Grand Arch-Bishop Ara Ryokan in Australia
It had been a year since Ara sensei's first visit to Australia when he came to lead a memorial service at the Cowra War Cemetery where Japanese and Australian soldiers lay side by side. The ceremony commemorates a breakout on August 4th, 1944 by Japanese prisoners of war during which many soldiers, Japanese and Australian, lost their lives. (Information about this can be found on Wikipedia under the search 'Cowra Breakout').
This year, Ara Sensei returned to perform the same ceremony along with 10 Tendai Priests of the Tendai Shomyo Onritsu Kenkyu Kai led by Dai Sojo Sakamoto Kanko sensei. The group were to perform both at Cowra and the Japan Foundation in Sydney.
Cowra lies in beautiful countryside, approximately six hours from Sydney, on the far side of the Blue Mountains. However, the time afforded wonderful opportunities to meet the group individually and on a slightly less formal footing. Because Ara sensei is getting on in years, he travelled at a more leisurely pace by car. Clearly, he was shown the highest respect and courtesies, yet in some areas he chose to take a secondary role.
Ara sensei is now 84 and by his own admission is 'getting tired and slowing down'. Knowing what and how much he does under his own volition and seeing how tired he is becoming, one can not help but be inspired by his devotion to Tendai, his art and humanity. I have heard him described by those who know him well as a true, but simple Ajari. A man who does not waste words.
He also often displays an open sense of humour. Ara sensei is also a private man and does not feel the need to speak openly about those things which are closest to him. His home temple in Sendai was demolished in Japan's massive tsunami earlier this year killing thousands. He speaks little of either, but clearly it has affected him deeply. One only has to listen carefully to the little he does say in order to understand this. Silence, or even little, can speak volumes.
It was mostly at meals organised on our behalf and quieter moments, that he actually had the opportunity to speak a little more openly about his hopes for Tendai's growth in Australia and what he sees as being key elements in this process. Three main points seemed to be emphasised at various times. These were: simplicity, heart to heart and cultural understanding.
Tendai Shu has an extensive field of study with all components acting as essential stepping stones along the paths of the Priest and therefore, important. But at its heart, Ara sensei stresses the importance of the simplicity underlying it all. And not to lose sight of this. When things are simple, one is able to connect on the all important 'Heart to Heart' level. A simple word, or action can say so much more than any over-complicated discourse. Simplicity and heart to heart combined help in cultural understanding. Ara sensei spoke simply of the many problems that exist stemming from a lack of cultural understanding. All too often, perceptions of this person or that, that culture and this, blind us to what there truly is and the way things truly are. Once we understand culture, it is easier then to understand the people of a culture.
A very memorable moment appeared when Ara sensei was giving a brief talk through an interpreter at the Japan Foundation in Sydney which very beautifully rounded off the whole essence of the trip. He was saying how touched he had been by the kindness and generosity of the people of Cowra. He then went on to talk about the fierce fighting between Australians and the advancing Japanese army in Papua New Guinea. Finishing by saying "Enemies one moment; Brothers in Heaven the next". I can say without a shadow of a doubt, that the room went very quiet as everybody paused for a moment of thought as the impact of this message was felt. A most beautiful example of speaking 'Heart to Heart'.
Ara sensei was open and obliging to all. Taking time to stand and smile for pictures with folk he had never met. And was this not his point? Simple words spoken with sincere and genuine honesty simply cut across all barriers. Even into the most hardened heart. As he often says: "It is not what you have learned and know; but more about seeing beyond the surface of appearances".
All too soon the trip was over and there were the last 'goodbyes' at Sydney airport. The last exchange of cards, gifts and well wishes. And Ara sensei and the group left for Tokyo after having thanked us for the efforts we had made to make the trip memorable.
We meet again in December at the Hawaii Tendai BetsuIn when my deshi will take Shukke Tokudo. We also pray that he will once again be able to make the trip back to Australia and Cowra.
Reverend Jiryo Moxon