A gentle call to adopt Imaoka Shin’ichirō’s creative, free spirituality found in his “Creed of Life”
This is part of a series of blog/podcasts looking at the Japanese twentieth-century advocate of a creative, free religion or spirituality, Imaoka Shin’ichiro’s “Creed of Life,”
All four pieces can be found at the following links:
Statements 1 and 2:
Faith in ourselves, our neighbours, and ourselves as neighbours
Statements 3, 4 and 5:
Faith in a universal cooperative society
Statements 6, 7 and 8
Faith in one's own spiritual community and a creative, free religion or spirituality
So, greetings to you all, especially if you are reading or listening to “Making Footprints not Blueprints” for the first time here at the start of Series 7. It’s particularly important to begin the thought for the day which follows with a brief note for those of you who will read or listen to this without knowing first-hand the context in which it was offered. This context is vitally important to know about because the words which follow are an attempt publicly and clearly to articulate the unique, but utterly non-sectarian theological and philosophical centre of gravity that, in my mind at least, holds in place the already existing weekly spiritual and intellectual practices found in the Cambridge Unitarian Church. There are two of these, the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation which, in various forms, has been part of the community’s practice for some fifteen years. And from October 2023 there will also be an online evening meeting of a new group called Cambridge Kiitsu Kyōkai which will contain a very simple form of quiet sitting meditation called “seiza,” a short address, a piece of music and a time of conversation. As will become apparent, this is closely related to the already existing Sunday Service. Click on this link to find out more.
Both of these services contain three major elements.
The first is a straightforward form of meditation, either quiet sitting, or a led mindful meditation in which together we practise becoming aware of ourselves, others and the wider world around us, then to pay attention to those same things but without becoming attached to them, and then becoming mindful of what these things mean or might mean for us, although, once again, always without becoming problematically attached to those meanings which, like the breath, is always rising and falling, and creatively coming and going. The silent lighting of candles of joy and concern that follows in the morning service is an extension of this mindfulness practice.
The second is a commitment to critical thinking which is always embedded in the opportunity honestly and openly to talk together about what has been said. As one of this community’s spiritual forebears, Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), once said: “Conversation as the natural organ communicating, mind with mind . . . is the method of human culture. By it I come nearer to those whom I shall address than by any other means.”
And the third is what we can call “beauty.” The aesthetic quality of the service is vitally important and so the service includes both music and (in the morning) song and the lighting of candles and it takes place in a very fine, restful, wood-panelled church that echoes the architecture of several Cambridge college chapels.
It’s also important to know that the services were developed over the years gently to touch upon each of the four religious or spiritual tendencies often referred to in the Hindu tradition that, via Carl Jung et al., have come firmly into our own liberal religious tradition, namely, the intellectual or rational, the mystical or intuitional, the devotional or emotional, and the practical or sensate. Should you be interested in knowing more about these aspects of the service I have written a longer piece exploring this which you can find by clicking on this link.
So, with the general context briefly sketched for you, without further ado, here is this week’s thought for the day.
A gentle call to adopt Imaoka Shin’ichirō’s creative, free spirituality found in his “Creed of Life”
During the summer, in addition to spending some lovely time with my wife Susanna, her children and grandchildren, my parents, and an old college friend, I spent a great deal of my time working with Professor George Williams on a series of new translations of essays by Imaoka Shin’ichirō. As some of you now know through my ongoing interest in Imaoka sensei and the Japanese yuniterian (sic) movement, throughout his 106-year-long life, he became one of the most important advocates of free religion, both in Japan, and internationally, particularly through his work with the International Association for Religious Freedom. My own work this summer has convinced me more than ever that the model of free religion — or if you prefer, a creative, free spirituality — that Imaoka sensei offers us, is not only a good way forward for the Cambridge community where I am minister but is also a piece of promising practice that at some point we might think about humbly, but with confidence, offering up for consideration to the wider Unitarian movement.
Alas, the Unitarian movement everywhere is in a very bad way, and here in the UK, it is now extremely close to extinction. To avoid this and reverse its fast-fading fortunes, three general solutions continue to be proposed. The first is to return to the movement’s original, Liberal, Free Christian identity. The second is to transform the movement into an explicitly secular form of non-religious Humanism. And the third is to encourage a kind of hyper-plural spirituality that has no discernible, collective theological or philosophical centre of gravity.
Before I go on, notice how, although the last of these ways may have no discernible theological or philosophical centre of gravity, the first two have overpoweringly strong and exclusive ones, namely Christianity and Humanism.
So, now, turning to consider my own, extremely diverse, congregation here in Cambridge, we can see that within it there have been people who were more or less sympathetic towards one or other of these approaches. Inevitably, that has caused at times certain difficulties when it comes to trying to create a coherent liberal religious or spiritual community. But the particular, personal, problem I have had as minister is that, although I can see each of these approaches has some element of merit within it, alone, each of them has always seemed to me to be completely insufficient to deal with the reality of our modern situation. Consequently, my question has always been how on earth can a strong, liberal, free religious or spiritual community be formed that is made up of people who come from, and often continue meaningfully to engage with, a wide variety of philosophical and religious traditions and where dual belonging is also very common? Just to name the most prevalent of these philosophical backgrounds amongst us, they include Liberal Christianity, Liberal Judaism, various kinds of Mahayana Buddhism, Humanism, Pantheism, Religious Naturalism, and a variety of broadly earth-centred spiritualities. Also, don’t forget to add to this mix the fact that we have among our number two ministers and one lay preacher who were formally trained by the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, as well as one ordained, “One Spirit” Interfaith Minister, along with another in training.
Now, to those outside our immediate community, and perhaps sometimes even to some of us within it, this can look and feel like mere confusion; interesting confusion, perhaps, but confusion nonetheless. But the wager I am now prepared to make public and put my shoulder fully behind is that this plurality need not be confusing because it is possible to identify, in a clear and relatively straightforward fashion, some gentle and creative theological and philosophical centre of gravity that can hold us together in our diversity, and which can help us begin to grow and flourish as a genuine free religious or creative, free spiritual community with a clear, unique, but utterly non-sectarian, identity.
And this is where Imaoka sensei comes in because, throughout his exceptionally long life he came to see, and was able to articulate and then distil, just such a gentle, creative, non-sectarian centre of gravity. Fully to understand the depth and breadth of Imaoka sensei’s faith it is helpful, and I think profoundly moving, to read the essays of his already translated, and also the biography about him that George wrote back in 2019. But, I completely understand that most people won’t be minded, or have the inclination or time, to do this. But, thankfully, in 1973, aged 93, Imaoka sensei penned a revised version of what he called his “Creed of Life” which contains eight profound, but also simple and clear statements of faith. Within his own religious community, the Tokyo Kiitsu Kyokai (帰一協会 or 帰一教會) — a name which is sometimes translated as the “Tokyo Unitarian Church” — this “Creed of Life” became its own centre of gravity.
Now, I think that the community where I am minister should also consider adopting a version of his set of statements as its own centre of gravity because both to ourselves, to me, and to those who might wish to seek us out I feel it beautifully, simply and clearly says what it is we are — or at least what it is we genuinely aspire to be. Imaoka sensei’s “Creed of Life” is also an important statement because, all too often, liberal religions and spiritualities have chosen to frame themselves in either very vague and abstract terms or, alas, simply in negative terms concerning what they are not, and what they do not believe. Now, this is fine as far as it goes but, as a positive way of attracting people to consider joining such a liberal community, it’s not been, and will never be, a very successful practice. But Imaoka sensei’s “Creed of Life” is a positive expression and I think it can form the basis of my own community’s good news to the wider world.
But, before I conclude this piece by simply reading through Imaoka sensei’s “Creed of Life,” it’s helpful, briefly to point to a few of the key terms it contains.
The first term is “faith” (信ずる shinzuru). This word can also be translated as “belief” and in earlier translations of Imaoka sensei’s statements about his own faith, “belief” has been used. But “faith” is closer to Imaoka sensei’s actual use of the word “shinzuru” than is “belief.” Imaoka sensei was concerned always with helping people experience what in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, the tradition into which Imaoka sensei was born, is called “shinjin” (信心), a word which is often translated as “faith” but, more nuancedly, as “true-entrusting.” It’s also helpful to know that “shinjin” was originally the Japanese word for the Buddhist concept of citta-prasāda ( चित्तप्रसाद ) which means “clear or clarified heart-mind.” What is becoming ever clearer to me as I continue to explore Imaoka sensei’s philosophy is that he thinks free religion, that is to say, a creative, free spirituality, is something in which one can have faith with a genuinely clean and clear heart and mind because it avoids the kind of problematic, propositional, dogmatic, metaphysical beliefs orthodox religion tends to promote, and which are now so implausible to so many of us.
The second term is “the worth of living in life” which is a translation of the Japanese word “ikigai” ( 生きがい ). This sense, or awareness of the worth of living in life, is what Imaoka sensei thinks a free religious or creative, free spiritual life can give people. Now, ikigai is a word that’s become very popular in the West in recent years and it has been subject to a great many misappropriations and erroneous interpretations. But, in short, ikigai is simply gesturing towards that something which makes life really seem worth living, it’s an everyday word. Free religion or a creative, free spirituality was Imaoka sensei’s ikigai.
The third term is “church” (kyokai, 教会 or, sometimes, as on the noticeboard printed above, 教會 ). The first character of this, 教 (kyō), means “teach” or “teaching.” So, in connection with religion, it can mean “doctrine” or the “teaching of a religion.” The second character, 会 or 會 (kai), means “assembly,” “meeting,” “association,” or “gathering.” Although in Japanese the term kyokai is most often used in connection with Christian churches it is also used in a broader sense to indicate any kind of religious or spiritual assembly of whatever kind of religion or philosophy.
And the fourth term is “free religion” (自由宗教 jiyū shūkyō). Imaoka sensei coined this because, at the turn of the 20th century, no already existent term was available to him in Japanese that sufficiently captured his new idea. We, today, who are now rightly somewhat suspicious of the word “religion” are, however, now liable profoundly to misunderstand what Imaoka sensei was trying to say by using this term. We are very fortunate to have Professor George Williams — who knew Imaoka sensei personally — to remind us that:
“In [Imaoka sensei’s] understanding, free religion (jiyū shūkyō) was a universal ideal, yet not an absolute. That which is beyond each religion, which goes beyond its highest values and has the power to transform one into an authentic human being — that is free religion. It was an image rather than a concept, a metaphor for something beyond conventional belief and religion, beyond theism, liberalism, humanism. This freedom does not conform to any category or ‘-ism’.”
Consequently, when Imaoka sensei uses the term “free religion” we need to hear something like “creative, free spirituality.”
And so now, with these thoughts in your heart and mind, here is Imaoka sensei’s “Creed of Life”:
I have faith ( 信ずるshinzuru) in myself. I recognize my own subjectivity and creativity and feel the worth of living in life (生きがい ikigai). Subjectivity and creativity can be rephrased as personality, divinity, and Buddha-nature.
I have faith in my neighbour. The neighbour is oneself as a neighbour. If I believe in myself, I inevitably believe in my neighbour.
I have faith in a cooperative society. Both oneself and a neighbour, while each possessing a unique personality, are not things that exist in isolation. Because of this uniqueness, a true interdependence, true solidarity, and true human love are established, and therein a cooperative society is realized.
I have faith in the trinity of self, neighbour, and cooperative society. The self, neighbour, and cooperative society, while each having a unique personality, are entirely one. Therefore, there’s no differentiation of precedence or superiority/inferiority between them, and one always contains the other.
I have faith in the unity of life and nature ( 自然 shizen). Life, which constitutes the trinity of self, neighbour, and cooperative society, further unites with all things in the universe.
I have faith in the church. The church is the prototype/archetype (原型 genkei) and driving force of the cooperative society. I can only be myself by being a member of the church.
I have faith in a specific religion. In other words, I am a member of the Tokyo Kiitsu Kyōkai. However, a specific religion (including the Tokyo Kiitsu Kyōkai) neither monopolizes religious truth nor is it the ultimate embodiment of it.
I have faith in free religion (自由宗教 jiyū shūkyō). While having faith in a specific religion, the endless pursuit and improvement towards universal and ultimate truth is the core of religious life. Such a dynamic religion is called a free religion.
(August, Showa 48, 1973, in “Free Religion”)
Throughout the last couple of years, I find I have personally come to adopt this “Creed of Life” as my own, it is my own ikigai. And this morning, after a long period of discernment, I now have the confidence to make this gentle call to my own congregation to adopt, at least informally, a version of Imaoka sensei’s “Creed of Life” as its own community’s shared centre of gravity, its own collective ikigai, its own good news to the wider community around it.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts and criticisms.