Vas Mathur / Sun Staff Photographer

The three priests participated in a roundtable discussion with students and chaplains.

February 27, 2018

Zen Buddhist Priests Visit Cornell to Encourage ‘Two-Way Exchange’ Between Japan and Cornell, Prof Says

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Three Zen Buddhist priests from Japan joined Cornell students and chaplains in a roundtable discussion on a range of topics from the role of religion in education to bamboo chopstick-making on Monday.

Prof. Jane-Marie Law, religious studies, made the arrangement for priests Masaki Matsubara Ph.D. ’09, Uchida Ichido and Somyo Nagai to visit campus.

“We have so many things at Cornell, the Lab of Ornithology, the biodiversity studies, and I really wanted them to appreciate the type of people that study at Cornell,” Law said. “I really want it to be a two-way exchange.”

Masaki Matsubara Ph.D. ’09, who studied under Law, shared his experience of running a program in his temple where children play soccer and then meditate in hopes to combine children’s activities with the virtues of meditation.

“Five years ago I started a children’s program … I was imagining so many children milling around the temple, I saw that as a very beautiful scene,” Matsubara said. “So I thought wait a minute, my temple has a lot of land, why don’t you do sports?”

Chaplain Rick Bair related to Matsubara’s experiences, sharing that he too found success coupling religion with activity, running programs that let kids “kick [the ball] around.”

Ichido Uchida’s temple has kids make bowls and chopsticks out of bamboo, as well as growing baby bamboo shoots to eat.

“The bowls and the cups are made of bamboo, and you realize it’s precious. … The bowl becomes a metaphor … you become mindful of the bowl, you become mindful of the chopsticks, and you have to have something concrete because it’s [with] children,” Law said of the program, which involves over 150 parents and kids.

Winnie Brown ’19, a student in Law’s Zen Buddhism class, got a chance to engage on social justice issues related to education and pointed out some of the challenges faced by the United States education system at the roundtable.

“There are kids sitting in the same classroom, and one is hungry because they only have enough money to eat once a day, and the other has a private tutor,” Brown said.

Law related a similar issue occurring in Japan, where some students only have access to the one meal a day that is provided by the school. Upon translation, the visiting priests nodded in recognition.

This discussion and campus visit is a continuation of a three-year relationship with Zen Buddhist priests hailing from various temples in Japan.

“In the last two years professor Law and I worked together to bring Cornell students to study in Japan, focusing on Zen Buddhism,” Matsubara said. “Last year we recognized it would be beneficial to bring Ichido-san and Somyo-san to Ithaca to make a much stronger relationship.”

Uchida said he “learned a lot of things in terms of biodiversity” when he visited the Lab of Ornithology, highlighting what he sees as a similarity between the discipline and Buddhism.

“One subject who wants to learn his own mind, makes a visit to 53 experts. The number 53 actually expresses that idea of biodiversity,” Uchida added. “That effort to learn one’s mind from diversity of many different people, I think I’m very interested in that philosophy and I want to practice continuously learning while I am in Ithaca.”

Nagai was surprised that the trip really came to fruition since “several years ago we were working to bring Cornell students to Japan, and at that time I did not expect that I would be able to stand here in 2018. Still now [I] think, wow this is Cornell, this is [the] U.S., this is like [a] dream,” he said.