Eastern Perspective: From Buddhism to journalism and back to Buddhism, Higashi Honganji minister still ‘seeking truth’

Rev. Ken Yamada photo by Kevin Sullivan

Kenneth Tadao Yamada had been a student of Buddhism in the 1980s, until he found his calling in the world of journalism — another form of “truth-seeking,” as he says.

A 1980 graduate of UC Berkeley, Yamada weaved through a successful 12-year reporting career that found him writing at some of the country’s most distinguished newspapers, as well as serving as senior editor at cutting-edge technology magazine Red Herring. Then, while witnessing his brother succumb to a fight against cancer, he rediscovered his path toward Buddhism.

Upon receiving his ordination from the Higashi Honganji — one of two major sects of Japanese Buddhism, the other being Nishi Honganji, which is more widely known in this country as the Buddhist Churches of America — he was assigned as the resident minister of the Berkeley Higashi Honganji in January of 2005.

The Sansei, a father of two who was born in Oakland, Calif. and raised in nearby El Cerrito, Calif., discussed a variety of topics with the Nichi Bei Weekly in an e-mail interview, including the differences between Nishi Honganji and Higashi Honganji, the unique arrangement between Berkeley’s two Buddhist churches, and his travels from Buddhism to journalism and back to Buddhism.

Nichi Bei Weekly: For the lay person, can you explain the difference between the Higashi Honganji and larger Nishi Honganji (Buddhist Churches of America)?

Rev. Ken Yamada: Originally, there was only one Honganji temple in Japan. In the early 1600s, military ruler Tokugawa Ieyasu, afraid of Honganji’s political influence and its many followers, split the temple into two, which became known as Higashi (east) and Nishi (west), based on where they were located in Kyoto. Today, both organizations claim millions of members in Japan. In the United States, Nishi Honganji has been more active in establishing temples. Higashi Honganji has four temples in California (Berkeley, Los Angeles, West Covina, Newport Beach).

NBW: Is there any difference between the Nishi Honganji and Higashi Honganji perspectives on Obon?

RKY: Both Nishi and Higashi Honganji follow the teachings of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. Therefore, the meaning of Obon, a traditional Buddhist memorial service and dance, is the same. It is a time to reflect on the passing of loved ones and ancestors, and a time to show our appreciation for the lives that have come before us.

NBW: What does Obon mean to you personally?

RKY: At our temple, Obon is not treated as a festival, “matsuri,” or bazaar. Of course, the dance itself is a fun and culturally enriching event for young and old alike. I have many fond memories of Obon dancing when I was young. Now I understand the meaning of Obon to be much deeper. It is a time for self-reflection and a time to reflect on the passing of loved ones. On the morning after the dance, we visit cemeteries and lay flowers on the graves of many of our past members. In the afternoon, we hold an Obon memorial service at the temple, which is especially meaningful for families who are mourning the death of a loved one during the past year.

NBW: Berkeley Higashi Honganji has an interesting and unique arrangement with the Berkeley Buddhist Temple, where you switch off every other year as hosts of Berkeley’s Obon festivities. How did that arrangement come about?

RKY: Both of our temples are relatively small so a decision was made, I think in the 1980s, to hold a joint Obon dance as a way to sustain this tradition and to strengthen our community. It is a little ironic because initially in the early 1900s, there was only one Buddhist temple in Berkeley, but because of a disagreement on how a Japanese language school was managed, a group of families broke away in 1926 and established the Higashi Honganji temple.

NBW: Whose turn is it this year to host? Does the non-hosting church help in the preparations?

RKY: Berkeley Higashi Honganji will host Obon this year. The hosting temple essentially takes care of the responsibilities, such as contacting [Japanese classical dance instructor] Michiya Hanayagi sensei, scheduling practices, and making arrangements on the day of the dance. It’s actually Berkeley Buddhist Temple’s turn, but they are remodeling their kitchen so they asked if we would host.

NBW: Is there much of a difference, when it comes to hosting the Berkeley Obon, between the two churches?

RKY: Not really.

NBW: You were a seemingly successful mainstream journalist, working as a reporter at large publications such as The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, New York Newsday and The Los Angeles Times. But you left the profession a decade before many journalists were forced to due to increased competition from the Internet and the overall decline in the newspaper industry. What triggered your switch from journalism to the ministry?

RKY: Actually, I studied to become a minister in the 1980s before I became a journalist. However, I came to feel that I didn’t understand Buddhism and abandoned my ministerial aspirations. I turned to journalism as another way to “seek truth.” Eight years ago, after seeing my brother suffer from cancer, then witnessing his death, my thinking changed and I began to understand the Buddhism that I had studied before. That’s when I decided to begin helping at the temple.

NBW: Do you ever miss your former career?

RKY: Sometimes. I still read The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and San Francisco Chronicle every day.

This year, Berkeley Higashi Honganji will host the Obon dance in Berkeley on Saturday, July 10, at 7 p.m. Practices begin on Saturday, June 24 and are every Tuesday and Thursday after that from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at the temple until Obon night.

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