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Rev. Yoshitaka Tamai, Iconic Tri-State/Denver Minister

Rev. Yoshitaka Tamai was born in 1900 in Toyama-ken, Japan. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy and also completed his graduate studies at Toyo University. He received his Tokudo Ordination in 1920 and Kyoshi Certification in 1931.


He married Yasuko Fujitani of the Yusuji Temple in Kagoshima in 1919. They had a son, Kokubun, who was born in 1920. A second son, Shobun, was born in 1927, but due to complications, resulting from a difficult pregnancy, he passed away. Yasuko remained hospitalized and eventually returned to her home in Kagoshima. Kokubun went to live with his grandparents in Toyama-ken. Rev. Tamai worked in the editorial department of the Kodansha Magazine Company for four years, but resigned to seek meaningful work in the ministry.


He came to America in 1930 and was assigned to the Denver Buddhist Church as an assistant minister and Japanese language teacher. But with the transfer of the head minister, Rev. Tamai, at age 30, became the third head minister of the Denver Buddhist Church in 1932.


It was not a good time to head a church. America was in the Great Depression, and he faced many huge challenges to keeping Jodo Shinshu alive in the Denver and Tri-States area. The building was in need of immediate repairs; there were delinquent bills and a pending foreclosure by the City of Denver. Confronted with these issues, he asked the trustees to stop paying his monthly salary for one to two years and started a fundraising program. He did the ask, too. He didn't care about himself, but only about the church and the needs of the people. Because of his selfless leadership, the church started to slowly grow.


Rev. Tamai was an innovator and a visionary. For instance, he gathered students from depressed farming families and asked the parents if he could take care of the students in Denver. Fourteen youths participated. He boarded them at the church, fed them and got them into schools to get a better education. He asked local farmers to supply the food. He had the students do chores, such as cleaning, laundry, and cooking meals. They studied kendo, Japanese, and cultural arts. Rev. Tamai led them in Sutra chanting daily. His hope was to have the young students grow to be leaders in the communities and the church.


Rev. Tamai is famous for his travels to communities around Denver no matter how difficult the trip. He would drive a Model A Ford, no matter how far or how treacherous the roads may be, in the heat, rain or snow, to conduct services and help and listen to people. It was a rough time for the farmers and their families. He would bring a projector and show Japanese movies to give people a bit of enjoyment. He would travel thousands of miles each year by car, visiting eight states. He established nine temples, initiating and servicing 27 sanghas in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. He traveled so much that the trustees would find him a cheap car every four years.


I am sure deep in his heart he constantly thought of his family in Japan, but he never showed it. He wanted to go back to see them, but the Depression took away his ability to return. Then World War II began, and all communications were lost. Living in Colorado and being away from the West Coast, he was not incarcerated, so he served his church and all who needed his service. During that time, his wife passed away, and his son was killed in action serving Japan.


Members fondly remember that he would wear threadbare clothes, a tattered hat, and old robes. He did all the ministerial services, but most important to him was the teaching of Amida Buddha, the church and the Sangha that he served. Rev. Tamai was known for his demeanor, kindness, and patience. People recall that they never heard a single complaint.


His motto was "Do the best I can and whatever I can," which he did for 40 years of dedicated ministerial service. He retired in 1970 and continued to serve in a limited capacity. I heard these same words in 1982, during a visit to the Denver Buddhist Church. BCA was in the process of initiating the Campaign for Buddhism in America, a major fundraising program. With a big smile he said, "That is a great idea, please do the best you can. How can I help you? I will do whatever I can."


I was encouraged by his positive and forward vision as to what needed to be done for the growth of the BCA and its programs. A year later, in 1983, I was saddened to hear of his passing, but I have never forgotten his positive spirit.


Rev. Tamai came to America for the purpose of moving the “Dharma Forward” in a new country despite the fact he was not fluent in English, and uncertain of what life would be like in America or the hardship he would have to face. He was a pioneer minister who thrust his life into an unknown world with the hope of spreading the Buddha-Dharma. His ingenuity. creativity, and the knowledge of the needs of his membership, as well as his faith and trust in the Dharma, enabled him to forge ahead through hard work and sacrifice to spread the Dharma.


Rev. Yoshitaka Tamai received countless honors for his work, but I feel the greatest honor that was given to him was the establishment of the Institute of Buddhist Studies Rev. Yoshitaka Tamai Professorial Chair Endowment Fund, which was established in 1986. Members of the Tri-State Buddhist temples wanted to honor Rev. Tamai for his strong emphasis on Buddhist education throughout his life and ministry. They raised $1 million.


The Dharma Forward Campaign is now highlighting the Tamai Chair as one of the six IBS legacy chairs with the hope of bringing the amount of each professorial chair endowment to $3 million. I hope that people will remember Rev. Yoshitaki Tamai and "Do the best they can and whatever they can."


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