Portrait of a Japanese Buddhist Monk by Unkown Artist via Wikimedia Commons

A Bridge Called Meeting

A journal of “something that is happening now,” as the Rimini Meeting lands in Tokyo and on Mount Koya...
Davide Perillo

A journal of “something that is happening now,” as the Rimini Meeting lands in Tokyo and on Mount Koya: the dinner at the embassy, among Gagaku dances and Neapolitan songs; the encounter at the Italian Institute of Culture and the challenge of “open reason;” the embrace with the Buddhist Shodo Habukawa, for whom “we are all linked to the Mystery;” and that photo of Father Giussani in the temple....

The gong sounds just before 6:00 am. Once. Silence. Then again. The rhythm speeds up. At the last stroke, the prayer begins. The monks are on one side of the temple, intoning mantras and prayers that catch the heart. It’s like a beautiful tune that always rests on the same notes; it returns, and insists, but never becomes a melody. On the other side, Shodo Habukawa, the master, sits before a brazier, using precise gestures, both dry and harmonic, as if each movement contained an entire world, and as if that fire, which rises a little at a time and then glows brightly, were really a mysterious presence. But the most powerful impression comes later, when a monk invites those in attendance to go around, along the wall, in order to pass in front of the altars that couldn’t be seen well from behind. On the first altar, homage is paid to Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism. On the second is a photo of Father Giussani. You can even hear his name later, in the final litany, as well as those of John Paul II and Father Francesco Ricci. They are praying for them, and for the guests on Mount Koya, who arrived the day before from Italy, from Spain, and from other parts of Japan–all for something that they wouldn’t have been able to imagine beforehand. Not like this.

A step forward. It’s the Rimini Meeting arriving in Japan. We proposed the idea to them, and now it’s real–but, at the same time, it’s more. It’s a friendship that grows stronger, remembering the journey that Father Giussani made here in 1987 and the relationship born then with Shodo Habukawa, the highest authority of this Buddhist school. It’s the occasion for three days of high-level encounters regarding the relationship between Christianity and Buddhism (exact title: “Tradition and Globalization”), including round table discussions, presentations from the Meeting, and moments of music and dance. But it is also “the occasion to raise the level of relations between Italy and Japan, because we, as a country, are proud of Father Giussani’s journey, which allowed this encounter between two worlds,” asserts Vincenzo Petrone, Italian Ambassador in Tokyo. Months ago, visiting Mount Koya, he had been asked, “Did you know that before you, there was another very important Italian here?” From there, and from a conversation with Roberto Fontolan, Director of the CL International Center, came the idea to take advantage of the series of Italy-Japan initiatives that are underway this year, in order to bring to the Rising Sun not only exports and Italian art, but also a step forward in the understanding of each other’s religious traditions.

The result is that a delegation lands in Tokyo, consisting in part of the Meeting staff, first of all the President, Emilia Guarnieri, as well as Roberto Fontolan, the philosopher Costantino Esposito, Etsuro Sotoo (Japanese sculptor of the Sagrada Familia), and Father Ambrogio Pisoni (visitor of the CL Movement in Asia, and guest of Habukawa at least twice a year). Also in attendance was Father Massimo Camisasca, sent directly by Julián Carrón, who could not be there because he was in Assisi at the meeting of the various religions organized by the Pope. You land thinking that it won’t be the Cairo Meeting–no group of friends at the origin, no volunteer with a veil to greet guests, a different form and a completely different context... You will leave struck by the same wonder that you lived in Cairo, just a year ago.
The first evening began with a reception at the embassy. Outside, a garden of enchanting beauty. Inside, even more so. Just a matter of greetings, and a buffet dinner. There is truly little formality. You had met Sako in La Thuile, and Marcia six months ago, when she still lived in Brazil. You expected to see her here, but not in a kimono... Similarly clad, the other friends who live in Japan look around, amazed. At what? The affectionate hug between Emilia Guarnieri and Habukawa (they know each other well–the bonzes have been to the Rimini Meeting 14 times since 1987); the Gagaku dances, with those motions that seem like meditation; and Maestro Aoki, a Japanese musician, who sings Torna a Surriento and Santa Lucia luntana (Neapolitan songs). It hasn’t even begun, technically, and the Italians already have a question written on their faces: What is happening?

The next morning, we have an appointment at the Italian Institute of Culture. One of our most prestigious centers abroad, the building (with a flaming red façade) was designed by Gae Aulenti. Fontolan reads Carrón’s greeting: the challenge launched by the Pope (and Father Giussani) of “open reason” is valid here, too, and how. But there is a passage that, thinking about the subsequent days, even sounds prophetic: “The friendship with them is a shining example of true ecumenism–a love for truth that is present, if only a fragment, in everyone. This openness makes one feel at home with anyone who conserves a shred of truth, at ease anywhere...”

Stunned faces. At the first discussion session, Emilia presents the Meeting. Esposito speaks about reason and presence and Camisasca speaks about the religious sense. Giorgio Amitrano, from Naples Eastern University, talks about the Buddhist poet Miyazawa Kenji and his ties to Christianity. Franco Marcoaldi, writer and journalist for the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, presents the figure of Fosco Maraini; Eisho Yogi speaks about his trip to Kampala, among the women of the Meeting Point. Habukawa also speaks. One sentence, in particular, jolts you: “Everything that exists has a sort of mission. It is like a warning from the universe. We all have to recognize that we are connected to the Mystery.” It seems like the echo of that “invitation present in reality” that Carrón touched on at the CL Beginning Day. There are around 80 people present. Monsignor Giuseppe Pittau, long-time Rector of the Jesuit Sophia University and an absolute authority on Japan, also stops in. During a break, you chat with another long-time missionary–Gaetano Compri, a Salesian, 81 years old, who has spent 56 years here. He was the one who translated Giussani’s conference here, in 1987. “By the end, I was sweating.” He is joking, but not entirely. It isn’t easy to convey certain phrases in a language that, for example, doesn’t have nouns for “identity” or “surprise”–only paraphrases. What does Compri have to say about this occasion? “It’s useful. Extremely useful. Japan and Buddhism, for Italy, are still little known.” In the middle of the work, Emilia comments, “What we say today helps me to understand something that’s already happened–the event of a friendship. Without it, not only would I not be here, but I would not have this affectionate tension to understand.”

The second session will be 375 miles to the southwest on Mount Koya, a sacred place of Shingon Buddhism. There is a flight to Osaka, then two hours on a bus. Toward the end, we sing Povera Voce and Sakura, the song about cherry blossoms, among the cordial and somewhat stunned faces of the hosts, who are not used to this music. With us are Marcoaldi, Amitrano, Nadia Fusini (renowned Anglican), Silvio Vita, who lives in Kyoto and directs the Italian School of East Asian Studies, and the officials from the embassy, including Corrado Molteni (who lent an invaluable hand to the organization of everything and who, together with Vita, will also serve as an interpreter).
After the curves and the climb (we are at an altitude of over half a mile), past the hairpin turn that goes around the large red arch at the entrance, we are here: Koyasan. You expected silence and seclusion, a network of pagodas interrupted only by greenery; instead, it’s a small town, with streets and stores that are crowded with pilgrims at 4:00 pm. The sacred buildings, 19 of them, are spread around. The first you visit is the most imposing–Kompon Daito, with its red façade, is a spectacle. Having taken off your shoes, you enter into another dimension. Sixteen decorated columns, beautiful ceilings, and five large Buddhas–the largest, in the middle, is the Center of the Universe. There are innumerable symbols and ornaments of a complex cosmology. Everything speaks of this tension toward the absolute that will never find fulfillment–it couldn’t, if God hadn’t descended to Earth.
The idea leaves you breathless, while you walk among the tombs of the great cemetery of Okunoin. There are 200,000 tombs, mostly ancient, with arches, small temples, columns, and statues. Every so often you see children’s clothing and hats, left as ex voto. The bodies are not buried here, you are told–they are cremated. Here there is only memory. But the images of the divinities are what strike you the most. There are many, extremely varied, and almost always with a ferocious face, because they must hold at bay passions, excesses, too much desire. For example, one might ask Aizenmyo’o for help in extinguishing amorous passion. He is holding a bow and other weapons.

Stones and flesh. Habukawa recounts that Father Giussani “was very struck by Senju Kannon, the goddess with a thousand arms, because each of those hands serves to save a man.” There she is, sculpted in stone, as she is in one of the most beautiful statues of the Koya museum. These 200,000 tombs give you an idea of the richness of this history. It is both beautiful and melancholy. You go through the tombs, toward the bridge that brings you to the Gobyo, the mausoleum where, according to tradition, Kobo Daishi meditates perpetually. It’s impossible not to think of that page where Giussani describes a plain in which men are busy constructing a bridge upwards, when all of a sudden one breaks in and says, “Stop. Your attempt is great and noble, but sad...” This mountain is the religious sense, made of stones and flesh. It is something that takes your breath away, when you realize how profound it is, how it determines all of life here: time, space, and details-even eating and drinking. Everything cries out the relationship with the Mystery. Or better, the desire for the Mystery. In front of the stairs that ascend to Kobo Daishi’s door, there is a group of pilgrims praying, using a sort of middle way between mantras and litanies, requesting to be protected, accompanied. “A broken cry,” Father Giussani had said. It’s true.

Even the dinner, in a hall of the Muryoko-in Temple–where everyone is hosted in typical Japanese rooms (tatami, futons, and paper walls)–makes you think. There are around 10 monks here, and 3,000 in all of the temples of the mountain. The prior of the monastery this year is Shoken, son of Habukawa. Then there are the youngest, but calling them “novices” would be inappropriate. There is no codified path to “take the habit;” it depends on the story of the individual, his relationship with the master, how he learns. But one thing is certain–they smile. At least those, like Nose, who is 28 years old and studies art and design, that you see continuously going back and forth, kneeling in order to serve dinner in a gesture that is more than a courteous bow; it speaks of a way to relate to reality–to the earth, to which you belong.
The conference is in the Hall of the Doctors. In the morning, we discuss beauty with Sotoo (“Beauty and truth are related. Without a belief in truth and an adherence to beauty, nothing that man has done on earth would exist”) and Shizuka Jien, Director of the museum. In the afternoon, we continued with more than three hours of rich and dense debate, because everyone has a real experience to propose. Emilia speaks about her work as a teacher and what she learned from Giussani, “who educated me to beauty and truth in order to teach me to judge;” Father Ambrogio discusses how the encounter makes us know reality; and Marcoaldi addresses the importance of conserving the differences in dialogue. And our Japanese counterparts talk about things that are lived, too–not theories. Chiun Takahashi explains how the encounter with the Catholics helped him in his work, constructing temples.

Like a child. Meanwhile, you are surprised again and again as you watch Habukawa. His eyes are deep and, at the same time, like those of a child. And his body, his gestures... In the way he leans toward another person when he looks at him, turning his whole chest, it is as if, in that moment, he had everything in front of himself. You imagine the scene that Father Ambrogio recounted, an encounter in Milan–the embrace, a dialogue made up mostly of moved glances. “Then, in front of a book with a nativity scene by Giotto, Giussani takes his hand and brings it to indicate the figures. ‘Jesus.’ And Habukawa, ‘Ah, Jesus.’ ‘Mary.’ ‘Mary...’” Simple, like children. You also understand why, after another visit to the CL headquarters, according to Father Ambrogio, “while Habukawa’s car was leaving, Giussani turned to us and said, ‘If this man had lived at the time of Christ, he would have been one of the Twelve.” But even today he is striking for the way he lights up when he speaks of his friend and how he left a mark on him. He starts his statement at the round table this way: “June 28, 1987, bringing with him a radiant light, Father Giussani arrived among us...” When you ask him who Father Giussani is for him, now, he responds with a gaze that you could never describe and just one sentence: “I can’t say it in words... because he is here, with us.”

In the evening, there is a celebration. We exchange gifts and sing Japanese and Neapolitan songs. Marcoaldi intones ’O sole mio and Habukawa keeps time slowly with his hands. The atmosphere is indescribable. “It’s not a celebration; it’s a friendship that is happening now, mysteriously,” says Emilia. Even the last leg of the journey is a surprise, in part because of how it came about–Habukawa wanted to introduce the Movement and the Meeting to another Buddhist school, the Zen Buddhists of the Ehieiji Temple–but mostly because of what you find when you arrive. After six hours on the bus, you find yourself on a guided tour of a city of faith: 3,000 bonzes, and 600,000 visitors every year; the halls, the temples, the bathing area for purification, the kitchens, and the great hall where the monks do their zazen (meditation). The monks spend three and a half hours a day staring at the wall in search of an infinite that, in the end, coincides with emptiness, and can be reached only through subtraction, purifying oneself of passions and even of thought, “because the ideal would be not to think at all.” Everything is imbued with the same philosophy–the rites, the food, the gestures of washing oneself and those that accompany the cup of tea to the mouth, “because if you do it in a certain way, thinking that you are drinking something alive, that comes from nature and is of your same nature, your spirit changes,” explains one of the monks. “And our nature expresses itself in every gesture. We have to behave as if we were children of the divine.” As if: Enormous appeal, and a veil of sadness.

For the whole world. However, in the meantime, we are meeting each other. Master Matsubara, the leader of the monastery, is surprised to hear about the Meeting. We exchange ideas on education and responsibility. Later, we get together for a dinner that immediately takes a turn toward true friendship. Greetings, exchange of gifts, thanks. And an invitation to Rimini, naturally. What will happen next remains to be seen. The question from the beginning returns powerfully: What happened? “Father Giussani’s charism demonstrated once again all of its profundity and its capacity to build history,” observes Father Ambrogio. The Mystery “makes use of it however It wants, in a way that is truly unthinkable,” notes Emilia. You think of Habukawa, of the photo of Giussani that he always has with him, and the other one on the altar. It wasn’t there because we had come. It was for him. For them. For the whole world. And that is why we felt “at home and at ease,” even in Japan.