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In Memoriam: Rev. Dr. Seigen Yamaoka

We recently lost a giant in our BCA, Rev. Seigen Yamaoka, who was a former Bishop of the BCA.


My association with Rev. Yamaoka goes back many years to my time in college and at IBS. My first assignment as a minister to the Orange County Buddhist Church came under Rev. Yamaoka’s term as the Bishop. When I received the letter from him, I was still in Japan, and I didn’t even know where Orange County was. I happily accepted my first assignment and now 38 years have passed.  


Flash forward to just this past November, when we had our Chef’s Table fundraising event. Rev. Yamaoka traveled all the way from his home in Southern California to attend that event. He looked so great and he stayed up till after everyone had left and we were cleaning up. We sat and talked for quite some time. Whenever he talked about the Dharma or the transmission of the Dharma, or how things in our BCA or IBS were going, there was always a light in his eyes, a passion in his voice, and a spirit that I sensed from him.    


Rev. Yamaoka studied traditional Shin Buddhism very deeply, attaining the Hongwanji ranking of hokyo, which is second highest to the rank of kangaku, the highest rank of scholasticism in our Hongwanji.  


But Rev. Yamaoka didn’t just relate the tradition with the same traditional expressions, the same terminology and language that the Hongwanji has been using for centuries. He knew that Shin Buddhism had to be interpreted for the West, for the English-speaking world. All of the major concepts of Shin Buddhism — Amida Buddha, Pure Land, Nembutsu, Shinjin — all had to be explained in a Western context, in a way that Westerners could relate to and that resonated with them. I think it is fair to say that he did this throughout his years of ministry, even after his retirement.  


That still remains to be our challenge, even today. The extent that we do it well will be the extent that our Sanghas and our BCA grow. If our membership is declining, it is also an indication that our message is not resonating with people, that the way we are relating the tradition of Shin Buddhism to their lives is not resonating.    


Rev. Yamaoka wrote a book titled, “The Transmission of Shin Buddhism in the West,” and my favorite section of that book is where he shared his experience of counseling Lorna Onizuka, who had lost her husband, Ellison Onizuka, in the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy on Jan. 28, 1986.  Rev. Yamaoka went to Houston, Texas, to conduct the makuragyo for her husband. 


Lorna was terribly distraught, and Rev. Yamaoka talked with her and guided her through her grief and despair to come to accept the loss of her husband. In his book, he writes the following about that experience:


“As a Buddhist minister, I was fortunate to be able to share Lorna’s personal story of the Challenger tragedy from her perspective. The discussions that we shared were honest and straightforward. The transformation in accepting the truth of Ellison’s death opened the door to courage and a new meaning of life for her. It was not a life free from pain and the feeling of loss, but a beginning that opened the doors of her heart to a new relationship with her husband that only she can know.”

  

Rev. Yamaoka did not quote doctrinal passages to Lorna Onizuka to counsel her. He did not quote the “Kyogyoshinsho” or the “Tannisho.”  But based on his own understanding and experience of Shin Buddhism, he was able to lead her through her grieving process, to come to accept the truth and reality of the situation, the tragic loss of her husband.  


We are indebted to Rev. Yamaoka for his spirit of transmitting the Dharma to the West, a task that we now must all take upon ourselves. The baton is now in our hands. It is our turn. It is our time. Whatever we can do, great or small, will contribute to the transmission of the teachings to the West. That is the best way that we can honor and remember Rev. Seigen Yamaoka. 


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