There are many terrible and dramatic images from the war unfolding in Ukraine. One striking image is that of a sangha marching before St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, an ancient institution founded in 1108–13. The group arrived at this Christian landmark in the heart of Kyiv and bowed before it, before continuing on what was a nearly month-long peace vigil that started before the war began. It is an arresting sight of interfaith respect, made all the more significant by the fact that the leader of this sangha had to flee with his Ukrainian disciples into the Carpathian Mountains shortly before Russia launched its invasion. The sangha is led by Junsei Terasawa (b. 1950), a priest of the pacifist, Nichiren-inspired Nipponzan-Myohoji-Daisanga. Terasawa had foreseen a geopolitical conflict that could put cities such as Kyiv in danger, and accordingly built a Buddhist center in the Carpathians, more than 700 kilometers from Kyiv.*
Founded in Japan in 1917, this new religious movement is small—consisting of around 2,000 members—and Terasawa is the first in his order to have cultivated a sangha from countries across Eurasia, from Kyrgyzstan to Ukraine. Alongside many Buddhist leaders and groups, such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, His Holiness the Karmapa, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, and Ven. Bhikkhu Sanghasena, Junsei Terasawa continues to offer prayers in the hope of an end to the conflict in Ukraine.
The global community is watching on in horror at the collapse of the post-Cold War era, the pulverization of Ukrainian cities, and severe economic reprisals against Russia, with potentially significant consequences for President Vladimir Putin and also the world economy. The war could also have a significant ripple effect on ecumenism between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. The exact ramifications are unclear, but the ferocity and scope of the invasion have set the tone for what needs to be a deep and focused meditation on religion’s priority: love of peace and love of life.
St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery is the headquarters of the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). Yet the OCU’s autocephaly is a very recent creation, with the unification of Ukrainian Orthodox churches sealed on 15 December 2018. Before 2018, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) claimed ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the territory of Ukraine, with support from the Russian Orthodox Church. As entangled fate would have it, the UOC-MP considers itself the only legitimate descendant in contemporary Ukraine of Kyiv and all territories of “the Rus’.” This claim is based on jurisdictions hammered out by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in the 10th Century. The metropolitan seat was moved to Vladimir and finally to Moscow because of the Mongol invasions in the 13th Century.
The UOC-MP’s historical claims on the ancient Rus’ territories in some ways overlap with those on which Russian nationalists now stake their claim. Yet, as the Associated Press reports, Metropolitan Onufry, leader of the UOC-MP, declared: “Forget mutual quarrels and misunderstandings and . . . unite with love for God and our Motherland.” (AP News) His words seemed to support those of the OCU head, Metropolitan Epifany: “With prayer on our lips, with love for God, for Ukraine, for our neighbors, we fight against evil—and we will see victory.” (AP News) But the situation quickly became murky and confused, as both Orthodox Christians and the country’s minority Catholics began to split over which side to take, if any. Even Terasawa, who has been open about his opposition to the Russian invasion, has a diverse sangha, with many of his students from countries who might either support Russia or lean toward the Russian perspective.
The presence of Terasawa’s community before St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery on the eve of the war, and the contrast of this ancient monastery being the seat for an effectively brand-new but now potentially imperiled autocephalous OCU, was never in the foreground of the unfolding crisis. Religious matters might be “quieter” and often lie in the background of the news, however religious conviction, culture, and legacies stimulate so much of human affairs and serve as indications and signposts of the past, present, and future.
This intersection of a Buddhist movement, two Orthodox Christian traditions, and a Catholic minority heralds a theologically unique time. It is one that religious writers and theologians may well look back on as one shared in faith, heightened by the dark shadow of war and suffering. It is this “mindfulness” of “walking in the valley of the shadow of death” that stimulates a greater humility and ethical openness toward the Other, while also sharpening ethical questions about how said encounters should be conducted, especially when power meets resistant subjectivity. Accommodation alone is not the answer. Manifesting an ethical character in interfaith relations is especially difficult when overlaid onto geopolitics, as is happening now.
According to the Jesuit theologian Michael Barnes S. J., interfaith dialogue is a “multi-layered practice which negotiates the shared space of the ‘middle’.” (Barnes 2002, 180) The liturgical and ecclesiastical difficulties being negotiated by the OCU and UOC-MP, as well as the Buddhist presence touching much of Eurasia—from the Buddhist-majority autonomous republics of Russia to the extant communities and disappeared history of the Silk Routes—are motifs that echo philosopher Michel de Certeau’s “psycho-analytically inspired image of the past which returns to ‘haunt’ the present.” (Barnes 2002, 180)
Sometimes the past drives people to dark extremes and obsessions. The religious question is how the “middle” can be negotiated, while also applying an empathy that transforms situations and turns them into advantages, like the alchemy of Vajrayana Buddhism.
Here, we must accept that the work of building bridges is extremely time-consuming. It demands patience and emotional intelligence. We simply do not know how buddha-nature, the enlightened nature of bodhi, is manifesting itself in the entangled karma of Ukrainians of different churches, Russians, and the wider global community. Nevertheless, there are basic benchmarks that can start us off. In any meeting of identities, the mere presence of subjective agents is what fulfils an encounter. The willingness to come together indicates a desire to be known, and often unbeknown to ourselves, a desire to know the other, no matter how distorted our ignorance may have made our perceptions or assumptions.
A mindfulness of this presence manifests in mutual acknowledgement in the middle space, where our artificial identities can engage in “theological hospitality,” (Barnes 2002, 244) in which our identities are free to engage and even be perplexed and vulnerable in a safe space. This bodhi mindfulness not only acknowledges the other, but also recognizes their profound suffering while also opening ourselves to confessing our own suffering. A particularly fine Buddhist expression of this twofold acknowledgement is the late Thich Nhat Hanh’s four-line mantra for “true presence”:
Darling, I am here for you.(The Mindfulness Bell)
I know you are there, and I am very happy.
Darling, I know you suffer. That is why I am here for you.
Darling, I suffer. Please help.
Barnes offers Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?” as an exhortation to not simply represent Christ to the other, but finding some way in which “the other can be Christ to me.” The Suffering God confers on the “encounter-er” a new identity. This is no conventional artificial identity. It is one borne not through an assertion of power, but through negotiating a whole series of relationships with various others. (Barnes 2002, 242) What we say of the Buddha or Christ may question the other, but what the other says could be about Christ or the Buddha, questioning us in turn. Seeing how others speak of Christ, or how others manifest buddha-nature, can be disconcerting while also comforting. But this is the question that must be asked. This is the historic question in which Ukraine’s and Russia’s people, along with people of the rest of the world, are now immersed.
Because of what has happened, there is no escaping this question. To refuse to answer it is to invite physical and spiritual destruction.
Barnes, Michael, S. J. 2002. Theology and the Dialogue of Religions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
EXPLAINER: How is Russia-Ukraine war linked to religion? (AP News)
Dharma Talk: True Presence (The Mindfulness Bell)