Because we commonly associate Vajrayana Buddhism with Tibet, it can surprise some that forms of Vajrayana have persisted in Japan as well. One historical center of Japanese Vajrayana is Daigoji monastery, home of the Daigo school of Shingon Buddhism. Founded in 874, the monastery is still operating today.  

In 1936, a prolific sculptor and member of Daigoji’s priesthood, Shinjo Ito (1906-1989), founded the Shinnyo-en (“Garden of Absolute Reality”) school, whose central canonical text is the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, said to be the last of the Buddha’s sermons. The current issue of Tricycle features an interview with Her Holiness Shinso Ito, daughter of Shinjo and current leader of the Shinnyo-en school of Buddhism. 

American Buddhists are becoming more familiar with this group, which has been making a more public effort recently to educate people about Shinnyo-en’s philosophy and work in the US and around the world. In particular, Shinnyo-en places a strong emphasis on peace initiatives and hands-on charitable work—from cleaning parks to funding educational projects to advancing women’s rights. Shinso Ito herself is one of the few women to lead a Buddhist order and recently participated in the 2010 Women’s Conference, hosted this year by Maria Shriver. Shinnyo-en also focuses heavily on interfaith dialogue.

Its ecumenical spirit was in evidence at its annual Saisho Homa (“Boundless Prayer Ceremony”)—a fire rite in which fire and water are used to symbolize wisdom and compassion, respectively—for the first time in the United States. Faith leaders from a number of traditions gathered in Redwood City, California, in October to participate in the ceremony, including Tibetan Vajrayana student and teacher Lama Palden. Also attending were leaders from Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Hindu groups. In a testament to their commitment to inclusiveness, the ceremony included prayers and chants in Sanskrit, Pali and Japanese. The rite’s fires of wisdom symbolize the burning off of negative karma in a troubled world, and a primary purpose of the ritual is the wish to establish world peace and the welfare of all people.

Take a look at images from October’s Saisho Homa here. Next week, in Kyoto, Shinnyo-en will host a conference bringing together Indian yogis, Pakistani Sufis and Buddhists in dialogue. The conference will open with the chanting of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, recitations from the Vedas and readings from the Koran. I didn’t want to miss it, so have accepted their invitation to attend the conference. More on that in a future post.


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