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One by One, Becoming a Hand on the Thousand-Armed Kannon

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by Yoshiko Izumida

The bodhisattva Kannon has been known for a long time, not only to members of the various sects of Buddhism, but also to the many Japanese who are not religious. I would even say there are almost no Japanese who have not seen an Eleven-Headed Kannon statue or a Thousand-Armed Kannon statue.

Furthermore, I have heard that the bodhisattva Kannon is widely familiar to foreigners as well. Through pictures of Buddhist statues and paintings, Kannon, who is portrayed as female rather than male, is apparently viewed as a symbol of tolerance and maternal, feminine tenderness. As seen in the worship of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Catholicism as well, the tasks of women--giving birth, raising children, and having an influence on human character--are full of unlimited possibilities.

In Buddhism the bodhisattva Kannon is the symbol of great compassion and mercy, representing the wish to take on the troubles and suffering of people. To us Buddhists, Kannon is also an object of devotion. She is also the bodhisattva who sets forth goals for us as we live our lives.

Mother Teresa is the first person who comes to mind as having led a life that followed the way of the bodhisattva Kannon. The next person, after Mother Teresa, who comes to my mind is Japan's Miki Sawada.

Miki Sawada founded the Elizabeth Sanders Home in Oiso, Kanagawa Prefecture, to care for children of mixed blood who were born out of wedlock after the end of the Pacific war to American military men and Japanese women and were abandoned by their mothers. She devoted her life to raising and finding foster parents for a total of two thousand of these children. In my opinion, the way that Sawada lived her life was exactly like the work of the bodhisattva Kannon.

Kannon is known as the bodhisattva that appears in the Lotus Sutra. I first became familiar with the Lotus Sutra after I became involved, as the head of a kindergarten, with the early education of children. At the time, I had read with keen interest the works of Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852), a German educator who had founded the first kindergarten in the world and was known as "the father of early childhood education."

It was Froebel's opinion that the true nature of human beings is one of divine goodness, that a teacher's role is to draw out the divine goodness within each child, and that the mother is a child's first teacher. He also thought that to perfect one's character, the pairs "philosophy and life," "thought and personal experience," and "theory and actuality" should each be combined. I began to study the Lotus Sutra because I found the interpretation of the Lotus Sutra by our founder, Rev. Nikkyo Niwano, to be similar to the beliefs of Froebel.

Later I was appointed the head of a school for girls whose teaching was based on the spirit of the Lotus Sutra. While performing those duties, I was invited to become involved in the activities of the Women's Committee of the Japanese Committee of the World Conference of Religions for Peace. So not only am I studying the doctrine of the Lotus Sutra, I have also become involved in practical activity.

On the Women's Committee, while working with the Refugee Committee of Religions for Peace Japan, I have been involved in such efforts since the 1980s as looking for sponsorship for Cambodian refugee orphans, distributing books in the Khmer language, and building primary schools in Cambodia. Then, since the 1990s, the Women's Committee has been working to assist refugees from Afghanistan.

What we have learned from our work in relief efforts outweighs what little assistance we have been able to provide the people from areas of conflict; it is in that sense that I truly feel that everything with which we come into contact in society and life is a teaching tool for self-learning for each and every one of us.

Even if we are not so strong individually, if the women of the world combine their power in a maternal frame of mind and provide succor to those who suffer from hunger and sickness, each endeavor will become like a hand on the Thousand-Armed Kannon.

Yoshiko Izumida, a former honorary executive board member of Rissho Kosei-kai, is chair of the Women's Committee of the Japanese Committee of the World Conference of Religions for Peace.