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In Remembrance of Rev. Dr. Ryo ‘Mike’ Imamura

1969 Summer Session at IBS

 

What stands out for me as I remember the late Rev. Ryo Imamura are these words: “We brought only a cup to be filled, but this program is giving us an ‘oceanful’ of teachings. So, our cups are overflowing, and we are unable to take it all in!” 


This was the gist of what the young Ryo Imamura said to Rev. Haruyoshi Kusada, the Director of the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, California. Ryo was representing the 12 of us students attending the first summer session in 1969. 


The IBS, headed by Bishop Rev. Kenryu Tsuji (the president of IBS) had started this session in hopes of attracting ministerial aspirants for the BCA. From the standpoint of its goal, the session was a great success, for eight out of the 12 ended up becoming ministers of the BCA. They were: Rev. Ryo Imamura, Rev. June King, Rev. Ron Kobata, Rev. Kanya Okamoto, Rev. Ron Miyamura, Rev. Ken O’Neill, Rev. Gerald Sakamoto, and myself. 


Returning to what Rev. Imamura said above, it correctly expressed what the students were feeling at the time. The session required us to live for the entire month and eat three meals a day at the IBS building on Haste Street in Berkeley. 


What proved even more demanding and overwhelming was the huge amount of high level instructions from the eminent teachers Professor  Yoshifumi Ueda (from Japan) who taught Mahayana philosophy and Rev. H. Piyananda (Sri Lanka) who taught Theravada Buddhism. 


Further, the three services a day were also quite demanding for we had to lead the services and do Dharma talks at each of the three daily services, including those early in the morning and late at night. 


So, in line with the combative character of our generation, rebellious to the “establishment,” we wanted to protest the rigorous program that was too demanding and too difficult. It was Ryo Imamura who, as the de facto leader, expressed our feelings with the words cited at the beginning. 


Thinking back, we felt so entitled and complained that the progra



m was not properly tailored to us. This would be unthinkable in Japan, so Rev. Kusada, who was from Japan, must have been flabbergasted and regretted coming to America to work with such young Americans. However, to his credit, Rev. Kusada listened to our grievances and adjusted. He even went ahead to purchase a basketball so that we could engage in activities that would take pressure off from the program.


 

Personal Respect 

 

I was pleased to have Ryo be our leader. I looked up to him, in part, because he was three years older and also came from a ministerial family, whose members were pioneers and innovators in American Buddhism. His grandfather was Rev. Yemyo Imamura, who served as the bishop of the Hompa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii for 30 years (1900-1931) to help make it the largest Buddhist institution in Hawaii. His bust can be found today in front of the Honolulu Betsuin Temple. 


As a side note, it turns out that my maternal grandfather knew Bishop Rev. Imamura in Hawaii. Once he was asked by the bishop if he had any interest in becoming minister since he was a YBA leader at a temple on Oahu. If so, the bishop would offer a scholarship to study in Kyoto, but my grandfather, for a number of reasons, declined. Had he taken up the offer, the trajectory of my family would have been different, but it’s ironic that 50 years later his grandson (myself) was aspiring to become priest with the bishop's grandson. 


Ryo Imamura’s father, Rev. Kanmo Imamura, also served as a bishop of Hawaii and was earlier instrumental in the development of the Buddhist Study Center in Berkeley, which became the precursor to the Institute of Buddhist Studies. 


We cannot fail to mention the role that his mother, Mrs. Jane Imamura, played in supporting her husband as well as making enormous contributions to Buddhist music as can be evidenced by a number of well-known gathas (songs) that she composed, which are often sung today at Sunday services in the Shin temples in North America. 


Mrs. Imamura’s father, Rev. Issei Matsuura, was also a minister who served in the BCA, while her mother, Mrs. Shinobu Matsuura, whom I had the privilege of knowing, was a devout and impressive Nembutsu teacher in her own right.


 

Career and Education

 

In keeping with the legacy of his family, Rev. Imamura was a pioneer and expanded the arenas of his work. For example, he served as the first director of the Buddhist Study Center in Honolulu from 1972-76, and later served in the BCA for nine years at the Buddhist Temple of Alameda (1977-1983) and Buddhist Church of Florin (2007-2009). 


He also became a licensed psychotherapist in California and co-founded the East-West Counseling Center in Berkeley and Oakland, California. Rev. Imamura also worked beyond the BCA, serving, for example, as president of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and as a national board member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which is the oldest and largest international religious peace and justice organization.


For his education, he received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley, a master's degree in counseling from the San Francisco State University, and a doctorate degree in counseling/educational psychology from the University of San Francisco. 


The last degree led to his appointment in 1988 on the faculty of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, where he taught until retiring in 2014. The focus of his teaching and research was East-West psychology with an emphasis on Buddhist thought and practice. He also has provided Buddhist consultations on issues of living and dying to the general community. 


 

Admired Personality

 

After retirement, Professor Imamura moved to Toronto, where his wife Tery is originally from. Having heard that Ryo had moved to Canada, I had been meaning to get in touch with him, but truly regret not being able to do so before his passing on Dec. 14, 2022. I have felt a deep sense of camaraderie ever since the 1969 IBS summer session, for it was that common experience that led to my decision to study Buddhism to become a minister and/or professor.  


Further, for the 54 years that I had known him, I admired the many qualities about him, but the one that was most prominent on the list was his willingness to speak out passionately and firmly on issues that he believed in, such as when he spoke out representing the students at the summer session. Ryo and I agreed a number of years later, when we had “matured” as professional adults, that we were a bit too self-centered and overly rebellious in our complaining to Rev. Kusada. 


However, today I look back to that encounter with much fondness as a symbol of our youthful rebellious exuberance. And Ryo helped me to express some of that in my ensuing adult and professional life. So, I thank you for that, Rev. Dr. Imamura! We shall meet again in the Realm of Oneness, which we call “the Pure Land.” But just as important, your qualities and spirit continue to enliven my own spirits here and now!


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