Special Interview with Director-in-Chief of Administrative Affairs Zensuke Nakata: To Overcome the Huge “Knot” Caused by the Spread of COVID-19

—How do you perceive the current worsening situation caused by the spread of the coronavirus?

First of all, I would like to express my deepest condolences over those who passed away from COVID-19 and my heartfelt appreciation to those, including medical professionals, who have been working at the forefront to curb the spread of infection.

I suppose that no one could predict that the novel coronavirus would spread around the world in such a short period of time to become a pandemic. All over the world, people are overwhelmed by fear and anxiety over the unexpected disease. Many are saying things like: “Will the epidemic reach our community? If it does, how can we respond to it?” Even now, we are still unable to fully cope with the coronavirus or the related issues. Such seems to be the current situation.

Further, in addition to fear and anxiety, the pandemic has been causing political, economic, educational, and cultural disruption. Our community ties have broken down as a result of the restrictions on holding events and going out for nonessential reasons. Even when the pandemic eventually ends, the problems deriving from the coronavirus outbreak may not necessarily disappear immediately. Such secondary problems may continue to pose significant challenges to communities throughout the world. Meanwhile, the circumstances surrounding the pandemic may worsen further.

At the beginning of the worldwide outbreak, there was a growing tendency for people in the world to join their efforts to surmount the COVID-19 crisis. We should not overlook this positive aspect. My concern is, however, that such joint efforts are weakening as the coronavirus situations in individual countries become increasingly serious.

—What do you think of the knot we are facing now?

Various things happen. Some involve the whole world, some have a domestic impact, and some affect local communities. The situations may vary from one another. However, we would do well to note that God the Parent’s intention must be embodied in all of them. We followers of the path should not just stand back and watch while things unfold. Rather, it is important for us to ponder deeply over the divine intention if we are to receive the blessing of overcoming this unprecedented knot and allowing buds to sprout from it while responding flexibly to whatever is happening in our lives and around us.

In retrospect, we human beings have faced fear and anxiety due to a variety of infectious diseases both within Japan and around the world. In the history of the path, there were cases where missionaries directly came in contact with people who had certain contagious diseases. However, today’s society would not allow us to do salvation work in such a manner. It is vital for us, therefore, to understand the difference between the past and the present as we explore the ways we can engage in salvation work today.

There is always a way to receive God’s blessings—which is the same now as ever before. What we should bear in mind is that we should begin by sincerely pondering how we can receive the blessings. In the case of the current coronavirus crisis, what we need to do is to ponder over the current situation and find out what each of us can do to help save others. It goes without saying that we should not blindly follow in our predecessors’ footsteps in terms of outward form. Rather, we have to ponder deeply to find a course of action that is suitable for the current situation.

In this regard, when we explore God’s intention behind an infectious disease in the Scriptures, a verse in the Ofudesaki may catch our attention. In the Ofudesaki’s Part XIV, which was written in 1879, we read, “The world is saying that it is cholera, but it is Tsukihi informing you of the regret” (XIV:22). In fact, in and around 1879, a cholera pandemic occurred in Japan. If our mind is exclusively focused on this verse, there is a danger that we might have a narrow view of the teachings. It is better to pay close attention to some verses that come before and after verse XIV:22.

Says the Ofudesaki:

Whatever I do to the body, it is not an illness but the care of Tsukihi.
The world is saying that it is cholera, but it is Tsukihi informing you of the regret.
Everywhere in the world, people are the same: they only have depressed minds.
From now on, firmly replace the mind and become the mind of joyousness.
The reason Tsukihi began human beings was the desire to see you lead a joyous life.
Because the world does not know this truth, everyone sinks only deeper into depression.
Tsukihi desires to bring joyousness to all. If anyone dares to stop this, the regret will grow enormous.
I request you to understand this talk clearly and to ponder quickly.

Ofudesaki XIV:21–28

From these Ofudesaki verses, we can understand that God’s regret stems from the profound parental love that desires to help us human beings—who continue accumulating the dust of the mind—to live the Joyous Life. It is, therefore, indispensable for us to pursue God the Parent’s intention through the context in which the above Ofudesaki verse appears.

Another important thing here is to direct our attention to ourselves as we ponder over what we should do in the current situation. Although we are not specialists like doctors, politicians, or economists, I believe that we should make efforts to ponder over what we should do as followers of the path and members of the world family.

—Would you please elaborate more on that?

We are in the middle of a crisis. People are wondering what will happen to the world. We need to be fully aware that such fear and anxiety has been spreading all over the world. Under such circumstances, what each and every one of us has to do, first and foremost, is to pray to God the Parent with our utmost sincerity for the salvation of all people in the world. We should pray in any way that we can and that society allows us to.

In the history of the path, there were times—such as during the period of the Secret Directive of 1896 and of the Adjustment of 1938—when changes were imposed on the teachings of the path by the authorities. Unlike in those days, we are now able to follow the path without allowing the service to be distorted or prevented. It is important for us, therefore, to feel a sense of gratitude and joy for being able to perform the service exactly as we are taught.

We know that the service is a means to pray for salvation. The first step that each one of us should take is, therefore, to offer a prayer through performing the service at our respective places. We do not have to get caught up in formality. If the situation allows, however, we can also visit our churches to offer our prayers to God.

Another thing to keep in mind is, as I said, to honestly trust that whatever is happening in our lives and around the world is provided by God the Parent and that underneath it all is God’s parental love that desires us to lead the Joyous Life. Even though we may have worries and anxieties in our daily lives, let us trust that God’s parental love is always there. Some may ask you, “What kind of parental love is behind our difficulties and hardships?” Although it may be hard to answer that kind of question, let us put our whole reliance on God’s parental love—which is always embodied in things that happen in our daily lives. God, who is the Parent of all humankind, would not show us any adversity that we cannot go through. What is indispensable for us is, therefore, to have a strong conviction of faith that we are certainly capable of overcoming this knot.

People nowadays often find themselves caught up in suspicion about one another and, therefore, become separated and isolated from one another. There is a tendency for them to put the blame on matters that occurred in the past, saying, “Why did it turn out like this?” or “Because he didn’t do that, this had to happen.” These days, however, things are not that simple, since the situation changes so quickly. Thus, instead of regretting the past, we need to make efforts to think positively about the future. Otherwise, we cannot give full play to our potential to overcome this knot.

Allow me to quote a passage from a lecture the second Shinbashira delivered at the Ninth Doctrinal Seminar in March 1940, when Japan was on war footing. During that period of the so-called Adjustment, the authorities severely restricted Tenrikyo’s freedom to implement the true teachings of Oyasama. He said:

As you are fully aware, the path and the world at large are currently faced with a huge knot of difficulty. Now is not the time to blame others for causing the knot. We should be fully conscious that we are in the middle of the knot and that we are trying to go through it. I want to ask you to enhance your awareness of the situation and explore effective ways to go through it instead of simply criticizing others. I do not want your criticism. What I want is your implementation. In a sense, we cannot afford to engage in a blame game about who is responsible for the knot, which we are all forced to deal with. I hope that all of you will completely let go of any preconceived ideas you have about how this is someone else’s problem.

The second Shinbashira delivered these words at the time of the war, a huge knot for the world. He said that, in the very midst of the knot, people should not blame others or criticize something as having caused the whole problem. He instructed the followers to proactively explore ways to go through this knot and to implement the teachings in their daily lives at the same time.

In light of this, I believe it is important for us to encourage one another in a positive way. Let us be mindful of making forward-looking remarks in our daily lives, saying, for example: “There may be a variety of worries and anxieties. But let’s keep our heads up. We have the strength to go through it!” Some might accuse me, saying, “You are being too optimistic about that.” However, as I mentioned earlier, we can see a positive sign—which shows that the world can unite in such a huge knot. Thus, let us set our sights on the goal that Oyasama’s teachings are aimed at and make it our conviction of faith to realize the Joyous Life World. Let us make Her ideal world the driving force to overcome this knot while spiritedly encouraging others, saying, “Let’s move forward!” In fact, I think we have the responsibility to give encouragement to the world. Let us trust in the parental love of God the Parent and have a strong will to send a positive message, saying things like, “Let us be spirited and rise to the challenge.” This can be a concrete action that any one of us can do.

In this regard, it is also important for us to take a fresh look at our faith and our way of living and thinking. You may well think that this is not the time to be doing this. Yet, there are restrictions on going out, and while staying at home we have more time than ever to focus on ourselves. Given our human tendency to forget things easily—just as an old proverb says, “Vows made in storms are forgotten in calms”—it is imperative to interpret the current situation as a significant opportunity, arranged by the divine intention, to critically reflect upon our attitude toward practicing our faith.

The current situation does not allow us Yoboku and other followers to assemble at our churches and hold Tenrikyo events and activities there. Yet, when each one of us who belongs to a church regards this situation as a manifestation of God’s instruction to ponder over the usual way we conduct the activities at our churches, we can realize that God the Parent has been urging us to critically reflect upon ourselves and our way of staying connected with the churches. Here I would like to share an aphorism by a predecessor on the path, which says in effect that even if we perform the service with the required number of people, there is no truth of salvation in it when our mind is not yet purified. Thus, let us once again purify our mind and take a fresh look at our way of living in a manner that allows God the Parent to become spirited and that is conducive to salvation. This is also what we can do right now.

—What are your thoughts in terms of practicing mutual help?

The novel coronavirus has been spreading worldwide. This is the proof that we are living in the ties among people in communities. The inconveniences caused by self-isolation and social distancing have taught us that the interpersonal ties are really indispensable for our living.

In light of this, it is vital for us Yoboku to make progress along the path toward “the helping of one another” among all people in the world, who are equal brothers and sisters, and raise our own awareness of the need to spread the teachings of mutual help to the world. Such is the mission entrusted to us Yoboku.

Especially for those of us who live in churches, even though we cannot provide care and nurture for our followers exactly as we did before, there must be other ways to do that. For instance, whereas we cannot gather people at our churches, we still can make phone calls to encourage them. We can also talk to them one by one when the situation allows us to do that. Thus, let us explore ways to provide care and guidance and put them into practice. In that sense, I think, now is the time to give full play to our churches’ potential for nurturing.

As regards our task of reaching out to people in the world, it is also quite significant for us to send the message that will become their source of energy to overcome the knot. For example, we can say: “We have the strength to overcome this hardship. Let’s work together and get through it together” or, more simply, “One World, One Family!” By making full use of bulletin boards in our regional churches as well as social media, let us send bright messages at every opportunity to cheer up our societies, saying, for example, “Since we are one family living in one world, let’s not get caught up in suspicion, but help one another.” Such is one way we can proceed.

Given that many people in the world are living with fear and anxiety amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it is particularly important now for each one of us to maintain a sense of joyousness and the mind of saving others, so that people in our communities can set their mind at ease and find relief in whatever we followers of the path may be doing or saying. Thus, let us take the initiative to be cheerful and spirited while helping and encouraging one another in unity of mind and reflect and send our joy of faith to the world. I believe that this is an implementation of our faith that will contribute to constructing the world where people help one another as brothers and sisters.

—Lastly, would you please briefly explain once again the basis of pondering that should be maintained as we go through this huge knot?

The current situation is changing rapidly. People may well worry about how things will be even after just one month. What we must bear in mind is, however, that everything is an action of God the Parent. Those of us who know the teachings should take a positive stance. Furthermore, we should be careful about our words and actions to ensure that we do not inadvertently increase people’s anxiety. It is from this perspective that Church Headquarters decided to ask followers of the path to refrain from returning to Jiba to attend the Monthly Service.

When we come across unfavorable situations, we may well find ourselves directing our attention to people around us and trying to find someone to blame. Then things often unfold in a negative way. However, when we pay attention to ourselves, we can reflect upon ourselves in a way that will allow for positive changes.

Let us, therefore, critically ask ourselves whether we might not have taken it for granted that we were able to gather at our churches and perform the service together with our fellow followers. By taking a fresh look at ourselves, we can proactively accept the current situation as an opportunity to ponder deeply to allow buds to sprout from this knot. For example, we might resolve to redouble our efforts to cleanse our heart. We can interpret this knot as a season to attain a new level of spiritual growth. It is the strength and the preciousness of faith that enable us to do that. We should keep this point in mind.

Allow me to summarize my remarks. What each one of us has to do now is, first and foremost, to pray sincerely for a settling to the current world, where people are facing fear and anxiety. Then we should completely trust in God’s parental love and renew our mind of saving others, while at the same time taking care not to unwittingly reinforce people’s anxiety. On top of that, we should steadily promote and advance the helping of one another among all people in the world, who are equal brothers and sisters. In this way, we can contribute to overcoming this global challenge in a way that will lead to positive outcomes. Lastly, we would do well to strive to become the sort of Yoboku who can share a few words that will brighten up and encourage people around us. Such, I believe, sums up what we followers of the path have to do now.

From the May 2020 issue of Michi no Tomo magazine published by Doyusha Publishing Company

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