With Yogis, Buddhists, and Sufis in Japan
Kabir Helminski

The invitation came suddenly and with not much time to make plans. A meeting with about 25 spiritual leaders—sufis, yogis, and Buddhists—in the tradition-laden city of Kyoto. Our venue was within the precincts of a traditional temple complex, with views of classic Japanese gardens and ponds, rooms of tatami mats and doorways one has to bow to pass through. Our hosts were from the Shinyo-en sect of Buddhism, a branch of the esoteric, Vajrayana Shingon sect which has a lot in common with Sufism.

The theme we focused on was “Awakening to the Absolute.”

A few of the expressions that were especially memorable:

In a session on Love and Devotion, Swamini Pramananda Saraswati of India expressed the idea that true Bhakti, the Hindu Way of Devotion, went far beyond emotion and, as an expression of the true divine order, led to contact with the Absolute. Following that, Dr. Ejaz, a professor and Sufi from Lahore, suggested that the way of knowledge was superior to the way of love. At that point I offered the Mevlevi notion that it is impossible to explain love because in order to explain anything one needs something more subtle and comprehensive with which to explain it and since there was nothing more essential and comprehensive than love, love was, itself, the final explanation of everything. And, as Rumi says, there is no greater love than love with no object—for then you are love itself. Then Shradalu Ranade, a leading exponent of the lineage of Sri Aurobindo, suggested that the issue could be resolved by considering that the way of knowledge and the way of love, if followed rigorously, led to a state in which knowledge and love were one and indistinguishable.

Shradalu also contributed an interesting understanding of “Tantra,” distinguishing it clearly from the mystical eroticism commonly associated with the term in the West. From his point of view Tantra could be distinguished from Yoga in the following way. Yoga is a discipline practiced by the individual to prepare the body and nervous system for the experience of higher spiritual states. Tantra, on the other hand, was an encounter with the Divine Power, Shakti, in which Shakti had the upper hand and all the individual can do in the end is surrender.

Suddenly, I realized that my entry onto the Sufi Path was the beginning of a “Tantric” phase of spiritual development. While it is necessary to spend years in meditative and other spiritual disciplines there seems to be a crossover point when the emphasis becomes less on oneself and much more on a direct relationship with the Divine.

Stepping Stones

One of the friendships from this gathering that I appreciate is with James Shahine, publisher of Tricycle. James is Lebanese Christian by ancestry and showed an acute awareness of many issues having to do with Islam in the contemporary world. He is also at the heart of American Buddhism in his role as publisher of the major Buddhist magazine. In a private conversation, I asked him what kind of material he most needed for his magazine. “We need material to help us understand the importance of community and how to achieve it.” Buddhists in America have the Buddhist teachings and practices but they lack the Sangha, the community. It’s a more difficult kind of commitment to stick it out when things get rough.”

Doudou Diene, a Senegalese Sufi who has served as UNESCO’s Director of Intercultural Projects, working on the Silk Road Project as well as the committee that gave recognition to World Heritage sites, shared with us many saying from Senegalese tradition: “Remember, whenever you are to give a speech—have pity for those who have to listen.” Again and again he reminded us of the question: How will we apply these spiritual realizations?

One response to that question was given by Daniel Odier, a French teacher in the Kashmiri Shaivite tradition, who described a simple but very effective method for developing presence in daily life. It consists of this: By whatever method you choose, become fully present for just 20-30 seconds, then intentionally let go of the practice. But do this several times a day. Gradually that presence will become your natural state.

One area of heightened awareness for me is in the area of how a spiritual tradition can be given form through ritual, ceremony, and explicit stages of study. On the one hand, Rumi’s Way of Love is more about developing capacities of the heart and expressions of love, rather than achieving specific results from techniques. We assume, of course, some basics of practice: a daily zhikr, regular worship (salaat), and ever increasing knowledge from traditional sources. Our way assumes a certain level of spiritual maturity and a certain degree of personal initiative and self-direction.

Naeem Zamindar of Pakistan, a teacher in the Art of Living, developed by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, described to me a training program they offer which millions of people have already experience a certain degree of awakening. It typically consists of four weeknights in a row in which people are introduced to certain esoteric practices leading to a taste of spiritual opening that will motivate them to continue on the path. Their guru teaches that we are in an unprecedented period of awakening and millions of people can be introduced to esoteric teachings in order to turn the tide of human heedlessness. With this in mind they have developed variations of their program so as to accommodate simple peasants in their village (who are apparently relatively easy to work with) as well as programs for the educated and affluent (a more “difficult” case).

Interestingly, this young man who gave up a career as a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley to teach the masses in Pakistan privately shared with me that what he has always been drawn to Sufism and he felt strongly drawn to the way of Rumi after our time together.

Bishop Takeo Amana, a leader of the Shinyo-en community, reminded us of the importance of learning to take pleasure in the joy of others. Can we work to help others achieve well-being and happiness, and even in small ways rejoice at the joys of others.”

On our last afternoon together, we all visited a 1000 year old great temple complex of the Shingon sect, Daigoji. We were treated to a traditional vegetarian meal, served by Buddhist monks, but fit for royalty—at least ten different subtle foods, each served in their individual bowls and plates. The marriage of mindfulness and beauty that Japanese Buddhism has manifested could hardly be surpassed by any culture on earth. And yet, these days, this great temple complex has only about 30 resident monks.

One of the conclusions that our group came to is that it is time for a new language of universal spirituality—a remarkable conclusion for a group of people who are mostly practitioners of venerable traditions that have formulated the spiritual journey in great detail. Nevertheless, we could not help but recognize the similarities in the process of spiritual realization and even the possibility of sharing some methods of wisdom and practice across traditions.

Our time together ended on a definite upbeat as we enjoyed a final dinner together. As I looked around he room I observed high spirits, humor and friendship prevailing among this impromptu community of contemplatives from three traditions, and I was looking forward to the few days remaining which I would spend in Kamakura with my eldest son, Matthew, his wife Miei, and our grandson Liam Ito.

Visiting Japan for the first time was coming full circle, more than forty years since I studied and practiced Zen in the first days of my own spiritual journey. And now, having spent almost a week in Japan, I appreciate the order and courtesy of this country, where even vendors on the train bow before entering or leaving the car. I recall the last words our friend Jim O’Dea said when he heard I would be visiting Japan, “Ah, the land of adab.”

Buddha & Grandson

Kamakura Buddha, Kabir, & Grandson Liam Ito Helminski