There was a little-known — but profound — reason why former BCA Bishop Rev. Kodo Umezu chose to be at the Buddhist Church of San Francisco when he delivered the annual Eitaikyo Perpetual Memorial Service message on Feb. 28 and was honored for his 47-year career as a Kaikyoshi minister.
He noted the San Francisco temple was built in 1937 with contributions from its Sangha members as well as BCA members around the country.
“Right after the Depression, they donated 5 cents, 10 cents, 15 cents — they built this building,” he said. “That’s why I wanted to be here. I wanted to thank those people — not just people today. I could see those people sitting in the room, to thank them. We need to be reminded that those people are putting their hands together to all of us, so we can pass on, appreciate, and pass on to the next generation.”
It was an extraordinary day — the culmination of the BCA’s first virtual National Council and Ministers Association three-day meeting held by the Bay District Council. And the Bay District Council was congratulated by people throughout the BCA for the excellent production of the online events.
The retirement event for Rev. Umezu, who stepped down as Bishop in 2020, was delayed a year because of the pandemic. But through the efforts by the Bay District Council and the BCA, the event was rescheduled this year — online.
Beginning with Bishop Rev. Marvin Harada, BCA representatives paid their tributes and gave their heartfelt thanks and gratitude for Rev. Umezu’s exceptional career. It’s a career that has made its mark on every corner of the BCA — IBS, Center for Buddhist Education, and the Endowment Foundation, as well as temples and churches. He was instrumental in establishing CBE, oversaw construction of the Jodo Shinshu Center, and created the Jodo Shinshu International Office (JSIO).
As a Shin Buddhist ambassador, he’s traveled the world, including stops in Europe and Asia. He’s met VIPs including former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Dalai Lama, and former California Gov. Jerry Brown.
Rev. Umezu grew up in Yoshitomi, Japan, in Fukuoka prefecture, the 16th generation of ministers from the 450-year-old Saiko-ji Temple. But he wanted to become a minister in the United States, so he applied with the BCA.
His association with the BCA began in 1973. At the age of 22, he was assigned first to the Fresno Betsuin Buddhist Temple, where he served two years.
He enrolled in the Institute of Buddhist Studies in 1975 to get his master’s degree. And in 1976, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy for four years in order to acclimate to the United States and American culture.
In 1977, Rev. Umezu married Janet Teraoka of Fowler, California, and they raised three children: Rev. Amy Umezu, assistant minister at the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple, who is married to Marie Miyashiro; Norio, who is married to Liz Hall; and Michelle. Norio and Liz Umezu Hall are the parents of 16-month-old Mari.
In addition to the Fresno Betsuin, Rev. Umezu also served as the Resident Minister for the Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo and the Buddhist Church of Oakland.
From 1996 to 2004, Rev. Umezu served as the Executive Assistant to Bishop Hakubun Watanabe, and from 2004 to 2005, as Executive Assistant to Bishop Koshin Ogui, before becoming the director of the Center of Buddhist Education.
On Vesak Day 2011, he gave a speech at the United Nations in place of Bishop Ogui, who had a previous commitment with a world convention in Japan.
“I was so overwhelmed … this is the place President (John F.) Kennedy and all these people had spoken,” he said, referring to his United Nations appearance. “I have to say NamoAmidaButsu several times.”
Rev. Umezu became the BCA Bishop during an Accession Service on April 1, 2012.
Bishop Rev. Marvin Harada spoke about Rev. Umezu’s legacy — the Jodo Shinshu International Office (JSIO).
“This was Rev. Umezu’s idea,” Rev. Harada said. “He presented the idea to the Hongwanji-ha leadership (in Kyoto). And they said, ‘That’s a great idea.’ And with that, we have now established worldwide propagation of Shin Buddhism through the Jodo Shinshu International Office for decades to come. This will be Rev. Umezu’s legacy.”
IBS President Rev. Dr. David Matsumoto said, “On behalf of everyone at IBS, the students, the faculty, staff, trustees, supporters and friends, I’m very, very honored to be able to express to you our profound appreciation for all of the support and leadership and friendship that you’ve given us during your tenure as Bishop and for many years prior.
“We are very fortunate to have been able to follow your aspiration and dreams, your vision for Jodo Shinshu as it now expands to become one of the most significant religious traditions in the world today,” Rev. Dr. Matsumoto continued. “And we at IBS are pledged to do all we can to continue to bring forth the dreams of so many numbers of followers.”
After Carl Yanari from the CBE expressed his thanks, Rev. Umezu pointed out the role of the national Buddhist Women’s Associations in the development of CBE.
“BCA had no budget, no budget for CBE,” he said. “It was the national Buddhist Women’s Associations that stepped up and made a commitment to help CBE by donating 5% of their savings every year. There are many individuals and groups, but I think we should not forget Buddhist women’s power.”
Charles Ozaki, president of the BCA Endowment Foundation, told Rev. Umezu: “My personal memory of you was the minister who had the greatest sense of humor amongst all ministers, and that’s what I will always cherish and remember.” Rev. Umezu thanked Ozaki for developing strong fundraising campaigns.
Peggy Okabayashi, president of the Federation of Buddhist Women’s Association, thanked Rev. Umezu for his contribution in making the 16th World Buddhist Women’s Convention “a world-class convention.” The WBWC was held in 2019 in San Francisco.
“I feel like saying ‘arigato’ to everyone, including those obachans who passed away before us who put this on,” Rev. Umezu said.
Koichi Sayano, president of the Federation of Dharma School Teachers League, extended his gratitude and appreciation. Rev. Umezu pointed out that his father-in-law, George Teraoka, was the first president of FDSTL. Rev. Umezu said he felt “a karmic connection with Dharma School” and thanked the Dharma School teachers for their “dedication and commitment.”
Earlier in the day, at the Eitaikyo Service, chairman Rev. Michael Endo shared his thoughts — and appreciation — of Rev. Umezu.
“On a personal note, I’ve known Umezu Sensei for over 34 years and have had the privilege of working side-by-side with him over those 34 years,” Rev. Endo said. “So, I’m really honored to know you. Thank you Rev. Umezu for sharing your words of wisdom — they are always enlightening, encouraging to all of us.”
In conclusion, Rev. Umezu became emotional with his final words during the retirement ceremony. First, he thanked his wife Janet and his family for their support.
“If I start naming each individual, I will need one hour, two hours,” he said. “We like to thank all the people — BCA organizations, ministers, BCA staff, IBS, Endowment, everyone for their dedication and work to make this happen so that people could hear the Buddha’s words, Buddha’s calling voice — come home. So, please, I’d like to be part of you. After I die, I’ll be here with you, just like those who have come before us.”