The Institute of Buddhist Studies, the BCA’s leading Buddhist graduate school and seminary in the United States, marked a major milestone recently when it became a member school of the Graduate Theological Union.
It is the first non-Christian institution to be represented among the GTU’s nine member schools, the GTU announced Aug. 5.
In addition to the member schools, the GTU is made of up of five academic centers and six affiliates, making it the largest consortium of theological schools and institutes in North America. Both the IBS and the GTU are based in Berkeley, California.
As a new member school, “we will have a seat at the table,” said Dr. Scott Mitchell, IBS Dean of Students and Faculty Affairs. “We will be invited to join the GTU Board of Trustees, the Council of Deans, and other governing bodies.
“This means that we will be part of the conversation about religious education. The GTU has an enormous impact on how people think about religion in this country, and now IBS has a voice in that conversation. To me, that’s a big deal!”
IBS President Rev. Dr. David Matsumoto said: “To paraphrase the Pure Land Master Shandao, Amida’s Vow allows us to study within the Buddha’s heart of great compassion. As a member school of GTU, IBS can indeed manifest that reality.”
IBS Professor Emeritus Rev. Dr. Haruo Seigen Yamaoka, who recently retired, also offered his congratulations to IBS on becoming part of the GTU consortium.
“IBS has been recognized as a graduate school of quality education, and has fulfilled the dream of the first-generation immigrant pioneers, who felt that education was the key to success in America,” Rev. Dr. Yamaoka said in a statement. “I only feel a deep sense of gratitude to all those who helped make this dream a reality. The door is now wide open for IBS to share with the world the teaching of the Buddha and Shinran.”
Dr. Elizabeth Peña, Interim Dean and Vice President for Academic Affairs at the GTU, said in a statement that the GTU is “thrilled to now welcome IBS as a member school, enhancing the integration of IBS faculty and students into the academic life of the GTU. The contributions of IBS are crucial to the GTU’s goals in interreligious, interdisciplinary scholarship and activism.”
Established in 1969, IBS became affiliated with the GTU in 1985. Today, IBS offers two graduate degree programs, the Master of Divinity and the Master of Arts in Buddhist Studies as well as six graduate certificate programs, including a certificate in Buddhist chaplaincy. It also participates in the GTU’s Master of Arts program, for students with an interreligious focus.
The elevated status of the IBS to new member status in the GTU is one of several significant events in the recent past for the Buddhist institution. Last year, it was granted initial accreditation status for six years by the WASC Senior Commission of Universities and Colleges. And in late 2019, the IBS received $1 million from the estate of Richard Bloomquist of California to further Buddhist education.
Dr. Mitchell credited the long association of the IBS and the GTU to the trailblazing efforts of Rev. Dr. Yamaoka, who attended the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, another member school of the GTU. Rev. Dr. Yamaoka began attending PSR in 1965 and graduated in 1969.
“At the time, a lot of folks were skeptical about the idea that a Shin minister had anything to learn from Christians — and a lot of his fellow students were skeptical of having a Buddhist at their school,” Dr. Mitchell said.
As a direct result of Rev. Dr. Yamaoka’s involvement, discussion about IBS becoming affiliated with PSR began in 1978, and later, with GTU, according to Dr. Mitchell.
Rev. Dr. Yamaoka explained his decision to enroll in PSR — and his reception as a Jodo Shinshu minister at the Christian school — and by the BCA.
“Even after completing my studies in Japan and becoming a minister, majoring in Shin Buddhist studies, I was uncomfortable with the comparison made by certain people that Jodo Shinshu was really Christianity because of the similarity of the language used,” Rev. Dr. Yamaoka explained. “The distinctions were not clear to me, so I decided to attend the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, majoring in religious education studies. Later, I returned to PSR in the Doctor of Ministry program. (Rev. Dr. Yamaoka graduated from the Doctor of Ministry program in 1979.)
“Initially, PSR people were saying, ‘Why is a Buddhist studying here?’ or ‘What is he doing here?’ On the BCA side, I heard people say, ‘Why is he going to a Christian school; he needs to study more Shinshu doctrine. Is he going to convert?’ But, overall, the professors wanted me to study and enhance my Shinshu background. Over time, it became clear to me where the prominent difference was, that is, ‘Kiho Ittai.’ “ (“The Dharma and the person are one.”)
Dr. Mitchell praised Rev. Dr. Yamaoka’s participation, saying: “This idea that we can enter into conversation with people who are very different from us — who have a different faith or different experiences or different values — and find commonalities can be really transformative on a personal level.”
He also said the increased collaboration by the IBS and the GTU comes at a pivotal moment in history, when stark personal, ideological and political differences permeate American society, pitting people and groups against one another.
“It can be easy to retreat into our own little bubble or echo chambers,” Dr. Mitchell said. “But I think this is the wrong approach. We need to be able to reach across our differences and make connections with people and work together for the common good. The GTU is an ideal place to do this work because it’s very nature and structure is built on diversity — a diversity of faiths and cultures — and so this creates opportunities for our students to engage differences and learn how to work with a diversity of people and grow as Buddhist leaders.”