On May 20, the day after the SOPP ceremony, over thirty prayer leaders, guests, youth participants, and Byakko staff members re-assembled at Fuji Sanctuary to deepen their connection and share their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences with regard to prayer and the creation of a peaceful world. This was the fourth such discussion that has taken place during the SOPP at Fuji Sanctuary, and each time, the discussion has taken on a different format and theme.
This year, the discussion was once again facilitated by Dr. Bob Stilger, Co-President of New Stories in the United States, together with Byakko Deputy Chairperson Yuka Saionji. Dr. Stilger has been working for over 35 years in the field of community building, serving as a teacher, speaker, consultant, facilitator, and coach.
The discussion began at 10 am with a welcome from Byakko Chairperson Masami Saionji, self-introductions and a piano performance by Mr. Kenichi Yamamoto, who composed the music for the SOPP ceremony. When the music ended, participants kept their eyes closed and remained silent for a minute longer.
Next, Masami Saionji delivered a message to the participants. She talked about the origin and meaning of the prayer May peace prevail on Earth, which she learned when she first met Masahisa Goi, the late founder of Byakko Shinko Kai, in her youth. Mr. Goi developed this prayer in response to all the suffering that he saw around him and throughout the world. At first, Mrs. Saionji said, it was difficult for her to understand how such a large-scale message could help people who were suffering in their day-to-day lives, but she realized through Mr. Goi’s work and the community around him that we are connected with all humanity, all forms of life, and everything in the universe. We are not separate from those who are suffering, and the prayer May peace prevail on Earth is a prayer of universal oneness.
Mrs. Saionji talked about how Mr. Goi helped guide her through her own spiritual journey and practices. During that time, she had a vision of Fuji Sanctuary (which did not exist yet), with a long line of people coming to pray there, and Mr. Goi acknowledged that her vision would come true. She said that her mission, she feels, is to convey to people the divine power that they have within themselves—a power that makes everything possible. Her wish is for people to learn to rely solely on their own divine wisdom, and prayer has tremendous power in guiding us to this state.
Mrs. Saionji also related her experience of visiting Poland when it was still under Communist rule, and holding a world peace prayer ceremony there. There was a dark and heavy atmosphere to the place at that time, and at first no one joined in the prayers for each country. Then, one by one, people began to voice the prayers, until finally most of the participants were joining in. At the end, the participants, who did not know each other beforehand, came together in a circle, sharing hugs and tears of joy. One older woman who was materially poor thanked Mrs. Saionji personally, saying that up until that day, she felt she had no hope for the future, but through the prayers that day, her heart had changed and opened up. She felt that despite her poverty and lack of education, she had been able to serve humanity and feel a sense of purpose.
Finally, Mrs. Saionji talked about her vision for the 2015 SOPP, for which she hopes to invite not only religious and spiritual leaders, but also politicians, economists, educators, doctors, scientists, and people from all different fields to come together at Fuji Sanctuary and create a new charter for humanity. The key to this vision, she said, is the individual. All of us are created equal, no matter where we were born, what we faith we believe in, how highly we are regarded, or how rich or poor we are. As many of the prayer leaders and guests this year already remarked, there is light within each and every one of us. Through this high-dimensional thought that is being anchored year after year at Fuji Sanctuary, Mrs. Saionji wishes to make the ‘rebirth of divine consciousness’ the theme for 2015. The rebirth of divine consciousness means recognizing the divine being that resides within us—the power within ourselves to heal ourselves, take responsibility for ourselves, and make the best decisions for ourselves. The collective wisdom and experience of the people who will gather in 2015 will be needed to make this charter a reality.
Following Mrs. Saionji’s remarks, Dr. Stilger began the day’s discussion. “Dialogue,” he said, “is mostly about listening—listening to ourselves, listening to each other, listening to the patterns that arise here, and listening to the silence.” The participants were divided into groups of three and invited to either go outside or stay inside and talk about the journey that brought them to Fuji Sanctuary.
After this, the discussion moved on to its main theme or question: How is it that we come into deeper connection with each other, rather than more separation from each other? To explore this theme, the participants once again divided into groups of three and used a method called ‘storytelling trios,’ where each person in the group has a different role to play in the telling of a story, and each has an opportunity to play all three roles. Participants were asked to share experiences in which they had felt the separation from others dissolve, and how they felt inside at that time. Later, they were invited to draw pictures that depicted the essence and the patterns that they heard in each other’s stories. Based on these drawings, eight groups were formed, and after lunch the participants reassembled in these new groups to explore the commonalities in their drawings.
Toward the end of the discussion, the participants returned to one large circle, where one person from each group gave a brief presentation of their group’s conversation. Then, as a surprise addition, Hindu prayer leader Dato J. Jegathesan and his wife presented an commemorative ornament from the Sai Baba Central Council to Byakko Chairperson Masami Saionji, and performed an uplifting song for the entire group. In the large circle, participants were invited to speak a single word that described what they felt in their heart. Finally, Jewish prayer leaders Ms. Neshama Carlebach and Mr. Josh Nelson led everyone in a guided meditation and two prayerful Hebrew songs, bringing the discussion to a close with an air of spiritual peace and beauty.
After the discussion, Dr. Stilger and his wife Susan Virnig offered their thoughts on the day and the larger mission of the SOPP:
Today, prayer leaders, guests, and youth participants from all over the world—from diverse backgrounds, countries, and faiths—gathered here for the post-ceremony discussion. Having completed the discussion, can you please reflect on what has been achieved today? Please start with your overall impression.
Bob: I think that we’re in a time when people yearn to be connected with each other—that we live in a culture that separates us, and in a time that separates us, and there is a strong yearning to be together. I think that three things happened today. The first is that people here—this wonderful group—had a chance to be together. The second is that we were able to explore some of the patterns of being together. And the third is that, by being together here, I think that we released energy into the world that invites other people into connecting with each other.
Susan: Another thing that I think was really important that occurred here was that all of these people are working so hard in their own individual places and lives, and to come together and share that renews each one of us and sends us back to our own lives with more energy.
What in today’s session brought out those four points most distinctly?
Bob: The question that we were exploring today is, “What is it that supports us in connecting with each other, rather than separating us?” I think the question itself drew people into deeper connection with each other. And just that—just that alone—is enough, but it goes further.
Susan: In my small group of three, we each talked about different moments that had deeply affected us, or where we had felt connected. And for two of us, the experience of going to Hiroshima and seeing the museum and the pictures and the terrible consequences of war made us want even more deeply to be part of peace. So, that is just one connection that we specifically made. The person I was talking to carries a picture from that museum with him all the time, and it reminds him to keep working for peace.
In my case, when I was a student in Japan 43 years ago, I went to Hiroshima on August 6, and I purchased many signs saying May peace prevail on Earth (in Japanese). I’ve hung one of them on my door for all the years since then, and I’ve given them to many people. So, his story of going to the museum and my story of going to Hiroshima are not things we normally share. But today, we had the opportunity to share them. And I think it gave strength and hope to both of us.
You arranged today’s discussion in such a way that each one of us plays a role. Each group of three had three roles—storyteller, listener, and interviewer. How did this help the participants in sharing things that they would not normally share with others?
Bob: It seemed to work. It’s one of those examples where sometimes, a little structure—not a lot, but a little—can help people go a bit more deeply more quickly than they might otherwise be able to.
Susan: I think another thing that was powerful about that particular structure was that each of us traded places. So, we got to be listened to well, but we also got to give another person that same gift. I think that also helped us deepen our stories and deepen our connection.
You stressed that this kind of gathering is all about being a good listener. How did you find that people engaged in this process?
Bob: In this kind of work, I can give an invitation, and people step into that invitation to varying degrees. One of the reasons that I emphasized listening here is that we’re in a room with many people who are used to talking a lot, and so I just wanted to nudge people towards listening more. Some people who are used to talking a lot still talked a lot, but that’s okay, because we can’t control it. If you try to control it, it forces the magic out. So, all we can do is invite.
We had a big base of acceptance and appreciation and respect for others. But even beyond that, the way that you brought people together in this discussion really worked.
Bob: I think that one aspect of this work is continuing to trust it and continuing to work with it in an open and playful way that invites the magic that’s always present to come more into the room.
That really happened when we did drawings and placed the drawings in the center of the circle, and then the volunteers intuitively arranged the drawings. People could see that, while each drawing belonged to a certain group, it also connected to something bigger. When you bring people back to the larger circle, they find that they have something in common not just in their smaller group, but with the whole group. Can you reflect on this process?
Bob: In good dialogue, we try to create the conditions for people to begin to have a deeper conversation, and trust that when people come together in that spirit of inquiry and of listening, they will discover more about themselves, and more about each other, and more about all of us. And, there are always unexpected gifts. Josh Nelson came to me this morning and said, we’d like to offer some music, if that would be helpful. We talked for a while, and the idea came for them to host the final closing with music, and that was so beautiful. Whenever you create the conditions that allow the gifts of community to step forward, it’s always beautiful.
The music was so well intertwined with the dialogue—the piano at the beginning, and at the end, Josh and Neshama wonderfully leading the whole group. It was such a harmonious and beautiful closing.
Susan: I think that in designing, planning, and trying to create a day like today, it’s important to come in with some clear ideas about what you want to have happen during the day, but then to be willing to let those ideas go. The music shows that—it becomes more powerful than anything that we could individually plan when we welcome that serendipity, that surprise.
The participants will return to their respective countries, faiths, and work. What do you envision as the next step for these people to continue what they have experienced today? And, what do you see happening for the world at large?
Bob: I have no expectations. I only have curiosity and trust that today has influenced each of our lives, and the influence will reveal itself as we continue to live our lives, and will show up in many unexpected and delightful ways.
Without a doubt, there was a lot of chemistry in this room today, and this chemistry has created something new, for sure.
Susan: The other thing is that many of us, if not most of us, came away feeling filled up, having received something from this group. So, when you ask about expectations, I expect that nearly all of us will go back to our lives a little healthier, with a little more joy, with a little more ability to carry on, because we have been together in this way. I believe that most of us will carry this away with us.
To conclude, I’d like to ask you what message you’d like to give to the people who are part of this movement—who are working toward what the SOPP is trying to achieve.
Bob: What seems clear to me is that something new is being born here, and that something is dying. The way we have been on this planet—especially during the last 50-100 years—isn’t working out so well for us or for the planet. Many of us know that. And we don’t know what the change looks like, but we know we’re inviting in an energy of change. I think that a prayer for peace is a prayer for the new world that is being born and living that future now. I trust the power of Masami Saionji’s vision, that 2015 is an important year. I think that she doesn’t know yet what it is, and we don’t know what it is, but it will be important. It’s something I keep sensing.
Susan: I would add appreciation and gratitude to people who are focusing on peace. What greater gift can we give each other or give the world than to invite peace—inside ourselves, in our relationships, in our countries, but most important of all, in the whole world? People who are involved in the SOPP and peace prayers—I think they are a gift to all of humanity, to all of us. So, what I would want to say is, thank you, and please keep it up.
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and reflections.