Volume 30: Chapter 4, Bells of Dawn 11–20

Bells of Dawn 11

The Rectorate of Sofia University was located on St. Kliment Ohridski Street. Its majestic stone facade and turquoise roof gave it an air of distinguished tradition.

The conferral of the honorary doctorate took place in an auditorium with a high sculptured ceiling, which added to a solemn atmosphere.

Prof. Ivanka Apostolova, chair of the Faculty of Philosophy, read the award citation. Rector Ilcho Dimitrov then presented Shin’ichi with the certificate, which was inscribed in Old Church Slavonic. They shook hands as the audience of around 100, including faculty heads, professors, and students, warmly applauded.

Shin’ichi then took the podium to give a lecture outlining his vision for a future of East-West harmony.

He noted that geographically, historically, and spiritually, Bulgaria has been a land where the civilizations of East and West have met and clashed, merged and synergized. Because of this, he felt, the country has the potential to play an important role in building a new human society.

Shin’ichi spoke of the close relationship people had with God in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, as represented by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, and how there were few intermediaries standing between God and the people.

He then quoted lines from the poem “A Prayer” by the Bulgarian revolutionary and poet Khristo Botev (1848–76):

O, my God, Thou Lord of Justice—
Not the one in far off heaven—
But thou, God, who dwell’st within me,
In my heart and in my doing.1

The poem, Shin’ichi said, showed God as living within a person’s heart, never separated from the people. In his view, the idea of God existing within—of God coming down from on high to reside deep in people’s lives—served to liberate human beings from the chains of all forms of authoritarianism. Botev’s conception of God, he said, was an expression of his love for humanity, resembling the bright sun shining down on the oppressed people.

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Shin’ichi went on to say that Botev’s view that God is found within human beings, though expressed differently, is not dissimilar to the ideals of socialist humanism valued in Bulgaria. It reminded him also, he said, of the view of human potential in Buddhism, which teaches that all people possess the supremely noble life state of Buddhahood.

Shin’ichi stressed that Botev’s daring pronouncement that God is within affirms that everything, including religion, exists for the sake of human beings.

When this starting point is forgotten, religion, government, science, culture, and art descend swiftly toward corruption and stagnation. This was Shin’ichi’s steadfast conviction.

Next, he discussed the April Uprising of 1876, when Bulgaria was still under the oppressive rule of the Ottoman Empire. The national spirit that soared at the time, he suggested, was driven by a compulsion to defend human dignity. He then spoke of his hopes for the role the country would play: “As long as the banner of the spirit of humanity waves proudly over Bulgaria, the way toward a global humanistic society, transcending differences among peoples, will open widely in the 21st century. I believe that society will be like a vast green field where Eastern and Western cultures blend and the flowers of culture and peace will bloom.”

In closing, noting that the lion was the symbol of Bulgaria, Shin’ichi said that as a Buddhist he would continue to strive like a lion, traveling the world for peace and the happiness of all humanity. He also called on everyone to “forever wave the banner of human liberty, peace, and dignity, dauntlessly and bravely like a lion.” As he concluded his 40-minute address, applause rang through the hall.

Asked to sign the university’s guest book to commemorate the occasion, Shin’ichi wrote:

Learning is, alone, the universal truth.
Learning is the truth upon which world peace depends.
Learning is the reliable guidepost for the youth of the future.

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After his lecture at Sofia University, Shin’ichi visited the National Palace of Culture to meet with Lyudmila Zhivkova, chairperson of the Committee for Culture, which had invited Shin’ichi to Bulgaria. Ms. Zhivkova was the daughter of Todor Zhivkov, chairman of the State Council, the country’s top leader. Her refined dignity seemed to embody Bulgaria and its respect for culture.

On his visit to Mexico in late February and early March, Shin’ichi had learned that Ms. Zhivkova happened to be staying at the same hotel as he and his party. He was already scheduled to visit Bulgaria, at her invitation. The chairperson had been traveling around the world to promote cultural ties, believing firmly that such exchange opens the way to peace.

Hearing that she was unwell, Shin’ichi and his wife, Mineko, sent her flowers. Finally, on March 3, when Chairperson Zhivkova was feeling better, the two of them met with her at the hotel. It was the anniversary of the day in 1878 that Bulgaria had been liberated from the Ottoman Empire.

Her eyes sparkling, Ms. Zhivkova said: “Though you live in Japan and I live in Bulgaria, on opposite sides of the world, I am delighted that we can meet here like this in Mexico!”

Shin’ichi felt the same way.

Concerned for her health, he tried to keep their meeting brief.

The chairperson was a historian who had studied at Oxford University. With a gentle smile, she offered pertinent insights on each subject that arose. Their conversation, though not lengthy, revealed her to be a person of keen intelligence and wisdom. She also seemed to have a strong interest in Buddhism.

“Culture is a bridge,” she said. “It links not just nations but social systems. I would like to fight against war with culture.”

Listening to these resolute words, Shin’ichi sensed that beneath her elegant surface lay a strong inner core.

What forms such an inner core is conviction and a sound life philosophy.

Bells of Dawn 14

Shin’ichi and Mineko were now meeting Chairperson Zhivkova again, two and a half months after their encounter in Mexico.

Dressed in a white suit and hat, Ms. Zhivkova said with her gentle smile: “Congratulations on your recent honorary doctorate. It is a fitting recognition of all you have accomplished so far.

“We regard you as an ambassador of peace. You are devoting your life to cultural exchange, which promotes understanding and interactions among people. Bulgarians place high value on culture, so we fully appreciate your activities.”

Shin’ichi expressed his thanks.

They discussed Bulgaria’s history and its people, traditions, and connections to Asian culture. Ms. Zhivkova noted that Bulgarians’ traced their roots to the Thracians, Slavs, and Bulgars, the latter group said to have originated in Central Asia and have had close ties with Buddhist culture. She believed that all human beings were deeply interconnected.

They also discussed future exchanges between Japan and Bulgaria. These would include inviting a Bulgarian chorus to Japan under the auspices of the Min-On Concert Association and creating opportunities for children of both nations to interact. It was a very fruitful conversation.

Knowing that Ms. Zhivkova had been working tirelessly as her country’s key cultural policymaker, Shin’ichi said with warm concern: “Life is long. Our struggle unfolds over the long term. For the sake of the world and Bulgaria, please take good care of your health and don’t overexert yourself.”

Nodding and smiling, she replied with resolve: “Thank you. But those in weighty positions have weighty responsibilities. We must be aware of those responsibilities and strive to fulfill them with all our strength, no matter the cost. And I am prepared to do so.”

She radiated unshakable determination. Without such commitment, one cannot achieve great things.

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The next morning, May 22, Shin’ichi and his party visited Chairman Todor Zhivkov at the State Council Building. The country was celebrating the 1,300th anniversary of the founding of the first Bulgarian state. Knowing the chairman would be greeting a succession of foreign visitors, Shin’ichi began by saying he wouldn’t detain him for long.

Shin’ichi expressed his concern about the growing problem of pollution in the Black Sea, and suggested that the nations on its shores join in a cooperative cleanup effort.

Water from the Mediterranean Sea, with its higher salinity, flowed into the Black Sea and settled at a depth of around 200 meters (600–700 feet) and below. This deeper zone was devoid of oxygen and high in hydrogen sulfide, making it inhospitable to fish species. Most fishing took place along the north shores, in shallower waters where salinity was reduced by the inflow of fresh water from rivers. But now these shoreline areas were becoming polluted by runoff from rivers.

“To protect this precious natural resource,” Shin’ichi said, “I think it would be wonderful if a plan, aiming toward the 21st century, could be devised to transform the Black Sea into a rich ‘blue sea’ teeming with fish.

“To fund such an effort, the coastal nations could each reduce military spending a little and work together to clean the waters.”

Mr. Zhivkov concurred. “Yes, unless we all agree to reduce our spending on weapons, it will be impossible to realize such a plan. Unfortunately, tensions remain between the United States and the Soviet Union, and between NATO and the Warsaw Pact nations.”

Turkey, which bordered the Black Sea on the south, belonged to NATO, while the other coastal nations, including the Soviet Union and Bulgaria, were members of the Warsaw Pact.

The Black Sea connected all these countries, but the East-West conflict loomed large, preventing cooperation and allowing environmental destruction to continue unchecked.

Shin’ichi traveled the world stressing the need to correct the lamentable situation in which ideology takes priority over human security.

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Shin’ichi continued to share his views, noting that while heavy industry was important, it might be beneficial from here on to encourage the growth of light industry.

Chairman Zhivkov agreed and spoke of his vision for the future: “Our people’s standard of living is improving, so we are now placing greater importance on light industry and focusing on enriching our people’s lives. We are also working to enhance our cultural life. We now have enough bread to eat, so we would like to produce more books, so that people have plenty of books to read at home.”

After World War II, the country abolished the monarchy and became the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. In 1954, Chairman Zhivkov was made first secretary (later general secretary) of the Bulgarian Communist Party, and eventually also came to serve as premier. Since that time, he had been the country’s top leader.

Television cameras recorded the meeting. After about 30 minutes, Shin’ichi took his leave.

That afternoon, Shin’ichi and his party drove two hours from Sofia to visit Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest and oldest city, which dated back to the Neolithic period. The green of the trees lining the streets contrasted beautifully with the red tile roofs.

After meeting with the district assembly vice chairman and other local officials, Shin’ichi was given a tour of the Trakia Residential Complex, where he was to take part in a ceremonial tree planting.

As he prepared for the ceremony, some children who were nearby gathered around. They smiled and nodded when Shin’ichi suggested they plant the fir tree together.

“I hope this tree grows tall and strong, and that the friendship between Japan and Bulgaria grows, too,” he said and shoveled soil onto the roots. The children then took their turns.

Shin’ichi asked them what they would like to be when they grew up, and with sparkling eyes they told him about their dreams.

No matter how turbulent the times, as long as children have dreams there is hope for the future.

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Shin’ichi and his party next visited the Old Town of Plovdiv, with its many historical sites. In a majestic 19th-century Bulgarian Renaissance-style building, Mayor Hristo Mishev spoke to them of the city’s past and present. They then continued their tour of the city, strolling along its cobblestone streets.

They were shown around another historical building, which had been designated a national cultural monument, and there found a chorus of about 60 boys waiting for them. Wearing dark brown jackets and shorts and white frilled shirts, they entertained the visitors with a series of songs in their beautiful, clear voices.

One of the boys then stepped forward and said: “Next, in honor of our guests from Japan, we will sing a song in Japanese, ‘Kusatsu-bushi.’” [Kusatsu is a city renowned for its hot springs in Gunma Prefecture, Japan.]

It was a heartfelt gesture to make the visitors feel at home.

Kusatsu is a wonderful place,
so please visit at least once.
(Ha dokkoisho!)
Even in hot water, you’ll see,
flowers bloom.

Their effort to pronounce the Japanese lyrics correctly, though not always successful, made their performance all the more endearing.

At the end, Shin’ichi rose from his chair to applaud vigorously and thank the boys.

“What a pure, beautiful, and enjoyable performance! I am very moved. I am sure you must have rehearsed very long and hard for today. I am deeply touched by your sincerity. This brief meeting has become my eternal treasure. Thank you!

“You have really warmed my heart. I felt as if we were all in Japan enjoying the hot springs together. Please come visit Japan. Please make lots of friends.”

Children are the emissaries from the future. The message Shin’ichi wanted to entrust to those emissaries as a gift for the future was “Please unite the world through friendship and build peace!”

The Chinese author Bing Xin (1900–99), a friend of Shin’ichi and Mineko, wrote:

Within their small bodies
resides a great spirit.2

Bells of Dawn 18

In the late afternoon of May 23, Shin’ichi attended a gathering of the “Banner of Peace” Children’s Assembly at the invitation of Lyudmila Zhivkova, chairperson of Bulgaria’s Committee for Culture. The event took place on a hill in Sofia with a view of the famous Mt. Vitosha in the distance. It was both a prelude to the May 24 Education, Culture, and Slavic Script Day celebrations and a part of the country’s 1,300th anniversary festivities.

On the hill stood the Banner of Peace monument, more than 30 meters (100 feet) high, bearing the assembly’s motto, “Unity, Creativity, Beauty.” At its entrance hung a portrait of Saints Cyril and Methodius, who helped lay the foundations of Bulgarian culture by creating the prototype of the Cyrillic alphabet.

The “Banner of Peace” Children’s Assembly was inaugurated in 1979 to commemorate the United Nations–designated International Year of the Child. Some 2,500 children from 79 countries participated in the first assembly, held in Sofia, celebrating and making a pledge for peace. Several Japanese children with disabilities were among the participants, and one of them read a poem he had written, titled “To Live.” People all over the world praised the gathering. Chairperson Zhivkova played a major role in making the event happen. In her travels around the globe, she had consistently stressed the importance of safeguarding peace and children’s future.

That afternoon, shortly after 5:00, as Shin’ichi and Mineko made their way to their seats with the chairperson, children in colorful folk costumes welcomed them, waving miniature Bulgarian flags of white, green, and red. Once they sat down, the choral performance began.

The message of the first song was “Let’s fill the world with the laughter and happiness of children. Let’s soar high on wings of friendship and fly around the world from Mt. Vitosha.”

There were more songs and also folk dances, some accompanied by traditional drum and flute. Every performance communicated a deep pride in Bulgarian culture.

Ms. Zhivkova applauded each one enthusiastically, praising and thanking the children, saying: “Well done!” “Wonderful performance!”

Her gaze was that of a gentle yet strong mother who loved children and was determined to protect them.

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In her speech, Chairperson Zhivkova spoke of the significance of Bulgaria’s Education, Culture, and Slavic Script Day, explaining that it pays tribute to and celebrates the immortal contribution of the brothers Cyril and Methodius, who devised the prototype of the Cyrillic alphabet.

Until the ninth century, the Slavic languages spoken in Bulgaria and elsewhere had no alphabet, she said. To translate the Bible for the people of this region, these brothers, both Greek missionaries, invented the Glagolitic script based on Greek. Later, their disciples continued to revise that script, which developed into the Cyrillic alphabet used widely in Slavic countries, including Russia.

Chairperson Zhivkova called on the audience to always cherish the motto of “Unity, Creativity, Beauty” that adorns the Banner of Peace monument and work to realize world peace.

Next, Shin’ichi rose to speak. It had started to rain, but he walked to the microphone without an umbrella.

“As a representative of Japan, I would like to offer my greetings to all the lovely, precious children here today.”

Then, to save time, he asked the interpreter to read the Bulgarian translation of his speech straight through. He wanted to let the children get out of the rain as quickly as possible.

Shin’ichi urged the children to become brave, kind, and considerate, and to thoroughly train their bodies and minds. Life is another name for struggle, he said. While many challenges and hardships may await them on the road to their dreams, they should always strive bravely and strongly, and keep growing. “Remember,” he said, “that obstacles and difficulties are great opportunities to become stronger.”

The children’s applause echoed over the hill.

It was then time for the finale.

Amid the pealing of the monument’s Bells of Peace—a collection donated from around the world—a group of children lit the ceremonial Flame of Peace, which burst into life.

If a flame of peace is ignited in the hearts of children, our Earth in the 21st century will become a bright planet shining with the light of peace.

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On May 24, Education, Culture, and Slavic Script Day, there was a parade in Sofia’s Ninth of September Square to celebrate the country’s 1,300th anniversary. Shin’ichi had been invited to view the event along with many Bulgarian government officials, including State Council Chairman Zhivkov.

The day was fine, the early-summer sun shining bright. Men, women, young, and old marched proudly. There were groups representing schools from elementary through high school, universities, workplaces, and community organizations. Some marchers held large colorful posters depicting Saints Cyril and Methodius, adding to the festive atmosphere. A brass band played lively music, and baton twirlers gave a spirited performance.

Rector Dimitrov led the group of Sofia University faculty and students. There were also people holding small children by the hand or carrying them on their shoulders. Others waved carnations as they marched along. It was a relaxed and warmhearted parade, everyone smiling and united in spirit.

Vladimir Tropin, Moscow State University’s vice rector, was also attending as an invited guest. He said to Shin’ichi: “Here, we see humanism, an ideal shared by the Soka Gakkai.”

The following afternoon, Shin’ichi and his party left Bulgaria. Emil Aleksandrov, the vice chairperson of the Committee for Culture, saw them off at the airport. “You are a person who is active around the world,” he said to Shin’ichi with great feeling. “We would be honored if you would count us as one of your friends. Chairperson Zhivkova is also deeply grateful for your and your wife’s visit and asked me to convey her warmest regards.”

Lyudmila Zhivkova died just two months later, on July 21. She was only 38. People around the world mourned her sudden death.

Like a beautiful flower, her life had come to an end all too soon. She had worked with wholehearted dedication and commitment, never thinking of herself. Reflecting on her noble life of purpose and conviction, Shin’ichi and Mineko prayed for her eternal happiness.

  • *1Khristo Botev, “A Prayer,” in The History of Modern Bulgarian Literature, translated by Clarence A. Manning and Roman Smal-Stocki (New York: Bookman Associates, 1960), p. 176.
  • *2Translated from Chinese. Xie Bingxin, Bingxin quanji (Collected Writings of Bing Xin), vol. 1 (Fujian, Fuzhou Province: Haixia Wenyi Chubanshe, 1994), p. 243.