Several ministerial changes in Northern Calif. Buddhist Churches


Along with the start of the new year, several Buddhist temples in Northern California welcomed new ministers to lead their congregations. The ministers’ main goal is to maintain the welcoming atmosphere the temple members have showed them in return.

Second Home for a Big Family
For 29-year-old Rev. Matthew Hamasaki, growing up at the Berkeley Buddhist Temple was like being surrounded by one big family — the elders looked out for the children and the children grew up together. That feeling, coupled with Dharma School teachers who encouraged the children to apply the Buddhist teachings to their lives, inspired Hamasaki to become a Buddhist minister.

“Over time, my appreciation for the community grew as did my awareness for how Buddhism can help everyone,” he said. “My desire to give back to the community and help those in need inspired me to become a minister.”

A Yonsei who is also half Filipino, Hamasaki joined the Buddhist Church of Sacramento in mid-January for his second ministerial assignment.

Hamasaki was preceded by the Rev. Dennis Fujimoto, who took over the temple for about one year after long-time minister Rinban Bob Oshita retired in the summer of 2016 after serving the temple for 32 years. Oshita joined the temple when he was in his early 30s as well.

After Fujimoto’s departure on June 4, 2017, the temple was and continues to be supervised by Orange County Buddhist Church resident minister Rev. Marvin Harada, who spends about 25 percent of his time at the SBC according to Cindy Kitade, the SBC office manager.

Hamasaki said that the transition to oversee the large congregation (about 800 dues-paying members, according to Kitade) has been as smooth as it could be. The resident minister said that everyone has been “very nice and helpful” and he is also “grateful and humbled” by the work done from those who stood in his position before him.

“Because of their efforts, the groundwork for ministering so many people is already done and I consider myself in a lucky position to be able to walk into it,” he said, adding that although it will take him a long time to get to know everyone, he looks forward to working with them to help grow the congregation.

Nisei Alice Kataoka and her daughter Sandy Kataoka Fong (both have been “lifetime” sangha members) said that Hamasaki brings “youthful energy” to the sangha while still balancing traditional Japanese culture and Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. Kataoka Fong said that Hamasaki’s loud and clear “baritone” voice “snaps you into attention” and his stories resonate with people of all ages.

“I observe the reaction from the youth and they too listen more intently because Rev. Matt tells everyday stories that the kids in the sangha and the adults can relate to — plus, he is funny, too,” Kataoka Fong said.

Kataoka added that the “back-row seniors are very pleased too because his voice carries well so that we could hear his Dharma messages clearly.” Kitade said that the “back-row seniors” are a group of women who attend Sunday service sitting in the very back row together.

This won’t be the first time Hamasaki attends the Buddhist Church of Sacramento’s Bon Odori. He attended in 2006 as a part of the Buddhist Churches of America Youth Advocacy Committee Retreat hosted by the temple.

“(The Bon Odori) had a lot of people and I’ve never seen so many lawn chairs in one area,” he said.

Hamasaki said he was a part of the group who performed a “spontaneously made-up dance” they created the night before Bon Odori, of which they were happy to do. He said that the retreat was an “incredibly meaningful” week for him.

Hamasaki said that Obon is a time to come together and celebrate our ancestors.

“It is important to keep their memory alive and it is not so much a somber occasion, but a lively expression of gratitude,” he said.

From Member to Minister
After having been a Berkeley Buddhist Temple sangha member for the last 10 years, the Rev. Kiyonobu Kuwahara leads his first Hatsubon service this year after being officially assigned as the temple’s new minister on Jan. 1, 2018.

Born into a temple family in Kure, Japan, the 43-year-old Shin-Issei said he had been exposed to Buddhism in his everyday life. After graduating from Hiroshima University with a degree in English education, he began studying Buddhism at the Ryukoku University in Kyoto, Japan.

At Ryokoku University, Kuwahara’s academic focus was a comparative study between Christianity and Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. Because he wanted to know more about Christianity, he decided to further his studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, which is affiliated with the Graduate Theological Union (an association of different Christian seminaries, according to Kuwahara).

Kuwahara moved to Berkeley, Calif. in 2003 and began studying at IBS. He started attending Sunday services at the Berkeley Buddhist Temple at this time.

After completing his studies at IBS a few years later, Kuwahara returned to Japan for one year. He came back to Berkeley in 2007. Then, he and his family became members of the Berkeley Buddhist Temple.

Kuwahara said the transition from member to reverend was easy for him since the temple members have known him and his family for many years. As reverend, he said he’d like to “maintain the friendly and nice atmosphere” of the temple, which he believes “will draw new people.”

In addition to serving the Berkeley Buddhist Temple on Saturday and Sunday, Kuwahara continues to maintain his duties at the Jodo Shinshu Center in Berkeley. During the weekdays, he coordinates an online correspondence course about Jodo Shinshu Buddhism as well as a training program for ministers from Japan who want to become ministers overseas.

Kuwahara said he hopes the Hatsubon service will be meaningful for the families and that people enjoy the Bon Odori.

It Feels like Returning Home
Nearing her third year as a minister, 40-year-old Rev. Candice Shibata entered the new year as the new minister for the Buddhist Church of Florin. She transferred to the Sacramento County temple from the Berkeley Buddhist Temple, where she served her first assignment.

Born in San Jose, Calif. and raised in Stockton, Calif., Shibata grew up as an active member of the Buddhist Church of Stockton and enjoyed playing basketball in the temple basketball league for many years. Shibata compared her transfer to the Buddhist Church of Florin to her experience growing up at the Stockton temple, saying that it “feels like returning home.”

“Florin has a similar feeling of home and the members here have been very warm and welcoming,” she said.

Some of her favorite moments during her time at the Florin temple so far is spending Thursday afternoons with members of the Buddhist Women’s Association and the Lotus Club, a group of temple volunteers who take care of the temple grounds each week. “Sometimes I will sit and look around the table as we are enjoying lunch (prepared by the BWA) and just smile,” she said, adding that the fellowship shared among the groups warms her heart each week.

Through the transition process, Shibata said she is taking time to understand the needs of the Florin temple in order to support its current programs and members and to develop new ideas to further support the members and to draw in new ones.

In addition, Shibata said that the temple’s Dharma School program is also in a transition period because its minister assistant, Tadao Koyama, moved to Japan to continue his Buddhist studies. Shibata said she is eager to work with the Dharma School superintendent and its teachers to create a new curriculum that “builds bridges” between the temple’s members and children.

“I think our members can share their knowledge and talents while teaching the Dharma through various projects and activities with the children,” said Shibata, who added that she’d also like the temple to become more visible in the community by participating in outreach activities.

During Obon season, Shibata said that not only is it an opportunity to support local temples and catch up with loved ones, it’s also an important time for reflection.

“This is a time for us to reflect upon our loved ones we have lost and be grateful for the support, love and encouragement they have given us,” she said.

Artist and Minister
The Rev. Dennis Fujimoto is in his first year as resident minister of the Buddhist Temple of Alameda. Before moving to the Bay Area, however, Fujimoto spent 12 years at the Idaho-Oregon Buddhist Temple as its resident minister. He said that the kind and supportive temple members made his first ministerial assignment “a very nurturing beginning” for his second career; the first being a sculpture artist.

Fujimoto said he made artwork for about 25 years, primarily working with various types of crushed stone with resin bond to create abstract pieces of things like the rising sun, standing figures or power spheres, or of sealions, birds or odori dancers. Fujimoto learned his technique in an “apprentice-type situation” with well-known artist Masatoyo Kishi while living in San Francisco.

“It was a special time … a previous life,” Fujimoto said.

After serving the Buddhist Church of Sacramento as rinban for one year, Fujimoto transferred to the Buddhist Temple of Alameda a few months later, where he said he was met with a warm welcome by its temple members and leaders.

The first year in a new assignment is an important time for a new minister to observe who leads and how things are run for special services and temple events, according to Fujimoto. This is especially true for bazaar and Obon season.

“It is a great time to be able to meet so many of the members, relatives and friends who have graciously provided their time and energy on behalf of the temple for years and years,” he said.

Fujimoto said that Obon season is a special time to remember “those who have created the foundation of our lives.”

“The relatives and friends we have lost become our teachers, reminding us of the countless causes and conditions that surround every action and every thought we may entertain,” he said.

In addition, Fujimoto said that Obon festivities allow people of various backgrounds to come together to celebrate their passed loved ones.

“Obon is a special time because all of this is provided to an expanded audience as people of various traditions and cultures come together to join in the festivities,” he said.

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