Remembering John

Report on the 1st Memorial Meeting for the Late Professor John White


On Sunday 6 November, Three Wheels held the first Memorial meeting to celebrate and commemorate the Late Professor John White who passed away exactly one year ago. This very special and moving meeting called, ‘Remembering John’, brought together old friends of John with members of the Three Wheels and Shogyoji temple Sanghas. It was an extraordinarily fitting tribute to Professor John White that this meeting could bring about such a special encounter between us all. It was surely a true embodiment of the spirit of ‘Harmony with Diversity’ that Professor White and taught and practiced with us for nearly thirty years.

Several days before Shogyoji Temple held a formal memorial service for Professor White and today Rev. Kenshin Ishii led a service in the Buddha-room in which the participants could burn incense and remember with deepest gratitude everything that Professor White had done for us over so many years. Following the service, we listened to a reading in English and Japanese of the very first talk which Professor White gave at Shogyoji Temple in 1993.

This remarkable talk was composed after Professor White’s very first encounter with Ven. Chimyo Takehara, the Head Priest of Shogyoji and contained Professor White’s personal expression of his very profound awakening to the truth of life. He would continue to explore and deepen this awakening during the series of talks he gave every year up until his death. Rev. Kemmyo Sato later described this encounter between Professor White and Ven. Takehara as an, “epoch-making event”. Always looking towards the future, Professor White stated in this talk his life-long aim of bringing about true encounter between individuals in order to transform and enrichen both self and others saying,

“Whether in individual men and women, in nations or cultures, it is the richness of diversity which alone is the basis of a unity that is worth having – a true harmony, and all of us are united as teachers in trying to pass on the new knowledge that we have gained, and the ways in which the problems that face us might be solved.”

Next various guests who had a long relationship with Professor White were invited to share their memories of his remarkable personality and life. Dr. Stephen Montgomery first met Professor White during the early 1980s and was full of warm memories of their friendship which spanned nearly forty years. Together they worked very hard together for the modernisation of UCL and later for the establishment of the Three Wheels Sangha. Pausing and looking out towards the Zen Garden, Professor White’s greatest creation, Dr. Montgomery said with visible emotion that the Zen Garden itself is John. Prof. Hideaki Nagase recalled how John had first befriended him at the canteen of UCL and they immediately formed a long and fruitful friendship.  Their long conversations and dinners together irrevocably changed Prof. Nagase’s outlook on the world.

From Japan, we first heard from Mr Kenji Toda whose encounter with Professor White sparked the chain of events which led to the creation of Three Wheels. In 1993, Mr Toda met with Professor White and his colleagues and told them about the history of the Shogyoji Gagaku music orchestra. This deeply impressed Professor White and led to the orchestra being invited to UCL to perform at the unveiling ceremony of a monument to the first pioneer Japanese students who arrived in London in 1863 and 1865. Mr Toda recalled Professor White’s first encounter with Ven. Takehara in which the latter asked Professor White if he had a teacher. Professor White replied that he had no teacher as everyone around him were his teachers.

Mr Masayuki Ogawa recalled Professor White’s strength of personality and creativity during the long and arduous work they completed together to build the Japanese Zen Garden at Three Wheels which was based on Professor White’s unique design and insight. Although they originally differed on whether the design could ever work as a Zen Garden, Mr Ogawa became so impressed by Professor White’s spirit that their mutual encounter led to the project becoming a great success. Mr Ogawa demonstrated how his memory of Professor White continues to live within him by toasting a photograph of him that he keeps on his desk.

Rev. Kenshin Ishii read his personal letter of thanks to Professor White sincerely expressing his gratitude for the spiritual awareness he had received from him, not only during his lifetime, but through carefully reflecting over the past year on some important teachings of Professor White’s that remained vividly in his mind. Remembering how Professor White always said that the Zen Garden was not a copy of an original Japanese design, as a copy can never be as good as the original, Rev. Ishii realised that,

“John did not create a copy of Shogyoji Sangha, nor did he create a new Sangha in the UK, but he expanded Shogyoji Sangha to the UK…. This very place right here, that I have been given to practice the Buddha-Dharma, is itself the Shogyoji Sangha which has been expanded through the hard work, love and compassion of Venerable and Mrs. Takehara, Rev. and Mrs. Sato and you, John.”

We were next delighted to receive a special address written by Ven. Chimyo Takehara for the occasion which began with his moving statement that he had been, “Respecting Professor John White as a bodhisattva from the very start of our encounter”.Ven Takehara then recalled how one of Professor White’s poems helped save a late Dharma-friend from the effects of a long-lasting suffering she experienced in her life following the Second World War which she was unable to resolve until very close to her death.

On re-reading this poem, Ven. Takehara saw how it condensed three fundamental Buddhist principles namely, the impermanence of all beings, the no-self of all beings and the tranquillity of Nirvana. This led Ven. Takehara to experience an entirely new feeling of Great Love emanating from these teachings of the Buddha as expressed in Professor White’s poem. Ven. Takehara then expressed his absolute confidence that, “Professor White’s innumerable poems and pure verbal teachings will infinitely encourage us to go forward as the message from the Tathagata. This is why I call him Bodhisattva”.

After saying goodbye to all of the many participants from the UK and Japan who joined the meeting on Zoom, the personal recollections and tributes to Professor John White continued over a light meal in the Buddha-room of Three Wheels. Listening to everyone’s words it was apparent that each person had a unique and precious memory of Professor White that continued to strongly illuminate them.  

Thank you very much indeed for inviting me to this memorial ceremony. I was very grateful to hear of Rev. Kemmyo Sato’s momentous decision to hold this meeting every year in which we can continue to listen to the talks Professor White left us and reflect on everything he did and continuous to do for us. Professor White taught us until his very last moment that interpersonal encounter between Three Wheels and Shogyoji Temple was the most important thing we can do. I felt that this memorial meeting was a fulfillment of this fundamental wish.


Andrew Webb