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How a Small Buddhist Movement is Teaching Children in the Interfaith World to Live Together

By Paul Chaffee


The digital news cycles have caught up with religion. Huffington Post Religion, Religion News Service, Religion Dispatches, Read the Spirit, and the Pluralism Project have become leaders in offering religion news aggregations along with their own news, features, and commentary. Available, mostly for free, to us all. It’s astonishing to anyone who lived through the great dearth of religion news in America, starting in the 1960s and extending to 9/11 thirteen years ago.

Yet many compelling stories remain untold. I was intrigued one day by an email from an interfaith activist in Toronto sending links to a dozen interfaith curricula he’d culled from the web. Among a dozen resources was a project that is actually changing the world for good, proving itself in all sorts of cultural contexts, particularly anywhere children have a tough time. You probably haven’t heard about it.

Founding Myochikai

Rev. Mitsu Miyamoto – Photo: GNRC

Rev. Mitsu Miyamoto – Photo: GNRC

The story goes back to 1950. Rev. Mitsu Miyamoto founded a lay Buddhist movement in Japan called Myochikai. In doing so, she wrote, “The mission of Myochikai is to become a ray of light that permeates the world with unconditional love and mercy for every person. I am only a human being, a woman – but I resolve to become the base and backbone of the whole world. May the light that we shine make a contribution to world peace!” A lofty goal, particularly for a group that numbers barely a million followers 64 years later. But consider what they’ve done.

In the early years, Myochikai, always emphasizing spiritual practice, embarked on major peacemaking and service projects around the world. The United Nations passed the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989. A year later, under the leadership of Rev. Takeyasu Miyamoto, Mitsu’s son , the Arigatou (thank you in Japanese) Foundation was established on behalf of children everywhere, starting with their physical well-being.

Funding was raised and, through a partnership with UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) and other UN agencies and Non-Government Organizations, Arigatou provided support for children in crisis in Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, East Timor, Iraq, Mauritania, Mozambique, Peru, the West Bank, and Gaza.

In 2012 the Foundation morphed into Arigatou International, dedicated to full implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the well-being of all children. Strategically, successfully, it focused on collaboration. Partnerships developed with major international players, including UNESCO, UNICEF and other U.N. agencies working for children, along with the Children’s Rights Information Network, the World Council of Churches, Religions for Peace, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Rissho Kosei-kai, and others. Arigatou’s Global Network of Religions for Children was initiated, an interfaith volunteer network active in 50 countries today, all of them promoting activities to protect and empower children.

Photo: UNICEF Australia

Photo: UNICEF Australia

At a special session of the United Nations General Assembly in 2002, Rev. Miyamoto proposed the formation of an Interfaith Council on Ethics Education for Children. The Council was formed, an office was set up in Geneva, and an international team of accomplished religion and peace educators, including specialists in ethics and children’s rights, went to work on Learning to Live Together: An Intercultural and Interfaith Programme for Ethics Education. The first edition was published in 2008.

Ethics for a Global Future

The Learning to Live Together program is guided by an overall pledge to safeguard human dignity. It aims to strengthen children’s commitment to justice, respect for human rights, and harmonious relationships between individuals and within societies. The manual includes introductions to interfaith and ethics; an imaginative, engaging multicultural curriculum; a teachers’ guide; and a library of resources about ethical issues, many of them written by children from around the world. More than simply educate, the program seeks to empower children in ways that allow them to improve the worlds where they live, concluding by challenging them to start their own projects.

For four years, the curriculum was ‘beta-tested’ with hundreds of children in difficult circumstances. In India, following the course, children created projects to promote and advocate for their rights, to oppose stigmatizing children with HIV/AIDS, and to learn more about the world’s religions.

In El Salvador, several religious and non-religious organizations, together with National Minister of Education, are working with the program, aimed particularly at freeing children from gangs and youth violence. In Sri Lanka the theme of reconciliation between religious and ethnic groups, and what children can do to help, dominated the process. Other countries hosting trial courses included Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Greece, Israel, Lebanon, the Maldives, and Tanzania – in all, 30 countries have tried out the program and enjoyed positive outcomes.

Photo: Interfaith Council on Ethics Education

Photo: Interfaith Council on Ethics Education

Since its 2008 publication, the project has grown country by country. The 247-page manual is free to download and use, so it’s impossible to gauge how widely it’s being used.

Learning to Live Together is available in 10 languages, including Arabic, with Swahili and Romanian coming soon. Training and facilitation workshops are organized anddelivered by the Arigatou International Geneva office, and courses are being created through an online platform.

Or to put it another way, if you have young people in your neck of the woods who are alienated, in trouble, who are in the middle of sectarian conflicts, affected by discrimination, or are simply young people hungry for some serious get-real education about respect, empathy, reconciliation, responsibility, and good-will in a suffering world, you need to download the manual in English or in other languages and see if it might help. (The Learning to Live Together team is eager to assist if you and your community want to launch a course.)

Many more stories about Arigatou International’s projects on behalf of children will show up some week in the news cycle – about the World Day of Prayer and Action every November 20, or the Interfaith Initiative to End Child Poverty launched two years ago. True to their founder’s vision, Arigatou continues to emphasize spiritual practice (from an interfaith affirming perspective) and healing the world. Along the way perhaps we can learn how a small lay Buddhist movement in Japan became a global interfaith game-changer on behalf of the world’s children, hundreds of millions of them living in poverty, subject to violence, hunger, and disease. It’s newsworthy, to say the least.