Successful Collaborative Course at Hartford Seminary

October 4, 2017

Once again, Hartford Seminary hosted a week-long summer course titled, “The Spirituality and Practices of Asian Religions.” The course was designed to introduce the religious life and spirituality practiced in East Asian countries, in particular, China, South Korea and Japan this year. It has been very special for Shinnyo-en Foundation to support this course for the past three years because it has been providing Hartford Seminary’s graduate students and affiliates the opportunity to learn more about Asian Religions when Hartford Seminary wouldn’t have the resources to offer it otherwise. In turn, the Shinnyo-en Buddhist Order has been benefiting from this course by encouraging the Shinnyo-en temple staff around the world to immerse themselves in the discussion with mature course participants at Hartford Seminary in the interfaith context. The course participants have usually been experienced local faith leaders or advanced seminary graduate students with diverse Abrahamic religious backgrounds.

Dr. Okuyama presenting on Shinnyo-en Buddhism

This year, the course was designed and organized by Dr. Michiaki Okuyama, Research Fellow of Nanzan Institute for Religion & Culture and Professor at Nanzan University, Nagoya, Japan, and Dr. Kenta Kasai, Research Fellow of the Center for Information on Religion, Tachikawa, Japan. Dr. Kasai also serves Shinnyo-en Foundation as board member. Dr. Kasai took the responsibility of designing the course content and communicating with the expert instructors, while Dr. Okuyama provided some assistance. Dr. Scott Thumma, Interim Academic Dean and Professor of Sociology of Religion at Hartford Seminary, assumed the on-site coordinator’s responsibilities, including the recruitment of Hartford Seminary students. The course was offered from June 5 to 10, including a field trip to the Shinnyo-en New York Temple in White Plains, NY on June 9. As in the previous year, Dr. Clark Chilson, Associate Professor of the University of Pittsburgh, spoke about the religions in Japan while Dr. Donald Baker, Professor of the University of British Columbia, also returned to share the decades of his study and research on those of South Korea. Dr. Jean DeBernardi, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alberta, joined for the second year to address the religions of China. Dr. Okuyama presented Shinnyo-en Buddhism in the context of Japanese religions.

Dr. Scott Thumma making concluding remarks

It could have been hot and humid in June in Hartford, CT. However, the temperature was almost too cold to be outside without wearing a few layers this year. Thanks to Dr. Thumma’s generous hospitality and thoughtfulness, the high ceiling classroom was kept comfortable for hours during the expert instructors’ presentations and discussions, including the offering of tasty refreshments of baked goods and a large fresh watermelon. The lively morning discussions usually spilled over to lunch time as the instructors joined the lunch with the course participants in the classroom. This year’s course participants consisted of 17 affiliates of Hartford Seminary, including 10 graduates students some of who are pursuing the Doctor of Ministry degree under Dr. Thumma’s directorship and/or who are ordained faith leaders, such as a Jewish rabbi or a Catholic priest just to name a few. One of the course participants attended this course two years in a row because she found it to be very informative and exciting to learn more about Asian Religions. Joining the Hartford Seminary affiliates were four Shinnyo-en Buddhist Order’s staff members from France, Germany, and Japan. Those Shinnyo-en staff members also stepped up to answer some of the questions that the other course participants raised during the temple visit at the Shinnyo-en NY Temple. Rev. Eitaro Hayashi, Temple Manager of the NY Temple and also a Shinnyo-en Foundation board member, welcomed the course participants each year for the last three years. He commented that the course participants asked many intriguing and deeper questions about Shinnyo-en Buddhism each year. Rev. Hayashi also observed that it provided a great opportunity for the Shinnyo-en staff who accompanied them from Hartford Seminary to take the initiative and answer the questions along with him. He also shared his wish that this kind of open and intimate discussion about Shinnyo-en Buddhism could be continued in the future to benefit both Shinnyo-en staff and members and non-Shinnyo-en visitors alike.

All course participants surrounding Dr. Baker in the center

We are very grateful to all of the individuals who made this course possible at Hartford Seminary from the first time when President Heidi Hadsell and then Academic Dean Uriah Kim met with Drs. Okuyama and Kasai, along with the Foundation staff Ineko Tsuchida to brainstorm the collaborative partnership between Shinnyo-en and Hartford Seminary in 2014.