Soul mates

UUA President Dana Greeley and Rissho Kosei-kai founder Nikkyo Niwano's great friendship transcended national identity, culture, and religion.


The path through the old cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts, passes through a small hollow before it ascends to Authors' Ridge and the graves of the great 19th-century transcendentalist thinkers Emerson, Thoreau, Channing, and Alcott. Onehot afternoon in early September, a cluster of Japanese and American ministers gathered in that hollow, where late afternoon sunlight slanted through the pines and maples.

The spiritual leaders had come to pay their respects to Unitarian Universalist minister the Rev. Dana McLean Greeley, who died in 1986 and is buried there. Among UUs, Greeley is perhaps best known as a principal author of the 1961 Unitarian-Universalist merger and the first president of the resulting Unitarian Universalist Association. But for the Japanese guests—leaders of the six-million-member Buddhist sect called Rissho Kosei-kai (RKK)—he represents something else, too. Greeley was the soul mate of their founder, Nikkyo Niwano, who died in 1999. Their very first meeting, Niwano has written, not only changed him personally but moved him to lead his entire sect to activism for world peace. Today, RKK is recognized as the foremost Buddhist group doing international interfaith work and a world religious leader for peace.

Greeley and Niwano's great friendship transcended national identity, culture, religion—each by itself a formidable obstacle in the post-World War II era when they met—and now it has transcended even their deaths. Together, they brought their two religious institutions into an enduring friendship, exemplified by the visits both groups' current leaders made to each other last summer and by the strength of the interfaith organization the two friends helped found, the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP).

In his sympathy message to RKK shortly after Founder Niwano's death, UUA president the Rev. John Buehrens called Niwano "the most important interreligious partner the Unitarian Universalist movement has ever had." Yet to many Unitarian Universalists, the name Rissho Kosei-kai may be unknown or no more than a listing in the General Assembly catalog. Even many members of the UU Buddhist Fellowship are scarcely acquainted with RKK, which represents a strain of Buddhism little known in the West. So the September visit of RKK Chairman Norio Sakai and five other RKK leaders provides an occasion for a much needed look at the connection between the two religious partners.

Dana Greeley and Nikkyo Niwano met in 1968, a year when the US was in crisis, both at home and abroad. Propelled by Cold War antagonisms, the nuclear arms race was out of control. The war in Vietnam was escalating. Students were seizing campus buildings. For months, black neighborhoods across the nation had seen massive riots. That year, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy would be assassinated.

Throughout the 1960s, Dana Greeley had been working tirelessly toward a vision: that his new denomination would become a significant religious movement and a major force for social justice and world peace. In 1965, days after UU minister the Rev. James Reeb had been beaten to death by racists in Selma, Alabama, where he had come for a civil-rights march, Greeley led the march's UU contingent, which comprised 200 ministers and laypeople, the largest group from any denomination. The UU ministers and laity joined Martin Luther King and other religious leaders—Catholic, Protestant, Jewish—in the march. John Buehrens theorizes that the solidarity Greeley felt facing down the Selma police together with so many leaders of different faiths encouraged him in his dream of a worldwide coalition of religious leaders from vastly different cultures and faiths, all working for world peace.

At the time, the idea of ecumenism—bringing Christian denominations together to find shared values and platforms for action—was just starting to gain currency. The word interfaith was hardly known. Yet since 1961, Greeley had been recruiting the top executives of religious groups to join him in founding a worldwide interfaith coalition. Fifteen other US religious leaders, after signing on to Greeley's plans for the coalition, joined him in January 1968 on a tour of Europe and Asia in search of international partners.

According to Masuo Nezu, Niwano's longtime translator and former vice chairman of RKK, both the Rev. Homer Jack, UUA director of social justice, and Shin'ichiro Imaoka, head of the Japan Free Religious Association, who organized the American delegation's visit to Japan, felt that Dana Greeley and Nikkyo Niwano would find much common ground. Imaoka arranged for a private meeting in the sixth-floor drawing room of RKK's exquisitely ornate Great Sacred Hall in Tokyo.

Their first conversation lasted three hours. "They opened from the bottoms of their hearts and had a very straightforward, frank sharing of opinions," Chairman Sakai says. "During their first meeting, they found they completely shared values: the importance of religious tolerance, community action for world peace, and respect for differences and at the same time respect for shared values."

By all accounts of friends and family who knew both men, something more happened, too—some spark that was struck then and every time they were together. Masuo Nezu, who interpreted at that first meeting, calls the day unforgettable. He recalls that Niwano seemed joyous and excited and, after seeing Greeley off, declared, "It is a fine day today." Greeley would come to call Niwano his closest spiritual friend. Niwano said he felt they had known each other in past lives and were old souls, like the Buddhist bodhisattvas, who choose to teach the dharma (the Buddhist term for wisdom) to those on earth before progressing to nirvana.

Douglas Baker, sexton of the Concord church, where Greeley once served as minister, helped host the RKK visitors in September. Baker, who had visited RKK headquarters in 1992, prepared for their visit to the church by artfully placing some 20 of his own bonsai—a passion he shared with Niwano—around the herb garden that had been planted on the church grounds by Greeley's wife, Deborah, who died in 1998. Baker also decorated the Concord sanctuary with a Japanese-style ikebana arrangement of bamboo, loosestrife, and feverfew. Recalling his first meeting with Niwano, in the company of Greeley's widow not long after Greeley's 1986 death, Baker says: "His eyes looked, to me, just like Dana's. But I wasn't going to say anything. [Deborah Greeley] asked me after, 'Did you notice something about Niwano's eyes?' And I said, 'Yes!' I can't explain it. I'm not one who believes in parapsychology or anything like that. But we both saw it independently."

Greeley was tall, athletic, drop-dead handsome; he always wore a three-piece suit. He had a full voice and laugh you could hear all over a building. His movements were never timid. If he spotted you from the pulpit before a service, it was never a little hi but a wave so vigorous you—and everyone else in the sanctuary—knew he'd seen you. Niwano, also tall, was exceedingly warm, charismatic, extroverted, and high spirited, with twinkling eyes and a constant smile that seemed to come from the depths of his being.

"Each one by himself entering a room with other people would transform the room," remembers the Rev. Malcolm Sutherland, former dean of Chicago's Meadville/Lombard Theological School, who worked closely with both as an active WCRP member. "And when the two men were in the same room," says Sutherland, chuckling at the memory, "it was quite electrifying, really—their affection for each other, their respect for each other."

The Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie grew up in Greeley's Concord parish and now serves as senior minister of Boston's Arlington Street Church, another pulpit Greeley once filled. For Harvie, who spent much time with Greeley and Niwano, sometimes as a translator, the two men's commanding physical presence matched their spiritual expansiveness. "My experience was one of being in a room with giants," she recalls. "It was if they shared a soul. They were both driven by the same passion for world peace, and in particular, world peace achieved through spiritual peace—peace at home, love among family members, neighbors, people you meet in the street. I always felt that, had they spoken the same language, they could have completed each other's sentences."

Buddhism is a contemplative, inner, devotional religion, traditionally removed from the affairs of the world. Twice a day, observant Rissho Kosei-kai members sit at altars at home and chant from their religion's primary text, the Lotus Sutra, which they believe is the core of Shakyamuni Buddha's many teachings, or sutras. At the heart of the Lotus Sutra lie three concepts: that all living beings can attain supreme enlightenment; that the Buddha has existed from the infinite past, takes many forms, and is eternal; and that the noblest Buddhist practice is the way of the bodhisattva, one devoted to enlightenment of all living beings.

Niwano writes in his introduction to a history of the WCRP that he had once believed "the role of people of religion is solely leading people's minds to peace and encouraging people to work for peace from within." Then in 1965 Niwano attended the Second Vatican Council, where the pope asked people of different religions to pray together without worrying about their differences. Niwano, who writes that he had gone to Rome thinking of Catholicism as "exclusive and self-righteous," left thinking that interfaith cooperation was both possible and a prerequisite for peace. Thus by the time he met Greeley, his mind was ripe for what Greeley had to say.

"It was Dana Greeley and Homer Jack who caused me to deepen this conviction and take a first step toward world peace," Niwano writes. He continues:

The two leaders of the Unitarian Universalist Association came to RKK saying, "There are various kinds of religions in the world, and each religion exists to assist others and to work for human happiness and world peace. Why do various religions exist in the world? It is because one truth has been preached in different ways, responding to differences in geography, history, and culture. Therefore, when all religions cooperate with one another on the basis of universal truth, they can fulfill their duties in the modern world." These words seemed to express the fundamental spirit of the Lotus Sutra.

And so the Rev. Nikkyo Niwano signed on to cofound the interfaith group that fulfilled Greeley's vision, the World Conference on Religion and Peace. Rissho Kosei-Kai has been one of WCRP's prime movers and most generous funders ever since. Just two years after his first meeting with Greeley, Niwano served as a principal host of the first WCRP conference, which took place in Kyoto. Some 300 leaders from 39 nations discussed what they could do together about disarmament, development, and human rights. They also called for an end to the Vietnam War.

Since then, the organization has flourished. In addition to UUs, it now includes leaders from 10 major world religious traditions—Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, indigenous, Jewish, Muslim, Shinto, Sikh, and Zoroastrian—who have kept the lines of communication open for three decades. Its broad interfaith character allows WCRP to resolve conflicts and provide humanitarian relief in country after country by bringing together local religious leaders to take on problems that political leaders have failed dreadfully to solve.

To cite a recent example, the war in Bosnia prevented the local leaders of the country's four main religious communities—Muslims, Roman Catholics, Serbian Orthodox Christians, and Jews—to meet openly in their own country. WCRP's Bosnia Project brought them to Japan for four days, where they set up an interreligious council that, with WCRP assistance, has aided refugees, counseled troubled children, provided vocational training, and continues to address the country's divisive postwar problems through interreligious collaboration. Similarly, in South Africa, many of the religious leaders established interfaith ties during the struggle against apartheid through the local WCRP chapter and then went on to sponsor the country's post-apartheid truth and reconciliation process. In Sierra Leone, WCRP has helped set up a local interreligious council that organized a sitdown strike in opposition to a military coup, delivered food across rebel lines when outside relief organizations would not, and sent courageous laypeople into war zones to rescue hundreds of children kidnapped by rebels to fight as soldiers.

RKK has also used its impressive resources to do lots of good work on its own—the RKK Peace Fund has disbursed the equivalent of $62 million since 1974. All this money comes from RKK's Donate One Meal campaign, whereby RKK members are asked to give up three meals each month and contribute to the peace fund the money they would have spent on food. Some projects funded this way include a friendship tower in the Philippines; preservation of Japan's atomic bomb memorial dome; international exchanges for better understanding, especially for young people and religious leaders; food and housing relief for refugees in many, many countries; medical and pharmaceutical aid to refugees, drought, and earthquake victims; disarmament campaigns; agricultural development; tree planting in desert areas of countries such as Tigre and China; contributions to orphanages; income-generation projects for poor citizens of third world countries; literacy and job-training programs; a negotiation program cosponsored by the Carter Center; capital assistance to the Home for Human Rights Protection in Guatemala; a joint Israeli-Palestinian elementary school; and on and on.

"Our Unitarian sister religion" is how Dana Greeley, high from seeing his dream realized at WCRP's first conference, in Kyoto in 1970, described Rissho Kosei-kai.

Indeed, there are similarities between the two religious movements. Both affirm the worth of the individual person. Both lift up lay members and deemphasize the role of clergy. Both grew out of dissatisfaction with mainstream religious practice. Both spread through small groups meeting in houses or public spaces before establishing new congregations. Both work for peace and encourage deep respect for nature. Both see spiritual and social justice work as going hand in hand. Both represent religious liberalism in their countries' spectrum of belief. And both display an extraordinary openness to other faiths and their truths.

Yet keeping the friendship going between the two religious groups will require them, in part, to work around some very real differences. The day the Japanese religious leaders visited the UUA, both they and their hosts showed a touch of self-consciousness about one of the most striking of these: the difference in size and financial resources of the two organizations. RKK has six million members and congregations of as many as 20,000; UUA congregations have a total of 216,000 members. RKK has a staff of 1,000, while the UUA staff members number fewer than 200. While the RKK administrative budget isn't public information, the group is well known for its many generous gifts and donations. When invited to contribute to the Concord-based Dana McLean Greeley Foundation for Peace and Justice, which makes more than $100,000 a year in grants to antiviolence and conflict resolution groups, Niwano stunned his American friends with a gift of $1 million. In the 1970s, when Unitarian Universalist membership dropped off and the UUA budget went into free fall, the UUA couldn't keep its financial commitment to WCRP and even lost touch with the organization. RKK has kept the group going. When John Buehrens traveled to the 14-building RKK headquarters in Tokyo this past June, 5,000 people gathered in the Great Sacred Hall for a Bodhisattva Day service and heard him speak. In September, Chairman Sakai addressed some 40 UUA staff members in the modestly appointed chapel of the UUA's Boston headquarters, standing before a simple chalice.

Before starting his talk to the UUA staff, Chairman Sakai, in a manner both gracious and self-deprecating, joked, "What a pity I am" for not speaking English to the congregants, of whom few if any could understand Japanese as well as he did English. As he spoke, his smile, warmth, and good humor seemed to mirror those of RKK's founder. "I do not see 5,000 people," he began, alluding to Buehrens's reference earlier in the service to the size of the humble gathering. "But it is not important to us how many people. It is important that the people are very, very faithful. Due to our 30 founders who were very, very faithful, that's why we have 6 million."

Speaking through a translator, he concluded his address by citing a UU hymn that "profoundly impressed" him. The interfaith congregation rummaged through hymnals for number 318 and sang together: "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."

Hanging in the parish hall in Concord is a small, framed cloisonné piece, a replica of a painting by Nikkyo Niwano, one of many gifts he gave Dana Greeley. In the picture the Buddhist master Niao-ke sits in a tree, his fingers on the juzu prayer beads at his hip—beads like those worn by all the RKK leaders during their visit. Approaching him, the poet Po-chui looks very fine in a white robe and gold headpiece. As the story goes, Po-chui asks the master to reveal to him the universal essence of religious living. Niao-ke responds in just four lines, inscribed in Japanese in the upper right corner of the artwork:

Commit no evils. Do all that is good. Fill your mind with compassion and your heart with understanding. For this is the teaching of all the Buddhas.

Po-chui protests, "But even a child of three or four could comprehend so simple a teaching."

Niao-ke answers again, "Yes, a child can understand the words, but even a lifetime of 80 years may not be enough to put them in practice."

Nikkyo Niwano's fondness for this story says something about the way he lived his own life. As a young man, Niwano was working as a milkman in the village of Suganuma in northern Japan. One of his good customers, a sad, sickly woman named Myoko Naganuma, made her living selling ice in the summer and baked sweet potatoes in the winter. Naganuma's husband had been unfaithful. Her only child had died. She was not expected to live much longer. Niwano and Naganuma became friends, and he counseled her from his beliefs in the Lotus Sutra. She recovered from her ailments.

Her energy renewed, she went out to tell others about the sutra.

Then in 1938, amid squabbling among the heads of their sect, Reiyukai Buddhism, the sect's leader denounced the followers of the Lotus Sutra as inspired by the devil. The next day, Niwano and Naganuma gathered 30 fellow spiritual seekers to found a new group based on the Lotus Sutra. They called their group Rissho Kosei-kai, a short name with a longer meaning: the teaching of true wisdom, the mutual exchange of thoughts, and the perfection of one's Buddha nature.

The movement grew dramatically after World War II. The previous imperial regime had permitted only 28 Buddhist denominations, all state-controlled. When freedom of religion was declared after the war—a period the Japanese call "the Rush Hour of the Gods"—hundreds of new religious movements were founded. RKK has been one of three that attracted large numbers of followers. Its six million members, including many top political and corporate leaders, make up five percent of Japan's population.

The movement grew so fast in the early days that people who came to RKK temples for counseling or services often had to sit outside on grass mats. Those gatherings of small groups, known as hoza, are now a building block of the religion. Niwano based hoza on the back-and-forth question-and-answer sessions the historical Buddha had had with his disciples. Small groups sit in a circle with a leader, or adviser. One member at a time describes a problem, sometimes telling a personal story, sometimes posing a universal ethical question. The others listen. One group member's story often triggers a story from a different group member—"like Ping-Pong," Chairman Sakai explains. The leader may facilitate at times, but overall there's a feeling of equality—everyone gets time to speak. Hoza creates a warm atmosphere in which the members can share their experiences and be counseled with compassion so that they may find their own Buddha nature. "Some people raise very personal issues of suffering," Sakai says. "The others try to see their problems as their own. In this way, we can foster a very intimate friendship, a sort of oneness."

Kim Crawford Harvie, who first visited Greeley's RKK friends at age 20, observes, "For Japanese people to really speak to one another openly about their feelings was a completely revolutionary idea when Niwano-san introduced that sort of worship. The heart of the faith is that people learn to work with one another and work out the business of living through conversation and mutual support."

What else makes up the essence of Rissho Kosei-kai? A belief in the inherent divinity of each person. A belief in sharing others' suffering as well as happiness. A belief in the need to overcome greed and desire, and in the continuing search for one's Buddha nature. A belief in the pricelessness of the natural world. A belief in the absolute necessity of preventing another world conflict. A belief that all religions come from the same source of wisdom, or dharma.

Yet, as with Niao-ke's simple words now hanging in Concord, this list only begins to touch all there is to learn about the essence of Rissho Kosei-kai. Even after Founder Niwano's death, the RKK magazine Dharma World still publishes his writings on this very question every month. As Niwano's son Nichiko, now the organization's president, once said, the meaning of the Lotus Sutra is inexhaustible.

The close relationship between two remarkable, visionary, charismatic men is now carried on by the movements they led and in the world interfaith organization they founded. It's a relationship that both the UUA and RKK intend to continue investing in, as reiterated by the recent trip made by both groups' leaders to the United Nations Millennium Summit, immediately followed by the RKK leaders' visit to Concord and the UUA's Boston offices.

During that visit, John Buehrens recalled for the Japanese guests how in 1993, Homer Jack, knowing he would die within days, had exhorted Buehrens to renew the relationship with WCRP, which the UUs had never fully reestablished after their financial problems in the 1970s. Seated at the formal table in the UUA's Greeley Library, with a portrait of a young Dana Greeley looking on as a witness, Buehrens reiterated for the guests the UUA Board's 1998 commitment to maintain that relationship—and through it, to maintain the UUA's friendship with RKK. He promised the visitors, "We will make double our tie to Rissho Kosei-kai."

The story of Dana McLean Greeley and Nikkyo Niwano is one that, above all, exalts friendship—between individuals and between institutions. When asked to name the chief result of his September visit to the United States, Chairman Sakai thought first, then replied, "To share suffering and to share happiness with others, in the minds of a Buddhist, is one of the greatest achievements we can attain. Through our various peace activities, we have made many friends throughout the world. And that is of foremost importance: We made friends."

Related Resources

  • Rissho Kosei-kai.Japan-based Buddhist faith has a long-standing friendship with the U.S.-based Unitarian Universalist Association. (