The Grafton Peace Pagoda will celebrate its 20th anniversary on Saturday, Oct. 5, at 11 a.m. Everyone is welcome to attend.
The event will include an annual Nipponzan Myohoji ceremony at 11 a.m. Also featured will be multi-faith prayers for peace. The special guest speaker will be Dennis Banks, a Native American movement leader and member of the Ojibwa Nation. There will be music and dance, including Japanese Nou drumming (Tsuzumi shoulder drum) and a potluck lunch.
As I learned when doing a series of articles about the peace pagoda and its caretaker and spiritual presence, Jun Yasuda, in 2008, Nipponzan Myohoji is a sect of Buddhism, a sect particularly concerned with promoting peace and nuclear disarmament. I was quite impressed with her when I interviewed Jun-San over five years ago.
The Nipponzan Myohoji order was founded by Nichidatsu Fujii (1885-1985), a Japanese monk strongly influenced by both the nonviolent philosophy of his friend Mahatma Gandhi and the dropping of atomic bombs at the conclusion of World War II.
One of the articles I wrote for the Banner was headlined "Buddhist nun chants for peace and justice."
Yasuda has walked thousands of miles in all kinds of weather conditions to protest war and nuclear weapons and to promote such causes as prison reform and human rights in Burma. As do the monks and nuns of her order, she walks beating a hand-held drum while chanting the phrase "Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo," which is central to Nipponzan Myohoji spirituality.
The pagoda, and an accompanying temple and obelisk, sit in a clearing off a back road in the small town of Grafton, N.Y., population 2,100. The pointed pinnacle of this solid Buddhist pagoda dedicated to peace rises up above the nearby tree line, seeming to direct one’s thoughts upward.
People of many faiths and ethnic origins come to this remote spot, apparently looking for something in short supply in other, more accessible places. "It’s amazing to me that people know this place," Yasuda said to me.
Unexpectedly given this land in 1983 for a monument to peace, Yasuda and helpers from diverse faiths and backgrounds slowly but steadily built the Grafton Peace Pagoda between 1985 and 1993. A statue of Buddha sits in a niche in the front of the pagoda, and scenes from his life are carved along its side.
"Buddha’s first teaching is non-killing. So if you are not following non-killing you are not Buddhist," Yasuda told me. "We believe that nonviolence is the only way for humans to survive."
In announcing the 25th anniversary celebration, Yasuda included the following message:
"Dear Friends of Grafton Peace Pagoda,
"Since we first came to this land we have seen many snow-filled winters, many springs sweet with apple flower blossoms, and many autumns filled with the brilliant red of the changing maple leaves. Our lives too have seen many changes: children we knew as babies now have babies of their own; many of you are now grandparents who were young men and women when we first met.
"All through those years we have organized countless peace walks, walking the earth and praying together for peace. For nine years leading up to the completion of Grafton Peace Pagoda, so many neighbors, fellow peace walkers, and friends from around the world came to help with the construction. We worked together as one, using recycled wood and mixing concrete by hand, and the Peace Pagoda was finally inaugurated in 1993.
"We will celebrate the 20th anniversary of our beloved Peace Pagoda at 11 a.m. on Saturday, October 5, 2013.
"In the 20 years since the inauguration, we have welcomed visitors from all over the world. People of all different faiths and ancestries have joined with us here for countless ceremonies and commemorations. Every day, friends come and go like the breeze. Twenty years also marks the cycle of one generation. As a new generation comes of age, we want to transmit our message of peace to them and share the story of how the Peace Pagoda arose on this land. We invite you to join us as we celebrate the 20 together.
"Bowing Three Times, Jun Yasuda."
I have refrained from writing in the paper about Pope Francis in recent months in the interests of objectivity and balance. I’m not the religion editor of the Banner to indulge my intense interest in Catholicism and hopes for the church. I also want to avoid being (here, at least) a cheerleader for this pope no one could have predicted. For I think Francis is wonderful and is taking exactly the right approach to promoting reform and re-evangelization. He is doing this in the view of many by emphasizing what is most important -- faith in Jesus Christ -- and de-emphasizing divisive moral positions. Not that he will change doctrine -- I don’t think he will, particularly on abortion.
I eagerly read the long interview that was recently published in the Jesuit magazine, America, which was also published by other publications of this religious order around the world. I have also read or scanned a very large number of commentaries about Francis in general and this recent interview (which I predict will go down in history as an important classic) in particular.
Personally, I see two dangers in too much adulation for Francis, one others might be susceptible to and one to which I find myself tempted.
First are those in the U.S. who will twist what Francis is saying to reflect their political opinions. For instance, the pro-choice activist group NARAL put out an ad thanking Pope Francis for what he said in the recent long interview. Francis, the first Jesuit pope, basically said that the church needed to stop harping obsessively on a small set of moral issues and concentrate first on the saving love of God.
The pope, however, did not in any way repudiate the church position on such issues as abortion and contraception, and the idea that Francis agrees with NARAL’s position on abortion is absurd. Those who want to make the church the Democratic Party at prayer under this pope will be disappointed. Similarly, politically conservative Catholics in the U.S. who labored mightily during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI to use church teaching as a cudgel against more liberal fellow Catholics for political advantage must be tearing their hair out now.
Another danger is the cult of personality. This could be seen around Pope John Paul II and I think the overall effect on the church was to center an unhealthy amount of power and control in the papacy, and in the hierarchy in general, something which aided in the church becoming (remaining, if your prefer) secretive, non-accountable and increasingly dysfunctional. Francis is trying to undo this, and living humbly and giving such an extremely open, honest and wide-ranging interview is a way of demystifying the papacy. The first pope since the 1960s to embrace the term "the People of God," Francis gives every sign of wanting to include not only his fellow bishops in building the future of the church, but the laity as well. It’s not all about him, it’s about all Catholics, and he’s calling us all to take more responsibility for our faith and for each other, particularly the poor. He’s a fellow pilgrim along the way, not a religious rock star who’s been to places most of us can only dream about.
So I have refrained from hero worship, from looking around the Internet to see where I can buy Pope Francis memorabilia. When asked at the beginning of the now-famous interview, "Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?" Francis answered: "I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon."
It’s not about him; it’s about the one he serves.
Mark Rondeau is the Banner’s religion editor. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @banner_religion