Founder Niwano: A Personal Account

by Gene Reeves

A longtime American religious educator - and a lifelong student of the world's religions - describes the profound changes that occurred in his life following his first meeting with Founder Nikkyo Niwano, and how subsequent events led to his lasting deep interest in and knowledge of the Lotus Sutra and the teachings of Rissho Kosei-kai.

I first met Nikkyo Niwano, the founder of Rissho Kosei-kai, in 1983 in Chicago, at the Meadville/Lombard Theological School. Both Rissho Kosei-kai and Meadville/Lombard had been active members in the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF ), and several Rissho Kosei-kai ministers had studied at Meadville/Lombard over the years. I had recently become the head of the school and Founder Niwano was making his first visit there, to meet me and to become more familiar with the school.

Though I did not know it at the time, this meeting with Founder Niwano was the beginning of a series of events over the next few years which would change my life dramatically.

Twenty years later it is not easy for me to remember details of that meeting with accuracy. But I do remember that Founder Niwano and I had a long conversation in the Curtis Room of the school, a conversation which continued as we toured the Meadville/Lombard library and the campus of the University of Chicago, where the school is located, and I know there were at least four dimensions of that conversation which had a big impact on me, and on my life.

First, I was very much attracted to Niwano personally. He had a very outgoing, friendly, and warm personality. Since he was nearly always smiling, meeting him was a very pleasant experience, and one not easily forgotten. Though he was the head of a very large organization and I was the head of a very small one, he seemed very relaxed and comfortable in that university environment in a foreign country where he did not know the language. It was very easy to like and trust him.

I was also very strongly impressed by Founder Niwano's knowledge of Buddhism. I had studied Buddhism as a college student and taught it as a part of Asian religions classes for many years. Here I am speaking of classical Buddhist teachings, such as the four truths and the eightfold path. What especially impressed me somehow was his very profound understanding of pratitya-samutpada, which I translate into English as "interdependence" or "interdependent becoming." It is not possible to say that there is one central teaching of Buddhism, but this teaching comes close to being that. Founder Niwano's profound understanding of this teaching indicated to me that his teachings, and Rissho Kosei-kai, were deeply rooted in Buddhist traditions going back to ancient India.

The third thing I remember being very powerfully moved by was Founder Niwano's concern about what he called "world peace," but which could readily be seen to have a very broad meaning. The Buddhism I was most familiar with had seemed to me to be lacking in a social dimension. That is, though I had always found Buddhist ideas to be philosophically interesting, it seemed to me that with such a powerful focus on the workings of the mind and the practice of meditation, there was almost no recognition of the fact that the lives of each of us are profoundly affected by the social, economic, and political dimensions of our world. I believed then, as I do now, that the world was in serious trouble - faced not only with the threat of nuclear war, but also with dramatic population growth, poverty, and a growing gap between the rich and the poor, and an increasingly depleted and polluted environment. A religion which had nothing to say about these issues might be helpful to some, I felt, but would never be adequate to the task with which we are faced. Nikkyo Niwano, in our first meeting and through my subsequent reading of several of his writings, showed me a socially relevant Buddhism, what we would later come to call "socially engaged Buddhism." For the first time, I began to see that such a Buddhism might become a much more significant part of my own life.

Finally, I was deeply impressed by Niwano's generous attitude toward other religions. It was not common, especially in those days, to find religious leaders who actually respected the faiths of others. Rather than insisting that Buddhist or Rissho Kosei-kai teachings have all the truth that is needed, he insisted on the necessity of interfaith cooperation for the sake of world peace. Because he was aware of the problems of the world and profoundly concerned about human well-being, he was not merely tolerant toward other religious traditions, he adopted a very positive attitude of learning from them, of interacting with them in dialogue, and of cooperating with them so that the whole world might be healed.

The next summer, in 1984, the Congress of the International Association for Religious Freedom was held at the headquarters of Rissho Kosei-kai in Tokyo. On that occasion I had an opportunity to meet and work with a number of Japanese religious leaders, including, briefly, Founder Niwano. Naturally, we talked about the Congress, about the IARF, and about the importance of religions cooperating to work for world peace. We also talked about projects which Meadville/Lombard and Rissho Kosei-kai might undertake together.

About a year later, I received a phone call inviting me to come to Tokyo to give an address at the Great Sacred Hall. It was a kind of appeal for going beyond tolerance to welcome interreligious cooperation. Waiting for my turn to speak, I sat in an anteroom behind the stage with Founder Niwano. While I was intimidated by the size of the audience and the new setting, he remained very calm and friendly.

An Invitation to Meadville/Lombard

One of the things Founder Niwano and I had talked about during the IARF Congress was the possibility of having someone come from Japan to Chicago to lecture on the Lotus Sutra. So, on the day following the founder's birthday celebration, I was introduced to Professor Yoshiro Tamura of the University of Tokyo, perhaps the greatest scholar of Tendai thought and the Lotus Sutra at that time. I liked Tamura immediately, and invited him to come Meadville/Lombard to give a series of lectures, as Founder Niwano had suggested. Those evening lectures were so well received, by students and faculty alike, that Joseph Kitagawa, then the dean of the university's Divinity School, invited Tamura back to teach for the spring quarter in 1986. In addition, with Founder Niwano's help, I organized a series of small Rissho Kosei-kai - Unitarian Universalist conferences to discuss various matters of concern to these two progressive religious organizations. Tamura participated in them. Thus in these and other ways, I met Tamura often over a few years and we became good friends. He helped me to understand both the Lotus Sutra itself and Founder Niwano's one-volume commentary, called Buddhism for Today in its English translation.

Under Niwano's influence, and subsequently under Tamura's, I gradually became more and more profoundly interested in the Lotus Sutra. And in 1988 I decided that I should devote myself much more seriously to studying the Lotus Sutra. At some point, Founder Niwano had suggested to me that I might come to Japan for a while. Tamura had even more strongly urged me to come to Japan, and together we considered some projects which we might work on together. I discussed the matter with Dean Kitagawa, who urged me to go to Japan, but insisted that the four or five years I had in mind would not be enough and that I should plan on being in Japan for a minimum of seven or eight years. Joseph Kitagawa died several years ago, so I have sometimes wondered what he would say if he knew that as of 2003 I had been in Japan for fifteen years.

With all of this encouragement to move to Japan, to study both the Lotus Sutra and the Japanese language, in December of 1988 I announced my resignation from Meadville/Lombard, effective the next year, and began to make preparations to go to Japan. The school having selected a new head, I packed my suitcase, my computer, and some books and moved to Japan, arriving on the fourth day of the first month of the new Heisei era, which began in 1989. Little did I, or anyone else I suspect, imagine that I would be in Japan for more than a few years.

Tragedy struck. Two weeks before I was to leave for Tokyo, Professor Tamura was told that he had cancer. A few months later he was dead. I never even saw him after coming to Japan, in part to work with him and to learn from him.

That first year, I devoted quite a bit of time to studying elementary Japanese, as I had not had time to do much of any studying during the final year in Chicago as head of the school. I also began to learn to read the Lotus Sutra in Japanese and Chinese, with a great deal of help from Akio Tsukimoto, a friend of mine and a professor at a Rikkyo University.

During the first two years in Japan I taught part-time at the University of Tsukuba and then was fortunate to receive a full-time appointment in the graduate program in area studies, where, among other things, I taught Chinese Buddhism. During those years, I visited with Founder Niwano periodically, primarily to report on what I was doing and to receive his advice. He did not give me much advice, but always encouraged me to continue my studies, especially my interest in the Lotus Sutra.

I also met regularly with Tomonobu Shinozaki, who had served as the dean of Gakurin, the Rissho Kosei-kai seminary in Tokyo, and once had studied at Meadville/Lombard before going to Vanderbilt University for his Ph.D. Before long, he and I decided to translate together from Japanese into English a little introduction to the Lotus Sutra and its impact on Japanese life. That book had been written by Yoshiro Tamura. I thought of the work on the translation of it as a kind of small substitute for the projects Tamura and I were never able to do together.

When President Nichiko Niwano was to receive an honorary degree from Meadville/Lombard, as had Founder Niwano some years earlier, it was decided that I should give the major address - in Japanese. If I had been awed by the large audience in the Great Sacred Hall when I first spoke there in English with an interpreter, I was nearly terrified at the thought of speaking in Japanese before a full Fumon Hall. With a lot of help from my wife, who had been my first Japanese language teacher, I managed to get through the speech. As he passed me on his way to the podium following my address, Founder Niwano indicated that he was pleased with what I had said.

I have not given many formal addresses in Japanese. From the first week I was in Tokyo, I had a warm relationship with Rissho Kosei-kai's Language Service (LS), which had been founded by Masuo Nezu, then director of the organization's international department, in preparation for the IARF Congress in 1984. Many of the members of the LS became my good friends and conversation partners. I began giving lectures in English for the LS very soon after coming to Japan. In time, more and more often, these lectures were on the Lotus Sutra. Eventually, I was also asked by some members to give a course in English on the Lotus Sutra. Over the years quite a few courses of about ten lectures each were sponsored by the Language Service and given at several different places. Various themes were selected. It took three such courses, for example, to cover the stories in the Lotus Sutra, lectures which are now being revised and are appearing in Dharma World, the bimonthly English-language magazine published by Kosei Publishing Company.

International Conferences Begin

About ten years ago, I was able to get support from Rissho Kosei-kai and encouragement from Founder Niwano to initiate a series of international conferences on the Lotus Sutra. Though each of them has been small by intention, these conferences have served to introduce the Lotus Sutra and Rissho Kosei-kai to a large number of scholars, both foreign and Japanese, and Buddhist, Christian, and Jewish, or in some cases to deepen their understanding of the sutra. When we began, very little attention was being given to the Lotus Sutra in America, either by those teaching Buddhism in colleges and universities or by theologians interested in Buddhist - Christian dialogue. Our little conferences have contributed to changing that situation. This was evident, for example, when I participated in the Parliament of the World's Religions held in South Africa in 1999 and attended a panel of Buddhist and Christian scholars discussing interfaith relations. Of the five people on the panel, four brought the Lotus Sutra into their presentations in one way or another. All four had participated in one of our international conferences.

Quite a few of the presentations for those conferences have been collected into a book published in 2002 by Kosei Publishing Company. It's called A Buddhist Kaleidoscope: Essays on the Lotus Sutra. The name, suggested by Dr. Shinozaki, is very appropriate, as this large collection ranges over a wide variety of issues related to the Lotus Sutra.

I have often given papers on the Lotus Sutra at conferences in various places around the world, including the Parliament in South Africa, the Buddhist Library in Singapore, temples in China where women study to become nuns, and at various universities and religious organizations in the United States. Some years ago, the Chicago church of Rissho Kosei-kai asked me to do a public lecture under their sponsorship, and it soon turned into an annual event which has continued to this day. I've also given talks on the Lotus Sutra at Congresses of the IARF.

In recent years I have been able to participate in Advanced Seminars for English-speaking leaders of Rissho Kosei-kai in the United States. In 2003, it was especially encouraging to hear people from various walks of life speak with understanding and enthusiasm about the Lotus Sutra. Rissho Kosei-kai has not had great success in attracting non-Japanese speaking people to its churches. But there are signs now that this situation may be changing, as some articulate English-speaking leaders arise in the various branch churches overseas.

As I studied the Lotus Sutra more carefully in Japanese and Chinese, it became more and more apparent to me that a more modern, more easily readable English-language version was needed. I was, and remain, convinced that if the vision of Rissho Kosei-kai as the vehicle for spreading the Lotus Sutra and its teachings to the West is to be realized even partially, a new translation is almost desperately needed to replace the one which was the very first full translation into English of The Threefold Lotus Sutra. So I have devoted as much of my time as I could to working on this fresh translation. The basic translating has been completed for some time now, but additional checking and editing still remains to be done before it can be published.

I have been retired from the University of Tsukuba for several years, and am able to give virtually all of my time to making the Lotus Sutra available to the whole world. Now we are trying to develop a congregation for English-speaking people living in the Tokyo area. It's called the International Buddhist Congregation (IBC). It provides me with many opportunities to explain or talk about the Lotus Sutra in the form of Dharma Talks at regular Sunday morning services.

The sutra itself teaches us that we should expect to be faced with many difficulties if we attempt to spread the Lotus Sutra. The progress of my own work has sometimes seemed unacceptably slow, proving perhaps that I have not yet mastered the bodhisattva practice of patience. Yet there are encouraging signs.

IBC services are usually held in a worship hall on the fourth floor of Gakurin and occasionally in the larger former headquarters of the organization. In either case, rather large photographs of Cofounder Mrs. Myoko Naganuma and Founder Niwano are displayed on either side of the altar. Whenever I am about to give a Dharma Talk, I quietly recite the o-daimoku, the title of the Lotus Sutra, and take a good look at the picture of the smiling face of Founder Niwano. I firmly believe that we are enormously indebted to those who came before us and transmitted the Lotus Sutra to us and that this places on us a kind of obligation to pass this sutra on to others.

In this case we are indebted to a long series of devotees of the Lotus Sutra, beginning with Shakyamuni Buddha himself, including such important figures as Kumarajiva, who translated it into Chinese; T'ien-t'ai Chih-i, who both deeply penetrated its meaning and placed it in a systematic context; Prince Shotoku, who was responsible for it becoming an important part of Japanese culture from the beginning; Saicho, Dengyo Daishi, who founded Mount Hiei and the Tendai School of Japanese Buddhism; Nichiren, who popularized the sutra and contributed powerfully to its continuing impact on the lives of everyday people; and to Nikkyo Niwano, the founder of Rissho Kosei-kai. These outstanding and well-known figures are, of course, representative of a whole host of witnesses to and devotees of the Lotus Sutra, the "tens of millions of billions of bodhisattvas" who have sprung up from the earth over many centuries.

In a sense, Nikkyo Niwano, smiling down at me from that photograph, represents that whole bold and rich tradition. In a sense, like Nichiren before him and all of the others, he is a modern Superior Practice Bodhisattva, the leader of the great host of bodhisattvas who spring up from the earth in chapter 15 of the Lotus Sutra. When I stand with my back to the congregation looking at his face, if only for a few seconds, he encourages me to do my best to teach the Lotus Sutra to the congregation assembled then before us.

Dr. Gene Reeves is currently studying, teaching, and writing on Buddhism in Tokyo. He was recently a research fellow at Rikkyo University and prior to that retired from the University of Tsukuba. Before coming to Japan in 1989, Dr. Reeves was the dean of Meadville/Lombard Theological School and professorial lecturer in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. He is also the international advisor to the International Buddhist Congregation of Rissho Kosei-kai and the Niwano Peace Foundation.

This article originally appeared in Japanese translation in the November 16, 2003 edition of the Kosei Shimbun newspaper.


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