Fujio shared his experiences training priests and supporting one another in the Association of Buddhist Priests Confronting Self-Death & Suicide. The Association began with only 8 priests at first. They began a project of writing responses to letters sent by people struggling with mental health and contemplating suicide. For each letter, 3 or 4 meetup at a study workshop and exchange ideas and feedback about how to respond with one priest writing the final letter. As the Association gradually expanded through such work, we established a stronger network of exchanging information on how to best act and support each other. Before the Covidm we would gather once a month for face to face meetings and once annually for a large event for bereaved families.
Rev. Okano noted that some of Gustav’s last comments on the religious professional offering a friendly demeanor and being open to say they are not sure about the answer reminded him of what he tells his disciples. While the Kodosan denomination is technically a lay organization, we do have senior teachers who wear what would be considered a priest’s robes. He feels that sometimes they hide behind their roles and do not present enough humility, individuality, or honesty. I remind them to not hide behind their robes when they meet our lay members. Recalling the saying, “Treasure every meeting for it will never recur”, I remind them to be engaged completely whenever they meet with people.
Gustav responded that sometimes people have bad experiences with religious professionals, and this can affect the way they encounter religion going forward. It is important to explore what religious symbols mean to these people, and we should be prepared for rejection when encountering them.
Jon told about a friend named Matt Weiner, who is the Dean of Religious Life at Princeton University. He is the one non-denominational chaplain at the center on campus, and so he has had students come to him to share issues, such as their homosexual relationships, because they feel he will not judge them as a chaplain from their family tradition. In this way, it is an important challenge to chaplains and religious professionals to “level the playing ground” with those they meet and not establish a relationship of power or authority in terms of moral status. He has seen our colleague the Rinzai Zen priest Rev. Jotetsu Nemoto do this through the public events he runs for group meditation and some other activity like yoga. He does not advertise it as an event for the suicidal or mentally ill where they will receive counseling. Rather, it is just an event to build “spiritual friendship” and within that containment he finds a more authentic type of counseling occurs.