Rev. Dr. Seigen Yamaoka passed away last month. And to be perfectly frank, I am not sure that I have fully processed this loss.
In the coming weeks, I am sure there will be more “official” obituaries, memorials, biographies, and so on, about Yamaoka-sensei from both the Institute of Buddhist Studies and the Buddhist Churches of America. For those who may not know, Yamaoka-sensei served as BCA bishop for fifteen years, as a minister at the Buddhist Church of Oakland (and elsewhere) for decades, and on the faculty of the IBS for more than a decade after that. He had multiple degrees from both the US and Japan. He wrote extensively on Buddhism and Buddhist education, most notably in his 2017 book Shin Buddhist Education: A New Perspective. During his time of service to the IBS, he was a wildly successful fundraiser, was instrumental in IBS becoming an affiliate and then member school of the Graduate Theological Union, and was a champion of IBS gaining regional accreditation. I am proud and honored to have played a role supporting Yamaoka-sensei’s aspirations.
When I first started working at IBS, long before I was dean or even a regular member of the faculty, the many and profound contributions of Yamaoka-sensei were not entirely known to me. (I was still learning my way around this community and its history.) Occasionally, he would wander into my office, sit himself down, and ask me “how’s it going?” At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of these conversations (which, on my impatient days, I’m sad to admit I saw as interruptions). But over time I came to realize that, little by little, wisdom was being given to me. And it wasn’t long before, whenever Yamaoka-sensei appeared at my door, I would stop what I was doing and prepare myself to listen.
There have been a great many transitions here at IBS over the last few years. And 2024 has gotten off to a rocky start with continued violence and disasters at home and abroad. I wonder if the weight of this loss is thus felt more strongly because of the timing. At once I know however that it feels weighty because of the profound impact Yamaoka-sensei had on Buddhism in the United States. And how deeply he will be missed.