That Peace Monk: Junsei Terasawa

By Metta Spencer (interviewer) | 2001-07-01 12:00:00

He is Junsei Terasawa, a Nichiren Buddhist monk of no fixed address. His sole purpose in life is to save us from a great conflagration, and so he has traveled many journeys and led many peace marches. One afternoon at my apartment in Toronto he revealed the main features of his life story.

He became a monk at the age of 19, after spending one year in university during the late sixties, when students were demonstrating in Tokyo against the Vietnam War, as they would shortly be demonstrating in Europe. The street violence convinced him that there had to be a better way of attaining peace.

Reverend Terasawa (whom I quickly started calling "Junsei" without asking permission) was born in a Japanese village to parents who, like most others, wanted all their children to be successful. But this son of theirs only enjoyed reading Tolstoy, Nietzche, and some Christian texts. Knowing that he would eventually have to make a living, he left home at 17 to begin standing on his own feet. A policeman found him in a park and was persuaded to take him to an uncle instead of back to his parents. The uncle in turn asked a Buddhist monk in Tokyo to take charge of him, for "this boy is eccentric and a little sick."

Thus did Junsei begin to study for the monastic life. Soon he met the man who would be his teacher -*Nichidatasu Fujii, an 85-year-old monk whose presence was so electrifying that at first sight Junsei fell to his knees and wept. When he had a chance, he asked the master, "How should I live the true life? How can I find it?" Upon hearing his teacher's answer, he decided to become his student, though only after two years could he be ordained as such.

He stayed a while with Fujii's monks at a thousand-year-old monastery, working on the construction of a peace pagoda, then obediently returned home to make peace with his parents and even to attend university, just to please them. It was a Christian university, and Junsei sang in the choir and played the organ. Most students of his age were Maoists, but they all were protesting against the Americans' use of Narita airport as a base for their bombing raids against Vietnam. Monks were in the forefront of nonviolent resistance, so Junsei knew that it was time to join his teacher as a monk. He arrived back at the mountain monastery two years after leaving it, and was ordained the same night.

The next six years he spent in Japan - in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Then his teacher took him and some other young monks to India. The teacher had long ago met Mahatma Gandhi and had lived at his ashram. But the war with Japan was beginning, and Fujii had returned home to try to prevent fighting between Japan and China.

In the 1970s, his pupil Junsei Terasawa spent six years in India, preoccupied with the prophecy in the Lotus Sutra that a great fire would destroy the world. He went to the Himalayas alone to meditate and pray. During those three weeks he nearly died because of an ice storm and hunger, but he had a revelation.

The next few years he spent mostly in Bombay, working with the untouchables, many of whom became Buddhist. In 1975 Indira Gandhi exploded India's nuclear weapon, and Terasawa was engaged in the protests against it at the Tata Centre, which was responsible for the nuclear tests. For his protests, he lost his visa and had to leave India for Europe.


He and his teacher arrived in Paris on the day when Saigon fell - the end of the Vietnam War. What should the monks do next? Fujii gave him $100 as a souvenir and sent him to England with his drum. He stayed a week in St. James Park in front of Buckingham Palace, meditating and getting acquainted with curious passersby. He was invited to join some other Buddhists who were squatters in a street by Highgate Cemetery, where Karl Marx is buried. Junsei liked to pray at his grave because he believed the nuclear confrontation originated in a karmic way from Marx's thoughts. There he met an old Communist who gave him the key to a house on the street as his base. Suddenly Fujii came to stay with him. The front page of the London Daily called him "London's Oldest Squatter." He predicted that a peace pagoda would soon appear in England.

Junsei was actively working with CND in those days, holding ceremonies at Tavistock Square by Mahatma Gandhi's statue. Sometimes, in the late '70s, twenty people would show up, but more often no one came.

One day an architect appeared at his squatting house and offered to build a peace pagoda. They were given land in a new city, Milton Keynes, and when the pagoda was inaugurated in 1980, there was an ecumenical ceremony to which all faiths were invited as a gesture of reconciliation. Already the peace movement was building up. Soon there were peace marches all across Europe.

Terasawa led many of these demonstrations. The crucial one was in 1983 when NATO had decided to deploy intermediate nuclear weapons. The protesters had decided to march from both the East and the West, and to meet at Brandenburg Gate. But, the socialist governments would not permit any march in their countries. Junsei recalls, "They said, 'we don't need your peace march. Our nuclear weapons are good. We want to abolish capitalism.' But we had to do it. I burned my finger as a candle to the peace pagoda in London, confronting this impossible question."

Junsei held up his hand and, for the first time, I noticed that one finger was missing. The other monks had given up trying to march in the East, but Junsei had persevered, walking alone. Nobody stopped him.

"In Warsaw I saw people marching to the churchyard and putting blossoms on the photographs of the pope and Walesa. Everyone welcomed me. I didn't carry any money but everywhere they fed me and gave me money for the journey. I had no chance to spend it, so I accumulated this huge amount of Polish money. I didn't know what to do with it! And I came to the Berlin wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate. On the other side were monks and nuns. I was so happy. We did it! The police came and kicked me out, from the East of the Berlin Wall to the West, but I just couldn't stop laughing. We spent three days praying there."

A Second Peace Pagoda

When he returned to London, he learned that the Greater London Council wanted to build a peace pagoda too. His teacher again came. He was 99 years old. The whole pagoda project was realized within eight months. It was built in Battersea Park - one of the most prized parcels of land in London.

In January 1985 Terasawa and two other monks went to Geneva, where Gromyko and George Shultz were to talk. The meetings lasted two days, in the coldest winter of Europe, and the two diplomats remained inside, talking overtime. They were planning the first superpower summit between Secretary General Gorbachev and President Reagan. It was January 9, and while Junsei waited outside in the cold, drumming and praying for the success of this meeting, his teacher passed away at the age of 101. He died just as the Cold War was beginning to end.

The summit also took place in Geneva, in November. Again the monks came to pray outside the Aga Khan's palace where the meeting was held, but police blocked access. However, a man led them into the estate through the back garden road. Terasawa arrived just in time to chant as the two leaders sat down for their fireside talk inside. There they agreed that "a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought." They also agreed to aim for a Zero Option solution to the nuclear race.

Ashes for Gorbachev

In 1988 Junsei Terasawa brought from Japan some sacred ashes of the Buddha - precious relics that had been taken there 1300 years before and kept in the most ancient temple. This was the first time they had left Japan. Terasawa was the peace emissary to the Third Special Session on Disarmament in New York, but he first stopped in Tiananmen Square, India, Nepal, Burma, Israel, the Berlin Wall, Potsdam, and Moscow, where Reagan and Gorbachev were meeting just across the wall. For the first time, the Buddhists were permitted to pray in Red Square.

Gorbachev wanted to hold a dialogue in the Kremlin, and he invited Junsei to participate. Junsei praised him for promoting the New Delhi Resolution along with Rajiv Gandhi. (In fact, Junsei had drafted the contents of that resolution.) There in the Kremlin he was carrying Buddha's ashes and he asked Gorbachev to take them and keep them beside him during the session. (Years later, in a preface to Junsei's book, Gorbachev mentioned that event.)

Junsei Terasawa kept returning to Moscow every year. But after the Cold War had ended, he was alarmed by the state of the Russian economy, and by the prospect that the US military industrial complex would make Saddam Hussein into a dangerous diversion. "They needed him, and they produced him as an evil," he recalled. "Therefore I went to Baghdad and began another seven-day fast in front of the U.S. Embassy."

Then he and some other activists set up the peace camp between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The Iraqi soldiers, who had nothing to eat and often no shoes or even weapons, promised never to shoot at the peace campers, who were nevertheless forcibly evacuated. Terasawa began a humanitarian shuttle, bringing in aid. On each trip he stopped in Moscow, always seeing the economic conditions worsen.

In 1991 he attended the END conference in Moscow, then went to Chernobyl, where he first learned that a putsch was underway against Gorbachev. He rushed back to Moscow and joined the barricade. Of course, the coup failed, and Terasawa decided that, except for travel to the West Bank, he would remain mostly in Russia, working on the post-Soviet transformation. Some young Russians wanted to learn about Buddhism, and he stayed ten years, teaching them while promoting peaceful conversion of the military-industrial complex.

Today he says that one can see none of the nonviolent strength that the Russian people demonstrated ten years ago in August, when they defeated the coup. Instead, the Chechnya conflict has twice turned the Russians toward violence. Along with the Committee of Mothers of Soldiers, Junsei marched deep into Chechnya, seeking to calm the fight and to bring Russian soldiers home. Already the bombing was beginning, and ordinary people had to live months in hiding. Thousands of mothers from all over Russia marched side by side with thousands of mothers of Chechnya. Only the Russian army blocked the way.

That war ended, yet resumed later. War crimes against the civilian population are continuing to this day. In Geneva Terasawa fasted in front of the United Nations. Only one Chechen was there - a man on the Grozny staff of Memorial, the Russian Human Rights organization. He said to Junsei, "We want to choose nonviolent political struggle and aim for the end of the war and to create a new world, new culture, new civilization which will be free from any oppression, genocide, and warfare."

Junsei Terasawa adds, "It is not only the matter of Chechnya. What will be the future of mankind if we fail to address this issue? For that purpose, I came to Canada. No more empty principles! No more empty declarations on paper! Military and violence will never give the answer. What we need today is a proof of the victory of nonviolence and truth."

Because of his protests in Geneva on behalf of the Chechens, the Russian government has cancelled Junsei Terasawa's visa. Yet he continues to work unceasingly. When he left Toronto in June, he was going to Ukraine and then to Nepal. They probably need him there.

But then, we all need him.

Spencer edits Peace Magazine and is Professor Emeritus of Sociology, U of Toronto.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2001

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2001, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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