In an historic visit during the month of April, 1998, the Dalai Lama visited Kyoto, Japan for the First World Buddhist Propagation Conference. The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader expressed his hope that the 21st century could be a time of effective dialogue to bring the conflicts of the world to an end. He had been invited to attend the event by a new and largely unknown Japanese religious group known as the Nembutsushu, which claims to have 20,000 members.
The Dalai Lama found significance in the fact that participants came together from different Buddhist sects. In particular, the Japan Times reported that the conference, attended by high-ranking Buddhist leaders from 13 Asian countries and regions, adopted a joint communique saying efforts should be made to "maintain and keep up eight Buddhist holy places and that participants will try to restore the glory of Buddhism in countries where it once flourished."
In an attempt to defray the opposition of China, the organizers had stated that the occasion is not aimed at promoting political activities. China, of course, had urged Japan not to allow the visit by the Dalai Lama, who fled to India from Chinese-occupied Tibet in 1959 and has been calling for Tibetan autonomy and the protection of his country's culture. Other notable participants included Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara of Thailand, whose appearance at an overseas conference as a Supreme Patriarch was the first in the country's history, the organizers said.
In a similar story, Associated Press Writer Eric Talmadge reported about the "rare meeting of Asia's highest Buddhist priests." The AP writer also mentioned that the Dalai Lama and more than a dozen other holy men made a promise to restore several sacred sites to boost the "sagging popularity of their religion."
The gathering in the ancient Japanese capital, the AP reported, was held to coincide with the celebration Wednesday of the Flower Festival, or the birthday of Buddha (also known as Hanamatsuri). However, "The two-day conference underscored an identity crisis facing the ancient religion, which in many areas is suffering from a poorly trained clergy and is losing its following to the more aggressive missionary efforts of Christians."
But perhaps what must be most disturbing to us as American Jodo Shinshu Buddhists was the notable absence of Jodo Shinshu sects from the conference. As the AP put it, this is an example of the "long history of squabbling between Buddhism's many sects which has also taken its toll on the religion's appeal. The conference received only a lukewarm welcome in this city, which has for centuries been the center of Buddhism in Japan." Apparently none of Japan's main Buddhist sects - either Shinshu or Zen - was represented at the two-day conference.
(Thanks to Hiko Ikeda for e-mailing these stories to us)
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