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Religion Exists to Realize Peace

[From The World Is Yours to Change by Daisaku Ikeda, Asahi Press, Tokyo, 2002]­

The utter inability to ignore a person in pain--this fiery compassion encapsulates the spirit of Shakyamuni. I also believe that it was the spirit of Jesus Christ, and of the Prophet Muhammad. For they themselves hurried to the side of people in pain, extending to them the hand of hope; they shared in others' suffering, in their sorrows and tears.

We must return to this love of humanity exemplified by the founders of the great faiths. And we must cause great rivers of love to wash over this Earth devastated by the burning winds of hatred. These were the sentiments which Dr. Shin Anzai and I discussed on many, many occasions.

The late Dr. Anzai was a prominent religious scholar here in Japan. He was also renowned as a devout Catholic. Our religious beliefs may have been different, but our goal--peace--was the same.

A child lies stricken on the ground. Someone calls for a stretcher. The religion of the person who helps us carry that stretcher is of no consequence, as long as we can save the child. The kind of intolerance that would cause people to refuse to carry the stretcher with someone of a different faith is completely removed from the spirit of the founders of the great religions.

"If There Is Anything I Can Do"

Dr. Anzai was a truly good-hearted person. He possessed a degree of humanity that is indeed rare. An honorary professor at Sophia University, he was a member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity of the Vatican, the only member in Asia. And yet he had a simplicity and purity about him that belied his eminent standing and achievements.

All his life he retained a youthful spirit, an unwavering commitment to his beliefs. He had scant regard for the vagaries of public opinion, and was completely indifferent to honors, to questions of rank or financial reward.

He was unable to ignore someone in pain, in some kind of trouble. He always wanted to help, to give courage. "If there is anything I can do, I'll be only too glad." These words seemed to come very easily, very naturally to him.

If one of his students at Sophia University was feeling down, he would joke, "Yes, that's right, I encourage (Jpn. hagemasu) my students. And look where it's got me--I'm just losing more and more hair (Jpn. hage-masu)!" While his students might laugh at this humor, they were more likely to be moved to tears by the warmth behind it.

Dr. Anzai loved the music of the Vienna Philharmonic with a passion. When traveling overseas he would take with him his shamisen, his own musical specialty, and perform to the great delight of the delegates at international conferences. Or at functions after meetings, he might wrap a cloth around his head in the typical style of a Japanese woman and perform comical versions of Japanese dances. In the fertile richness of a life tilled by faith, he brought both Japanese and Western culture to an exuberant flowering.

"We Must Take Some Responsibility"

A scene comes to mind of which Dr. Anzai wrote. It was July in Manila, the Philippines. The streets were bathed in scorching sunlight.

"Goodness me . . . " said Dr. Anzai, as he stopped dead in his tracks. A group of naked children had come running up to him. They were very young, bare-footed, apparently unable to afford even shoes. A row of little hands like miniature maple leaves stretched out to him, begging.

For a moment this great scholar, always cheerful and voluble, was at a loss for words. "We bear some responsibility for these children" was his thought. The prosperity of Japan is built on the poverty of Asia. And, more than anything, here are people like us, people with whom we share this moment of life on Earth.

Its horn beeping, a modified jeep covered with bright ornamentation drove by, stirring up clouds of dust as it passed. Known as jeepneys, these are the main mode of transport for the citizens of Manila. In 1988 the fare was one peso, around five cents.

Dr. Anzai was in Manila to attend an international conference. But even as he hailed the Filipino people for the bloodless "people power" revolution that gave birth to the Aquino government, and even though he was deeply moved by the efforts through which the country had rebuilt itself from the destruction wrought by the Japanese army in World War II, he found himself unable to forget the image of those children.

"We've got to do something!" he thought. "This is not someone else's problem, it's ours!" Most Japanese, however, seem to be concerned with little beyond buying a home, stock prices, their children's school and university entrance exams.

Dr. Anzai was deeply frustrated by the Japanese people's insularity, their indifference to the world. I share his frustration.

Open your eyes! Attune your ears! Our world is overflowing with human suffering. Mothers and children stumble through the dark night, fleeing the fires of war, searching for safe haven. Children are dying of malnutrition, cradled in their mother's embrace. Ten-year-old boys carry guns and learn how to shoot people. In the developed countries, there are children surrounded by everything they could possibly desire, but with a vacant look in their eyes.

As for adults, they argue selfishly about some point or another, cursing each other, hating each other, creating more suffering. What do any of their argument mean to children who have lost their fathers and mothers?

In the midst of war, in a city somewhere, a child cries. Those tears are the tears of the heavens as they look down on humanity and its conflicts. That is the anguished wail of the twenty-first century crying out: "Enough! No more! "

A Poor Childhood in Sendai

Dr. Anzai was an unusually cheerful person. Yet the title of his autobiographical novel is Namida o koraete (Holding Back the Tears). The novel opens with the scene in which his mother, unable to bear the poverty any longer, leaves home, taking Anzai's younger brother and sister with her.

His mother soon returned, but it seems the family was trapped in such extreme poverty that it is little wonder she tried to leave. At one point the family even lived in a converted horse stable. It was a dilapidated hovel, down a dirty lane, standing next to a foul-smelling drainage ditch. The roof sloped, the tatami mats were worn and torn, and on top of it all, right in front of the abode was a collection point for rubbish.

This was in Sendai before the war, where Dr. Anzai was born in 1923. His father was a lithographer for a printing firm. He was good at his job and a person of fine character, but not very good at getting on in the world. With the Great Depression of the 1930s the family's income plummeted.

His mother had been brought up "with a nanny and a parasol," as we say, wanting for nothing, so this slide into poverty was particularly hard on her. She worried about what the neighbors were saying, and her relatives. Just getting by from day to day left her haggard and worn, and she had hardly any clothes to wear. She felt that old friends from her girls' school days must be laughing at her.

The young Anzai often accompanied his mother to the pawnshop. This was because on the way home, she would buy him a koganeyaki cake with bean paste. But for the rest of his life, he would never forget the cold expression of the woman at the pawnshop as she looked at his mother and appraised the items she had brought to pawn.

Poverty is no crime. It is far superior to living and making money in crafty, unscrupulous ways. Perhaps it was the influence of his parents, but the young Anzai grew into a kind, cheerful boy, not stunted in any way by his impoverished upbringing.

When he was at elementary school, Anzai somehow obtained a coupon for some amazake (sweetened rice drink). Unable to keep this great treat all to himself, he took his four younger brothers and sisters to the local canteen, and "there the five of us shared a single cup of amazake."

On graduating from elementary school, Anzai traveled to Tokyo as an apprentice. A year later he returned to Sendai. There he attended higher elementary school while working as a delivery boy for the Kahoku Shimpo newspaper.

During this period the young Anzai had an encounter he would never forget. It was with the husband and wife who ran the factory where his mother worked part-time, "attaching screws."

His mother, her hair always loose and untidy, had grown accustomed to being ignored. This couple, however, despite their status as her employers, did not look down on her at all but treated her as an equal. And so the two families grew to know each other. The couple were Catholics.

This was Anzai's first contact with Christianity. He later learned that his father had been christened as a child. There was something about church, which the boy began to attend, that moved him deeply. What was it?

"It was the way the priest, Father Bissonnette, a man of learning with doctorates in theology and philosophy, accepted--as an individual in his own right--this poor paperboy who had not even made it to middle school. He never grew tired of explaining to me all these noble and exalted doctrines in a way I could understand." It was, in other words, the priest's love of humanity. Among the believers also, a down-to-earth, family atmosphere prevailed.

The world is a cold place. But here it is warm!

The world discriminates against people. But here everyone is equal!

The world takes pleasure from the misfortunes of others. But not here!

For the first time, the boy felt liberated and that he, too, could have a real future. The same youth would go on to become a scholar of the sociology of religion, but running through his work there was always a powerful solidarity with ordinary people, which may well have had its origins in such childhood experiences as this.

People doing their utmost to survive the struggles of daily life need to pray to something; they need something to hang on to. Anzai embraced this desperate intensity of living as something precious and noble. For in that spirit is found the door to the eternal.

Dr. Anzai knew that if scholars analyze religion based on their limited perspective, failing to grasp the sentiments of ordinary people who seek salvation through faith, they will remain far removed from the truth of religion.

Politics Exploiting Religion

Religion exists to enable people to live in peace. Why is it, then, that throughout history religion seems to have ignited conflict? This is and has always been a fundamental question for humanity. It was also a cause for deep concern to Dr. Anzai. He told of a peace conference attended by people of faith from all over the world.

At the time, world opinion was critical of religion as it seemed that religious differences were the cause of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. According to Dr. Anzai, strong objections to this view were raised at the conference. Ms. L. Matkovic-Vlasic, a poet from Croatia, said the following: "We are victims of politics. Our political leaders are using religion and culture as a cover for their own hunger for power."

Yasushi Akashi, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for the former Yugoslavia, was also critical of this view that religious differences were the chief culprit in the war, commenting: "The name of religion is being invoked in this conflict, with political leaders stressing and driving home the differences between the groups involved in order to justify acts of horrendous brutality."

As these commentators point out, this was not a case so much of different religions warring with each other as of armed conflict among political groups. Religion was being used to incite hatred and justify the fighting.

While the issues involved are complex and we must be careful not to oversimplify them, "religious conflicts" are in fact often expressions of political or economic discontent, or they have been contrived to reinforce the authority of the group in power. Religion is exploited in such cases to provide a "great cause" that justifies the conflict, to fan the flames of hostility or to unify one's own side. Conflicts of this type undeniably have this aspect.

It is not my intention to defend religion, for we must recognize the reality that religion has often failed to help extinguish the flames of conflict. It is clear, however, that religion must never be exploited for political ends.

There is a saying that "even the Devil can quote the Bible." People who want to use religion for their own ends simply select those parts of the sacred texts that suit their purpose. And even when the teachings of the founder of the faith are perfectly clear, people will "interpret" those teachings to suit their needs.

No matter how we may distort their words, can we imagine the founders of the world's great religions desired that people should slaughter each other? That cannot possibly be the case.

Then let us stop our squabbling and rescue the child crying in anguish. Surely this is where justice is to be found. Is it justice to consider the killing of children--if they are enemy children--unavoidable?

Each religion can be made a force for good or evil by the people who practice it. As Dr. Anzai very emphatically told me: "It all comes down to the humanity of those who lead and guide. That is what will determine whether a religion survives or perishes."

One year before he passed away, Professor Anzai published a book, Nijuisseiki e no yuigon (My Will and Testament for the Twenty−first Century). One passage from this book reads, "Rather than risking our lives in violent struggle, we should dedicate ourselves, body and soul, to peace."

Religion, according to Dr. Anzai, must be the friend and ally of the most vulnerable among us. His entire life was dedicated to this ideal.

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