Seamus Cullen

Seamus Cullen

Columban Priest, Japan

ird-cullen-seamusI came from Ireland to Japan in 1967 and after Japanese language study I was assigned to my first parish. After settling in, I visited a local Buddhist temple to ask about Buddhism. I can’t remember why exactly I went there; maybe I was behaving as a tourist but I suppose it also reflected an openness I had toward other spiritualities and religions. I didn’t understand much of what the priest told me except that he seemed to be telling me about the founder of his particular sect rather than about Buddhism itself.

I lived for fourteen years in a city where there was not one Catholic. In the neighbouring towns there was a sprinkling of Catholics and it was with these people I celebrated Mass in my house which I rented for a small sum. The fact that the house was tilted to one side might have explained the modest rent. While living in this place I met a variety of people and shared their lives on all kinds of levels. Of necessity my encounters with the people were a dialogue of religions, with Buddhism and Shinto in particular.

Outside the city of Taketa, there was a cave called the “Christian Cave,” and every Christmas for fourteen years I celebrated Mass here in this cave. It was my Japanese Buddhist and Shinto friends who helped me prepare for the event. Including the few Catholics from the surrounding areas, about forty people took part in the liturgy.

In the past, there were up to 30,000 Catholics in this area but everything changed when the religious persecutions of the Tokugawa era (1603-1868) began. Many people were forced to choose Buddhism to avoid death but about half continued to practice their Christian faith in secret. They dug out small caves in the mountains where they could gather and pray. However, many of them were eventually tracked down and forced to trample on sacred images depicting the face of Christ or the Virgin Mary to prove they were not Catholics. The reason that the bishop assigned me to this area was maybe he hoped that the presence of a priest might result in some kind of Catholic revival.

To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of my ordination I went to India and spend some time in anashram, a spiritual hermitage. I spent six months and would have stayed longer but I could not get a visa extension. This was a very important event for me; I would readily say that it changed my life.

Sitting in meditation, very much based on Zazen, was what took up most of the day. I practiced slowing down my mental activities to the pace where I gradually became aware of the self that is unmoved by things or events or people. We sat on a concrete floor for our meals. Our food was a simple diet ladled out onto stainless steel platters. Rice with a few steamed vegetables was the staple food, usually with a covering of lentil soup over everything. And once a week there was a whole day of fasting.

I had been a heavy smoker since my seminary days but because I had been warned that Mother Teresa was intolerant of smokers I decided to quit before she could tell me to quit. Actually, I didn’t experience the suffering that is normally associated with quitting smoking. The general discomfort of the Indian weather, food and the regime of ashram-living distracted my attention from the pain of giving up smoking.

Through this experience my wish to visit with Mother Teresa evaporated. Meeting and talking with her would have become a topic of conversation, and this would be entirely unworthy of her. More importantly, through contemplation I discovered that my desire to get closer to God by being close to a person who was close to God was unfounded. The words, “Be still and know that I am God” first came to life for me in the Zazen environment even though the Buddhists do not use the word “God.”

I felt so strongly about the importance of contemplation that I wrote to our seminary suggesting that it be introduced as a necessary part of missionary training. I find contemplation an indispensable part of my own daily living and I just hope that it will again become part of the way we impart the Christian message.

On my return to Japan, I was asked to become formally involved in Interfaith dialogue. I was happy to do so and set out to find a place in which to live. At a talk I gave to a group of people in Shingu I met a man who offered me a house he had rented in the mountains. It didn’t have electricity, water or telephone but that didn’t matter. The telephone company gave me wire and I set up the connection myself. It was a half-hour walk up the mountain from where I parked the car. I lived there for only a few months when I met a Shinto priest who told me he liked what I was doing, and he offered me accommodation in a place that he had near a hot spring resort.

ird-cullen-seamus-ocean-closeThrough my contact with this man I came to take part for many years in an annual Shinto ceremony the centre-piece of which involved climbing the holy mountain for the festival of light. Climbing the mountain took a whole day and only white food could be consumed on that day — rice and tofu and pickled radish and a hardened fish paste called kamaboko. For those of us who were going from a Shinto shrine there was the purification ceremony in the forenoon. This involved either standing under a waterfall or wading into the sea wearing only loincloths. In the depth of winter this was quite a challenge. Because I was taller than any of the Japanese men, I felt obliged to go in a bit deeper than them.

ird-cullen-seamus-fireThe main purpose for climbing the mountain is to procure the new fire for the various Shinto shrines in the area. The leading Shinto priests would go to the top of the mountain and strike fire from a stone. This flame is then carried by young men who race down the mountain to the main shrine. More than a thousand men take part in this ceremony every year. Some of them bring their young sons with them, so there is an element of initiation to the ritual as well. I had ample opportunity to discuss the symbolism of fire and water in our various rituals. I continued with the annual climb until last year when I had to stop because I got a pacemaker.

When my Shinto priest friend died I had to move from this house I managed to find a little house, again rent-free, where I lived for another six years. Incidentally, when the Shinto priest was dying I brought him to a hospice run by Catholic nuns and I was with him when he died.

In my new abode, I met with many Buddhist priests and became friends with several of them. Sometimes they would invite me to talk to their congregations in the temple. I can recall the wonder on the faces of the Buddhist laity when they saw these two clerics of different religions talking and laughing with each other.

On one occasion, one of the priests asked me to come to his temple and explain the meaning of Christmas to the devout Buddhist laity. To do that I set up a little Christmas crib. After my talk, when I went to pack up the crib, I noticed that the wife of the Buddhist priest had taken out the statue of Our Lady and was tenderly carrying it around and allowing each person in the group to reach out and touch it. That gave me pause for self-reflection as I had been grabbing each figurine by the head when taking them out of the box!

ird-cullen-seamuslandscapeLast year I officiated at the wedding of the daughter of this Buddhist priest. Since he had a game leg he asked me if I would physically support him on one side as he escorted his daughter up the aisle. I was delighted, of course, but I let him know that this was a clear indication that Buddhism was not going anywhere without the support of Christianity!

Over the years, I have been involved in regular Inter-Religious Dialogue meetings at which at least three of the major Buddhist groups are represented. Last time, the theme of the three-day study meeting was “The Commandments: the Biblical Ten Commandments & the Five Commandments of Buddhism.” The Buddhist five are: prohibition against killing, stealing, lewd conduct, lying, and drinking liquor. They are meant primarily for Buddhist priests. We Christians usually understand the Commandments to be just that – commands- but Japanese Buddhists see them as descriptions of how the enlightened person (the person in whom the Spirit of Buddha lives) will act.

Because I have gained so much from my interreligious encounters, I am saddened by the fact that there is relatively little interest in Interfaith Dialogue amongst the bishops and priests of Japan. Perhaps that is because many of these men have moved away from the Buddhist world of their youth and are not interested in revisiting it.

Some years ago when giving a retreat to a large group of Sisters I introduced Zazen meditation. Later one of the Sisters that she almost walked out when she heard the little bell at the beginning of the session. Some people do find it odd that a Catholic priest would be teaching Zazen but there is no need for concern. The dynamic of Zazen is primarily a way of reaching that “still point” which is the meeting place with the divine reality, and the source of peace. It is not tied to any religion or cult although it is certainly stressed in Buddhism.

Once at a meal with fourteen Buddhist priests I found myself telling them the story of Fionn Mac Cumhail, a mythical hunter-warrior of Irish mythology. I mentioned that Fionn announced that for him the finest music is “the music of what happens.” I had difficulty translating this and gave a literal translation. Immediately one of the more august members told me that in Buddhism there is a precise phrase for that attitude, nyojitsu chiken. It is the very foundation of contemplation and further convinced me of the many wonderful things that are available through Buddhism.

The humility with which Shinto believers approach the divine reality in nature is very inspiring. It reminds me of the spirituality that (they say) used to be in Ireland in St Columban’s time in the sixth and seventh centuries when Christians considered nature in all its wonder, beauty and awesomeness to be the original mediator of God. The (Chinese) ideogram for the God-reality is an icon which describes the awarenesses that arise in the person who has had an encounter with the divine reality rather than an attempt to explain the divine reality itself. I find this most helpful. We can too easily entertain the notion that we know something clear about God, something that is capable of expression in words. If these words are the words of a poem then I might agree because a poem does not try to contain the reality but rather to point towards it. The icon or Chinese character to which I refer contains the two sentiments of worship and of awe.

ird-cullen-seamus-oceanIn recent years, I have been deeply involved in parish work so it is difficult to get time for more formal interfaith work. However, because most of my friends are either Buddhist or Shintoist I find myself continually in an interfaith environment. Like most of my Columban colleagues, I have had the privilege of crossing cultural and religious boundaries and am very conscious of having been blessed. Though people frequently speak of the life of a foreign missionary as being very tough, my cross-cultural experience of life in Japan makes it easy for me to see that the human being is “made in the image and likeness of God” and to understand more fully what our Christian message is.

Seamus Cullen

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