This genetics pioneer, a friend of Oomoto, offers a clue to the mystery of life
By Bill Roberts
Dr. Kazuo Murakami, an award-winning scientist and a friend of Oomoto, has spent a lifetime seeking certainty in his field of biochemistry, but is comfortable with ambiguity in general. Consider his conclusion that all life must be the product of what he calls “Something Great” – which he prefers to leave undefined.
Based on more than 25 years in gene research, including his participation in the Japanese-led effort to break the genetic code of rice, Murakami believes there is some grand design in the world. Species may have evolved in accord with the theory of natural selection, but Murakami notes that Charles Darwin did not know about genes. Based on his research, Murakami does not believe genetic code happened by chance.
“My simple definition of Something Great is the ‘original parents’ of all living organisms — whatever that is,” he explained. “But we don’t know exactly what that is.”
During a speaking tour in the United States last year, Murakami was often asked, “What is the difference between God and Something Great?”
To which he would reply: “Something Great might be God, but it might not be. We don’t know. But it is Something Great.”
The question askers didn’t know what to say in response, he recalled.
On that U.S. tour, Murakami was promoting “The Divine Code of Life: Awaken Your Genes and Discover Your Hidden Talents” (Beyond Words Publishing, Inc., Hillsboro, Ore., 2006), the English version of a book he published in Japan more than ten years ago. Still in print, the Japanese version has sold more than 200,000 copies, he said.
Murakami attributed its success to what he sees as a growing sense among Japanese that, despite vast economic and technological advances, something is missing from their lives. Like many Americans, they have a spiritual thirst and seek some deeper meaning in life. For a man of science – and perhaps for many of us –Something Great might be as precise as the deeper meaning gets.
In America, Murakami would be considered an adherent of “intelligent design,” the claim that some features of the world, including those of humans, are best explained by an intelligent cause, not by evolutionary processes such as natural selection. Most American proponents of intelligent design believe the designer is God. Murakami is not that certain; hence, his reluctance to define Something Great as anything other than Something Great.
He does want people to understand that Something Great is something wonderful. This is the theme of a more recent book, “The World began from a single life: A Gift From “Something Great.” The book was a collaboration between Murakami and Yoh Shomei, one of Japan’s best known artists. Published in 2004, the text appears in three languages: Japanese, English and Esperanto, an international language invented 120 years ago and promoted by Oomoto.
Beautifully illustrated, this book spells out Murakami’s idea about Something Great, and urges us to appreciate it, be grateful for it – whatever it is – and be happy as a result.
I had wanted to interview Murakami since the first time I heard him speak at Oomoto’s 2002 World Religious Forum, held in Kyoto in November of that year. He explained that we now know that the genetic code of all living things has a similar form, and that this could only have been created by Something Great. All life—human, animal, plant and individual cells—is essentially the same and thus deserving of respect, he suggested.
With all the world’s environmental problems, including global warming and the depletion of resources, it seemed to me that Murakami offered a message for everyone when he talked about respect for all life.
To live in harmony with nature is one of the tenants of Oomoto (which means “the Great Origin”) specifically, and of Shinto faith more generally. In the West, it is a way of thinking more congruent with Native American beliefs than with monotheistic religion. It is also a central belief of Tenrikyo, the Shinto sect to which Murakami belongs.
Founded in 1838, Tenrikyo was the first of the so-called “New Religions” in Japan that started before the Meiji era (1867-1912). Like Oomoto, Tenrikyo was founded by a woman, and has its roots in ancient Shinto beliefs. It is much larger than Oomoto, and one of the largest of the New Religions, with a worldwide membership.
Murakami grew up in a Tenrikyo family, his father a missionary for the sect. He was educated in Tenrikyo-run schools through high school before going to Kyoto University, where he majored in agricultural biochemistry and completed his doctorate.
He later had a post-doctoral fellowship at the Oregon Medical University in Portland, and spent several years as an assistant professor, doing enzyme research, at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville. Between 1963 and 1975, he spent a total of nine years in the U.S.
After I heard him speak in 2002, I occasionally ran into Murakami, but it would be nearly five years, in August 2007, when we finally had a chance to meet and talk. We spoke in English over dinner at a restaurant in Ayabe, home of Oomoto’s spiritual headquarters. He was in Ayabe to talk about Something Great at an interfaith conference.
Murakami spends as many as 120 days a year giving lectures, and is often asked to talk about his blend of science and religion with religious leaders. Oomoto first invited him to speak ten years ago, soon after the publication of “The Divine Code of Life.”
He has been a prolific writer of scientific papers and more popular works. He won the international Max Planck Research Award in 1990 and the Japan Academy Prize in 1996.
Now 71 years old, this emeritus professor at Tsukuba University is anything but retired. Besides lecturing, he currently heads the Foundation for Advancement of International Science Bio Laboratory, a recognized authority on biogenetics.
Murakami is trying to establishing a connection between human genes and laughter.
He’s been encouraged in this endeavor by no less than Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, during a conference in India to examine the relationship between science and Buddhism. Murakami has met the Dalai Lama on four occasions, including in November 2006 at the Hiroshima Peace Summit, where the professor served as master of ceremonies for the opening session which featured addressed by three Nobel Peace Prize laureates – the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Northern Ireland peace activist Betty Williams.
Murakami, who likes to tell ribald jokes, has already done research that suggests laughter can be used to control genes and bring down blood pressure. Now he wants to know why.
“I am most interested in the relationship of the mind to human genes,” he told me. “I also want to study the relationship between genes and prayer. But that will be very difficult.”