Ja­panese Bud­dhist out to ed­u­cate West on swastika of good for­tune

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - W Eekend | from the east -

WHEN monk Rev. Ken­jitsu Nak­a­gaki was hon­or­ing Bud­dha’s birth­day with a sa­cred flower cer­e­mony at a shrine in Seat­tle in 1986, he was met with sharp crit­i­cism for the chrysan­the­mums he ar­ranged in the shape of a coun­ter­clock­wise swastika.

Nak­a­gaki, then 25, who moved to Seat­tle from Osaka, Ja­pan, for his first mis­sion the pre­vi­ous year, was un­aware neo-nazis and white su­prem­a­cists con­tin­ued to use the Nazi swastika to pro­mote hate. He knew the sym­bol as “manji,” a Chi­nese char­ac­ter that means “good for­tune” in the Ja­panese lan­guage.

“You can’t do that in this coun­try,” Nak­a­gaki re­counted a de­voted tem­ple mem­ber’s words in telling him to re­move from the roof of the flower shrine a sym­bol that is a racial ep­i­thet in the United States and Europe.

“After I got that les­son, I de­cided not to use that par­tic­u­lar sym­bol – for the past 25 years.”

But such episodes in which Nak­a­gaki felt Bud­dhism was be­ing marginalised piled up. And at a 2009 in­ter­faith work­shop, where a hate crimes ex­pert called the swastika “a uni­ver­sal sym­bol of hate and evil,” he made the de­ci­sion to pre­serve the em­blem’s orig­i­nal mean­ing.

“This nar­row and lim­ited per­spec­tive is un­ac­cept­able for those of us who value and have grown up with the swastika in our re­li­gions and cul­ture,” said the 57-year-old.

Now Nak­a­gaki, a prom­i­nent Bud­dhist rev­erend in New York City, has ended his decades-long per­sonal pro­hi­bi­tion of the word with his new book “The Bud­dhist Swastika and Hitler’s Cross,” aim­ing to ed­u­cate the Western world about the sym­bol’s Eastern roots.

The book de­tails the swastika’s San­skrit ori­gins, then delves into its use in Hin­duism, Bud­dhism, Jain­ism, Ju­daism, Chris­tian­ity, and Is­lam, pre­dat­ing by cen­turies Hitler’s Nazi prop­a­ga­tion of the sym­bol.

Though the swastika comes in many ori­en­ta­tions – some have dots, swirls, etc. – depend­ing on the re­spec­tive re­li­gion and cul­ture, the Bud­dhism stan­dard ver­sion stands square on its fa­cade with left-turn­ing arms, while Hitler’s was right-turn­ing on a 45-de­gree an­gle.

The book said Hitler’s swastika, a “Hak­enkreuz,” which trans­lates to “hook-cross,” has two mean­ings: “the vic­tory of ‘Aryan man’,” and “the vic­tory of ‘anti-semitism’.”

The book, a con­tin­u­a­tion of Nak­a­gaki’s 2012 in­ter­faith dis­ser­ta­tion at the New York The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary, was first pub­lished in Ja­pan in 2013 when Amer­i­can pub­lish­ing houses were re­luc­tant to print it.

De­ter­mined to reach English read­ers, in 2017, he self­pub­lished the book on Ama­zon in a re­but­tal to the in­flux of news ar­ti­cles on anti-semitism. The book was re­pub­lished with Stone Bridge Press in Sep­tem­ber 2018.

“When (U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald) Trump came up, so did all the hate crimes as well,” said Nak­a­gaki to Ky­odo News. “If I don’t say it now then more mis­un­der­stand­ing will spread.”

But Nak­a­gaki’s ap­peal to the West that the swastika is also peace­ful clashes with the be­liefs of the Jewish com­mu­nity, which lost six mil­lion lives in the Holo­caust and is now on alert as it has en­dured a rise in anti-semitic in­ci­dents over the last three years.

In an in­ter­faith dis­cus­sion last month, Rabbi Alan Brill, chair of Jewish Chris­tian Stud­ies at Se­ton Hall Univer­sity in New Jersey, com­mended Nak­a­gaki for de­tail­ing the dif­fer­ences be­tween the two sym­bols, but em­pha­sised that peo­ple in the West “can’t tell the dif­fer­ence” be­cause “they never have been ed­u­cated to the dif­fer­ence.”

“The word is mis­used en­tirely but that is now the English word for all those de­signs,” said Brill. “In the end, it is still be­ing used as a hate sym­bol in Amer­ica. It is not a his­toric sym­bol, it is some­thing be­ing used right now.”

Dur­ing the dis­cus­sion, Brill added that the sym­bol is not ex­clu­sive to the eastern coun­tries and can even be found in the an­cient Ein Gedi syn­a­gogue in Is­rael, Greco-ro­man Ar­chi­tec­ture and New York City sub­way sta­tion de­signs from the 1920s.

While the swastika is taboo in the United States and Europe, it has been a part of Ja­pan’s cul­ture since the in­tro­duc­tion of Bud­dhism about 1,500 years ago, and was “stan­dard­ised as a tem­ple marker on maps” dur­ing the Meiji era (1868-1912) and is still used to­day, Nak­a­gaki said.

With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics ap­proach­ing, Nak­a­gaki hopes tourists will ed­u­cate them­selves about the Bud­dhist swastika, as they are bound to see them – on train maps, cloth­ing and house­hold items – while in Ja­pan.

Rabbi Abra­ham Cooper, as­so­ciate dean of the Si­mon Wiesen­thal Cen­ter, a hu­man rights or­gan­i­sa­tion that fights anti-semitism, trav­els to Ja­pan fre­quently for re­li­gious ex­changes. He but­tressed Rabbi Brill’s sen­ti­ment, say­ing the sym­bol is “still con­sid­ered evil in the 21st cen­tury,” but also sup­ported Nak­a­gaki’s pre-2020 Olympic aware­ness ef­fort.

“Tourists and even ath­letes who are com­ing shouldn’t be alarmed when they see an an­cient sym­bol as part of tem­ples and ar­chi­tec­ture,” said Cooper in a phone in­ter­view.

“Ev­ery ef­fort to ed­u­cate peo­ple on both sides, in Asia and else­where around the world, is a pos­i­tive thing.”

Photo: Ky­odo

Bud­dhist monk Rev. Ken­jitsu Nak­a­gaki (L) and Rabbi Alan Brill (L), chair of Jewish Chris­tian Stud­ies at Se­ton Hall Univer­sity in New Jersey.

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