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Snow-capped Mount Fuji, 3,750 meters high, shows off the majestic symmetry that has become a symbol of the beauty of Japan. The reality is breathtaking, outstripping the ubiquitous photographs and artists' renditions. No wonder the mountain, formed when one volcano swallowed up other fires and formed five lakes, has long been a destination for spiritual seekers.
Our Japanese hosts stand and applaud us - guests from all over the world who have traveled to Fuji. They string our necks with chains of origami cranes, the Japanese peace symbol made famous by Sadako Sasaki, a 12-year-old who died of leukemia in 1955 after Hiroshima.
The hosts are members of Byakko Shinko Kai, followers of the late philosopher and spiritualist Masahisa Goi, a postwar Shinto-related sect leader. The group is devoted to praying for world peace and erecting poles across the world inscribed with the words "may peace prevail on Earth." They were attempting to orchestrate a "Symphony of Peace Prayers" by inviting representatives of many religions to gather and offer their own prayers for peace: Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, American Indian shamans, subcontinent Indian Buddhists, New Age practitioners and activists in peace organizations. A round table discussion including prominent Japanese scientists centered on science and religion, and my husband, physicist and author Gerald Schroeder, was invited to take part. I tagged along.
AT THE OPENING ceremony on Mount Fuji, the hosts went to great lengths to provide food that conformed to kashrut requirements so that we could eat with everyone - vegetables transformed into flower shapes within a pristine lacquered box. Soft-spoken volunteers assure us that the vegetables come from an organic macrobiotic farm. The hushed speech levels are contagious. We quietly introduce ourselves.
Across the table are Northern Californians representing peace organizations. My antennae fly up. To me, San Francisco + peace movements usually equals anti-Israel. Leave it alone, eat your vegetables, I unsuccessfully coached myself. Within minutes we're debating whether or not Palestinian terror can be excused as an inevitable reaction to trauma. My antagonist insists that the constant conflict has impaired the brain's emotional centers, the amygdalae of Israelis and Palestinians.
What makes your amygdala so great? I'm thinking. But I don't say it. Instead, I quote the pioneering research on Holocaust survivors of the late Judith Kestenberg, whom I've heard speak at a "Children in War" conference in Jerusalem. Holocaust survivors may pass on trauma to future generations, but they aren't violent. They show the exact opposite of the Palestinians' response to trauma. Survivors have a tendency to take up helping professions like teaching, social work and medicine.
The program begins. I'm embarrassed by my chronic contentiousness. Should I next engage the representative of the Catholic Church about Pope Pius XII, the Protestants about disinvestment and the imam about warmongering mosques? On a tour of the grounds of Peace Sanctuary, one of the stops is a stone well within which a fire burns. We're invited to write out our negative thoughts and then incinerate them. Sort of a reverse Kotel. I can't burn it away, but I'm determined not to let the chip on my shoulder show.
FRIDAY NIGHT. Back at the hotel. The staff is tolerant of our bringing to the dining room our own tablecloth, setting out a box of matza, gefilte fish and a bottle of wine that has survived the journey from Jerusalem. Others ask to join us. I'm pleased we've brought a fine wine. For the bishop at our table, it's a first Shabbat. For us, he's our first bishop. We explicate our many customs and traditions, and sing songs long into the night.
The pinnacle of the conference is a Sunday public prayer session at the base of the mountain. Buses of Japanese arrive from all over the country. They bring their own sitting mats and take off their shoes as they gather in a field on the mountainside. Some are lovers of Israel, and show off their Jewish stars. One after another, representatives of the different faiths chant or sing their prayers for peace. Rabbi Henri Noah, the rabbi of the Jewish community of Tokyo, begins by reading a psalm. He's chosen 122: "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem/May those who love You have security/Peace be within your walls/Security within your citadels." Then, at this conference where "may peace prevail on Earth" is the theme, Rabbi Noah's strong tenor voice rings out: "Oseh shalom bim'romav."
Sitting barefoot on the volcanic mountain, 10,000 Japanese with a transliterated text join him singing the Hebrew of "He Who makes peace in His heavens, may he make peace upon us, and upon all Israel. And let us say amen."
I get teary eyed.
For two days I don't clash with anyone. But on the long bus ride back to Tokyo, I sit with an American-Pakistani Sufi minister from Seattle. "I'd like to talk about Islam and terrorism," I begin. We disagree about many things, but manage to get through the discussion without inflaming our amygdalae.
That feels like a good start in helping peace prevail.