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Interfaith Soul Mates for 40 Years
The Unitarian-Universalist Association (UUA) and the Rissho Kosei-kai (RKK)
Joffre D. Meyer (bohemiotx)     Print Article 
Published 2009-11-02 16:56 (KST)   
Both the Unitarian Universalists and the Rissho Kosei are faiths with much in common. The two faiths started after World War II but have ancient roots. This interfaith relationship began in 1968 because of the friendship between the founders of these two religions: Dana Greeley and Nikkyo Niwano. Together, these two friends helped found the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP). The UUA and the RKK believe there are many ways to an enlightened life. Past UUA president, John Buehrens called Niwano, "the most important interreligious partner the Unitarian Universalist movement has ever had," as cited in "Soul Mates: The 33-year friendship between Unitarian Universalists and Rissho Kosei-kyo Buddhists," in UU World Jan./Feb. 2001. Rev. Dr. Joshua Snyder of Second Unitarian Church of Omaha, studied at the Rissho Kosei-kai Gakurin Seminary in Tokyo. Later, Rev. Dr. Snyder would write a doctoral dissertation entitled, "The Buddha's Love; the Kyoto School and the Democratic Faith" at the Meadville/Lombard UU Seminary affiliated with the University of Chicago.

Strangely, this connection is almost unknown to UU's--let alone the rest of the world. Perhaps when some hear the term "Lotus Sutra," they think of the aggressive Soka Gakkai/Nichiren Shoshu brand of Japanese Buddhism. Soka Gakkai believes that their way of religion is superior to all others, rather dogmatic but not as bad as fundamentalist Christianity. At least Soka Gakkai doesn't damn other faiths and their members.

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On the other hand, maybe the average UU--like most Americans--doesn't have the slightest idea about any Lotus Sutra Buddhist sect. The UU World article "Soul Mates" noted that the RKK is even largely unknown to our UU Buddhist Fellowship. What is the picture of Buddhism in your mind? It is probably confined to statues of Buddha, yellow-orange clad monks in Southeast Asia, brick-red robed monks in Tibet led by the Dalai Lama, Zen monks with great gardens in Japan, and little else.

I became a Japanophile in the third grade. I'll admit that if my pro-Japanese interests had gone toward being a mechanic for Toyota and Nissan vehicles that I'd have more to offer for my economic well-being. Thus, my major challenge in telling the story of the UUA and the RKK is to prove that the story matters and is not an exercise in obscure pedantry.

The simplest way to start describing Lotus Sutra Buddhism is to refer to the Tina Turner movie, What's Love Got to Do with It, starring Angela Bassett. We see Tina start chanting, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, and her life gets better. She develops the strength to get away from her abusive husband, Ike. Tina belongs to the Nichiren Shoshu/Soka Gakkai brand of Lotus Sutra Buddhism, like actor Patrick Duffy, keyboardist Herbie Hancock among many others.

Nevertheless, I wish the movie's writers had told us what Nam-myoho-renge-kyo means. This statement is known as the daimoku, and it means devotion to the cosmic law of cause-and-effect shown by all phenomena. The daimoku forms the thesis statement for all the sects of Lotus Sutra Buddhism. Then all Lotus Sutra believers chant two chapters from the Lotus Sutra twice per day; the night prayers are a bit longer. But the Lotus Sutra adherent may continue chanting daimoku for a long time.

The Last Years of the American Unitarian Association

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) was the result of a merger in 1961 between two small liberal religions: the Unitarians and Universalists. Their differences were mainly socioeconomic not theological or ethnic. Critics saw Unitarians as "overly intellectual, elitist, and cold" and Universalists as "uneducated, unsophisticated, rural, and poor."

Nevertheless, the modern idea of a merger had been around since the Great Depression when Fredrick May Eliot was president of the American Unitarian Association (AUA). Both groups needed money and more members. Dana Greeley followed Eliot as the final president of the American Unitarian Association.

Greeley was a fifth generation Unitarian who was very active in church youth groups as a young man. He was a very good athlete but too busy going to church activities to do well in school before college. Snyder asserts that Greeley was a true institutionalist?the type of person that doesn't get the attention he deserves in our individualist creed. Snyder goes on to cite Henry Wentworth Higginson and Henry Whitney Bellows as other fine but forgotten institutionalists. Greeley felt his call to the ministry after the tragic death of his sister combined with his reading of a biography of William Ellery Channing by Jabez Sunderland.

Greeley attended seminary at the Harvard Divinity School and studied with Alfred North Whitehead, the founder of Process Philosophy. Greeley served in four churches before becoming president. His leadership came at a critical time. The Fifties are well known as a tense political era with the Red Scare and McCarthyism. Snyder adds, "Religiously you had the Neo-Orthodox movement of Barth and Neihbur which sought to revive the ideas of the sixteenth century Reformation." (See here.)

The Early Years of the Rissho Kosei-kai

Charisma is the dominant description of Dana Greeley and his future best friend, Nikkyo Niwano. As one would expect, the beginnings of the Rissho Kosei-kai were dramatically different from the UUA. Niwano and a widow Myoko Naganuma founded this Lotus Sutra sect in 1938. Niwano was a milkman and Naganuma sold ice and baked sweet potatoes. Rissho Kosei-kai means "the teaching of true wisdom, the mutual exchange of thoughts, and the perfection of one's Buddha nature," according to Kimberly French. After World War II came the "Rush Hour of the Gods," a time when hundreds of new religious movements started in response to the new Japanese constitution. Imperial Japan allowed 28 Buddhist denominations, and all were state-controlled.

Yet unlike UU's, the RKK was one of three sects that became a giant denomination. The RKK has six million members -- 5% of Japan's population. Many top political and corporate leaders are RKK members. What is one secret to the RKK's success? Their small group gatherings (hoza), Niwano based on back-and-forth question-and-answer sessions the original Buddha had with his disciples. The posing of a problem takes the form of a personal story or a universal ethical question. The warm atmosphere leads to a sharing like ping-pong. For Japanese to speak openly about their feelings was a completely revolutionary idea.

The heart of the RKK faith is a belief in the inherent divinity of each person, sharing others' happiness and sufferings, overcome greed and desire, and the continuing search for one's Buddha nature. Furthermore, the RKK reveres the environment, wants to prevent world conflict, and believes that all religions come from the same source of wisdom. Thus, the RKK has beliefs that are very compatible with the UUA. The practices are quite different, as chanting selected practices of the Lotus Sutra and the daimoku are the worship style of the RKK and all Lotus Sutra Buddhist sects. The Lotus Sutra tells us in parable form that the Buddha uses different methods to teach people.

Rev. Greeley borrowed the concept of small groups ministry from the RKK. Rev. James Robinson of the Church of Cape Cod, Massachusetts hailed the movement as largely responsible for the growth of his church. His goal is that 40% of the members will attend a Sunday service and 80% will belong to a small group (see here) Bob Hill, the former Southwest District executive, was a big fan of small groups in the UUA and wrote a book on the topic.

The 1960's

Dana Greeley recruited fifteen top executives from United States religious groups to join him in a worldwide interfaith coalition between 1961, the founding of the UUA, and 1968. In 1968, this group went on a tour of Europe and Asia in search of international partners. French observes that ecumenism was a new idea -- "bringing Christian denomination to find shared values and platforms for action." "Interfaith" was an even more unknown concept.

Greeley led a march of 200 UU's that marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama in 1965 -- the largest group from any denomination. This march followed the assassination of Rev. James Reeb. John Buehrens believes this interfaith march energized Greeley's dream of a worldwide coalition for justice and peace.

The Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church met in 1965. Pope Paul VI asked for people of different religions to pray together. Both Greeley and Niwano attended this event but did not meet each other until 1968, the year of the American religious leaders' tour of Europe and Asia.

The president of the Japan Free Religious Association, Shin'ichiro Imaoka, organized the American delegation's visit to Japan. Masuo Nezu was Niwano's translator and former vice chairman of the RKK. Greeley and Niwano's first conversation lasted three hours; they became instant friends on a deep level. Niwano felt they were bodhisattvas who chose to teach wisdom before going on to nirvana. Greely called Niwano his closest spiritual friend, and the Rissho Kosei-kai "our Unitarian sister religion." (See here.)

The 1970's and Beyond

Niwano and Greeley co-founded the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP) only two years after their first meeting. Nearly 300 leaders from 39 nations met in Kyoto where Niwano was the principal host, and they discussed "disarmament, development, human rights... (and) called for an end to the Vietnam War" (French 2001). Today the WCRP provides humanitarian relief and resolves conflicts. It includes leaders from "ten major religious traditions?Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Indigenous, Jewish, Muslim, Shinto, Sikh, and Zoroastrian."

The World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP) has been able to resolve conflicts and provide humanitarian relief through working with local religious leaders, as opposed to local political leaders. The WCRP has helped folks from Bosnia, South Africa, Sierra Leone, the Philippines, China, Guatemala and Israel/Palestine among other places. The WCRP's Bosnia Project actually brought Muslims, Catholics, Serbian Orthodox, and Jews to Japan for four days where they could meet in peace! This interreligious council continues to aid refugees, counsel children, provide vocational counseling, and deal with postwar troubles. The WCRP group in South Africa helps in the transition from apartheid. The WCRP Sierra Leone group daringly delivered food across rebel lines and rescued kidnapped children. They organized a sitdown strike against the military coup too. (See here.)

Since the 1980's, the UUA and the RKK work together in the Holdeen India Project?one of the poorest regions in the country. The International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) works with the Holdeen Project too. (See here.)

The RKK has a Donate One Meal policy where members are asked to give up three meals a month and donate the money to the RKK Peace Fund, which has dispersed $62 million dollars between 1974-2001. This policy has funded a wide range of projects, including food and housing relief for refugees, medical and pharmaceutical aid, agriculture development, tree planting, literacy and job-training, international exchanges for better understanding, and more.

The friendship between the UUA and the RKK weathered the UUA financial crisis of the 1970's. Niwano gave the UUA $1 million at a time when the UUA could not afford to belong to the WCRP anymore. John Buehrens spoke at the fourteen building RKK headquarters in Tokyo during June 2000 before a crowd of 5000. Afterwards, chairman Sakai chose Hymn #318 from the UU Hymnal. Two of the key verses are as follows, "We would be one in building for tomorrow a nobler world than we have known today. We would be one in searching for that meaning which binds our hearts and points us on our way." Later in 1993, Reverend Homer Jack, the UUA director of social justice would urge President Buehrens to renew their financial commitment with the WCRP.This was one of Rev. Jack's last wishes, and the 1998 UUA Board committed to maintain the financial ties with the WCRP and the friendship with the RKK. (See here.)

2000 to now

Rev. William G. Sinkford was in Tokyo in November 2006 to attend the ceremonies celebrating the centennial of the birth of Rev. Nikkyo Niwano, the late founder of Rissho Kosei-kai. During his stay, DHARMA WORLD interviewed him on the significance of self-examination by people of religion in today's troubled world and the approach of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) to the religious diversity in American society. (See here.)

It is a tradition for the RKK to send a delegate to the UU General Assembly. Rev. Masamichi Kamiya of New York attended the event June 2008 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. "Common Threads" was the theme this year. The UUA helps with social issues like the rights of Hispanic illegal immigrants and sexual discrimination. Rev. Kamiya took part in a workshop called "My Minister is a Buddhist." Many UU ministers identify with the Buddhist faith or acknowledge its influence.

Reverend Sinkford returned to Tokyo in July 2008 with his wife to visit Rev. Yasutaka Watanabe, chair of the board of trustees, at the Rissho Kosei-kai headquarters in Tokyo. Interreligious dialogues as a way to world peace were the topic of discussion. This event followed Sinkford's attendance at the World Religious Leaders Summit for Peace in Sapporo, Hokkaido. This conference issued statements for the well-known, upcoming G8 Summit of industrialized nations on the environment. Other issues of concern are nuclear disarmament, violent conflicts, and terrorism Three hundred religious leaders representing 100 faiths from 23 countries and regions attended the event. http://www.rk-world.org/

A few years ago, there was a Peace Tour Trip with Buddhist and UU youth that traveled together in the US and Japan, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was a product of the partnership between the IARF, UUA, and RKK. http://www.uua.org/documents/youthconsultation/070123_stakeholder-internatl.pdf Meanwhile, the Youth Department of the RKK donated 15 million yen to UNICEF for the victims of the Myanmar (Burma) cyclone and the earthquake in Sichuan, China.


The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and the Rissho Kosei-kai (RKK) enjoy a great friendship that transcends many barriers. They have been able to bring like-minded leaders of many faiths to work on crucial issues. Perhaps one of the best lessons from this story is that a numerically small group like UU's can bring about change through joining forces with larger organizations.

1. French, Kimberly (2001 Jan/Feb) "Soul Mates: The 33-year friendship between Unitarian Universalists and Rissho Kosei-kai Buddhists," nine pages

2. Snyder, Joshua (Oct. 9, 2005) "Bringing It All Together: Dana Greeley and the
U U A," Sermon Archive

3. Sinkford, Bill (Nov. 2006) Sinkford at Rissho Kosei in Dharma World

4. The Rissho Kosei-kyo Website. Current News (Summer 2008).

5. Leaders Library, UUA (June 1, 2002) "Church on Cape Cod Thrives," http://uua.org/leaders/leaderslibrary/leaderslibrary/interconnections/48070.shtml

6. Youth Project, UUA (2007) http://www.uua.org/documents/youthconsultation/070123_stakeholder-internatl.pdf
©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Joffre D. Meyer

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