A pure land on the banks of the Rhine: priest Marc Nottellmann and the Eko house

- through Francois Leclercq

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Image courtesy of Pearl Delores Smith Farmer

Although it is the largest Buddhist denomination in Japan and the United States, Jodo Shinshu is generally little known in the West. Jodo Shinshu, sometimes called Shin Buddhism, is a school of Pure Land Buddhism that emphasizes obtaining birth in the pure land of Amitabha Buddha (or Amida Buddha) through "invocation of the Buddha" (nianfo; nembutsu) of Amida alone. Philosophically, soteriologically and theologically, this means that Amida alone undertakes a salvific action (other power), without the devotee technically undertaking any practice of his own (self-power). In addition to being the largest denomination in Japan and the United States, Jodo Shinshu has long maintained a presence in Asia outside of Japan, including Australasia, Canada, Latin America and Europe.

Here, I strive to draw attention to this influential school that has been overlooked in our broader cultural consciousness.

In September, I attended the 20th European Conference of Shin Buddhism at the Eko House in Düsseldorf, western Germany. The conference had been held every two years before the global spread of COVID-19, and this occasion marks the first time the conference has been convened since the advent of the pandemic.

I interviewed one of its priests, the Rev. Marc Nottelmann, and our conversation explored the history of this remarkable temple.

Image courtesy of Pearl Delores Smith Farmer

Eko House is a Shin Buddhist temple, the largest in Europe and the only one built in the traditional style. Her name, ecois taken from a passage in Amida Sutra bigger and designates “the granting of light” or the “luminous splendor” of Amida Buddha.

This year’s conference took place over two and a half days. Priests and lay people from across Europe as well as the Americas and Japan gathered to discuss the theme “Compassion and Practice in Jodo Shinshu.”

Each day opened with a short liturgy, followed by presentations from the participants. The first day began with a welcome speech by Professor Hisao Matsumaru of Eko House, and with the opening speech of His Eminence Koshin Ohtani, former monshu (chief priest) of the Honganji-Ha denomination of Shin Buddhism (he is a direct descendant of the founder of Jodo Shinshu, Shinran Shonin), and a keynote address by Rev. Kiyonobu Kuwahara.

A series of presentations then followed, discussing and analyzing various aspects of compassion from the specific perspective of Shin Buddhism. What kept the event fresh and engaging was the diversity of styles and approaches employed by the different presenters. For example, some presentations (such as “Creating Compassionate Spaces: Ritual, Practice and Architecture in Jodo Shinshu” by Rev. Professor Enrique Galvan-Alvarez and Rev. Dr. Louella Matsunaga or the “Jodo Shinshu” practices of Dr. Markus Rüsch in the South of Kyushu and their significance in defining Jodo Shinshu orthodoxy") were presentations of formal and scholarly research articles. Others, like “Born in the Pure Land – immediately or at the end of life? – “A Journey of a Shin Buddhist” by Dr. Prof. Xuan Phuc Nguyen or “The Chaplaincy in the United Kingdom of a Jodo Shinshu” by Reverend David Quirke-Thornton. perspective” were more personal and autobiographical presentations.

Image courtesy of Pearl Delores Smith Farmer

Still others were more traditional doctrinal expositions, such as “What is “Great Compassion” in Shin Buddhism” by Rev. Professor Esho Sasaki and “Compassion and Practice in Daily Life” by Rev. Ilona Evers. Perhaps most unusual was Rev. Diane Dunn's "Poetry as Practice: Words Pointing to Nembutsu," which consisted primarily of readings by her late Dharma friend Marcus Cumberledge, Bruges Poet Laureate, and her own equally wonderful poetry.

The conference also included “introductions” to various Shin Buddhist initiatives around the world. The Buddhist Churches of America Center for Buddhist Education presented by Rev. Jerry K. Hirano, the Belgian Jiko-ji Temple presented by Mr. Alain De Preter and the online sangha “Jinen-ko” presented by Rev. Professor Enrique Galvan-Alvarez (see BDG's interview with him here). A special panel on the translation of Jodo Shinshu texts was also included, during which Rev. Dr. Takashi Miyaji, Rev. Dr. Jerome Ducor, and Rev. Marc Nottelmann discussed the issues and challenges of translating Shin Buddhist texts. from Chinese and Japanese to English. French and German.

The conference continued on the second day with a special birthday service held in the main Buddha hall of the temple, where chanting was accompanied by the beautiful melodies of Japanese traditions. gagaku music. The conference ended on the third day with a meeting to decide on the next European Shin conference. It will be held in 2025 in Oxford, United Kingdom, on the theme “Peace and harmony”.

Interview with Reverend Marc Nottellmann

Buddhadoor Global: Jodo Shinshu Buddhism has its roots in Japan. How did this particular tradition spread to Germany?

Reverend Marc Nottelmann: Inspired by Arthur Schopenhauer and his philosophy, Nyanatiloka became a monk in 1902 and Paul Dahlke founded the “Buddhist House” in Berlin in 1924. Thus, in Germany, since the beginning of the 1954th century, there has been a small Theravada branch. Harry Pieper was a member of the Buddhist House and later learned Mahayana Buddhism from Angarika Govinda, a German woman who had lived in Tibet. In 23, Pieper met the 1956rd Monshu, Ôtani Kôshô, during his visit to Germany and was so impressed by his personality and teaching that he founded the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Community, Germany (Buddhistische Gemeinschaft Jodo Shinshu, Deutschland) in XNUMX .

Image courtesy of Pearl Delores Smith Farmer

BDG: Can you share the story of the creation of Maison Eko in Germany? When was it built? Why was it built? And why in Düsseldorf? What is the objective of Maison Eko? How was it financed?

NMR: Maison Eko was founded by the entrepreneur Numata Ehan (or Yehan) (1897-1994), born into a Shin Buddhist temple family in Hiroshima. He studied abroad at Berkeley in the early 1920s, by which time he already wanted to spread Buddhism in America by publishing a Buddhist magazine, but he failed for financial reasons. In 1934, he founded the Mitutoyo company, which produced measuring instruments. After his business achieved economic success, he founded the famous Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai (Society for the Promotion of Buddhism). During the 1980s, this association began its activities in Europe and in 1992 the Eko Temple was consecrated and the Cultural Center began its activities. In the 1960s, Düsseldorf was the headquarters of Mitutoyo's European trading arm, the center of the West German economy.

As Düsseldorf is close to European metropolises such as Paris, London and Brussels, many other Japanese companies have established themselves in Düsseldorf. Düsseldorf's Japanese population today is larger than in any other German city, and it has created a highly visible subculture, for which Düsseldorf is famous. Numata Ehan saw the deep connection between Buddhism and Japanese culture. For him, Buddhism teaches the peaceful interrelationship between all sentient beings and is therefore relevant to the multi-ethnic world of our time. He understood that nationality and race were not a concern, even though Numata grew older and his business even expanded to Brazil (the farthest country from Japan).

We have all been brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers in our past lives. As far as I know, Numata never expressed this explicitly, but I personally feel that he chose Düsseldorf and not, for example, Paris, because he felt that Germany and Japan had a historical relationship deep (and this relationship was very negative). . Teaching the ideal of Kyosei (Living together) was important especially in this country: Düsseldorf is only a few kilometers from Hitler's tank factories. But like I said, he never said anything explicitly about it.

BDG: Maison Eko hosts various events. Can you share some examples of how these activities help people connect with Shin Buddhism and its teachings? Aside from international events, do you have a local sangha at Maison Eko? How many people are involved? Are they primarily of German, Japanese, or other ethnic origins?

NMR: Maison Eko offers all typically Japanese traditional arts (with the exception of martial arts): ikebana, shodoplay cat, dance and much more. And it is of course a place for traditional Buddhist ceremonies. The deepest contact with the Japanese population in Düsseldorf is the Eko kindergarten, which has 30 German and 30 Japanese children. Many parents bring their children to Shosanshiki (first temple visit ceremony). Some older Japanese people come to temple services more or less regularly, but we rarely see younger Japanese people. The EKO house program is generally not a reason for people to become Shin Buddhists.

Even Zen Buddhism can only derive slight benefits, e.g. from inspirations from shodo (shodo, or calligraphy, is strongly linked to Zen Buddhism in Japan). It cannot be explained briefly why the idea of ​​“being interested in Japanese culture” leads to “becoming a Buddhist in a Japanese tradition” does not work, and why it is difficult to create a Japanese-German Buddhist community. I published an article on this subject: “EKŌ-JI: the ideas of Numata Ehan and their realization in a Japanese Buddhist temple in Germany”, in Nottelmann-Feil, Marc, Journal of Religion in Japan, Flight. 11, No. 1 (2022). And even in this in-depth article, I have not had space to discuss the underlying issues, intimately linked to the history of Western Buddhism.

Image courtesy of Pearl Delores Smith Farmer

BDG: Eko-ji is extremely distinctive. Who designed it? Was there a specific architectural influence, such as a specific temple in Japan or a particular era?

NMR: The Suzuki Kensetsu construction company erected the temple and other buildings. It was a cooperation between Japanese and German workers. Numata Ehan donated the same temple to Utsunomiya, Ibaraki-ken.

BDG: Maison Eko has a magnificent Japanese garden. Who designed it? Can you explain the importance of the garden and its role in temple activities?

NMR: The same construction company was responsible, but I should find the names of the gardeners in a certain book (which I don't have available at the moment). The most important thing is that it is a combination of a pure land garden and an aristocratic villa style garden (shinden-zukuri), and this form dates back to Kyoto from the Heian era (although, to my knowledge, no garden from this era has survived to the present day). As a temple garden, people are not allowed to play there or have a o-hanami picnic there. However, during the warm months of the year, before the coronavirus, we used to organize a spring/summer/fall festival once a year: in the center of the garden a stage was erected where dancers, musicians, martial artists, etc. demonstrated their arts.

BDG: Temples often serve as cultural centers. How has Maison Eko contributed to cultural exchanges between Japan and Germany?

NMR: There are many cases that demonstrate the importance of the Eko-House as a cultural center. In 2005, former German President Horst Köhler and the Minister President of North Rhine-Westphalia visited the Eko House, together with German and Japanese business representatives. But real cultural exchanges happen in everyday life. I now hear the voices of Japanese and German kindergarten children playing together.

BDG: Over the years, have you witnessed any unique or heartwarming stories of transformation or deepening of faith among followers?

NMR: There are many people's stories, but transformation is often an invisible process. People become more open and clear as they age. I remember, for example, a certain member, Richard Hastreiter, who lived in Bavaria, in the south of Germany, and who came to our hoonko seminars in the fall. He was a friendly and silent man. I heard that he died sitting at his Buddha altar. His wife found him there with a peaceful face in the early morning. I still wish that I too would experience a peaceful death this way.

Anyone interested in attending and/or presenting at the 2025 conference can contact Rev. Dr. Louella Kaishin Matsunaga at (protected email).

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Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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