Updated: Nov 14, 2022
For Nishi Hongwanji, it was a historic session; for the Buddhist Churches of America, it will help alleviate a minister shortage; and for 11 Shin Buddhists, it culminated years of study.
It was a grueling 10-day session in August at the Jodo Shinshu Center (JSC) in Berkeley that was the final step to becoming a full-fledged Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha minister and marked the first time such training occurred outside of Japan.
The 11 — nine from Buddhist Churches of America temples — spent nearly 18 hours every day learning from instructors and practicing chanting, rituals and how to conduct a variety of services. At the end, they were tested on their knowledge and expertise, and in early October, Hongwanji announced they were Kyoshi ministers.
“The training here was amazing,” said Rev. Maribeth “Smitty” Smith of the Buddhist Temple of San Diego during an interview the day after the session ended on Aug. 30.
The Kyoshi Kyoshu, the minister certification program, is normally conducted at the Nishiyama Betsuin in Kyoto, where a session can involve more than 100 aspiring ministers from Japan, in addition to those from the United States and Canada.
“We had more focused attention from the instructors because we were a smaller group,” Smith said.
Rev. Todd Tsuchiya of the Twin Cities Buddhist Sangha agreed: “To me, it seemed like the instruction was customized for us and the experience had a great deal of relevance for our future as ministers in the United States.”
Rev. Ko'e Umezu of the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple said she felt “very humbled and fortunate that I was allowed to participate in the first Kyoshi training to be held outside of Japan for the first time in Hongwanji history.”
The 11 had all previously received Tokudo, the first level of a Shin Buddhist minister.
In addition to Smith, Tsuchiya and Umezu, the new ministers are: Rev. Charlene Kihara, Rev. Melissa Opel, Rev. Landon Yamaoka, Rev. Cyndi Yasaki, Rev. Roland Ikuta, Rev. Kaitlyn Mascher-Mace, Rev. CJ Sokugan Dunford, and Rev. Vonn Magnin.
Their ordination comes at a time when BCA faces a critical minister shortage, worsened by the interruption of minister training sessions due to the pandemic and the retirement of a number of ministers. There are currently 58 BCA temples and 35 full-time ministers, most of whom serve two or more temples.
BCA Bishop Rev. Marvin Harada said the new ministers will help in different ways. Some may become Kaikyoshi (Hongwanji ministers who serve outside of Japan) and be assigned to a temple, while others might be part-time ministers, volunteer ministers, or work with groups such as young people and the elderly, and still others might become involved in internet ministry to create new Sanghas.
“We have to have more than just a cookie-cutter model of a minister in the future,” Harada said. Having more ministers means more people who can help spread the Dharma.
Rev. Dunford said they/them future as a minister may look different than the ministers to this point, “all the while following in the footsteps of my venerable teachers who each carved their own distinct paths.”
And more ministers are on their way. This fall, the International Ministers Orientation Program (IMOP) resumed at BCA for the first time since the pandemic, involving two Japanese ministers who are interested in serving temples outside of Japan.
Rev. Harada said there is also a group of 15 to 16 people from BCA temples preparing for Tokudo next year. If a majority of them decide to become Kaikyoshi, “we could have our ministerial shortage resolved in a few years,” he said.
This year’s 11 new ministers came from a wide range of backgrounds. While some grew up at temples, most are converts and at least five identify as LGBTQ+, which was not accepted in the churches and religious organizations where they grew up.
Rev. Opel said she was kicked out of an evangelical group when she came out, and the leaders also told her that being overweight was another factor in her dismissal.
Rev. Mascher-Mace, a retired engineer who has patents to her name and is a renowned expert in fracking, said she was fired from her job because she was told her being LGBTQ+ conflicted with the company’s Christian values.
Rev. Smith, a career U.S. Navy aviator, said when she asked nuns questions, they told her she didn’t have enough faith, and she was later told gays didn’t belong in the church.
Revs. Mascher-Mace, Smith and Opel said they all found BCA temples to be welcoming and accepting.
The teachings “really embrace me,” Rev. Mascher-Mace said.
Rev. Smith discovered Shin ministers had a different reaction to her questions. “Generally in Buddhism, asking questions is not just OK, it’s encouraged,” she said.
Revs. Opel and Mascher-Mace visited temples during Obon festivals and have been involved ever since. Rev. Opel said her wife volunteered to accompany her to three services at the Spokane temple. She not only kept coming after the three, but joined the temple board the following year and recently served as Spokane Buddhist Temple president.
Rev. Magnin, a U.S. Marine veteran, was introduced to Buddhism and the Arizona Buddhist Temple about 15 years ago during an encounter at a festival yakisoba booth. He’s been a Dharma School teacher and board member before pursuing the ministry. In his youth, Magnin aspired to be a priest, a Catholic priest.
“That was before I discovered girls,” he said. “In the end, I became a Buddhist priest, so mission accomplished!”
Rev. Yamaoka grew up a Shin Buddhist, attending the Palo Alto Buddhist Temple (PABT). He said he kept attending Dharma School because quitting would have left his friend Ryo Abiko, Rev. Hiroshi Abiko’s son, as the only boy in their class.
Rev. Abiko would later recommend that Rev. Yamaoka read three books for a college class on East Asian Buddhism. Slowly, Rev. Yamaoka’s interest grew. In 2005, Carl Yanari asked him to be a substitute teacher for a Dharma School class at PABT.
“I just kept coming back,’ said Rev. Yamaoka, who continues to be active in the PABT.
Rev. Yamaoka said he asked so many questions at conferences and of his friends, that one of them, Rev. Matthew Hamasaki, now Resident Minister at the Buddhist Church of Sacramento, advised him to go to the Institute of Buddhist Studies (IBS). He followed that advice.
Rev. Tsuchiya is from Minneapolis, where he was a dentist before attending IBS classes toward the end of his career.
“Jodo Shinshu has been a part of my life since my birth with the influence of my entire immediate and extended family,” he said in a 2016 interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly. “My sister died at a young age, which greatly impacted our family. Part of my desire to study at IBS was the opportunity to study with Rev. Dr. David Matsumoto, the President of IBS, who was married to my sister when she died. Along with my parents, he has been influential in my life, especially through their example.”
Rev. Kiyonobu Kuwahara, director of the Jodo Shinshu International Office (JSIO) headquartered at the JSC, was in charge of planning and coordinating the training. Rev. Kuwahara is also Supervising Minister of Berkeley Buddhist Temple and Buddhist Temple of Marin.
Rev. Gentoku Nishioki, an instructor at Nishiyama training center, was sent by Hongwanji to fill a similar role at the JSC training.
Rinban Rev. Katsuya Kusunoki (Seattle), Rev. Tadao Koyama (Tacoma) and Rev. Yoshimichi Ouchi (Toronto) were also chanting instructors.
Other ministers who taught or presented lectures were: Rev. Dr. Takashi Miyaji (Southern Alameda County and IBS Ohtani Chair), Rev. Dr. David Matsumoto (Institute of Buddhist Studies President), Rev. Dr. Mutsumi Wondra (Orange County), Rev. Harry Bridge (Oakland), Rev. Jerry Hirano (Salt Lake), Rinban Rev. Gerald Sakamoto (San Jose), Rev. Etsuko Mikame (San Jose), Bishop Tatsuya Aoki (Canada), and Bishop Rev. Harada.
In addition, BCA Past President Rick Stambul presented a lecture.
Other instructors from Japan taught by Zoom or through pre-recorded lectures.
Rev. Michael Endo and Judy Kono cooked the meals. Bob Matsueda and Pam Matsuoka served as staff for the training.
One person at the training felt ill the first day and was immediately isolated, testing positive two days later, according to Rev. Harada. The training went virtual for three days as everyone tested daily. When there were no new cases, the program went to a hybrid format, mostly meeting in person, but with some lectures and discussions on Zoom.
Rev. Harada and the new ministers praised the teachers involved in the training, either in person, or via Zoom, or recordings.
“Nishioki Sensei from Japan was mindblowingly especially amazing,” Rev. Mascher-Mace said. “I could spend a year learning stuff from him and I would be happy — and his smile is infectious.”
With a smaller group, all the ministers were able to participate in most of the services, including some that not many ministers outside of Japan have performed.
Two of the rituals are called the “Daishieigu Saho” and the “Shoshin Nembutsu Ge Dainishu” (different from the daily chanting of the “Shoshin Nembutsu Ge”).
Rev. Yasaki said the hardest but for her the most fun was the “Amidakyo” with “Junsan” and “Gyodo.” At a certain point, they chanted “Amidakyo,” walked all the way around the statue of Amida Buddha, threw flower petals, and bowed as they passed in front of Amida Buddha.
All three rituals are done during Hoonko at the head temple in Kyoto. Rev. Yasaki is hopeful that the rituals can be performed at a joint Hoonko service within BCA.
Rev. Opel said the training “sparked a lot of gratitude” for everyone who has supported her along the way.
“It’s the culmination of everything that’s been given to you,” she said.
Rev. Harada and the new ministers hope Hongwanji will decide to have more Kyoshi training in Berkeley.
“Kyoshi was truly a life-changing moment for all of us,” said Rev. Magnin, who intends to serve as a Kaikyoshi minister wherever BCA needs him to once he finishes his studies at IBS. “It’s just one small way that we can repay the many people who have supported us and brought us to encounter the Nembutsu teachings — even those whom we have never met in our lifetime.”
The new ministers expressed their thanks to the teachers, coordinators and volunteers who were a part of the training at the Jodo Shinshu Center.
Rev. Umezu thanked everyone who made the JSC possible so that events such as the training could occur locally. She said she feels “a renewed aspiration to share the joy of this great Nembutsu teaching with our Sangha and the greater community.”
Rev. Mascher-Mace said “seeing the passion and the unrestrained desire to help and teach and the love for the teachings, continues to give me permission to try to be more like that.
“I think that was the most motivating thing that happened here in Kyoshi, which was not so much what we learned, but how we learned it from the people we learned it from,” Rev. Mascher-Mace said.
Despite the challenges such as declining membership and a minister shortage facing BCA, the new ministers expressed optimism.
“I feel encouraged and excited for the future of Jodo Shinshu and the Buddha-Dharma here in the United States,” Rev. Dunford said.
“I also hope that we can work together with current lay leadership in the BCA community and the Minister’s Association to carry forward our beautiful tradition all the while finding new ways to embrace Master Shinran’s entreaty for us to say the Nembutsu with prayers for peace in the world and taking creative steps to ensure that the Buddha’s teachings spread,” they said.