If ever there was a prototypical BCA Shin Buddhist — from infancy on through adulthood — Orange County Buddhist Church (OCBC) President Jo Ann Tanioka would certainly fit the mold — and break it.
As the daughter of parents who were active in OCBC — her father was the church’s first president and her mother served as a Dharma School teacher — Tanioka literally grew up in the church. She had perfect attendance in Dharma School for about 15 years. What’s more, her three children each had about another 15 years of perfect attendance — a staggering total of approximately 60 years of perfect attendance.
Tanioka was the final speaker during the BCA National Council Meeting online Town Hall on “The Benefits of Following the Shin Buddhist Path” on Feb. 18. Because one of her daughters was expecting a baby on Feb. 20, Tanioka taped a video beforehand.
“To be honest, when Bishop Rev. Marvin Harada first contacted me to speak today about the benefits of a Sangha, I tried very hard to find a reason to decline,” she said, noting she was busy with the upcoming OCBC Hanamatsuri festival and preparing for the next board meeting, as well as having a grandchild on the way.
“But then I stopped to realize that every reason I had for not speaking was directly related to being a part of a Sangha,” she said. “How can I tell him I couldn’t speak about the importance of a Sangha because I had important Sangha duties to take care of.”
Tanioka described her upbringing at OCBC. She began the cycle of different OCBC organizations — the Golden Chain Club, Sangha Teens, Jr. YBA and Senior YBA. She attended Japanese school and played on the church basketball and softball teams. And, as a high school student, she served as a Dharma School assistant.
Growing up in Orange County in the 1960s and 1970s was decidedly different than the Orange County of today.
“I attended an elementary school with a predominantly Caucasian student body and I believe the only other Japanese American students at my school were my younger brother and another younger girl,” Tanioka recalled. “So, during those years, OCBC not only served as a place for me to hear the teachings, but it also gave me the opportunity to socialize with other Japanese American youth, an experience I didn’t have during my weekdays.
“At OCBC, I was with a Sangha that not only shared similar religious practices, but also shared the same foods, expectations, looked like me, and knew what it meant to be a minority,” she continued. “The Sangha provided a sense of belonging.”
Although she and her five siblings only attended Dharma School once a week, OCBC was the subject of daily conversations at her home. “OCBC just seemed like another sibling that I had to share my parents’ attention with,” she said. “The Sangha had a place at our dinner table every night as we spoke about OCBC and what was going on at the temple and its Sangha.”
It was just natural that Tanioka would become good friends with her Dharma School classmates and friends in the clubs.
“What I didn’t realize at the time was the strength and longevity of those friendships,” she said. “I’m grateful to say that my closest friends today are the same Sangha friends that I sat in a Hondo with and counted the number of light fixtures on the ceiling, the ones who I worked with at our festivals, and the ones who I shared a room with at our Jr. YBA conferences.
“My friendship with my childhood Sangha friends has carried me throughout my life,” Tanioka continued. “We’ve shared the typical heartbreaks of adolescence. We were part of each other’s weddings. We became unofficial aunties and uncles to each other’s children. And, we were there to support each other again with the heartbreak of the loss of our parents. The Sangha provides friendship, comfort, and dependability.”
When she was in the seventh-grade, there were more than 25 students in her Dharma School class — and she noted that more than half of those students still attend OCBC. Many of these classmates, she said, took a break after college and returned after they got married and had children.
“I think the main reason that most returned with their families is the memorable experience they had as children, and they wanted the same for their children,” Tanioka said, adding that the Dharma School has added 35 new students this year. “They hoped that their children would find friends and a Sangha that would become their lifelong friends, just as they experienced. I know that was my hope for my children.
“When I was a new parent, I knew I had had a wonderful life,” she said. “And a big part of that life had been the temple, so I wanted the temple to be a significant part of my children’s lives as well. I envisioned them in the same clubs that I had been a part of and maybe even finding their life partner at a future YBA event.”
Tanioka pointed out the importance of a Sangha when her son came out during his high school years and told her he was gay.
“I was a little surprised at first, but then I went into ‘Mama Bear’ mode, and my surprise turned to concern for him,” she said. “Would people misjudge him, mistreat him, misunderstand him? Would the friends he had known all his life look at him differently? Would the Sangha look at him differently?
“I knew that the teachings were always inclusive and did not alienate or discriminate against anyone, but I wasn’t quite sure how others understood the teachings,” she continued. “I felt very fortunate that my son has always had a sense of confidence, and he assured me that I shouldn’t worry. With this assurance and the welcoming words I’ve received from many Sangha members, I knew that he would continue to receive the support of the Sangha, who he had always known. And it is my hope that he now encourages all Sangha members to live an authentic life. The Sangha is acceptance, security, and compassion.”
Tanioka said an important element of a successful temple is an engaged Sangha, and cited the many groups or organizations at OCBC — beginning at kindergarten and extending to seniors: sports teams, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Dharma Wheel club, Sangha Teens, Jr. YBA, ABA, BWA, Project Kokoro, crafters, as well as cultural groups. And OCBC recently began a pickleball program held midweek and on the weekends that has attracted generations of families and has served to bring back some of the children of Sangha members.
“I don’t think a Sangha is limited to Hondo walls,” she said, noting that this was especially true during the pandemic, when Sunday services were strictly held online — as they continue to be, even as BCA temples and churches have reopened.
She said she joined a virtual Sunday chanting group during the pandemic, which “brought the comfort and familiarity of a Sangha into my home again.”
Tanioka saw the “limitless boundaries of a Sangha” when Paul Goodman, the son of one of the Sunday chanting couples — longtime OCBC members Greg and Bonnie Goodman — was diagnosed with a recurrence of leukemia and was in need of a bone marrow transplant.
The OCBC Sangha, which was deeply touched by Paul Goodman’s plight, went on the offensive and held bone marrow drives in early 2021. Other BCA temples such as the Gardena Buddhist Church and community groups followed suit in their fight for “Team Paul.”
Goodman had his bone marrow transplant in March of that year and stayed in remission for over two years. During that time, he went on to write and direct the acclaimed independent film, “No No Girl,” which has been screened at several BCA temples. The movie revolves around a 20-year-old Yonsei woman and her Buddhist family as they grapple with a family mystery tied to their relationships with each other and the World War II mass incarceration of Japanese Americans.
In June of this year, Goodman relapsed for a second time and is undergoing treatment at City of Hope. He’s currently in remission and awaiting a second bone marrow transplant. Goodman is always grateful for the love and support he receives from the Sangha and community.
“Our reverends often speak on the importance of the Three Treasures — the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, but especially the importance of the Sangha,” Tanioka said. “I agree that the pandemic showed us the strength of the Sangha and how it is a necessity to truly appreciate the Buddha and the Dharma. The Sangha is a connector to the Buddha and the Dharma.
“I know my words are nothing new or unique, but I think it’s always good to be reminded that the Sangha holds us accountable, provides a sense of belonging, provides friendship, comfort and dependability,” she said. “It’s acceptance, security and compassion, is engaging, is accountable for each other, is limitless and generous, is a connector, and is impermanent. So we need to hold it close in our hearts — with gratitude.”