Rev. Yuki Sugahara strums along with Dharma messages

Rinban Yuki Sugahara. photo by Gerry McIntyre

The Rev. Yuki Sugahara, the new rinban for the Buddhist Church of Sacramento, was born to be a minister, almost literally. The Shimane Prefecture native’s parents are both ministers. His family has had 15 generations of family ministers.

Sugahara assumed his appointment as the regional head minister of the greater Sacramento-area temples last July.

Previously, he was the resident minister at the Oregon Buddhist Temple in Portland, Ore. from June 2017. From 2011 to 2017, Sugahara was at the Buddhist Church of Florin.

“Since I was born, I was around Jodo Shinshu teaching,” Sugahara said. He added that before every meal, he and his parents “sat in front of the o-butsudan (altar) and chanted the sutra (Buddhist scripture). Then after the chanting, we were able to eat, so that was our custom.”

The family places rice in a cup as an offering to the Buddha, in the o-butsudan, Sugahara said. Afterward, the family eats the rice. Sugahara recalls the rice tasted like the “smell of incense.”

In addition to his parents being ministers, Sugahara’s grandmother was a Buddhist priest as well. He said as a child, he accompanied her to church community members’ homes, where she conducted services.

Sugahara called the experiences learning how to be a Buddhist reverend with his grandmother, “narau yori narero,” which roughly translates to “get used to it before learning it.”

He said temple members often called him “waka-san,” which means “Mr. Young One.” Sugahara, 43, became an ordained Buddhist priest when he was 16 years old. He added that in Japan, it is common for minister’s sons to become ministers. Sugahara helped his father visit his community to conduct services during Obon in July and August. He said he helped his father and grandfather go to 500 houses to conduct the Obon services over four days.

Sugahara’s experiences in his youth with his grandmother, father and grandfather influenced his studies in Buddhism.

Sugahara received political science and human science bachelor’s degrees from Ritsumeikan University and Musashino University, respectively. Sugahara also received a master’s degree in Buddhist studies from the Musashino Graduate School.

Sugahara came to America because he wanted to continue learning English and he wanted to move away from his small home temple. His father’s temple is the Korinji Temple in the mountains of Kanazawa and his mother’s temple is called Gokuraji in Kamakura.

Despite his family’s background in the Buddhist ministry, Sugahara wanted to be a musician. However, his passion for music and his religious profession became intertwined.

As a young child, Sugahara started his musical journey playing piano. Next, he began playing the trumpet for a few years. As a teenager, Sugahara started playing the bass guitar. In his early 20s, Sugahara played in a band in the Kansai region, in Kyoto and Osaka and in his late 20s, he moved to Tokyo to play bass guitar.

Many years later, he found a way to connect his passion for music with his teachings of the Buddha.

Sugahara does not just deliver typical Dharma talks. He often incorporates his bass guitar skills into his talks, trying to connect the music to messages he shares in his sermons. He believes music could be a way to “bring people in(to)” the temple, especially the younger generations.

In one Dharma talk, Sugahara played “In My Life” by The Beatles, which talks about how one place stays constant, while other places change. He connected the lyrics with the teachings of impermanence, the idea that everything changes constantly.

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