Sometimes it’s only by chance that you come across something that really interests you or someone who you instantly click with. That’s what happened when Chiyo, a twenty-something Japanese woman, and follower of Tenrikyo walked into our dormitory room in a hostel in Nara. When I asked her why she was staying in Nara, she explained that she visits Nara prefecture every month to take part in a Tenrikyo service. Not knowing anything about the Tenrikyo religion, I bombarded her with questions for the next half an hour. She answered willingly, trying hard to find the right words to explain her faith in English. I took an instant liking to her natural persona and positive view on life.
Chiyo told me that, Tenrikyo was founded in 1838 by a woman known now as Oyasama. Tenrikyo followers believe there is God the Parent who created humans so that we could live a Joyous Life, and God could share in our joy. They believe that their bodies are borrowed from God, but only our minds belong to us and by proper use of our minds we can be happy. They compare self-centred thoughts to dust, something that should be swept away daily through prayer. Oyasama’s teachings can be read in the Ofudesaki, their scriptures. Through Chiyo’s explanation of the basic principles of the faith, I was thoroughly intrigued. I wanted to know more about the religion which seemed to have many undertones of Christianity but that was founded in the Shinto culture of 19th century Japan.
So, at breakfast the next day I asked Chiyo whether I could join her on her visit to Tenri, the city named after the religion. She cheerfully agreed and we went by train to the place where she had grown up. Chiyo comes from and lives in Kyushu, her father is a minister of Tenrikyo and her whole family are Tenrikyo followers. Yet she had gone to a middle and high school run by the religion in Tenri city, so she thought of the place as her second home and tried to visit every month.
To get to the Tenrikyo headquarters, we had to walk a kilometre through an undercover market. It soon became clear that nearly everyone in Tenri was part of the religious community and many of the shops were selling religious items, such as black happi jackets with Tenri written in Kanji on the back. It was especially busy as they day before was the main monthly service which attracts thousands of followers. In Japan there are around 1.75 million followers, but more than 2 million followers worldwide. Even though Tenrikyo is one of many new religions in Japan, it has been the most successful in terms of the numbers of people who have joined the faith. This may be as it doesn’t restrict followers for also having Buddhist or Shinto beliefs, religions that are closely woven into Japanese society.
After removing our shoes we entered the main building; there were swathes of tatami mats on which people were kneeling and praying together facing towards a central pillar. Chiyo taught me a basic way to pray: whilst kneeling, clap your hands four times then rest your hands on the mat, say your prayers, then clap your hands four times to finish and give a small bow to say thank you. Even though the building is called a ‘church’, this is probably due to Christian missionaries who helped translate the initial translations into English. There are many similarities with Japanese customs, such as washing your hands before entering the building, removing your shoes and bowing towards the holy enclaves. This is understandable as the religion developed when Japan was under a rule of state Shintoism, as well as these customs being deeply ingrained in Japanese culture.
We wandered down the wooden corridors of the beautiful building. There were followers who had white cloths strapped to their knees and hands and were cleaning the floor. Others just swept a cloth over the handrails as they walked round. The metaphor of cleaning one’s mind is materialized in cleaning their church, and it is seen as an act of devotion, as well as fulfilling a practical need.
The atmosphere of the church was not overly pious; children were playing inside and business men were quickly making their rounds around the prayer stops. Yet like entering any religious space there was an air of something special going on, people were reflecting not just ‘doing’. And just as church members have a cup of tea after a service in England, there was a hall with long tables where followers were sharing Japanese tea and freely chatting away.
All in all, this religion intrigued me and thanks to the chance encounter with Chiyo, I have a new friend and a new interest. I wonder, do coincidences happen for a reason?