Arigato From Tokyo: Four Days of Unexpected Joy
May 4, 2010
It is hard to imagine that four days ago, I only knew one person in Japan. And that too, I had met her once about a year ago. Today, after four action-packed days in Tokyo, more than half a dozen community talks to various groups, and scores of interactions with social change heroes, Japan feels like home.
Ultimately, a place can be called a home only when one finds family amongst its people. And I surely found family amongst the Saionjis.
It is rare to meet families like the Saionjis. About a year ago, I had met the youngest member of the family -- Yuka. Sensing the unmistakable joy in her presence, I figured that the "apple doesn't fall too far from the tree" but I had no idea how deep the roots of that tree actually could be.
Yuka's father, Hiroo Saionji, runs the Goi Peace Foundation. It aims to nurture a new paradigm rooted in four S's -- sustainability, systems, science, and spirituality. Reverance for life, respect for all differences, gratitude for nature and harmony of spirit and matter are their guiding principles. Apart from various regular events and publications, they host a major event every year where they honor international leaders working to further this new possibility. Two years ago, for example, Bill Gates attended to receive the award for his commitment to philanthropy; last year, Bruce Lipton was honored for his pioneering work to bridge science and spirituality.
Ironically, it was Goi Peace Foundation that first asked us to write an article in 2007. The resulting Tao of CharityFocus directly seeded so many possibilities for us, including our upcoming book, so I was only happy to have an opportunity to interact with them and share my gratitude.
After a translated presentation to the staff, I engaged in a private (and recorded) dialogue with Hiroo Saionji. The conversation felt so deeply satisfying, for both of us, that he spontaneously kept the translator and supporting staff for an extra hour. And even after that, a bunch of others huddled together to brainstorm further. Everyone already knew about CharityFocus, but they were keen to dive into details and replicate it in Japan.
At the time, I had no idea that Hiroo's great grandfather was the prime minister of Japan, or that he was a successful businessman. I discovered those details during our seven-course dinner, which featured some of the top diplomats of the country, famous artists like the conductor Tomomi Nishimoto, established entrepreneurs and even a beauty queen. He really wanted me to corrupt these minds :) with the gift-economy ideal, so there I was. It was, no doubt, a very tough setting for a CharityFocus kind of a talk, but lo and behold, generosity didn't disappoint. :) Sure enough, all these ambassadors got bit by the bug, started asking questions (although that wasn't part of the agenda) and the service vibe silently invaded the room. :) So much so that the Croatian ambassador even shared a haiku!
Rather fearlessly, Hiroo gave everyone the task of doing one small, anonymous act of kindness with a Smile Card. :) The Croatian ambassador was particularly touched and later asked for a private meeting, where he shared some incredible stories with people ranging from Princess Diana, Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa. Incidentally, he was the person who placed Mother Teresa in her casket and was the only politician allowed to make a speech at her funeral, because as Sister Fredericka said, "He was like a son to Mother Teresa." It's beautiful to see the kind of people that CF values attracts. :)
That was quite a welcome-to-Japan day. As it turned out, though, that was just the beginning.
The next day, I visited the Fuji sanctuary. As we entered the corner, in a gorgeous naturesque center at the foothills of the sacred Mt. Fuji, I saw several dozen people in suits and formal attire, enthusiastically waving at our car -- and some of them were holding a gigantic Smile Card print out! Perhaps it was about seeing a CF ripple in this remote area of Japan, perhaps it was the ambiance of the holy mountain, perhaps it was the joy of these people who I'd never met before -- I don't know what it was, but I experienced a profound feeling of joy and connection.
Maybe the prayer room was a source of that feeling. A huge room that was mostly empty, but filled with such density that you felt like you were moving through something. On the floor were huge (perhaps 100x200 feet or more) rolls of paper; on that paper were small squares, where people wrote a simple prayer -- May Peace Prevail on Earth. On the top periphery of the room were flags of all the countries in the world, with a translation of May Peace Prevail on Earth. Around the room were gigantic scrolls, one for each country in the world; whenever there is tension in a certain area in the world, people would focus their prayer for that region -- May Peace Prevail in Afghanistan, for instance. More than 30 million prayers have been written to date. I couldn't believe it! Who does that?!?
I wanted in, so I asked to write a prayer. First, I had to pick a language. When I selected Japanese, all the onlookers smiled big. :) After a few minutes of silence, as is their protocol, I wrote my first words of Japanese: May Peace Be in Japan; May their purpose be fulfilled. It was a beautiful experience.
Naturally, my community talk at Byakko hit a chord -- because these people were all about giving the most invisible, anonymous and subtle gift! At lunch, a fellow comes up and offered a gift -- an orange from his local farm. Someone gave me a piece of local art, another person gave me her favorite pen. My kind of people! Five people gave me a royal tour of the campus, although each of them only spoke a few words of English each. It was the cutest thing ever. We mostly laughed and hugged, because all of us knew that we were just listening to the space beneath the words. All the locals here have a deep respect for Mt. Fuji. They believe that it hosts many subtle beings, and a very important feminine deity that brings peace to the world. Due to the storms that morning, Mt. Fuji was all covered by thick clouds but coincidentally, the sun started to shine during my talk and as I reached the climax of my tour of the campus, Mt. Fuji was fully visible (pictured above) while thick clouds remained on the other side. My guides were quite elated by this and felt convinced that Mt. Fuji was blessing me. :)
All of that was stunning, but then, I learned of the prayer field. On this field, more than 12,000 people routinely come together -- in rain, wind and snow -- to do a humble prayer for world peace. Practically all of the world's religious leaders have been here to lead the prayers. Giant flags of every single country fly freely in the periphery. Who even knew that such a place existed?!?
That night, I had dinner with the woman who masterminded this -- Masami Saionji, Yuka's mother. After some rather intense spiritual experiences at an early age, she was spiritually mentored by Masahisa Goi (a close friend and contemporary of the founder of Aikido) and ultimately, brought forth this vision of bringing people together to pray for world peace. From her teenage years to her current age of 69, she has dedicated her life to this work and is known around the world. Immediately, you could tell that this was a woman of uncommon power. And what an honor it was to meet her, as she showered the CharityFocus work with many blessings! Among other things, she inscribed: "My dear beloved spiritual son, meeting you may be the happiest and joyful time of my life." Coming from her, that was something.
While being swept in the spiritual tour-de-force of the Saionjis, I was also meeting all kinds of interesting folks. People like Ikuma Saga, who started a rather remarkable (and very successful) alternative currency in Tokyo along with its first ever Farmers Market. And people like Kumi Fujisawa, who is a TV personality, think-tanker, and someone who runs the most popular social entrepreneurship forum in Japan (Sophia Bank). And people like Koji, whose daughter did the original translation of Smile Cards in Japanese (and who is now working on the Smile Deck translation).
Oh, and a person named Shin.
More than 15 years ago, our family met a Japanese man, who was seated next to us on a plane. Just during that airplane conversation, he had dramatically shifted both mine and Viral's world views. That was the only time we interacted with him, but when I was heading to Japan, I told Yuka that if there was ever a way to connect with this man, I would be overjoyed simply to express our long-held gratitude for our serendipitous connection. It was almost like telling someone, "Hey, I'm coming to India and I'd love to reconnect with this Indian guy I once met on a plane, 20 years ago." As serendipity would have it, though, Yuka attended a random film screening a week after my request and guess who was sitting in front of her?!? Shin. She recognized him from a photo and a chance meeting several years ago. It turns out that Shin was himself, quite busy, but sure enough, we met.
It wouldn't do justice to fit our interaction into a paragraph here. Shin is a physicist who healed himself of cancer, discovered all kinds of new capacities and is trying to support evidence based spirituality. When he does his annual meditation retreats, he doesn't eat anything and sleeps half an hour. He talks about love like none else; he shared a story of when he was in Mt. Shasta once, he raised both of his arms towards the sky and sent "love" to all beings -- and butterflies came and sat on each of his fingers. He even sent me the photo of that moment that his friends happened to capture. It's almost unreal. But here was this 74-year-old in front of me, and right as I shared few sentences of gratitude, he took out a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the tears from his eyes. It was touching, and deeply satisfying. After our intimate two-hour conversation, he mentioned that all seven of his "chakras" were opened up. Although he's an extremely busy person, he kindly made it a point to attend my subsequent TedX-Tokyo talk. When I asked him if he had any advice for me, he smiled and simply said: "Trust your intuition."
Intuition is what took me to Japan. And I'm forever grateful. My usual plan is to give until people are confused with gratitude, and this time the universe made me receive, as I left Japan confused in gratitude. :)
Meister Eckhart once said, "If the only prayer you ever said was thank-you, it would be enough." In that sense, my one word Japanese vocabulary was just enough for my few last days in Japan. Arigato.