Head Priest Shinso Ito at UNEP, Nairobi

March 02, 2012
At UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) Nairobi, Kenya

I would like to express my most sincere gratitude to our hosts the GPIW (the Global Peace Initiative of Women), the United Nations, and all those involved in making this wonderful gathering possible. It is a great honor to be able to engage with you at the United Nations Environment Programme headquarters here in Nairobi, and exciting to be in Africa exchanging thoughts with so many people from different parts of the world who are working on behalf of the earth and to bring peace to their communities.

The theme of today's events is "Responding to the cry of the earth and the human community." This theme is very close to my heart. Today I would like to talk about the healing role of ritual in responding to this cry.

It was a year ago this month that a great earthquake struck my home country of Japan and triggered both a terrible tsunami and a nuclear crisis. I headed to Fukushima and some of the hard-hit coastal areas to join in the relief efforts and offer whatever encouragement and comfort I could.

The victims of this great natural disaster and invisible radiation threat were crying out for help. Some were overcome with grief or in a state of shock, while others struggled to contain their pain and suffering. I spent time with the victims of the disaster, serving food to them, eating at their tables, and listening to their stories. I told them, "No one is ever alone. People support each other, and are supported. We are all connected and we help each other out. This kindness is at the center of the human heart. Because of this truth, when we share our sadness we lessen it. And when we share our joy, we expand it."

At one such gathering, I asked everyone to take the hand of the person next to them. From the warmth of our joined hands, I had a strong sense of the innate power of hope that would help us rise from the immediate tragedy and begin to heal. This is not a kind of energy that is particular to one religion or another. It is the kind that results when people take action together to help and heal one another.

The tragedy of March 11th last year was the result of nature. I said then, "Rather than being filled with resentment or hatred toward nature, let us be grateful for its blessings." We are raised in the arms of Mother Nature. We owe her a debt of gratitude, since nature has also nurtured humankind in building great civilizations.

In our lifetime, however, human beings have imposed excessively heavy demands on Mother Nature. And we are now beginning to hear the cries of Mother Earth and the human community it supports. Because we believed that the more we consume, the more developed and affluent our economies would become, we have destroyed our natural environment.

This is our dilemma. Rather than wealth that is human-centered, I think it would be better to consider a sustainable form of wealth, one that allows us to coexist with nature, mindful that we are but temporary residents of this earth that nurtures us. We must ask ourselves how we can live together with nature and promote a common sustainable future. Further, I believe that in order to do this, we need to rethink our values and what we consider to be important.

I learned this from my mother, who was also an accomplished Buddhist master. She devoted her life to others, and as she went about her household chores, she taught universal truths to me and those around her in simple, down-to-earth ways. I remember, for example, how she conveyed to us the wisdom of reusing water. Rather than just throwing out the water we used to rinse food, she'd find creative ways to use it again. She felt that each drop had a precious life of its own and should not be wasted. She would often remind us to look beyond our own immediate comfort and consider the happiness of future generations. Today, we have the opportunity to do something for those yet to come.

I think we can learn something from the religions of Africa, which value and place great importance on harmonizing with the diverse elements of nature. It reminds me of Shinto, the indigenous religion of my own country. Let me pause at this point to acknowledge the work of Ms. Kuki Gallmann and her daughter Sveva, who are safeguarding the plant and animal life of the ecosystem here in Kenya at their nature conservancy in Laikipia. Their work is praiseworthy and deserves the highest respect.

When we cherish nature, nature will cherish us. In human relationships, too, when we value others, we are valued in turn, and this creates an expansive sense of harmony. However, when it comes to balancing human development and protection of the environment, I think we are now at a crossroads. Human beings have an inherent desire to discover, explore, and grow. This mindset has acted as an engine for the development of civilization-and today it is crucial that we harness this energy not just for our own personal consumption, but for mindful projects and activities which take the environment into account, such as recycling. This will ultimately lead to the peace and security we desire for our children in the future.

In Buddhism, there is a sutra called the Rishu, or Naya, Sutra. The term Naya refers to a "guiding principle" leading to ultimate truth. Buddhism points to short-sighted desires, or cravings, as being the cause of human suffering. When such cravings are momentarily satisfied, does that really satisfy us at a deep level? No. We always want more. The ego quickly creates more cravings and needs. It is never-ending. I wonder if it is even possible for people to get rid of desires completely. I don't think it is so simple.

Recognizing that we all possess desires, the Naya Sutra encourages us to change them for the better. All of us have our good and bad sides. Rather than branding our desires as fundamentally evil, we can transform them into positive ones.

For example, we may desire that our children be safe, be of service to others, and cherish nature. When we have this mindset, we merge with what is infinite. The highest power in the cosmos, in the form of nature, will support us with its positive forces. When we become other-centered instead of self-centered, our desires will transform into pure hope.

Some Shinnyo-en members will now chant from the Naya Sutra while I perform a short ritual, which includes a special rite: a "spiritual cleansing" and blessing. The ritual empowers people to transform delusions into wisdom. It is a rite of rebirth, in other words, about changing our values, our sense of what is important. During the ritual, I will use a rod made of fragrant wood to anoint the space around us with water that has been imbued with prayers.

Water is the origin of life. The roots of trees absorb water, giving the trees energy to sprout leaves, which then receive light from the sun to produce oxygen that is vital for our existence. Through this rite of purification, I will re-enact the cycle of nature. Following that, we are going to chant a prayer (the Goreiju) that expresses the lovingkindness and compassion of a buddha, an awakened being. It is a mantra of spiritual liberation, one that we recited during my visit to the areas hit by the earthquake and tsunami. I held hands with the victims, and we chanted it together, hoping to encourage and reassure everyone. When I ring the vajra bell at the end, I will awaken our inner power, our "healing heart," and call on our souls to create a better future. (Rite is conducted; the Goreiju is chanted.)

Thank you for joining me in the rite, and for everyone's support that made it possible.

The ultimate truth I spoke of before in the Naya Sutra, is the "affirmation of life." It is a "Yes!" to life. We may have our desires and shortcomings, but even then, there is great meaning in the life we have been given. The more we become other-centered as opposed to self-centered, the closer we move to discovering the meaning of life.

The Naya Sutra concludes with a declaration: "Well done, O Great Being!" This refers to all the human beings who have been working to benefit all the life forms that exist in the heavens and on the earth.

We may face many difficulties as we walk on the path ahead. We naturally have differences of opinion. However, what we aim for is the same. We all wish to protect the natural environment of the earth and to create a hopeful future for our children, for we are all ONE.

If a child is crying out, wherever that is in the world, I feel his or her pain. If someone is suffering from conflict, illness, or hunger, I too, suffer. If the limbs of a tree bow down because of drought...if animals are in pain and crying out, I also feel their pain. I think this empathy is something we all have inside of us.

All life on Earth beats with one heart. Out shared existence is another way of looking at the great harmony amid the diversity around us. And acting on this mindset is how we will forge a future of hope.

In our present age, we face the dilemma of how we can live in harmony with the environment. Each culture and spiritual tradition has prayers and rituals for addressing this and bringing about the healing that's necessary for humankind and the planet. I believe they provide us with further means for healing each other and our Mother Earth.

Let us remember the bond we created today, and remember that we, along with nature, are actually one big family.

Let us be in one heart. Thank you for your kind attention.

Thank you very much.