Dear Tea Friends,
Last Thursday morning I put my usual day’s work aside and took the subway into New York to attend the first Buddhist ceremony to be held in an American Catholic Church. The event was officiated by Shinso Ito, the spiritual head of the Japanese Shinnyo-en Buddhist order (www.shinnyo-en.org). Ms. Ito was visiting the United States when the Twin Towers were attacked; the following year she met with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, where they mutually pledged to promote world peace. The interfaith Service for Peace and Harmony was hosted at the Church of St. Peter (www.americancatholic.org). The Greek Revival Church, founded in 1785, serves the oldest Catholic parish in New York State.
The first floor was packed by the time I arrived, but when I saw a man climb the stairs at the back of the church, I followed him, stepping carefully over a tangle of electric cables. The loft bristled with photographers, both still and film, as well as engineers monitoring sound and recording equipment. I promised to be quiet and not use my camera, so I was allowed to stay. The gentleman I followed turned out to be the mayor of White Plains, N.Y., where the Japanese organization founded a Buddhist temple. The mayor had been brought up Catholic and we were both pleased and proud that the church of our childhood was hosting this historic event.
We had front row seats for the pageant spread out below. The white marble altar was dressed with bright, bittersweet-colored flowers and the lacquered-wood Buddhist altar held candles, bells and pedestals mounded with oranges and violets. The service began with traditional Japanese Buddhist music, played on recreations of ancient Silk Road instruments, to accompany a 1,200-year-old chant sung by four turquoise-robed Buddhists. One of the instruments looked like a hand-held chimney, but sounded something like a bassoon. A hammer-wielding percussionist played a hensho, graduated metal “bells” hung on a wooden frame, and what looked like metal “tags” tied to another frame. The instruments are said to represent prayers for all life – past and present.
Rev. Kevin Madigan, pastor of St. Peter’s, told the story of a Jewish physician walking to a meeting at the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11th. After planes struck the towers he helped carry the wounded to this church, located one block north of Ground Zero. There were no medical supplies so the doctor snatched up altar cloths and tore them into strips for bandages. Later, when he apologized to the priest, Rev. Madigan reassured the doctor that he had used the worship fabric appropriately “to care for others.”
Madigan said that the church, damaged in the terrorist attacks, was grateful for the opportunity to host the historic ceremony during Lent, when the faithful focus on the life of Jesus and his message of peace, hope and love. He ended his remarks reciting the venerable prayer by St. Francis of Assisi, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace…”
When Father Madigan sat down, four emerald-green robed Buddhists carrying golden plates bowed to the altar, chanted and tossed decorated paper to the altar and into the congregation. Then Her Holiness Shinso Ito bowed to Father Madigan and the congregation, mounted the steps, handed her fan to a purple-robed attendant, and seated herself on a stool facing the high altar.
I don’t know enough about Buddhism to explain Shinso Ito’s actions, but she seemed to use a long wand to stir something in a series of bowls, then tapped the edges to make them reverberate. She “blessed” the air with the wand, rang bells, bowed, and clapped her hands as she chanted sutras. The program stated, “This is a ceremony where Buddha’s teachings and merits are praised. It is believed that ceremonial rites lead to the manifestation of Buddha and the gods’ protective power throughout the world … participants are encouraged to awaken their innate Buddha nature which brings genuine compassion to others.”
Following the prayers the tiny woman stood tall and faced the congregation. Through a translator Ms. Shinso Ito said that she had prayed for “all souls connected to this place.” Buddha, she explained, means the “Enlightened One” and that if each of us looked into our own hearts, we would find a “bud of hope.” No matter how small, our good actions create ripples of hope in the world. “May our efforts today plant seeds of hope and harmony as we work together for peace in the world.”
The service concluded with the choir singing “Amazing Grace.” And it was amazing to hear a shaven-headed, African-American Buddhist nun rock the church with her soaring gospel solo of that old hymn about the reformation of a man who had captained slave ships.
And what does this have to do with tea? As we gathered our coats, I asked the mayor if he knew what the Buddhists had tossed to the congregation. “They looked like leaves,” I said. “Here,” he said, handing me a leaf-shaped piece of paper printed with an image of a seated Buddha on one side and calligraphy by Shinso Ito on the back.
She had written the symbol for "Wa" which stands for harmony, unity and peace and is one of the key concepts of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. The Maryknoll Japanese Catholic Center adopted the ancient symbol to honor “the history, achievements and aspirations of Saint Francis Xavier Japanese Mission … dates back to 1912, when Bishop Berlioz of Hakodate promised … that he would send a Japanese-speaking priest to tend to the spiritual needs of the Japanese Catholics in California.”
“Wa” came full circle when I arrived home and opened an e-mail from a friend in California that ended with this beautiful quote: “There is so much coldness in the world because we do not dare to be as cordial as we really are.” – Albert Schweitzer. Perhaps we might all touch our own “bud of hope,” and warm the world by offering a stranger a cup of tea.