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A letter from Oomoto: Encounters With the Spiritual Leader

By Bill Roberts

A soft crimson leaf.
Floating in the autumn sun
This spiritual gem

I had several close encounters with Mme. Kurenai Deguchi, the Spiritual Leader, during my visit to Oomoto in 2002, opportunities to glimpse her various facets.

I heard her beautiful voice when she led the Oomoto faithful in prayer. I saw her receive the love and respect of her followers. I felt her confidence when she welcomed two inter-faith gatherings. I had tea with her twice, experiencing her gracious and artistic manner. I even saw her playful side when I danced with her. More about dancing later.

Like a precious gem, Mme. Deguchi has many polished facets. Less than 18 months into her life as Fifth Spiritual Leader, she appears to possess the energy, artistry and humanity to lead Oomoto into the new century.

Now 46, she became Spiritual Leader after the death of Mme. Kiyoko Deguchi, the Fourth Spiritual Leader, on April 29, 2001. The Fifth Spiritual Leader was born Kurenai Hirose, a niece of Kiyoko Deguchi. After Kiyoko chose Kurenai (which means crimson) to succeed her, she took the customary step of adopting her. Kurenai Hirose, who has never been married, became Kurenai Deguchi.

Under Oomoto doctrine, the Spiritual Leader must be a woman and a descendant of Founder Nao Deguchi. Kurenai is a great-great granddaughter of the Founder. Kiyoko Deguchi publicly announced Kurenai as her successor just one week before she died somewhat unexpectedly at age 66 following a brief illness. It would appear from the outside, at least, that Kurenai Deguchi, a pharmacist by profession and tea teacher by passion, was thrust overnight into her spiritual mission.

The Spiritual Leader is extremely busy so I was pleasantly shocked when I was told upon arrival in late October this year that she wanted to see me two days later.

We met in a tea room in a secluded garden called Taian-kyo, which means “Dwelling of Great Peace,” at Oomoto’s Kameoka headquarters. I was cold and still jet-lagged as I trekked up the hill with my interpreter and a photographer to Taian-kyo. The autumn colors were just beginning to show, leaves glistening in a drizzle. Mme. Deguchi was waiting for us in the tea room.

We made deep formal bows. I sat next to her and we began to speak through my interpreter. One of her assistants prepared tea while another brought the tea sweet. I quickly warmed up and felt at home. The jet lag, however, didn’t go away.

The first thing Mme. Deguchi did was to thank me for editing the English versions of the speeches she and others would give at the inter-faith meetings beginning in two days. I told her what I tell all Oomoto followers when they thank me: I get more out of helping them than they do.

I began to tell her about myself, and my background in ceramics, which is what brought me to Oomoto the first time, in 1999. It was evident that Mme. Deguchi knew all about me. In preparation for my visit she apparently had watched a video of a speech I had given at Oomoto in early April 2001.

I told her of my plan to write a book about Oomoto. She said it was a good idea because it has been thirty years since Frederick Franck wrote “An Encounter With Oomoto,” which explained the organization to English speakers and generated interest among Western artists.

She then told me about the place we were meeting, “The Tea Room of the Washing Moon,” just one of many tea rooms in Taian-kyo. On a clear night when the moon is full, you can slide open one of the screens and see the moon’s reflection in the brook alongside the tea house. Mme. Deguchi opened a screen to show me. It was mid-morning, and the sun was now piercing the clouds.

When I had been there about thirty minutes she apologized for having to leave for another appointment. We were invited to remain. She rose and, with the elegance of the Noh dancer that she is, floated from the room. We stayed ten minutes finishing coffee, which had been brought after the tea. Then we trekked out of the garden and down the hill. I did not know I would soon return.

Two days later, Mme. Deguchi opened the Second Prayer Offering and World Religious Forum in Kyoto with welcoming remarks that focused on the need for education to combat violence. The next day she opened the 4th Asian Delegates Conference of Jinrui Aizenkai (Universal Love and Brotherhood Association) with similarly impassioned words.

Although her active participation was limited to the welcoming addresses she sat through the speeches and we felt her presence. On both afternoons I noticed her having as much trouble staying awake in the stuffy room as the rest of us.

The following day was the Autumn Grand Festival in Ayabe. Mme. Deguchi was on center stage. I attended last year’s autumn festival, which was Mme. Deguchi’s first as Spiritual Leader. This year her voice seemed stronger as it rang through the worship hall. Trained for Noh chanting, her voice is rich and full with an operatic feeling.

The day after the festival I was told I had been invited to Mme. Deguchi’s tea room again, this time to accompany Rabbi Ron Kronish and his wife who were visiting from Israel for the inter-faith activities.

It was another drizzly day when we climbed to Taian-kyo. The Spiritual Leader was not in the tea room when we entered. When she entered with tea utensils in hand, I knew she was going to honor us by making the tea herself.

I know only a little about tea but enough to recognize that this woman is an accomplished artist of the tea ceremony, which to Oomoto followers is a spiritual practice. Before Mme. Deguchi became Spiritual Leader, as I understand, she was a popular and gifted tea teacher. Since becoming Spiritual Leader she has been unable to continue teaching.

Her movements to rinse the bowl, scoop the powder, dip the hot water and mix the rich green tea were as graceful as a soft leaf on a gentle autumn wind. She prepared a bowl for the rabbi, one for his wife and one for me. Then she slid over to sit next to the rabbi while an assistant made tea for the others present.

Mme. Deguchi and Rabbi Kronish did most of the talking. I had already had my highlight of the morning—drinking tea prepared by the Spiritual Leader.

About a week later I attended the Utamatsuri, a traditional poetry festival, and a Sunday service in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Oomoto’s Tokushima branch on the island of Shikoku. The Spiritual Leader watched the Saturday night poetry festival, which she had helped to judge. On Sunday, she presided at the religious service and then watched enthusiastically as Oomoto members performed Noh dances.

I had been asked to give a brief speech during lunch. We made eye contact several times while I spoke and it seemed to me that she understood my words before they were translated. I left wondering if she knows more English than she lets on.

The Tokushima event ended on a most unreligious and raucous note. A group of professional folk dancers in traditional costume performed a local dance called “awa odori.” The twisting, gyrating and wiggling is a lot like the rock ‘n’ roll dancing of my youth.

After the professionals had made a complete circuit of the grounds doing this dance under a hot afternoon sun, many of the Oomoto followers joined them. It should be pointed out that many, though not all, had been drinking liberal amounts of sake after lunch.

Things reached a fever pitch as more people joined the dance. I was shooting pictures as fast as I could. Suddenly, Mme. Deguchi stepped out of the shrine and into the crowd. She had changed from kimono into modern dress. She was waving her hands in the air, clapping, and shaking. To the glee of those gathered she immediately joined the dance.

Soon enough she made eye contact with me as I was shooting pictures of her. She gestured and said something in Japanese, which must have been “join us.” Before I knew it she had me out there with her. And Mme. Deguchi kept looking back over her shoulder to make sure I was still there. I haven’t danced like that since the last time I went to a Rolling Stones concert.

The dance ended and the Spiritual Leader was ready to leave. The followers bowed to her repeatedly and she to them. They had been thrilled by her presence all weekend, capped off by the dance.

I wondered if the Spiritual Leader knows this old proverb from India: God respects me when I pray but he loves me when I sing and dance.

The Tea Room of the Washing Moon in Taian-kyo.
The Spiritual Leader meets the writer.
The Spiritual Leader prepares tea.
Mme. Deguchi exchanges views with Rabbi Ron Kronish and his wife, Amy.
The Spiritual Leader watches a Noh performance in Tokushima.
Noh dancer on the outdoor stage at Tokushima.

Dance troupe doing the Awa Odori in Tokushima.
Mme. Deguchi joins members of the Tokushima branch in a raucus dance called the Awa Odori.
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