Retired Jodo Shinshu priest Rev. Dr. Seigen Haruo Yamaoka, former bishop of the Buddhist Churches in America and professor emeritus at the Berkeley Institute of Buddhist Studies, died on December 21, 2023. He was 89 years old.
Rev. Yamaokoa didn't always want to be a Buddhist minister. Early in his life, he planned to become a journalist, having worked as a reporter and editor at Central Union High School and Fresno Junior College. He also worked as a sports editor at Fresno State University.
With all of his previous professional experience, journalism seemed like a natural fit. However, there was a strong anti-Japanese climate in the United States in 1956, when he graduated from Fresno State University. Much of the racist backlash came in the wake of World War II, when more than 100 people of Japanese descent were forcibly detained in internment camps.
“Journalism professors told me I wouldn’t be able to find a job out of college,” the reverend said. Yamaoka noted this in a recent interview. “At that time, it was quite difficult to get hired as a Japanese American. I did a summer program and worked at weeklies, but getting a good job was difficult. (The Rafu Shimpo)
When it became clear that finding a job in journalism was not an option, Rev. Yamaoka turned to ministry, beginning a career in 1964 that lasted nearly 60 years. During this time, he completed a rich religious education, which included earning two degrees from the Pacific School of Religion of the Graduate Theological Union, a Master of Religious Education (MRE), and a Doctor of Ministry (D. Min).
Rev. Yamoaka also studied in Japan, where he earned two degrees from Ryukoku University in Kyoto, a Master's degree and a D.Litt (Doctor of Letters, which is equivalent to earning a Ph.D. in the United States ).
He served as vice president of development at the Institute of Buddhist Studies and a part-time faculty member at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, in addition to working as an overseas minister for the Buddhist Churches of America .
Rev. Yamoaka quickly gained a reputation as a phenomenal leader and fundraiser, soliciting millions of dollars in donations over the past 30 years. These funds were integral to supporting the Buddhist Churches of America and the Institute of Buddhist Studies.
The President of the Institute of Buddhist Studies, Rev. David Matsumoto, said of Rev. Yamaoka's legacy:
Although many people have made significant contributions to SCI over the years, SCI as we know it would not exist without Rev. Dr. Seigen Yamaoka. While serving as bishop of BCA, Rev. Yamaoka's dream was that IBS would one day gain accreditation, become a GTU (Graduate Theological Union) member school, and have a solid financial foundation. Today, 40 years later, his aspirations and tireless efforts have enabled IBS to achieve these goals.
(The Rafu Shimpo)
This sentiment was echoed by the institute’s dean of students, Dr. Scott Mitchell, who said, “None of us would be here without Rev. Yamaoka. His leadership and vision for Shin Buddhism in the United States has made possible everything we have been able to accomplish in recent years at IBS. (The Rafu Shimpo)
Funeral services for Rev. Yamaoka will be held on January 20 at the Oakland Buddhist Church, 825 Jackson St., Oakland, CA 94607. Services begin at 13 p.m. PST.