Revitalizing the Mandala: Re-establishing UDC Interfaith Education for Ministers to Contemporary Times
I am both ordained as an interfaith minister with UDC and a priest within the Japanese Buddhist tradition called Shingon. Yet Shingon, a 1200-year-old branch of Buddhism and among the oldest of the main sects in Japan, also has some interfaith aspects to its roots. The founder Kukai was quite possibly a genius similar to Leonardo Da Vinci in the ways he excelled within such a variety of fields. Kukai was one of the most famous calligraphers and poets of his time, but also helped revolutionize the period’s linguistics, architecture, medicine, education, and of course, its spiritual practices.
Kukai brought in a system of Vajrayana Buddhism from China focused on a “Dual-World Mandala” representing the interplay and unity of the spiritual and physical worlds in all their diversity. He respected and often included the already existent practices of larger traditions and local nature deities within the fold of his larger paradigm, and found a place for all of them within his mandala.
One of the revolutionary areas of Kukai’s activities was setting up Japan’s first public school within the capital. Keep in mind this is 1200 years ago, centuries prior to most ideas of public education in the world that would serve more than just the royalty or elite families. Kukai’s school, Shuchi-in was established with his request to the emperor and open to children who came without any financial resources. Although he emphasized his own Buddhist teachings, the school also taught other forms of Buddhism along with Daoism and Confucianism. It considered the ethics and morality of such religious systems critical to helping educate a just and fair society. Although it taught more than just religion, Shuchi-in was likely among the world’s first interfaith academies and places of study.
Centuries later, though already a half-century ago, Leland Stewart recognized the need for cooperation, recognition, and respect among the various world religions that were mingling in a society with expanding intercultural awareness and integration. Leland was one of the first promoters of the term interfaith within the United States and believed greater peace among religions was an integral part of greater peace within the world. He established the Unity-and-Diversity World Council (UDC). Leland and UDC proceeded to establish if not the first, among the first interfaith ministries within the United States. Leland helped establish a ministry training system in which ministers would study all main religions of the world, along with some of the new and developing religious and spiritual traditions. He also made sure ministers trained in rituals and ceremonies that could bring people of different faiths together in a single space of common ground. After decades of selfless service Leland passed away last year, but we are now about to bring the training program back.
The core of the program respects the training that he established, but there will be a few little adjustments to adapt the program to some of the needs of contemporary society. Like before there is a heavy emphasis on learning more about the main religions of the world. And there are also components on Interfaith ritual and settings. However, there will be additional training emphasis on the ministry of presence; listening and communication skills; handling psychological first aid; as well as recognizing and responding to the needs of community, social, and environmental justice. It will also allow for some flexible adaptation to fit the needs of each trainee. We hope that the program itself and some of the adjustments live up to Leland’s goals and the ideals of UDC itself, training interested individuals with both the knowledge and tools to go back into their individual communities and help create grounds for the diverse people of our world’s mandala to come together as one and work toward a more united and sustainable future.
Rev. Nathan Jishin Michon