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Rev. Dr. Seigen Yamaoka: Remembering a Great

Former BCA Bishop, IBS President Impacted Countless Lives; Recalled as Devoted Family Man


 

“Hanging tight is hard. Letting go is harder.”


— Rev. Dr. Seigen Yamaoka’s Facebook post on Dec. 10, 2023, five days before his passing


 

For most of his life, Rev. Dr. Seigen Haruo Yamaoka shared the Dharma and, through a series of trailblazing accomplishments, became a monumental figure in leading and shaping the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) and the Institute of Buddhist Studies (IBS).


Rev. Dr. Yamaoka amassed a 44-year career as a Kaikyoshi minister at the Buddhist Church of Oakland and Buddhist Church of Stockton. He served 15 years as BCA Bishop — and concurrently — as IBS President. He was the H.E. Kosho Ohtani Professor of Shin Buddhist Studies and Vice President of Development at IBS. Through his efforts, IBS became a member school of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley, California, in 2020.


He also led the BCA’s first national fundraising drive, the Campaign for Buddhism in America, in February 1982.


Rev. Dr. Yamaoka passed away on Dec. 15, 2023, in Seal Beach, California, at the age of 89. 


However, all of these accomplishments, and many others, don’t fully describe the full measure of the man and the countless lives he touched and impacted — all over the world. He was particularly beloved by Sangha members, IBS students and colleagues, and his family. He was devoted to his late wife Shigeko. He loved and cherished his two daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren, craved Costco hot dogs, and was most comfortable at home in his Adidas tracksuit and Raiders cap.


“Hanging tight is hard. Letting go is harder,” said Rev. Michael Endo, chairman of the Jan. 20 funeral service at the Buddhist Church of Oakland, in his opening remarks. “This is a sentiment that I think we all feel today as we gather with heavy hearts, and at the same time, with a profound sense of gratitude to remember and honor one of the Buddhist Churches of America’s longtime Dharma teachers and friends, Rev. Dr. Seigen Haruo Yamaoka.”


Rev. Endo’s opening quote to the overflow crowd was one of Rev. Dr. Yamaoka’s last posts on Facebook, just five days before his passing. (He was a popular figure on Facebook, with 1,900 followers.) 


“It would be no exaggeration to say that without his vision and efforts, there would be no BCA or IBS as we know them today,” said IBS President Rev. Dr. David Matsumoto. “Yamaoka Sensei was a trailblazer. He was a pioneer in many ways. His life and career has been highlighted by a series of firsts.”


Rev. Dr. Matsumoto listed those numerous “firsts” in Rev. Dr. Yamaoka’s life, among them: the first member of his family to go to college at Fresno State College (now Fresno State University); the first member of his family to study for the Shin Buddhist ministry; a member of the first class of students at the Buddhist Study Center in Berkeley, California, a precursor to the IBS; the first active Kaikyoshi minister to receive a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Pacific School of Religion; and the first American-born Nisei to serve as BCA Bishop.


Trailblazer and Pioneer

“As you can tell, he was a trailblazer,” Rev. Dr. Matsumoto said. “He was a pioneer. He did things that had never been done before. And, as a result of that, he always knew he would be the object of criticism. And, indeed, he was. I was there when I saw the arrows pierce him in the front and back. He didn’t talk a lot about it. But I knew it hurt him. But he never stopped. He never let the criticism deter him because he knew his vision was clear and he knew his intentions were pure. And he knew he was doing the right thing.”


Upon his retirement from the IBS in 2021 as Vice President of Development, Rev. Dr. Yamaoka received another first — IBS Professor Emeritus.


BCA Endowment Foundation President Charles Ozaki described Rev. Dr. Yamaoka as “a person with great insight and wisdom,” and said “there are many programs that wouldn’t exist and wouldn’t be successful without Rev. Dr. Yamaoka.” 


Ozaki listed some of them, including: the major support programs for retiring ministers; educational programs for IBS students and BCA Sangha members; and the creation of IBS professorial chairs.


Impact on IBS Students

Two of Rev. Dr. Yamaoka’s IBS students — Rev. CJ Dunford and Rev. Blake Honda — described the impact and deep friendship they shared with Rev. Dr. Yamaoka.


As an IBS student, Rev. Dunford attended Rev. Dr. Yamaoka’s course on Buddhist ministry. After Rev. Dr. Yamaoka retired, Rev. Dunford taught the course and expanded it to include wider perspectives on the Buddha-Dharma from different lineages, as well as perspectives of Dharma teachers of color and queer and transgender Buddhists.


“I recall Rev. Dr. Yamaoka speaking to the ever-changing nature of ministry and the ever-evolving makeup of our founders,” Rev. Dunford said. “I recall him saying that ‘Our training at Hongwanji is not enough and that we must constantly be in the process of reevaluating and understanding new methods and approaches to ministry as new generations take on important temple roles, and new people find meaning, and the direction of the Buddha-Dharma.’”


Rev. Dunford said Rev. Dr. Yamaoka was “a wonderful mentor, a dear friend to me and to many other students. We know that while he may no longer be with us physically, he’s now one with the Buddha, providing us with guidance.”


Rev. Honda shared a few stories of Rev. Dr. Yamaoka that influenced his life, mainly the conversations the two shared about whether Rev. Honda should apply to the IBS.


“When I was younger, I had aspirations to someday become a minister,” Rev. Honda said, saying he wasn’t ready to apply to IBS. “However, Yamaoka Sensei was quite persistent. I recall all the times I saw him. It was never the ordinary greetings such as ‘Hello, how are you?’ “How are things?’ It was more, ‘Where are you going?’ ‘What are you doing with your life?’


“I would tell him that ‘I’m not ready.’ He would still be persistent and say I need to go to IBS,” Rev. Honda said. “I received letters from him, emails, phone calls.”


Rev. Honda recalled one such meeting with Rev. Dr. Yamaoka that convinced him to apply to IBS.


“He said, ‘You need to stop running away from this. If you take a moment to stop running, you will realize you are exactly where you need to be,’” Rev. Honda recalled.


“As I was attending classes, I learned that Rev. Dr. Yamaoka was quoting directly from Shinran himself,” he said. “The term ‘Sesshu Fusha’ from the hymns on Amida sutra says that Buddha grasps and never abandons one. Sesshu Fusha pursues the one who seeks to run away. 


“Just as Yamaoka Sensei reached out to me, he still embraced me, never to be abandoned, meaning that all will be taken in,” Rev. Honda continued. “No one will ever be left behind. I was lost in this constant search for looking for myself, finding my identity, seeking validation and purpose. But all this time, I just needed to stop running. Yamaoka Sensei was someone who I never had to prove myself to to gain any form of validation. He simply accepted me as I am. All I needed to do was to stop running and just simply listen.”


Rev. Honda was among the 10 BCA members who traveled to Japan for Tokudo training and ordination at the Hongwanji-ha in Kyoto, Japan, from Dec. 6-16, 2023. Before his trip, Rev. Honda received a call from Rev. Dr. Yamaoka.


“I recently received Tokudo and honestly, I really don’t think I could have done it without his push,” Rev. Honda said. “Before I left for Japan, he called me to wish me luck. I responded, ‘You know, I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t think I’m ready.’ He chuckled. He said, ‘Just do it. You’ll find that once you let go of what you think you must do, you’ll see you’re being carried.’ That would be the last words I would hear from him.”


On the last day of the Tokudo ceremony, Rev. Honda received the news about Rev. Dr. Yamaoka’s passing.


“My mind went through a rollercoaster of emotions — anger, confusion and sadness,” he said. “Selfishly, I wanted to go home and tell him I made it to Tokudo. 


“As we sang ‘Ondonkusan II’ earlier today, for the first time, tears ran down my face where I began to understand its true meaning,” he said. “Receiving this gift from Amida Buddha, our hearts are filled with joy, indebted, we respond with gratitude to passing it forward to the point our bones become dust. I thought Rev. Dr. Yamaoka did just that, sharing this deep within his heart with all of us to his very last breath.”


Wore Many Hats

Ryan Davis, Rev. Dr Yamaoka’s son-in-law, affectionately referred to him as “Rev” during his words of remembrance.


“‘Rev’ wore many hats throughout his personal and professional life from his early days as a farmer in Fresno to becoming the Bishop of the BCA,” Davis said. “He wore a hat as a minister. He wore a hat as a professor, an author and as a sports journalist. But, most important, he wore a hat as a family man. You could often find him lounging around the house wearing his Adidas tracksuit, watching Korean films with his wife, Shigeko.


“He was always a teacher,” Davis continued. “I know he taught me many things. He taught me patience. He taught me to be a good listener. He taught me about Buddhism. And he also taught me that no trip to Costco was complete without getting a hot dog, and as we all know, everything at Costco is extra large, including those hot dogs. 


“As a matter of fact, he could eat three or four of them in a single sitting,” Davis said. “But I remember our ride home from that very first trip to Costco. ‘Rev’ leaned over, tapped me on the shoulder, and said, ‘Ryan, don’t tell Shigeko about the hot dog.’ And we both had a good laugh, and I assured him that his secret was safe with me. And, from that day forward, every time we went to Costco, we would get a hot dog.”


Davis said Rev. Dr. Yamaoka “loved his wife more than anything — they were married for 52 years,” and remained by Shigeko’s side as she spent the last few years of her life in a full-time care facility. 


“Although that transition was tough, ‘Rev’ made a commitment to visit his wife every single day at 5 o’clock, so they could have dinner,” he said. “And when I say ‘Rev’ was there every day, he was there every single day. It didn’t matter where ‘Rev’ was or what he had going on that day. He made it a priority to be there with his wife. And he would often stay late into the evening visiting to take care of her and ultimately wait for her to fall asleep before he went home. And that’s the type of family man ‘Rev’ was.


“He was a provider,” Davis continued. “He was a protector. And he was always there when his family needed him most. And it was amazing to watch him operating during these very difficult times. He never complained. He was never bitter or resentful. He never wondered, ‘Why me?’ He just continued to walk the path, and throughout that journey, he often expressed gratitude.” 


Shigeko Yamaoka passed away in 2018.


“‘Rev’ was grateful for his wife Shigeko,” he said. “He was grateful for all the good times. He was grateful for all the love and joy they shared together as a family. And I’m so grateful to call ‘Rev’ my father-in-law. I’m grateful for all the stories that were shared with me. I’m grateful for all his guidance and wisdom over the years. And I’m grateful for all the time we were able to spend together as a family.”


BCA Bishop Rev. Marvin Harada said his association with Rev. Dr. Yamaoka went back nearly 40 years to his time as a college student and at IBS and Japan.


Rev. Harada recalled the last time he shared a conversion with Rev. Dr. Yamaoka at the BCA’s Chef’s Table event on Nov. 10, 2023, at the Jodo Shinshu Center. 


“Rev. Dr. Yamaoka traveled all the way from his home in Southern California to attend the event,” Rev. Harada recalled. “He looked so great, and he stayed after almost everyone had left and we were cleaning up. We sat and talked for quite some time. I’ve received words of wisdom from him over all of these 38 years, and that evening was no different. 


“Whenever we talked about the Dharma or the transmission of the Dharma, or how things in the 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. Harada said. 


Rev. Dr. Seigen (Haruo) Yamaoka was born on Aug. 21, 1934, in Fresno, California. His parents were Haruichi and Rika (Ogawa) Yamaoka. Rev. Dr. Yamaoka had two older siblings, Shizue and Noboru Yamaoka.


He received his bachelor’s degree in journalism from Fresno State College (now Fresno State University) in 1956, and his master’s degree from Ryukoku University in 1961. While in Japan, He took up karate and earned his black belt. 


Rev. Dr. Yamaoka’s first assignment as a Kaikyoshi minister was as an assistant minister to Rev. Kenyu Masuyama at the Buddhist Church of Oakland from 1964 to 1971. In 1966, he married Shigeko Masuyama, and they had two children, Jennifer in 1975 and Stacy in 1982.


He served as Resident Minister at the Buddhist Church of Stockton from 1971 to 1981. He received his doctorate from the Pacific School of Religion in 1969. 


For the next 15 years, from 1981-1996, Rev. Dr. Yamaoka served as both BCA Bishop and as IBS President. He returned to the Buddhist Church of Oakland as its Resident Minister in 1997. He received a Doctor of Letters degree from Ryukoku University in Jodo Shinshu Studies in 2002. 


After his retirement from active ministry in 2008, Rev. Dr. Yamaoka served as the Vice President for Development at the Institute of Buddhist Studies as well as an adjunct professor. He retired from the IBS in 2021. 


Rev. Dr. Yamaoka wrote several books, including: “Meditation Gut Enlightenment: The Way of Hara,” “The Awakening of Gratitude in Dying (Buddhist),” “The Teaching and Practice of Jodo Shinshu, Life Simple,” and “Jodo Shinshu, a Religion of Human Experience.”


Rev. Dr. Yamaoka was predeceased by his wife, Shigeko Yamaoka. He is survived by two daughters, Jennifer (Ryan) Davis and Stacy (Chris) Anderson; four grandchildren, Jackson Davis, Sachi, Franklin and Evelyn Anderson; and numerous nieces, nephews and other relatives.


Not About Titles

Bishop Rev. Harada spoke about Rev. Dr. Yamaoka’s humble, self-effacing nature by mentioning his recent participation every Wednesday night at the online Vista Buddhist Temple and Orange County Buddhist Church joint meditation service and discussion.


“One of the newly certified minister’s assistants there recently shared with me that he had attended several of those sessions with Rev. Dr. Yamaoka, not knowing who he was,” Rev. Harada said. “He was so shocked to learn that Rev. Dr. Yamaoka was the former Bishop of the BCA. 


“Yamaoka Sensei was not about positions or titles,” Rev. Harada continued. “He always stood on the ground of the Dharma like Shinran Shonin, listening to others, learning from others, and then sharing his own thoughts on the Dharma freely. A real propagator of the Dharma functions in this manner, very unassuming, naturally, without any false pretense, without any air of status or position. Just sharing the teachings and sharing one’s life.


“I think that is the legacy and teaching that Rev. Dr. Yamaoka leaves us to each do our part to transmit the teachings to the West, to this country and culture, but in a greater sense, to all the world,” Rev. Harada said.


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