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Interfaith concepts of mercy

TOKYO (UCAN): The Interreligious Dialogue Committee in Japan organised a three-way sharing in mid-October among the Christian, Buddhist and Shinto traditions on the varying concepts of mercy that inspire their people.

The Japanese language has several words corresponding to the English word mercy. Two of them, itsukushimi and awaremi, are in common use in the Christian, Buddhist and Shinto traditions and, in addition, Buddhism uses the ancient Chinese term, jihi, to express a similar concept.

A Buddhist monk, the Venerable Toru Satake, explained that in his tradition jihi refers to the mind of Buddha and is a concept described in two characters meaning “feelings toward a friend” and “the feeling of an inability to keep silent.” He explained that in Buddhist belief, the jihi of the Buddha knows no bounds.

Carmelite Father Hiromichi Nakagawa explained that in the Catholic tradition the fundamental concept of mercy comes from the Latin word misericordia, which is a combination of two words, miser (miserable) and cor (heart).

“Let us turn again to meet him who unites his own heart with the hearts of the suffering,” Father Nakagawa explained. “That is the meaning of this Year of Mercy.”

Takeshi Mihashi, a professor and lecturer in the field of Shinto studies, said that the original sense of the term itsukushimi is the fear that humans held for the mysterious power of the gods, so they developed rites to purify themselves and set up shrines to them.

However, Mihashi explained that in modern Shintoism, itsukushimi has taken on a different meaning, believing that the gods hold humans dear as parents do their children.

Mihashi added that a direct parallel with this concept can be found in the Japanese expression of Christianity. He said that when Christians first arrived in Japan, they described God’s love not as itsukushimi, but rather gotaisetsu, which like its Buddhist counterpart also means to hold dear.

“That was a fantastic translation,” he said, adding that the mercy of the Shinto gods is also limitless.

Venerable Satake found significance in another Japanese word, yami, which means darkness. The characters for this word imply “a state in which you cannot hear the voices of others,” he explained.

He said this demonstrates the importance of talking to one another as a means of counteracting the darkness gripping more than a half-a-million Japanese adults, whom it was reported recently have attempted suicide.

He pointed out that the report reveals that about 530,000 of Japan’s 120 million people have attempted suicide and that one in four adults over 20 have considered taking their own lives.

Venerable Satake explained that jihi is also used to denote concrete actions such as the volunteer activities following the Japanese earthquake and nuclear disaster at Fukushima, as he explained, “It connects one person with another.”

The Buddhist priest then showed the gathering a book of poetry by a Buddhist who died a few years ago at the age of 75.

The man had been bedridden for about 50 years. His sister’s family took him in and cared for him, but he could find no meaning to such a life and hoped only for death.

But then he chanced to see a television programme about Buddhism and realised how fortunate he was.

Although he was himself helpless, he had the help of a whole family, with three generations tending to his needs, right down to his sister’s grandchildren who gave him his medicine each day.

“I think discovering the mercy of the Buddha is exactly like this man’s discovery,” Venerable Satake added.

The Interreligious Dialogue has over the years brought people from the Catholic, Buddhist and Shinto traditions together to discuss topics as varied as Japan’s aging population and the continued need for peace.

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