Wes Mukoyama’s life of activism has ranged from counseling jail inmates as a Buddhist chaplain to serving as the executive director of a senior center, heading the Peace Corps in the Solomon Islands to being a social worker for 40 years.
The 80-year-old Mukoyama brings a Buddhist perspective to his activism, gained from meditation techniques learned from famed teacher Rev. Gyomay Kubose to Jodo Shinshu study class sessions over the past 25 years.
“I do think that a lot of people speak against the social ills of society. That is my modus operandi after I retired and my whole life,’’ Mukoyama said.
When he brings that up with ministers, he said he’s assured that activism is reflected in Shin Buddhist teachings.
“Buddhism is not passive,” he said.
Mukoyama has been active in the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin and the Palo Alto Buddhist Temple.
“Wes embodies the spirit of the practice of Jodo Shinshu in that he constantly and consistently treats everyone with ultimate compassion, from his own family as well as his Sangha family,” said Eric Quock, president of the Palo Alto Buddhist Temple, where Wes and wife, Janice, attend regularly with two of their grandchildren.
BCA Minister Emeritus Rev. Dr. Kenji Akahoshi said Mukoyama “lives the Dharma in his life … Wes’s entire life is in careers and activities that are a service to others.”
Even after he retired as the executive director of Yu Ai Kai Japanese American Community Senior Service in San Jose’s Japantown, Mukoyama has continued his fight against the injustices he sees.
He was a plaintiff in a voting rights lawsuit filed against the city of Santa Clara, which had not had a minority person elected to the council. The suit resulted in district elections that have seen minorities elected for the first time.
Mukoyama has also served on a blue ribbon commission formed after three Santa Clara County jail guards beat a mentally ill inmate to death. When he learned that inmates only had one pair of underwear per week, he brought it up at the commission. Soon, they received seven pairs.
“Wes, you cost me $47,000,” an official told him.
Mukoyama smiled and laughed when telling the story.
His upbeat attitude and ready smile belie Mukoyama’s steely conviction to achieve justice and fairness for all.
Mukoyama grew up in Chicago, where his family was among the few Japanese Americans residents before World War II. Because they lived outside of the West Coast, his family wasn’t incarcerated.
He and his two older brothers were bullied when they went to school, but he said his brothers were targeted more because they were kibei and spoke English with an accent.
“I was the little guy and observed a lot of bullying,” Mukoyama said.
In 1965, Mukoyama joined the Peace Corps and served in Tanzania. Afterwards, he toured Asia, ending up in Japan, where he became an English teacher.
Mukoyama had grown up as a Christian, but he sought a different religious path for himself. He met up with a family acquaintance in Japan, who exposed him to Zen meditation: Rev. Gyomay Kubose, who founded the Buddhist Temple of Chicago. Rev. Kubose advocated Pure Land Buddhism, but also participated in meditation sessions.
“We’d go out on weekends and do zazen … every weekend or so,” Mukoyama said. “I got more into Buddhism … I was really accepting Buddhism as my way of life.”
But sitting zazen was challenging.
“I would get dizzy after meditating 45 to 50 minutes,” he said. Mukoyama says he still meditates daily, but in a chair in front of the family obutsudan.
As he engaged in Zen practices, he also began to explore Jodo Shinshu. A chance meeting in 1968 led to that.
A friend asked him and a couple of Japanese Americans to help show a visiting Senior YBA group around Japan.
“That’s where I met my wife,” Mukoyama laughed. After a whirlwind romance, he and Janice got married in 1969.
Mukoyama spent two more stints with the Peace Corps, including serving as the director in the Solomon Islands from July 1998 to February 2001. He supervised 82 Peace Corps volunteers on 40 islands. In June 2000, when a civil war broke out, he oversaw the evacuation of Peace Corps volunteers, American citizens and volunteers from Japan and New Zealand.
When he wasn’t in the Peace Corps, he was a clinical psychiatric social welfare worker for the Veterans Affairs (VA) Palo Alto Health Care System for 30 years, retiring in 2003.
In that same year, he became the executive director of Yu-Ai Kai, a nonprofit senior center that, at the time, had a staff of about 30 individuals and served about 3,000 people every year.
In addition, he was president and chair of the Santa Clara County Behavioral Health Board.
Mukoyama joined a Shin Buddhist study class in 1997 started by Rev. Akahoshi. He continues to attend the discussions, held twice a month, and now led by Michael Jones, a Minister’s Assistant at the San Jose Betsuin.
Rev. Akahoshi said Mukoyama questions how the teachings “can help us in our ordinary lives,” adding that his “cheerful and engaging personality invites friendship.”
Every month, Mukoyama visits the San Jose Betsuin to pick up his mail.
The letters are from people he has counseled, meditated with and joined in reciting the Nembutsu. And they’re all behind bars, some of them for the most violent of crimes.
Mukoyama is a Buddhist jail chaplain who regularly visits inmates to talk about their lives in incarceration. He’s corresponded with some of them for years.
“I profess that I know nothing about Buddhism,” Mukoyama said. “I’m just a volunteer.”
For the past 14 years, Mukoyama has visited the Santa Clara County jails. He speaks to inmates about Jodo Shinshu and overall Buddhist principles, refers them to books on the subject, teaches them how to meditate and ends each session by leading them in saying “Namo Amida Butsu.
If all you have to say is ‘Namo Amida Butsu’ and if you say it with sincerity, gratitude and aspiration to go to the Pure Land, it may happen,” Mukoyama said.
Mukoyama continues to study Shin Buddhism. Interactions and situations that happen in the jail raise questions he seeks to answer.
And he admits he still gets angry and greedy for food. He said he’s learning to appreciate what he has, but also hopes for what he doesn’t have.
“I’m still wondering about tariki and Pure Land,” he said, referring to discussions in study classes. “It’s still much of a puzzle to me.”
But Mukoyama doesn’t stand still. As he learns, he can’t help but speak out when he sees something he feels is wrong.