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Rev. Patricia Kanaya Usuki: A Trailblazer, Minister and Author

In Her Career, She’s Influenced, Inspired and Been Role Model to Many

Rev. Patricia Kanaya Usuki is a woman who has touched countless people in her life and distinguished career. 

Rev. Kanaya Usuki — aka Rev. Patti — has educated and inspired so many in the Buddhist Churches of America, from those who learned the basics of Jodo Shinshu from her work on “Jodo Shinshu: A Guide,” to aspiring female ministers who felt like they had found an incredible role model.

When she was a child growing up in Toronto, Ontario, she attended the United Church of Canada. Her father, Jiro, was Anglican, and her mother, Phyllis, was Jodo Shinshu. Her mother attended the Vancouver Buddhist Temple for Sunday School before World War II. 

Relocating to Toronto after incarceration, her attendance at the temple was mainly for Shotsuki Hoyo (monthly memorial service), funerals, or bazaars. Rev. Kanaya Usuki’s grandmother, Kiwano Shiraishi, had been a devout Jodo Shinshu Buddhist and active Fujinkai member. 

After college, where she studied modern languages and literature, Rev. Kanaya Usuki had a career with the Canadian government and then as an elementary school teacher before moving to Japan, where she became interested in Buddhism. She heard about a Vipassana meditation retreat near Toronto from a Canadian friend and attended during a visit home. Upon returning to Japan, she began studying Buddhism more in depth. 

She lived in “Rennyo-country,” the Hokuriku area in Japan. Due to the influence of Rennyo Shonin, the eighth abbot, Jodo Shinshu had a particularly strong presence there. She began attending morning services at Kanazawa Betsuin every day and was encouraged to go to Higashi Betsuin, where daily classes were offered. 

When Rev. Kanaya Usuki decided she wanted to learn more, she reached out to her grandmother’s minister, Rev. Grant Ikuta, in Toronto, Canada, who introduced her to Rev. Gene Sekiya of the Hongwanji International Center in Kyoto, Japan. She took the train into Kyoto to visit Rev. Sekiya shortly after.

She asked Rev. Sekiya if there were any resources in English, and he pointed her to the “Shin Buddhism Translation Series” books (this was before everything was compiled into the “Collected Works of Shinran”). 

Rev. Sekiya’s director, Rev. Yasuaki Hayashi, suggested that she move to Honzan, the head temple, to learn more. Since she needed to work, she was asked to send her resume.

She began working at the International Department of the Nishi Hongwanji and put her skills as a language specialist to use. One of the first projects she was given was the book “Jodo Shinshu: A Guide.” It was a literal translation from Japanese to English, so it was rather difficult for a native English speaker, new to Jodo Shinshu, to understand. She had to rework it 14 times. In the process of working on the book, she asked a lot of questions and learned so much.

Rev. Kanaya Usuki ended up attending Chuo Bukkyo Gakuin (aka Chubutsu), a Jodo Shinshu seminary school in Kyoto, Japan, and became an ordained minister, receiving Tokudo in 2001 and Kyoshi certification in 2002. 

She wanted to learn how to communicate the teachings in English and became interested in attending the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, California. She often met with Rev. Dr. David Matsumoto when he stayed at the Hongwanji International Center while working on his dissertation, and decided to attend IBS. 

In an interview, Rev. Kanaya Usuki joked that she had done things backwards since she had already been ordained when she began attending IBS.

While at IBS, she was told by someone in the BCA that people didn’t want female ministers. Yet, at a National Council meeting, she was asked by several temple presidents if she would be willing to be a minister at their temples. 

Rev. Kanaya Usuki chose to write about American women in Jodo Shinshu for her thesis topic at IBS. She attended a class on “Women in Buddhism” at the Unitarian Universalist seminary of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, which IBS affiliated with, and also thought about her experiences in Japan. She hadn’t encountered any roadblocks as a woman. At the seminary in Kyoto, women were required to perform all of the duties and rituals that men did. 

Rev. Kanaya Usuki began her research, developing surveys that she handed out at BWA and Jr. YBA conferences. Her findings and thesis were published in her 2007 book, “Currents of Change: American Buddhist Women Speak Out on Jodo Shinshu.”

She served as Resident Minister of the San Fernando Valley Hongwanji Buddhist Temple from 2004 until her retirement in 2020. 

When asked about the most meaningful aspects of serving as a BCA minister, she said: “You get to spend your life immersed in the teaching; you get to focus on the Dharma.” 

She added that as a minister, she thought, “I have this roadmap; let’s walk this path together.”

Rev. Kanaya Usuki also served as the Chair (Gicho) of the BCA Minister’s Association for two years. 

This was a milestone in BCA history as she was the first female minister ever to be nominated and elected by the BCA ministers as chairperson. 

She is grateful for the support of colleagues, lay leaders, and members throughout the BCA. She is deeply thankful for the confluence of the countless and varied beings, activities, and experiences throughout her life that brought her not only to hear the teachings for herself but also to feel a conviction to share this joy in whatever way causes and conditions had led her to do.

Since retiring, she said that she misses the Sangha most of all. She misses the members and the ministers, and especially misses the newcomers because they ask so many questions.

While Rev. Kanaya Usuki has accomplished much in her career, it is her lasting impact on those around her that truly speaks to the kind of person she is. 

Two of Rev. Usuki’s Minister’s Assistants – Revs. Stacy Reardon and Jean-Paul “JP” Contreras deGuzman – spoke highly of her.

“My husband and I decided to visit a Buddhist temple one day in January 2013,” said Rev. Reardon. “I don’t remember the content of Rev. Patti’s Dharma message, but I do remember an overwhelming feeling of belonging. We kept coming back and became regular members because the message made sense to us. 

“The Dharma made sense,” she said. “But also because Rev. Patti’s way of communicating the Dharma particularly spoke to us. Rev. Patti would be the first to say that the Dharma message is the same, but one minister can say it in a way that will particularly ‘hit’ for someone at the right time. While I have learned important, deep and meaningful Dharma lessons from various ministers in my time as a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist, I can also say that Rev. Patti’s messages always seem to ‘hit’ for me.  

“I am indebted to her for communicating her take on the Buddha-Dharma, as it has helped inform and shape my own, leading me to my own path towards the ministry, and quite literally changing my life,” she said. “I will forever be grateful to Rev. Patti for her guidance, humor, wisdom and realness. Thank you, Sensei. Namo Amida Butsu.”

Rev. deGuzman said: “It is without hyperbole that I say that Rev. Patti has, in infinite ways, changed my life for the better. I first met Sensei when I was a harried graduate student and attended her Dharma discussion groups over a decade ago. She gave generously of her time to answer my questions in person or over email. 

“As a newcomer to Buddhism, I was unsure of what to make of the complexity of our Nembutsu teachings, but Rev. Patti made them legible and meaningful,” he continued. “She did this through care and compassion, and plenty of great humor and storytelling whether in her Dharma talks or her interactions with the Sangha. Sensei has provided wise counsel in challenging moments and has been a part of the joyful ones too, like when she officiated my wedding in 2021. 

“I leapt at the opportunity she extended to serve as her minister's assistant and, as time passed, Sensei inspired me to pursue the path of ministry. Having received Tokudo ordination, I continue to benefit from her guidance and the irreproachable example she has set. Thank you, Sensei, for helping me to live in a world of genuine gratitude and to discover the awe in all life! Okagesama-de!”


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