Remembering Rev. Dr. Seigen Yamaoka

Rev. Dr. Seigen Haruo Yamaoka, former bishop of the Buddhist Churches of America, passed away on December 15, 2023 at the age of 89. Judy Yushin Nakatomi shares her memories of him.

Judy Yushin Nakatomi
15 January 2024
Rev. Dr. Seigen Haruo Yamaoka standing in robes
Rev. Dr. Seigen Haruo Yamaoka. Photo via Facebook.

Rev. Dr. Yamaoka offered our virtual sangha a spontaneous dharma talk on emptiness on the evening of December 7.  Our last encounter would be of him sharing his insight on emptiness that went to essence in just a few moments.

I didn’t meet Rev. Yamaoka formally or in-person while he was bishop of the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA), resident Jodo Shinshu minister of the Buddhist Church of Oakland, Buddhist Church of Stockton or President of the Institute of Buddhist Studies.

I only met Rev. Dr. Yamaoka when he began joining our weekly Mindfulness in Shin Buddhism offerings on Zoom during the pandemic. He would join most Wednesday evenings where we facilitate a virtual sangha. His name and image would appear without title or prefix, just his name typed in lower case letters.

Most of the weekly facilitators and participants were unaware of his resume or emeritus status. There was no sense of rigid hierarchy. No one knew he was a youth from Fresno who would grow up to become a BCA bishop. His dedication has significantly impacted American Shin Buddhism.

He listened and offered comments once in a while. Most of the time, he would sit in quietude.

That night in December, a question arose from a sangha member on dependent co-origination. I asked the sensei if he would offer a response given his well of practice. He paused for a moment and delivered a compelling message. He said, “See emptiness as limitlessness.” Then he continued, “if you’re not empty, how can you be open?”  Was Rev. Yamaoka pointing to the need for openness and space in order for possibility to manifest?

Some of us present will carry that gem with us. For others, the gem will be the way he modeled presence in the form of stillness. It was touching to be present with a person who, although he garnered much respect and reverence, preferred to be a regular member of our Wednesday night sangha without rank.

We don’t know when our last encounter will be.  When Rev. Dr. Yamaoka spoke to our sangha on December 7, we didn’t know he would pass on December 15. He was 89 years old. I’m preparing to facilitate our Wednesday night sangha again soon. We will miss Rev. Yamaoka’s physical presence. At the same time, we are aware he transmitted Amida’s wisdom and compassion beyond the limits of space and time.

Ichi go, ichi e – grateful for this one encounter,
we cherish this moment.
Namu Amida Butsu

The funeral service for Rev. Dr. Yamaoka, co-officiated by the Buddhist Churches of America and the Buddhist Church of Oakland will be held on Saturday, January 20, 2024 at 1 p.m. at the Buddhist Church of Oakland, 825 Jackson Street, Oakland, CA, 94607. The service will also be live streamed on the Buddhist Church of Oakland’s YouTube channel. The link can be accessed here.

Judy Yushin Nakatomi

Judy Yushin Nakatomi

Judy Yushin Nakatomi, (she/we) is a mother, kin, writer, and community cultivator. She practices in her root, ancestral tradition, Jodo Shinshu and is ordained in the Zen community of Thich Nhat Hanh.