Kenji Akahoshi on his retirement as a Buddhist minister and why gratitude plays an important role in his life


Rev. Dr. Kenji Akahoshi of the Buddhist Temple of San Diego photo by Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune

Rev. Dr. Kenji Akahoshi of the Buddhist Temple of San Diego
photo by Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune

The Shin Buddhist minister preaches gratitude even as he leaves his post as a minister at the Buddhist Temple of San Diego

Editor’s Note: The following article originally appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Kenji Akahoshi had been thinking about becoming a minister most of his life. But it was never the right time. He had a family to support and a dental practice in San Jose to run. And there were his commitments at his home temple, where he and his parents had been mainstays.

Finally, at an age when most people would be retiring, his pursuit began in earnest. He sold his practice in 2007 and three years later earned a master’s degree from the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley and got ordained. In 2012, he received his Kyoshi certification in Japan, making him officially eligible to become a resident minister in Shin Buddhism, a predominately Japanese sect of a religion dating back more than 2,500 years.

Then, in 2013, at the age of 71, the Rev. Akahoshi was appointed resident minister of the Buddhist Temple of San Diego.

Eight years have now passed and Akahoshi, a gentle-spoken man whose hair is more salt than pepper, has retired. He and his wife, Karen, planned to head back in November to their home in San Jose, where they will be closer to their two young grandsons and her 101-year-old mother.

With his final Dharma talk (a kind of sermon on Buddhist teachings) behind him, and his drive-thru farewell party concluded, the question had to be asked: Was being a minister everything he thought it would be?

“It’s been more than that,” he says from the Chula Vista home provided by the temple for its ministers. “It’s been greater than I thought it would be.”

Akahoshi, who will turn 80 on his next birthday, is quick to clarify he is not done with ministry. He plans to continue to lead workshops around the country. And he wants to write a book to equip people with simple steps for putting into practice a central tenet of Shin Buddhism: gratitude.

His goal: help us to cultivate an attitude of gratitude for everyday experiences and to realize just how much we rely on others. He talks of giving thanks for the red light you are stopped at, which keeps you safe from other cars, and for those who made this traffic program possible. And for the faucet, which provides you with water, and those who made that plumbing possible.

These simple acts, he believes, will help shift our perspectives from me to we, from please to thank you, from the notion of achieving to that of receiving — and will lead us toward becoming happier, healthier versions of ourselves.

This from a person who spent the first years of his life in an internment camp, saw his father start over after losing his business, suffered through the death of one of his two sons and spent more than 30 years in one career before starting another.

‘I cry every time’

One of the retirement gifts he was given in October was a scrapbook with photos and messages from his San Diego congregation.

“I started leafing through it and I started crying,” he admits.

Tears also came the month before, in September, when two antique U.S. flags were brought to the temple as part of a memorial project to be signed by local Japanese Americans who had been incarcerated in internment camps during World War II.

“I cry every time,” he says of these commemorations, a reminder of when a nation took away people’s freedom just because of their ethnicity. “It’s something that you don’t ever heal completely. It’s a wound that stays there.”

Akahoshi was only a couple weeks old in 1942 when he and his family were sent from California to Camp Amache — aka the Granada Relocation Center — in southeast Colorado, home to 29 blocks of army-style barracks housing more than 7,000 detainees.

They were incarcerated for three years. Afterward, his father worked awhile in Denver before they returned to San Jose. By then, Akahoshi was about to enter first grade and the produce market his father once owned was history.

“When he came back, he worked as a clerk,” Akahoshi says.

His parents rarely brought up their internment.

“This was the mood of that generation,” he explains. “They just didn’t talk about it.”

Then he offers this observation: “I think the Japanese were probably one of the few ethnic groups that would have gone the way we did and it’s because I think the culture is used to a hierarchy.”

While Akahoshi was too young to have many memories, he does remember the raging sandstorms, which would send his family hurrying to stuff newspapers under the doors and around the windows to keep out the engulfing dirt.

As he grew up in San Jose, Akahoshi couldn’t shake a sense of rejection. He’d go to the movies, wanting to be like John Wayne, except there was a problem: the enemy his hero was fighting looked just like him.

“These types of experiences are difficult for children of color in a White society,” he says. “The message is that we are not accepted as we are.”

By then, the adults had shifted their focus to the achievements of the next generation.

“And that’s one of the reasons I became a dentist,” Akahoshi adds. “All the children were going to be doctors and lawyers, because if you had a higher position in society, perhaps this wouldn’t have happened.”

Shin in America

Almost from the arrival of the first priests from Japan in 1893, the followers of Jodo Shinshu, more popularly known as Shin Buddhism, were intent on assimilating into their new homeland.

They built temples that resembled Christian churches. Pews replaced prayer mats. They added lecterns and organs.

Even during their internment, they strove to be accepted in a predominantly Christian countr-y. In 1944, while incarcerated at a camp in Utah, the leaders of the main Shin Buddhist umbrella group changed its name from the Buddhist Mission of North America to the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA).

The San Diego temple, which celebrated its 95th anniversary in October, is among the 60-plus member congregations of the BCA.

A BCA spokesperson estimates there are about 30,000 Shin Buddhists in the U.S., though less than half are part of that organization. Most — but not all — adherents are of Japanese descent.

The local temple, and its approximately 225 members, continues to meet virtually because of COVID. After 19 months of practice, Akahoshi had gotten pretty good at delivering his Dharma talks into a camera with a virtual background of the temple’s altar behind him.

“When it works, it’s great,” he laughs. He credits a temple member who stepped in to take over the editing and production.

COVID also is the culprit for a delay in appointing a new resident minister. Like the supply ships sitting off the coast of California, there is a backlog of candidates needing to get credentialed. Since it’s done in Japan, the process could take several more months.

In the meantime, Akahoshi put together a flow chart to help lay leaders cover the usual duties and the BCA has appointed a minister in Pasadena to supervise from afar.

Back to gratitude

Akahoshi’s idea for a book got some promising feedback last year after he wrote a piece about gratitude for the Buddhist magazine, Tricycle. It was named by the publication as one of the top articles of 2020.

In it, Akahoshi shared his thoughts on the differencebetween an attitude of please, which is wanting, and thank you, which is an appreciation for what we have. He wrote about how Shinran Shonin, Shin Buddhism’s founder, understood this difference and also understood how beyond ignorance and hate is joy. “It is a message we need to hear at precisely this time in history,” he wrote.

And practice makes perfect. “Let’s practice saying ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ And then, at some point, you are grateful. Really grateful,” Akahoshi tells me.

As we talked, the Thanksgiving holiday wasn’t mentioned. What he’s advocating goes beyond a single day set aside to give thanks. It’s a spiritual discipline for all 365 days, prevailing over whatever life throws at us — whether it’s starting childhood in an internment camp or losing a 44-year-old son to cancer.

Gratitude won’t erase tragedy. But it’s a pretty good place to begin to carve a path toward something deeper. It is on this journey, he promises, that we can move from the dread of death to the everyday blessings of life.

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