CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

Shinnyo-en in Italy

by PierLuigi Zoccatelli
Paper presented at the 2001 International Conference The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century, organised by INFORM and CESNUR (London, April 19-22, 2001)

This paper is a preliminary account of a participant observation among the Milan community of Shinnyo-en, a Japanese Buddhist movement, carried out from January to March 2001. During this period, I visited the Milan Temple at least twice a month, attended ceremonies and rituals, shared the life of the community, and conducted personal interviews with twelve members.

Shingon is a Buddhist esoteric tradition, profoundly influenced by Tantrism, which originated in Japan with the monk Kobo Daishi, or Kukai (774-835). The only presence of the Shingon tradition in Italy is through Shinnyo-en, which will be introduced briefly here before examining its Italian chapter. Shinnyo-en is a Shingon religious order that is based on the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, a scripture believed to embody the last and ultimate teachings left by Gautama Buddha at the end of his earthly life. The order was founded by Fumiaki Ito (1906-1989) and his wife Tomoji Ito (1912-1967), known also to their followers as Kyoshu-sama and Shojuin-sama, respectively. Prior to 1936, the Itos were not particularly religious, although Fumiaki’s mother was a member of Tenrikyo, and his father practiced the divination technique knows as Byozeisho (a family tradition). Tomoji’s grandmother was known as a reinosha, or a person with special spiritual abilities, which she transmitted to Tomoji’s aunt, Tamae Yui. In 1936, the Itos underwent a deep spiritual transformation. After thirty days of winter austerities (considered today as the first Shinnyo-en Winter Training), they - collectively known to their followers as Sooya-sama - decided to consecrate their lives to religion. On February 4, 1936, Tomoji received from her aunt Tamae Yui the transmission of her "spiritual faculty" through the following spiritual words: "Go from exoteric to esoteric, train yourself correctly, and continue on the right way for the sake of all people and the world". The Itos became fulltime Buddhist religious practitioners. Fumiaki (under the priestly name of Shinjo Ito) became a Buddhist monk within the Shingon tradition and joined the Shingon mother temple Daigoji, where he was later granted a succession in the mikkyo esoteric lineage. There, he acquired a reputation as a great ascetic, and eventually undertook the Denpo Kanjo ritual, certifying his newly acquired status as a Buddha and bestowing on him the title of Great Acharya. In his search for the true nirvana, Shinyo Ito discovered the Buddhist scripture known as Sutra Mahaparinirvana, which he regarded as the summa of all forms of both exoteric and esoteric Buddhism.

As an organization, Shinnyo-en was legally established in 1951, when two previous movements, founded by the Itos in 1938 (Tachikawa Church of Achala), and 1948 (Makoto Religious Order) respectively, were reorganized. Today, there are some 800,000 members practicing throughout the world and Shinnyo-en has expanded to the point where places of worship have been established in the United States, Europe, and Asia. From the main temple in Japan, Shinnyo-en has been led since 1989 by Shinso Ito (the founder’s daughter, born on April 25, 1942), known also as Keishu-sama to her followers, and considered to have succeeded Kyoshu-sama in both form and spirit.

The origins of a Shinnyo-en presence in Italy date back to the early 1980s, when a group of Japanese living in Italy met a Ms. Yoshida during a visit to Paris. The first Shinnyo-en temple in Europe was dedicated in France, in 1985. The Italian group met informally for prayer meetings, and occasional visits to the French temple. This was originally a group comprising only Japanese corporate executives and students living in Italy; there were no Italians. On the other hand, most of the original Japanese followers in Italy had not joined Shinnyo-en in Japan, nor had they come from Shinnyo-en families. They had discovered Shinnyo-en in Europe. Gradually, Italians fascinated by Japanese culture also started attending the meetings.

One of the first Italian members (Ms. Yasuko Tominaga, now herself a reinosha), reports that receiving the "spiritual word" through the sessions known as sesshin was, from the very beginning, the crucial part of the Shinnyo-en experience for her. Sesshin is a word also used in Zen Buddhism, but the practice is different in Shinnyo-en and lays at the heart of its esoteric approach. During each session, the members receive from the reinosha words that are said to emanate from the spiritual world, helping them to focus on their personal shortcomings, to correct them, and to grow and approach the Buddha’s own heart by practising Mahayana compassion and unselfishness. The reinosha is described as a mirror reflecting the member’s own heart. The sesshin manifests the reinosha’s "spiritual power", which, together with the Dharma-stream of traditional esoteric Buddhism (as the basis), and the doctrinal principles of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra (as the doctrinal guidepost), is regarded as one of the three indispensable and inseparable components of Shinnyo esotericism.

By 1989, Shinnyo-en counted 90 members in Italy (80% Japanese), 10 of whom regularly attended the Paris temple. On November 13, 1990 the head of the Shinnyo-en Order - Keishu-sama - inaugurated the first Italian temple in Milan. With this ceremony, and the first partial translations into Italian of the movement’s holy scriptures (the five-volume Ichinyo no michi, "Path of Oneness"), a broader diffusion of Shinnyo-en among Italians became possible. Annual Winter Trainings (patterned after the 1936 experience of the founders) are both a revival experience for the members, and an opportunity for new members to "connect" themselves to Shinnyo-en. By way of example, during the Winter Training 2001 - from January 20 to February 2 - there were 10 new "connections"; the total number of participants was 750, 70% of them Italians. With the increased number of members, Shinnyo-en needed larger premises in Milan, and the temple was officially relocated and dedicated, once again by the Head of the Order, on October 10, 1999. Shinnyo-en currently has some 500 members in Italy, 200 of whom are Italians. The total number of members regarded as active in regular practice is thought to be approximately 200. Besides the Milan temple, Shinnyo-en has spread its activities and teachings to other Italian cities (Trieste, Florence, Rome, and Naples). The Italian branch of Shinnyo-en is also in charge of the Santander mission, in Spain. That Shinnyo-en has a stable presence in Italy is confirmed by the fact that several Italians have received the "spiritual power" and have themselves become reinoshas, or spiritual mediums. There are currently 1,500 reinoshas worldwide, six of them in Italy - two Italians (both male) and four Japanese (three of them women).

The life of the Shinnyo-en community focuses on sesshin, and on special meditative sessions known as eza, intended for those who wish to proceed further in their meditative aspirations. In addition to meditative training, eligible followers can also attend a divinity school called "School of Chiryu", where students learn Buddhist doctrine and are initiated into the more esoteric aspects of Shinnyo-en teachings. Communal rituals are celebrated monthly, and are attended in Milan by several dozen followers. The "connected" members meet monthly in "lineage meetings". In fact, everyone at Shinnyo-en is "connected" within the framework of the "lineage" system, and through a "guiding parent", who was originally responsible for introducing the newly "connected" member to Shinnyo-en, and who goes on to guide the new follower in his or her religious practises. Each "guiding parent" is, in turn, connected to "lineage parents", who guide their spiritual progeny by overseeing a plurality of "guiding parents". In Italy, there are currently four "lineage parents", three Japanese women and one Italian man.

Members express their "connection" to Shinnyo-en through the basic daily training known as the Three Practices. These are considered to be a concentrated form of traditional Buddhist training (the six Paramitas), and are known as kangi, gohoshi, and otasuke. Kangi centers on joyous offerings, and is associated with the purification of the mind. Gohoshi means "service", and is associated with the purification of the body, whilst Otasuke focusing on sharing the teachings with others and "connecting" them to the Buddha, and is also associated with the purification of the tongue, i.e. the spoken word.

My interviews with Italian Shinnyo-en members (January-March 2001) revealed some common features. Firstly, the central feature of the Shinnyo-en experience, and crucial to the orientation of the member’s whole life, is the "spiritual word" received during the sesshin. Based on the indication received from the spiritual world through the reinosha, Shinnyo-en members change their lifestyles and resolve to train daily in the Three Practices. Additionally, as Naomi ("connected" for seven years) explained, sesshin may "indicate the shorter way towards cleaning negative karma". Secondly, as Roberto (42 years old) reported, Shinnyo-en teachings tend not to be too intellectual, which may be surprising, bearing in mind that Shinnyo-en is an esoteric movement. However, many members insisted that "Shinnyo-en teachings focus on practical things". Some of those who decided to "connect" themselves to Shinnyo-en were spiritual seekers; others met the movement through friends, or more or less by chance. Almost all interviewees reported that one reason for their being attracted to Shinnyo-en is the air of serenity and the relaxed atmosphere of the Temple, and the casual and simple style of the first meetings they attended.

Twelve interviews are probably not enough to assess a general model of conversion to Shinnyo-en, and conversion in general is a controversial topic in the social scientific study of religion. George J. Tanabe and Ian Reader (in their Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan) insisted on the role of practical benefits (genze riyaku) in the conversion to Japanese religious movements in general. "Practical benefits" may also be the prime motivation for joining Shinnyo-en. However, those who are progressively socialized into Shinnyo-en, and stay, appear to become gradually less concerned with practical benefits, and more interested in a spiritual quest and in seeking enlightenment.

On the other hand, in studying conversions, it is not enough to consider the newly acquired religious identity of the converted; his or her previous religious identity is also important. Almost all Italian members of Shinnyo-en were Roman Catholics, with various degrees of involvement in the Church, when they first encountered the Japanese movement. They were open to other experiences, however, within the framework of a "free symbolic market" (to borrow an expression from French sociologist Danièle Hervieu-Léger). What is more interesting is that most of them still regard themselves as Catholic today, even after their "connection" to Shinnyo-en. This idea returned frequently during the course of the interviews. "My Christian experience is continuously in touch with the Buddhist part of me", said Giovanni ("connected" for seven years); "I am both Christian and Buddhist". Antonio had "connected" three years previously, and reported: "I am Catholic and I follow Shinnyo-en teachings in order to acquire a better understanding of my own faith". "Thanks to Shinnyo-en" - said Antonietta, who "connected" one year ago - "I finally understood what the Catholic Mass is really all about". Roberto, who "connected" seven years ago, insisted: "There is nothing strange for me in making both the sign of the Cross when I enter a Catholic church, and in bowing three times when I enter the [Shinnyo-en] temple". A woman living in Munich (Germany), Maria, whose testimony appears in a Shinnyo-en video, reported that: "Since joining Shinnyo-en, I have finally been able to understand the Bible". Antonella, who "connected" six years ago, reported: "I am both a Buddhist and a Christian, and I would like to help others understand that there is no contradiction whatsoever in this". A scholar, who is himself a member of Shinnyo-en, commented that: "In Europe, only a few Shinnyo-en members would regard themselves as Buddhist; most would simply say that they are members of Shinnyo-en".

In his book Le Bouddhisme en France, Frédéric Lenoir noted that several Catholics and Protestants in France practice both Buddhist meditation and attend Buddhist centres, yet would still continue to attend their Christian churches and would not define themselves as Buddhist. Although the Catholic Church may categorize (and disapprove of) this attitude as "dual membership", the believers themselves, according to Lenoir, "reject the idea of dual membership and insist that they are not actual ‘members’ of the Buddhist group they attend. They regard it rather as a spiritual and intellectual ‘open space’, in which they find tools for a deeper experience of their own Christian faith".

Danièle Hervieu-Léger, in her book La Religion en miettes (2001), interprets Lenoir’s findings as a Buddhist "passage" through which French Christians, dissatisfied with their current Catholic and Protestant experiences, are able to transform their Christianity from "dogmatic" to "open", within the framework of a "new approach to truth" and of a religious scenario whereby, as Grace Davie noted, believing and belonging no longer necessarily coincide. For many Italian Catholics, Shinnyo-en may offer a similar rite of passage, although further studies and comparisons with other Italian Buddhist groups will be necessary in order to reach less tentative conclusions.

The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century

April 19-22, 2001

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