In a remarkable life that spanned 93 years — including more than 40 years as a BCA minister — Minister Emeritus Rev. LaVerne Senyo Sasaki crammed so much in his time that it defies easy description.
Rev. Sasaki is being remembered for his larger-than-life personality, his fun-loving demeanor, his boundless energy and curiosity, his love and devotion to family, and for his wide-ranging interests — which included travel, food, sports, pets, onsen (Japanese hot springs), and meeting people from all walks of life.
He was devoted to spreading the Dharma teaching — at the BCA’s Stockton, Mountain View, and San Francisco temples, where he served as minister — and to the larger interfaith community, and to an audience that stretched around the world. After all, he was the 26th generation Buddhist priest based from the Sasaki home temple in Kozenji, Fukui-ken, Japan.
“I feel like every request that was made of him as a BCA minister — if it was at all possible — he accepted,” said Rev. Sasaki’s daughter, Sharon Sasaki, a Minister’s Assistant at the Buddhist Temple of San Diego and assistant superintendent of the BTSD Dharma School. “If he had vacation plans and someone in the congregation passed away, my dad changed or canceled the vacation without any hesitation, so he could serve the family at their time of need.
“This sense of duty continued after he retired, when he continued to receive requests to participate in services and events,” Sharon Sasaki said. “He especially lit up when giving a Dharma talk. Even in his 90s, you could see that he was still in his element.”
Rev. Sasaki passed away March 31 at the age of 93. His funeral was held April 30 at the Mountain View Buddhist Temple.
He was inspired by the global reach of his grandfather, Rev. Senju Sasaki, the first minister of the Buddhist Churches of Canada. And, because of his grandfather — and his father, longtime BCA minister Rev. Sensho Sasaki — the life of Rev. LaVerne Sasaki spans the arc of time from the start of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism in North America.
His life also encompasses the experiences of Japanese Americans — from the immigrant Issei through the American-born Nisei such as himself, through World War II and the mass detention camps, to the post-World War II era, and to the Sansei, Yonsei, and Gosei generations of today.
Among the notable historic figures his grandfather encountered was Lady Takeko Kujo, the founder of the Buddhist Women’s Association, who promoted the status of women and redefined the role of women in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. His father met famed Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, and Rev. Sasaki became friends with mythologist Joseph Campbell and “The Karate Kid” actor Pat Morita.
Rev. LaVerne Senyo Sasaki was born on March 5, 1930, in Stockton, California, the eldest of five sons of Rev. Sensho and Kinuko Sasaki. He moved with his family to Sacramento in 1939, when his father was appointed to head the Buddhist Church of Sacramento.
The Sasakis were uprooted from their home in Sacramento and incarcerated at the Tule Lake internment camp, where family members lived for three years. It was an experience that left a deep impression on his life.
Rev. Sasaki’s family chose to remain at Tule Lake because of his father’s devotion to his Sangha members. The family returned to Sacramento in 1945.
Rev. Sasaki chose the name “LaVerne” as a result of the camp experience. When he returned from Tule Lake to Sacramento High School, he and his brother Senpo decided to change their names to ones that were both considered uncommon and socially acceptable than their Japanese names.
He decided on LaVerne and his brother chose Conrad after Laverne and Conrad Kurahara, twin brothers from Sacramento who both served as color guards in the highly decorated, all-Nisei 100th Battalion of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The Kurahara family was also incarcerated at Tule Lake.
Rev. Sasaki graduated from Sacramento High School in 1948, and obtained a bachelor’s degree in social sciences from Sacramento State College (now California State University, Sacramento) in 1952.
From 1953 to 1958, he pursued a master’s degree in Japanese Buddhism from the University of Tokyo under the guidance of Rev. Shinsho Hanayama, who would become the Bishop of the BCA from 1959 to 1968. Rev. Hanayama also served as president of the BCA Study Center in 1963 — the precursor to the Institute of Buddhist Studies (IBS) — and was IBS director from 1966 to 1968.
In 1954, Rev. Sasaki attended the Third World Buddhist Conference in Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar), and participated in a Buddhist pilgrimage of Burma, India, Nepal and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1954-55 with Rev. Hanayama’s son, Rev. Dr. Shoyu Hanayama, a former minister of the Seabrook Buddhist Temple in Seabrook, New Jersey.
It was while Rev. Sasaki was a student in Japan that he decided to become a minister. He received his Kyoshi certification in 1957 and his Kaikyoshi ordination in 1958. He also obtained his master’s degree in Japanese Buddhism from the University of Tokyo in 1958.
After returning to the United States, Rev. Sasaki enrolled in a master’s program in religious education at the University of the Pacific (UOP) in Stockton, California. His thesis, which drew from his travels, was entitled “A Buddhist curriculum for high school seniors in the Buddhist Churches of America.” He received his master’s degree from UOP in 1965.
A world traveler, Rev. Sasaki would co-author a book in Japanese entitled “Indo Busseki Junpai Kiko-ki” (“Pilgrimage of Buddhist Sites in India”) in 1955. He led a young Buddhist tour of Japan, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Thailand, and Taipei, Taiwan, in 1966 and a Japanese American Religious Federation (San Francisco) interfaith group tour of Japan in 1998.
His career as a Kaikyoshi minister in the BCA began with the Stockton Buddhist Temple from 1959 to 1971. During the time he served as Stockton’s minister, Rev. Sasaki was also a lecturer in Oriental philosophy at the UOP from 1960-61. He also taught at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton from 1969-71.
In 1971, he became the head minister of the Mountain View Buddhist Temple — founded by his father in 1961 — and served there through 1990.
From 1990 to 2000, he served as minister of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco until his retirement from the BCA.
Rev. Sasaki held numerous positions within the BCA including: BCA Ministers Kyogakubu (research and education), 1965-1981; chairperson of the Coast District Ministers Association, 1977 and 1989; board member of the BCA Center for Buddhist Education, 1978-1981; chair of the BCA Ministers Association, 1981-1985; Campaign for Buddhism in America Steering Committee, 1983-1990; BCA Social Issues Committee, 1985-1988; BCA Endowment Foundation Board of Trustees, 1985-1995; Board of Trustees of IBS, 1986-1990; IBS Admission Board, 1990-1995; and BCA Archives Advisory Committee, 1992-1995.
Rev. Sasaki enjoyed many outreach and leadership activities in the broader and interfaith communities. His activities included: charter member of Stockton-Shimizu Sister City Commission, 1965-1971; charter member of Mountain View-Iwata Sister City affiliation, 1975-1978; San Bruno-Narita Sister City advisor/interpreter, 1990-1993; Stockton Rotary Club member, 1970-71; and Mountain View Rotary Club member.
After he retired from the BCA ministry in 2000, he continued to be active as a guest speaker and occasional designated minister at BCA temples and community churches.
In 2017, he self-published a book, “Out of the Mud Grows the Wisteria,” a collection of writings and memoir of his life as a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist minister in the United States.
Brian Sasaki, Rev. Sasaki’s eldest son and a board member of the BTSD, said his father “recognized life was a journey, not a destination.”
Rev. Sasaki was predeceased by his parents, Rev. Sensho and Kinuko Sasaki, and four brothers, Conrad, Louis, Senmaro, and Senrey Sasaki.
He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Helen (Yokoi); five children, Brian Sasaki (Lorin), Sharon Sasaki (Robert Yamamoto), Stanton Sasaki (Lisa), Ellen Maseba (Gus), and Rina Vignola (Eric); and 13 grandchildren, Hailey, Jenna, and Chad Sasaki; Zoe and Ava Yamamoto; Jared and Katelyn Sasaki; Lindsey, Emily, Molly and Mitchell Maseba; and Odin and Bodhi Vignola.
He also enjoyed being the uncle of 10 nephews and nine nieces.
At the funeral, Rev. Sasaki’s grandchildren shared loving memories of “Jiichan” in their words of remembrance.
Jared Sasaki, the oldest grandson, described his conversations with Rev. Sasaki about Buddhism, and said the turning point for him was on a family trip to Yosemite in July 2021 — when Rev. Sasaki wanted to have a Dharma session with all 13 grandchildren.
“Some of the (grandchildren), including cousin Jenna and I, had planned to take on the famous Half Dome hike during the day of the planned Dharma session,” he said. “I had thought that we were off the hook for the Dharma session, but Jiichan never lost his sharp cognition over his 93 years. He decided to have a Dharma session for just Jenna and I after we had finished the hike.
“From something that I thought was going to be somewhat of a chore, it ended up being a very prized moment to me,” Jared Sasaki continued. “We talked about Buddhism and its relation to psychology and karma. This really piqued my interest, as I had never thought about Buddhism in this light. Following this session, we had several other conversations about Buddhist teachings and my increasing interest in his passion over the past year, and most recently, the trip we took to Las Vegas for his 93rd birthday.”
Lindsey Maseba said: “Jiichan was able to live his life to the fullest and it wasn’t because he had some extravagant or lavish lifestyle. The little things in life that we often take for granted brought him lots of joy. Our time on this earth is limited, so I hope that we can all learn from Jiichan and live each day with gratitude.”
The family of Rev. LaVerne Sasaki contributed to this article.