Buddhism Confronting the Suffering of Contemporary Society
In early April of 2010, members from the International Network of Engaged Buddhists’ three principal East Asian communities (Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea) held the 1st INEB East Asia Forum, entitled “Buddhism Confronting the Suffering of Contemporary Society”. This was a significant event in a number of ways. It marked INEB’s continuing growth and development of stronger, independent regional networks, such as the one already established among South Asian members. It also marked the maturation of INEB ties within Japan, which for the first time hosted an INEB meeting after Korea (2003) and Taiwan (2007) hosted previous INEB general conferences.
Indeed, some space should be taken here to introduce the Japanese hosts and their activities, which formed a central part of the 4-day meeting. The core organizational support for the meeting came from five different Buddhist groups with individual leaders who have developed close cooperative ties over the years through both domestic and international activities.
- The Kodo Kyodan Buddhist Fellowship is a Lotus Sutra based, lay denomination under the leadership of Rev. Masazumi Okano, who is now active on the INEB Advisory Committee. Kodo-san, as it is commonly called, also houses the International Buddhist Exchange Center (IBEC) where Rev. Okano is working with Jonathan Watts (INEB Executive Committee and Think Sangha) on documenting and supporting a variety of engaged Buddhist activities in Japan. Kodo-san hosted the first day of the conference by welcoming all the Korean and Taiwanese participants to their large annual Hana-matsuri festival (Japanese Vesak) commemorating the birth of the Buddha and the annual blooming of the cherry blossoms.
- The AYUS Network of Buddhists Volunteers on International Cooperation is a network of Buddhist priests and laypersons established in 1993 to work on international relief issues and the support of small NGOs. Its Office Secretary, Mika Edaki, has attended the past four general INEB Conferences, and with her interests in the HIV/AIDS issue and gender issues, she invited a representative from Occur – the Japan Association for the Lesbian and Gay Movement – to speak to the conference on its third day. This presentation and the ensuing conversation was very meaningful, since conservative East Asian society and Buddhism in general is not open to talking frankly about these issues. Further, the participants were intriguied to find out how some Japanese priests have supported Occur by hosting memorial services for gays, who have been largely abandoned by their families but whom still have a community of friends and lovers who seek to grieve for them properly. In addition, Rev. Tomokazu Matsumoto, an AYUS Board Member, gave a presentation on the second day on Japanese Buddhism’s complicity and what he called “pro-active support” of the Pacific War. Rev. Matsumoto, a Jodo Shin Pure Land priest, is active in a network of fellow Pure Land priests called Nenbutsu-sha Kyujo-no-kai, who support the maintenance of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution guaranteeing a non-aggressive policy on war.
- The Jodo Shu Association for Peace is an official organ of the large Jodo Shu denomination. Rev. Yoshiharu Tomatsu, who has attended various INEB events over the years and is also a co-founder of AYUS, is one of the leaders of this association. He and Jonathan Watts also work together at Jodo Shu Research Institute on documenting and supporting Buddhist-based terminal care in Japan while linking with those in field internationally. Both Rev. Tomatsu and Jonathan gave presentations on the second day on the unique history and situation of Japanese Buddhism, who’s tradition of laicized monks is hard for even Koreans and Taiwanese of the same basic tradition to understand. In addition, the One Spoonful (Hitosaji) Association run by a young group of Jodo Shu priests, three of whom participated in the last INEB Conference in Thailand, led the group on their bi-weekly, evening street patrol supporting the increasing number of homeless people in the Asakusa area of Tokyo. This event was one of the most meaningful for the Korean and Taiwanese participants as the previous day we visited the grand temple of Senso-ji and its vibrant market in Asakusa, which when shuttered at night gives way to large numbers of homeless. Through the work of Hitosaji, the Koreans and Taiwanese could also come to see the positive side of a laicized Sangha that can more easily enter the lay world and support common people in need.
- The Zenseikyo Foundation for Youth and Child Welfare is an organization under the directorship of Rev. Jin Hitoshi, who is involved in a wide variety of social issues concerning suicide and youth problems, especially the phenomena of shut-ins (hiki-komori). Zenseikyo is also the host of the Rinbutsuken Institute of Engaged Buddhism, established in 2008 to develop and support Japanese Buddhists concerned with social issues and the public benefit awareness of temples and priests. On the third day of the conference, Rev. Jin was part of a presentation on the major problem of suicide in Japan and the growing attempt of Buddhist priests to confront it. The Association of Priests Grappling with the Suicide Problem, under the leadership of Rev. Katsumi Fujisawa and supported by two young Jodo Shu priests, Rev. Yukan Ogawa and Rev. Eka Shimada, who attended last year’s INEB Conference, gave a compelling presentation on the problems of alienation in Japan. This was followed by a discussion session which included two Rinzai Zen priests, Rev. Jotetsu Nemoto and Rev. Soin Fujio, also active in the Association. On the final day of the conference, Rev. Fujio gave the group a special inside tour of the great Rinzai temple, Kencho-ji, located in Kamakura just south of Tokyo.
- The Nichiren Shu International Cooperation Foundation is an official organ of the Nichiren denomination under the direction of Rev. Kanshin Mochida. Besides attending to the official overseas activities of the Nichiren denomination, Rev. Mochida is involved in cooperative efforts with Buddhists from other denominations on domestic and international issues. He is part of the Buddhist NGO Network, to which AYUS and IBEC also belong, which brings together a variety of Buddhist based, professional Japanese NGOs concerned with overseas aid and development work. Rev. Mochida hosted the entire group at his temple for a welcoming dinner on the second night.
During this time, Dr. Hsiang-Chou Yo (INEB Executive Committee) gave a presentation on Taiwanese Buddhism, highlighting the need to support and develop small, engaged temples, which are independent of the four huge temples that dominate the Taiwanese Buddhist landscape. His appeal that temples should be centers for providing both physical and mental health care to the common people was a point that resonated with the Japanese participants who are also looking to revive the temple as a center for community service. Afterwards, Ms. Shin Hwei Wu, a Classical Taiwanese vocalist and a colleague of Dr. Yo, gave a special and moving performance in the Buddha Hall.
It is of course important to mention the contributions of the participants from Korea. The Korean delegation largely came from Buddhist Solidarity for Reform (BSR), a lay organization formed to monitor and work on problems of corruption in the Korean monastic Sangha. It was fascinating and inspiring for those from Japan and Taiwan to see how Korean lay followers are actively involved in the issue of monastic reform, a problem in which the lay sangha is usually completely shut off from by the monastic Sangha. While Drs. Kisuh Sung and Dr. Minyong Lee (INEB Executive Committee) introduced us to BSR and these issues, Prof. Yoonsuhn Chung also introduced the participants to the wider issue of religious conflict and the potential for cooperative social action with the strong Christian communities in Korea. This issue was also very revealing for the Taiwanese and Japanese, where Christianity is not a significant social force. In addition, Ryoo Jung-Gil, a participant from the Jungto Society lead by Ven. Pomnyun Sunim (INEB Advisory Committee), gave a presentation on the pressing environmental issue of the development and exploitation of four large rivers in South Korea. This is a problem that some Korean monks have become active in demonstrating about.
The 1st INEB East Asia Forum offered just a taste of the potential for a much deeper interaction on a wide variety of issues. The group was able to start, but not get into any detail on, a number of purely Buddhist issues, such as teachings and the nature of the sangha. Even amidst our common Mahayana and East Asian heritage, we found some stark contrasts in the nature of our traditions. Furthermore, there was the wide range of common as well as divergent social problems. While it would have been fruitful to have spent more time in formal meetings exploring these issues, many of the most meaningful moments of the forum came in the exposure trips mentioned above. Indeed, these events were where we developed more fellowship and kalyanamitra, core themes for the larger INEB network that are the basis for sustained and meaningful cooperation on social issues. On this basis, we have already forged an agreement to continue with these forums every two years in the off year in between the general INEB Conference. BSR and Jungto have generously agreed to host the next one in South Korea in 2012, where we look forward to deepening our mutual appreciation and to entering more deeply into the world of Korean Buddhism.