Zen and a Catholic survivor

I was in Tokyo last week and did something I had been thinking about for more than 20 years. Inspired still by the memory of meeting a Catholic priest who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, I went to a Zen meditation session.

Fr. Hugo Enomiya Lassalle, a Jesuit priest, came to Hiroshima in 1986 to receive a special honorary citizen award from the city at the annual commemoration of the bombing anniversary. Late on a hot afternoon, I heard about him and, with an interpreter, hurried out to interview him.

Lassalle wasn’t one to talk much about himself, so he didn’t like to dwell on his bombing experience. But Lassalle had been badly injured in the bombing, which blew down the priests’ residence where he lived. One of the other priests became one of the six main characters in John Hersey’s wonderful “Hiroshima.” Although Lassalle was blocked from leaving the city by fires, a rescue party from a monastery about 2.5 miles or so away made it into Hiroshima that night and took him to safety.

He went on to conceive of the World Peace Memorial Cathedral, win papal approval, raise funds around the world and work with the famous architect Togo Murano on it. The cathedral was dedicated Aug. 6, 1954.

Lassalle, who was born in Germany, had become interested in Zen before World War II and, long before the ecumenical movement took hold, he was reaching out to Buddhists in Japan. After World War II, he became an ardent student of Zen, other Eastern meditative traditions and Christianity’s own mysticism. He introduced Zen as a meditative practice among many young Jesuits and other Christians in Japan and, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, within Europe. His influence there is especially strong. Ursula Baatz has written an excellent book in German about him (it hasn’t been translated into English, although I think there are already other European language editions).

Some parishoners at the cathedral’s local parish have taken me under their wing and are finding some fascinating documents and people to interview. He is remembered at the church more for being a good pastor and holy priest, not so much for the Zen enthusiasm (which had the blessing of Rome).

Fr. Klaus Riesenhuber, S.J., of Sophia University in Tokyo has carried on much of Lassalle’s work. While in Tokyo for a conference late last week, I got to take part in a regular Thursday evening Zen sitting that the scholarly, quiet and kind Riesenhuber conducts. I survived, as Riesenhuber wryly had predicted during an interview a few weeks ago.

Lassalle died nearly 20 years ago. The inspiration he left behind in Japan as well as Europe looks like a fascinating trail to follow.

Joe Copeland is part of the online startup, www.seattlepostglobe.org. He is a visiting researcher at the Hiroshima Peace Institute on a Fulbright program for journalists. The views are his own.

2 comments for “Zen and a Catholic survivor

  1. jasmine06252009
    June 26, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    Hi, joe. Murano is one of my favorite Japanese architects and Lassalle is a human being we’d like to remember. Thank you for writing on both. I think Lassalle was given a status of Honorary Citizen of Hiroshima in 1968 soon after he left Hiroshima for Tokyo in the same year. Am I correct? Keep up with your good work. I’ll try to do the same in my field. Thanks a lot!

  2. johnkatz1972
    June 29, 2009 at 11:38 pm

    I really think it is remarkable that the Catholic church is also taking part in the peace culture of the city of Hiroshima.

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