Four ministers who retired in 2020 — with a combined total of more than 120 years of service — were honored during a special virtual Dharmathon at the BCA’s National Council meeting.
The Dharmathon, which proved to be one of the highlights of the NCM, featured the following ministers on Feb. 27: Revs. Fumiaki Usuki of the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple; Yukiko Motoyoshi of the Buddhist Church of Stockton; Patricia Usuki of the San Fernando Valley Hongwanji Buddhist Temple; and Ronald Kobata of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco.
“It occurred to me what a unique group of people that I’ve been associated with who decided to retire in 2020,” Rev. Kobata said at the start of his address. “In some respects, we were a very diverse group. Even though we shared a common ethnic ancestry individually, I see that each of us were unique individuals who managed to take the bumpy road, the twists and turns, the slips and slides of the journey on our individual paths of the Nembutsu.”
What follows is a description of each of the four ministers, in order of appearance.
Rev. Fumiaki Usuki
Rev. Usuki was a Japanese immigrant who came to Oxnard, California, in 1960 with his mother and his brother. He graduated with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in industrial technology from San Jose State University.
His path to Jodo Shinshu ministry followed careers as an instructor in the Department of Industrial Technology at San Jose State University, and work in the computer and technology industries in Silicon Valley. He also owned a private business and served as a business development consultant.
Rev. Usuki received his master’s degree in Buddhist studies from the IBS in May 2000. He is a past president of the Watsonville Buddhist Temple and a former Dharma School teacher.
In 2001, Rev. Usuki received his Kaikyoshi status. He served as Resident Minister of the Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple from February 2001 to October 2004, and as the Resident Minister of the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple from November 2004 to February 2020.
He said that “just because we are older, doesn’t mean that we are no longer relevant.” He noted a message in a TV commercial that has relevance.
“This is what we do,” Rev. Usuki said. “As we get older, there’s no need to prove ourselves. We feel that we left something on the table. I believe my colleagues have come to know that it was always the teaching, the Nembutsu, that continues to bring all of us closer and closer together. Everything else is an added blessing.”
He recalled his own transition from working in Silicon Valley to Jodo Shinshu. He paid tribute to several influential teachers at IBS, and singled out the late Rev. Haruyoshi Kusada — with whom he would visit at his Berkeley home. Rev. Kusada was the IBS Executive Director from 1968 to 1983, helping to create its educational foundation.
“Many people called him a monk, but to me, he was a true teacher of the Dharma, and perhaps a living Buddha,” Rev. Usuki said. “This was many years ago before the Jodo Shinshu Center was built. So why am I telling you all this? Because Jodo Shinshu in the West has grown so much, due to the great work of our many early teachers and students. And I don’t think there’s a real need to worry about where we will go from here or in the future because we are already part of the worldwide Dharma movement. I truly believe that it will take care of itself with the influx of many people who will come to study at the Jodo Shinshu Center.”
Rev. Yukiko Motoyoshi
Rev. Motoyoshi was born in Tokyo, the first daughter of a Jodo Shinshu minister. The family later moved to the Big Island of Hawaii, where she grew up and graduated from the University of Hawaii at Hilo. She attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in Buddhist studies. She received her Kaikyoshi status in March 1978.
In May 1978, she returned to Hawaii, becoming a minister in the Honpa Hongwanji Hilo Betsuin, Mililani Hongwanji Mission, Lihue Hongwanji Mission, and the Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin. She later moved to the BCA and was assigned to the Buddhist Church of Stockton. Rev. Motoyoshi retired in June 2020. She also was one of the keynote speakers of the 16th World Buddhist Women’s Convention in San Francisco in 2019.
“When I started my ministry, I never dreamed to serve the Sangha for this long,” Rev. Motoyoshi said. “However, I was able to remain in the minister’s position. For one thing, I love being a minister. Personally, I think the ministry is the best job in the entire universe, but mainly, I was able to do so because of the countless support of others that I have received throughout my ministry. I thank you all, my colleagues, members and friends of the temple. And, of course, countless causes and conditions.”
Rev. Motoyoshi recounted the events during the pandemic and the difficulties of retiring and moving to a new house, as well as the many issues in taking care of her 104-year-old mother, who passed away on March 28.
“This pandemic made me realize two things — the difficulty of truly accepting impermanence, and how deep my ego is rooted within myself,” she said. “I was not able to accept the impermanence, just as it is, because of my ego. I desperately try things to remain sane, and if things have to change, then I wanted to have control. I wanted to change and transform it into the way I want.”
She said that one lesson the pandemic taught her was the importance of having other people, and mentioned her sister’s support.
Rev. Motoyoshi said the Nembutsu “made me realize the cause of my difficulties lie within myself, not on someone else.”
Rev. Patricia Usuki
Canadian native Rev. Usuki was an employee of the Canadian government and a schoolteacher whose path to a BCA minister began when she first studied the Nembutsu while living in Kanagawa, Japan, in the late 1990s. She lived and worked at the Kokusaibu Hongwanji International Center as an European language specialist and English language editor. Her special project was editing and producing a guide on Jodo Shinshu.
Her master’s thesis at IBS was published as a book,”Currents of Change: American Buddhist Women Speak out on Jodo Shinshu,” which continues to be hailed as a groundbreaking work on the views of Jodo Shinshu Buddhist women in the United States.
Rev. Usuki served as Resident Minister of the San Fernando Valley Hongwanji Buddhist Temple from 2004 to 2020, and was elected as the first woman to serve as Gicho in 2018. She retired in August 2020.
She spoke about life in the past year because of the pandemic and its toll — lives lost, jobs lost, isolation from loved ones and from other Sangha members, shuttered temples and churches, and the myriad everyday challenges.
“We are always going to face difficulties in our lives, not just in times of global pandemics,” Rev. Usuki said. “Wouldn’t it be great to know how we can meet these challenges with equanimity, and just keep going. We’re not alone. We’re all in this together in the great flow of timeless existence. Whatever we’re doing today is just a fragmentary part of us, and a part of our lives, and each of our lives is just a fragmentary part of infinite life that has flowed from the distant past, and will flow into the distant unknown future.”
She recounted her careers as a civil servant for the Canadian government and as a schoolteacher, and her decision to go to Japan.
“I felt somehow being pulled there, not because of any interest in my ethnic heritage or in Japanese culture,” she said. “Long story short, I soon encountered the Nembutsu teaching. Hearing it was like a revelation. It explained my life to me …. My sole purpose was to learn more about this amazing teaching.”
Rev. Usuki studied the Dharma at the IBS, but said she “received the best education about the BCA from interviews and surveys with the hundreds of members themselves as I researched my master’s thesis. Ostensibly, the thesis was about women in the BCA. But in fact, the research revealed far more than that.
“I was happy to discover that, for the most part, my subjects mainly spoke not about issues of patriarchy and sexual discrimination, but about challenges facing the BCA from the point of view of members, not as female members, but simply as members.” She said the lessons and conclusions in the master’s thesis, which included the views and opinions of Southern District Jr. YBA members, continued to guide her through her ministry.
“So when I was given the privilege of serving at the San Fernando Valley Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, I was only guided by one thing — the connection that our teachings had to be the primary focus of the temple. Even if I failed, I would have had no regrets. It’s not about being popular. It’s not about membership numbers. It’s not about an institution. If the teachings are available and if people can understand it on their own terms, they will gather, or at least tune in.”
Rev. Ron Kobata
Rev. Kobata was born in Ogden, Utah, the son of parents who met at the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming during World War II. The Kobata family moved to San Francisco, where Rev. Kobata spent his childhood attending Dharma School and the Scouting program at the Buddhist Church of San Francisco.
He graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, majoring in religious studies and received his master’s degree in Buddhist studies from the IBS. He received Kaikyoshi status in May 1975 and his first assignment was the White River Buddhist Temple in Auburn, Washington, and as Supervising Minister for the Tacoma Buddhist Temple..
In 1981, he moved to Hawaii and became a minister in the Makawao Hongwanji Mission, Kahului Hongwanji Mission and the Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin. In 2005, he returned to the BCA, as an executive assistant in the Office of the Bishop and as English editor of the Wheel of Dharma. In 2009, he was assigned as the Resident Minister of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco.
In addition, he was the minister adviser for the 16th World Buddhist Women’s Convention in San Francisco in 2019. He retired in August 2020.
Rev. Kobata said that being a Baby Boomer during the time of civil unrest in the 1960s and 1970s “had a major impact on my world view. And it was also at that time, I had the life-changing experience to encounter the Buddha-Dharma, as presented by the inspirational messages of the late Rev. Dr. Tateitsu Unno, who I consider my spiritual mentor.”
Rev. Kobata’s Dharma message was of “caring as living,” and he quoted Shinran Shonin’s “Tannisho” as well as a quote from President Theodore Roosevelt, who said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
“This idea of caring — I think should be the essence of why and how we listen to the Dharma to care about our life,” Rev. Kobata said. “We listen to the Dharma because we care that we live this finite experience in eternity, aware of the care that we receive from others, both known and unknown. And that’s what we call the spirit of Nembutsu — the heart of the Dharma.
“Being willing to be involved and engaged, not only for our own individual advantage or benefits, but for the sense of being alive together in the Nembutsu, that is the universal Vow,” he said. “The deepest wish in life, that all beings be happy. And so this is why we live, is to care.”
In closing, Bishop Rev. Marvin Harada thanked all the retired ministers for their “profound and inspiring Dharma messages” and for “taking this time to reflect upon their ministry and to inspire us with the insights from their Dharma journey. We look forward to continuing our journey with them in the Nembutsu, and to learn more from them in the coming years.”