Soto Zen reverend’s off-the-beaten path to S.F.

Rev. Koshi Kurotaki of the Soto Mission of San Francisco. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

The two largest Buddhists sects in Japan are Jodo Shinshu and Soto Shu. Jodo Shinshu boasts the most number of practitioners in Japan,  while Soto Shu claims the title of most number of temples, said the Rev. Koshi Kurotaki, resident minister of the Soto Mission of San Francisco Sokoji. And while Zen Buddhism has become popularized in the West through its emphasis on meditation, Kurotaki said not all parishioners meditate as part of their religious practices.

“The Soto sect holds meditation in high regard,” Kurotaki told the Nichi Bei Weekly in Japanese. “But today, the average parishioner doesn’t meditate … If anything, the practice has been reintroduced to Japan by people who popularized Soto Zen Buddhism, like Steve Jobs.”

Most of the Soto sect’s annual customs are similar to Jodo Shinshu’s. Kurotaki said his temple holds an Obon service, but not an Obon festival or dance. He did, however, note that the Zenshuji Temple in Los Angeles holds their annual Obon carnival, so each temple has their own special events. He said his temple, instead, conducts the joya-no-kane (end of the year bell ringing) on Dec. 31 at 11 p.m. each year and also holds the shichi-go-san service for children each November.

Kurotaki is from Hirosaki, Japan in Aomori Prefecture. His family runs the Sotokuji Temple in the city’s famous Zenringai, a district with 33 Zen temples built next to each other. As the second born son of three brothers, he was not expected to take over the temple. Kurotaki, however, said he had been “lazy” in college.

“I felt I needed more discipline in my life, so I went to train at Eihei-ji (one of the Soto sect’s main temples) for a year,” he said. “I didn’t necessarily mean to become a minister, but I found myself ordained after training there for two years.”

Kurotaki had been considering his future when he learned there was an opening for a resident minister in San Francisco.

“I had always thought about going abroad, but when you’re actually presented with that option, you can’t help but hesitate,” Kurotaki said. After visiting San Francisco and interviewing for the position, he was convinced that this was a rare opportunity. “Starting something new can be something really scary or stressful. I felt the first year abroad might be difficult for me, but once I got used to it, I would grow to enjoy it more. I’ve gotten used to living abroad now and have been able to start relaxing.”

As Kurotaki finishes his second year, he said his English has not improved as well as he had hoped, but he said he would like to remain in America. “I would like to remain here as long as I can,” he said, hoping to get a green card to stay.

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