Fr. Giussani with Wakako Saito (Photo: Fraternità CL/Francesco Gargioni)

The boundless embrace of the Mystery

Fr. Giussani's bond with the Buddhist monks of Mount Koya. Saito Wakako recounts how she was born and raised: Fr. Ricci, the Cascinazza, the Rimini Meeting. And the tragedy of the tsunami. A friendship that is the sign of authentic religiosity.
Wakako Saito

My name is Wakako Saito and, by family tradition and that of my homeland, Japan, I am a Buddhist. Since 1990 I have been a researcher at the Koyasan University in Mount Koya, where I study and work on the dialogue between Buddhists and Catholics. I spent six years in Italy, attending the Catholic University of Milan and Fr. Giussani's Theology course and doing research on Catholic culture. I currently teach Italian Language and Culture and the dignity of the human person at the Aichigakuin Buddhist University in Nagoya, Japan, and have been collaborating with the Catholic University for seven years. Since 1988, together with the monks of Mount Koya, I have participated in the Rimini Meeting.
How did this connection with Catholics come about for me, who belongs to a different religion, language and culture? The explanation lies in my relationship with the Mystery and with the universe, which was expressed within a story born out of the friendship between Fr. Giussani and Professor Habukawa of Mount Koya. This is how my adventure began.

In June 1987 I was at the Nagoya International Center, where I was organizing a conference with Fr. Giussani. It was the most important event of "Italian Week."
I knew very little about Italy, but I had sensed one thing: it was absolutely impossible to make this country known without explaining Catholic culture, about which, however, we knew very little. That is why we thought it would be nice to hold a conference by inviting someone from Italy. But who? One day I was talking about it with my friend and colleague Angela Volpe, and she suddenly told me that it would be interesting to invite Fr. Giussani. Knowing me, I could have easily replied, "Let's look for someone else because I don't know him." Instead, strangely, I began to write, almost automatically, a letter of invitation, as if deep down I somehow sensed the horizon that was opening up before me. It was even more strange because Fr. Giussani immediately replied, "I'm coming." Thus, he arrived in Japan for the first and last time, with Professor Giovanni Riva and journalist Roberto Fontolan of Il Sabato.

Fr. Giussani held a meeting entitled, "Don't have doubts but questions about life." The hall of the Nagoya International Center was full of listeners; only later did I learn that a group of CL had come from Hiroshima as well. I had never studied Italian or even Catholicism, and although I had followed Fr. Gaetano Compri's translation in Japanese, I had not understood anything. Only that Fr. Giussani often used words that ended with the vowel "a": freedom, question, happiness, community and then road, prayer, life. So my adventure began.

The next day, my parents and I accompanied Fr. Giussani and Fontolan to Mount Koya, one of the holiest places in Shingon Buddhism. We went together to the Muryokoin temple. In the afternoon, Fr. Giussani met with Master Shodo Habukawa (then vice-rector of the Koyasan University and Professor of Shingon Buddhism), Professor Shingen Takagi (Rector of the Koyasan University,) and Professor Yukei Matsunaga (President of the Mikkyo Buddhism Institute of the Koyasan University). From the very beginning, it was crystal clear that Fr. Giussani had no intention for Japanese Buddhists to become Catholics. Instead, he had pointed out that there were an increasing number of people in the world who called themselves atheists but had a great thirst for happiness. His desire was to walk together, to become friends, each maintaining his or her own identity. Two aspects struck Fr. Giussani about his stay at Mount Koya: the education of young people and Buddhist mercy that seeks to help everyone.

Emilia Guarnieri, then President of the Meeting, with Shodo Habukawa

After Fr. Giussani, Fr. Francesco Ricci of Forlì came to Japan who, on January 24, 1990, spoke at the Koyasan University in Mount Koya, on the theme, "The desire to seek the happiness that dwells in the depths of our hearts." Many students and young monks came to listen to him. Fr. Francesco asked me if I had any interest in coming to Italy to study Theology. In accepting, I knew I was taking a risk because I had to leave everything behind. My friends asked me why I should abandon the fruits of years of work and friendship. But at the bottom of my heart I sensed that I wanted to participate in this adventure. It was as if someone was pushing me, saying, "This is your path." I was lucky because my family understood and helped me a lot.
For us, Fr. Francesco was like Fr. Giussani; he embraced us without limits. After his death, the briefcase with which he travelled around the world was donated to Mount Koya, and we went to pray at his tomb in Premilcuore with the Forlì community to ask for his help, along with Fr. Giussani's, to overcome our struggles.
Every year since 1988 we have participated in the Rimini Meeting by organizing exhibitions and meetings on Japanese culture and religion. I have promoted and organized visits by groups of lay people and prelates to Mount Koya to make the tradition of our faith known and to compare it with the Catholic one. A very clear example was last August, with the Shōmyō and Gregorian chant concert held at the Meeting. I got to know the monks from the Cascinazza, and this friendship continues to this day. Whenever I go to Italy, I visit them at their monastery.

The founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kobo-Daishi (774 -835), teaches us that through nature, like flowers, we can perceive the infiniteness of the Universe. This means that there is Mystery in every single phenomenon of the universe. Prayer before the Mystery truly unites all peoples, despite their distance and diversity. The prayers of the monks of the Cascinazza reach Japan together with those of all our friends from Italy and around the world, transcending time and space, and reaching all the way to Mount Koya.
Every morning and evening, in the Muryokoin Temple, Professor Habukawa and the monks pray to ask for the happiness of the Cascinazza monks and all people before numerous figures of Shingon Buddhism and before a pair of Mandalas expressing the truth of the Universe. Along with these Buddhist symbols, there are also small stems. Names of the deceased were written on the tombstones, along with the names of St. John Paul II and Fr. Giussani and their photos; the monks, offering incense, candles and flowers, ask for their help from heaven.

My friendship with the Italians peaked in 2011 with the Higashinihon earthquake, with more than 16,000 deaths. Many Italian friends shared this great sorrow with me and some came to experience mercy according to the Italian spirit. In the months that followed, we organized two groups from Italy to help the affected peoples with thirteen concerts of Neapolitan music for those who had lost their homes or their families.

The Japanese normally do not like to externalize their feelings, but at these meetings they began to express some of their suffering, if only through their applause. At the end of a concert, an elderly lady suddenly stood up and said, "I have lost everything because of the tsunami and I have cried a lot. I don't sleep at night, but today, listening to you, something was reborn within my heart, so I decided to stand up again, I have decided to look at reality. I would like to overcome my pain and recover my strength."
Our friends from Bergamo sent us 230 soccer outfits (shirt, shorts, socks and ball). On the shirts, there were the two flags: the Italian flag and the Japanese flag as a symbol of friendship. The elementary school children were delighted. Another group was in charge of organizing drawing exchanges between the Italian and Ishinomaki schools. It was really touching to receive so many prayers, so many gifts and so many messages from Italian friends, so far away, but so close with their hearts.

There are many Europeans who think that the teachings of Buddhism are equivalent to running away from reality, but this is not true. We accept and live reality to the fullest, both in moments of joy and in moments of suffering. Our founder Kobo-Daishi teaches us that everything that exists in our lives is a great sign of the Mystery. Through so many encounters with Catholics, the Mystery slowly began to speak to me.
In the darkness I saw hope: yellow tulips blooming from the dirty mud brought by the Tsunami. Like these tulips, we Japanese suffer in the mud, but one day we may make these big and beautiful flowers bloom.
My encounter with these Catholic friends helps me understand even more deeply my Buddhist identity, loving myself because of all that has happened in these 35 years. I can feel the great embrace of the Mystery that unites all peoples, and that is precisely why we can be true friends and share joy and suffering with simplicity.

My experience has also been the object of curiosity and cultural deepening in other countries around the world and among various Catholic communities that experience interreligious dialogues, which have often called me to make known the relationship between Italy and Japan.
For example, I have been invited to the U.S., Uganda, Kenya, Spain, Ireland, Taiwan, Malaysia, Macau, Hong Kong, and Thailand to make friends and learn about peoples and cultures. In particular, with the Mount Koya monks, we went to visit Uganda and Kenya to see the works of AVSI.

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Our friendship is really beautiful; it goes beyond language and culture, and this is a great opportunity to understand ourselves more. Indeed, in our diversity, we feel even more united by the great embrace of the Mystery. Recalling the title of a book by Fr Giussani, it can be said that: "Is It Possible To Live This Way?," that is, seeking happiness in everything, even in the discovery of a peoples so distant and so different. This can really be a true experience.

In these 30 years, beautiful things have happened to us together and continue to happen, because we see that reality is the sign of the Mystery. Through the people I meet, I can see the presence of the Mystery that unites us. For me, the fact that Fr. Giussani knew how to embrace all peoples is really a great sign of the Mystery that passes through him. In fact, I remember perfectly what he said to me 35 years ago at Mount Koya: "My prayer is not that you Japanese all become Christians, but that you remain anchored to your Buddhist religious roots so that we can walk together on the path in search of the Mystery, so that we can be true friends." It seems to me that he had already sensed the crises of the contemporary world: illness, war and confusion, so I can say that he really was a great religious genius.
Unexpectedly, the world has begun to change drastically, which is why we are often worried and sad. But there is one thing that never changes: the presence of the Mystery. I think it is important to deepen Fr. Giussani's teaching because of the universality of his educational proposal and outlook on reality, especially proposing it to young people, believers and non-believers, who have never had the direct experience of meeting him.