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Remembering Rev. LaVerne Sasaki

First Buddhist Teachers


In the days after learning of Sensei’s passing, many thoughts and memories came welling up in me.


In Buddhism, we often speak of “wisdom” and “compassion.” For me, it was Rev. LaVerne Sasaki who first introduced me to the wisdom dimension of Buddhism, while it was Sensei’s father, Rev. Sensho Sasaki, who opened the door to the compassion dimension. Before focusing on Rev. LaVerne Sasaki, allow me to say a bit about his father because, as father and son, they impacted me as “one set” as my first Buddhist teachers.


Rev. Sensho Sasaki was the resident minister when I first began attending the Mountain View Buddhist Temple at the age of 13 in 1961. What I remember very much about him was Sensho Sensei’s warm, soft hands as he shook hands with each of the 250 or so Sunday School students as we exited the temple after the service.


As a minister with limited English speaking abilities, his sermons were difficult to understand, but Sensei more than made up for it with his warm smile and, most of all, through those warm, soft hands. It’s amazing that even after 60 years, I can still “feel” Sensho Sensei’s hands of compassion!


Wisdom and Knowledge


It was the son, Rev. LaVerne Sasaki, who generated my interest in the wisdom and knowledge of Buddhism through the study classes that he held once a month, as Sensei traveled all the way from the Buddhist Church of Stockton, where he was serving as an associate minister. His classes were so interesting that I hardly missed a class during most of my high school years.


Sensei’s classes provided answers to many of the questions that were unanswered at a Christian church that I had been attending a couple of years earlier. One such question was, “Why was there so much suffering (Duhkha) in the world when an all-powerful and all loving God had created it? Why couldn’t he have done a better job!” My parents were not getting along, and the world had just gone through World War II that had killed 50 million people!


Fortunately, at these classes, my questions were answered. Sensei talked about the Four Noble Truths, which essentially said that “suffering is a natural part of life, and that we all experience it.” Such a view affirmed what I was feeling and assured me that “I was not alone.” Even the Buddha and Shinran Shonin had also experienced them and had gone on to resolve them through the Dharma.


Rev. Sasaki shared his wisdom and knowledge gained especially during his graduate student days at the University of Tokyo, where he was able to study with the eminent professors. He also spoke fondly about his classmates, Shoyu Hanayama and Shojun Bando who had become well known, and about his master’s thesis on the main text by Genshin, one of the Seven Masters of Shin Buddhism. Such sharing planted a seed in me to want to follow in his footsteps, which I did some 20 years later that greatly furthered my academic career.


Outward, Global Outlook


During some of the study classes, Sensei shared his experience of attending the Third World Buddhist Conference in Rangoon, Burma, in 1954. It was an eye opener for me to know that someone I knew and respected had traveled to a distant Buddhist land for a Buddhist gathering. Such travels and experiences definitely influenced me in my desire to see more of the Buddhist world. One example would be my traveling to Thailand soon after college to enter a monastery to experience the life of a Theravada Buddhist monk.


In my view, Rev. Sasaki was also extraordinary in his efforts to propagate Buddhism to a wider community as seen in his active participation in intra-Buddhist, inter-religious, and civic activities.


One such event I fondly recall was when he invited the San Francisco 49ers football team for a series of exhibition basketball games at the Mountain View temple gymnasium.


Besides promoting such games, Sensei also invited other Shin Buddhist ministers to gather at his temple for basketball games. (See a photo of us when we had more hair!) As I write this, an image pops up in my mind of Sensei happily “prancing” back to play defense after making a great shot of his own.


In our most recent encounters, he called me, “a global Shinshu salesman!” Well, “salesman” was not the word I would have preferred, but I knew that coming from Sensei, it was a compliment.


In reflecting on his comment, I now realize even more that Sensei’s outward and global perspectives had contributed to my own desire to reach out broadly and internationally. It is such a perspective that has encouraged me to have my first book on Shinshu, “Ocean: An Introduction to Jodo Shinshu Buddhism in America,” to be translated into Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, and now Chinese.


Scrubbing Towel


The above are some of the ways that Rev. Sasaki impacted my life, but I wish to close with one light-hearted episode. Some 25 years ago, Sensei was talking about how much he enjoyed taking a bath, especially when he used the long, coarse nylon towel from Japan to scrub his back. As he described how he scrubbed his back holding the two ends of the towel, he uttered, “Oh man, it feels soooo … good!” It left such an impression on me that even today, every time I scrub my back, I see the image of Sensei scrubbing his back!


I realize that for Mrs. Helen Sasaki and the entire Sasaki family, the loss will be felt deeply for some time to come. However, I am sure that they are pleased that Sensei was able to accomplish so much and that he enjoyed life, sports, and the Dharma to the fullest.


He lived to the age of 93 (three years longer than Shinran Shonin), having nurtured a huge loving family, influenced so many people, and shared the Dharma within and beyond the Shin Buddhist community.


It's true that Sensei is no longer with us “physically,” and I, too, will miss him. However, his memories will continue to be present in our lives. For me, Sensei will be with me whenever I scrub my back when taking a bath! Sensei will be with me encouraging me whenever I share the Dharma with the global audience! And Sensei will be with me when I recite the Nembutsu!


Thank you, Sensei! Namo Amida Butsu …


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