A Journey of Life: Why I Became a Minister

The Taste of the Nembutsu cover image

A message from Rev. Kevin Kuniyuki which appears in the book, “The Taste of the Nembutsu,” published in 2016 by the HHMH State Ministers’ Association. The book is a collection of dharma messages by each of the active ministers.

To extend the reach of the dharma within these messages, we will publish one per week on our website.


A Journey of Life: Why I Became a Minister

Rev. Kevin Kuniyuki

My mother fought depression and schizophrenia all her life and found comfort in Christianity, thus my early religious education was based in the Protestant tradition. I found, however, that those beliefs did not fit me well, and as a teenager I became interested in Zen Buddhism, especially in the writings of D.T. Suzuki. Furthermore, my father’s parents were active members of their Shingon-shu temple and my mother’s parents were active members of their Jodo Shinshu (Shin Buddhist) temple. Although I was not actively aware of it, both sets of grandparents were living examples of the Buddhist way of life.

I was not committed to any religion so my wife, Dayle, and I were married in a Christian service, partly because Dayle is a Christian and partly because one of my good friends, Pastor Joris “Jory” Watland, is a Lutheran minister. And it was Jory who presided over our wedding. After living in Pearlridge for a few years, we moved to the Big Island where I became active in the community. In addition, a friend, Dwight Takamine, told me a good way to meet people was to join the Papaikou Hongwanji Mission. I was totally unaware that Papaikou Hongwanji was a Shin Buddhist temple, one associated with the religion of my mother’s parents. It was at that temple that I began to explore the religion more fully with Reverend Norito Nagao. Reverend Nagao knew my mother’s father, and in many of our conversations we talked about my grandfather’s life of service to the community and of his being at peace with the world and with himself. Reverend Nagao helped me to see in my mind that my grandfather’s life clearly exemplified the teachings of Shin Buddhism. He truly appreciated his life, his family, and his friends; and although he had experienced many difficult events, he neither complained nor became cynical. Instead, he possessed a quiet nature-always calm and pleasant. Motivated by a desire to learn from whence my grandfather got his quiet strength and serenity, I began to study Shin Buddhism in earnest. The more I understood the religion, the more I began to value its teachings. At the same time I became more concerned about its future in the United States, for I had observed many of my generation who came from strong Japanese Buddhist families either were not practicing the teachings or were leaving the religion. It was most unfortunate, I thought, that such a wonderful religion that could be a basis for a full and established life was not adequately understood by more people. If people understood the religion and lived by its principles, surely they would endure; and because they would value the lessons learned from the teachings, they would gratefully support and maintain the temples, many of which today are faced with declining membership and, sadly, possible closure. Another factor plaguing the temples was the shortage of ministers to provide the religious education and to perform the religious services. Initially, then, these were the reasons for my decision to become a minister-there was no profound religious experience or “calling.”

I truly am fortunate and grateful that my wife supported me in my decision, and she continues to be a tremendous support and “best buddy”. I went to Kyoto to study Japanese and to attend a Buddhist seminary, Dayle remained in Hawaii continuing to work at her job, taking care of the house, the yard, and pets all by herself. The most difficult aspect of my Japan experience was studying because of the language barrier, but my classmates and instructors were very helpful and our sense of teamwork and extended family was very strong. For example, when my classmates talked about forming a study group, from the very beginning, they included me even though it was evident my participation would be limited. Despite my language handicap, they welcomed me in all their activities, both at and outside the classroom. It was during this time that I got a glimpse of the importance of family and community in a Shin Buddhist’s life. I completed my studies and, more important, I learned what I needed to learn not only because of my efforts but also because of the efforts of everyone else. It is only now that I have come to appreciate that fact.

I returned to Hawaii full of dreams and expectations of what I wanted to do and how temples could be transformed by those activities. However, when I actually assumed the responsibility of a temple, I came to understand why temples were not making what I perceived to be the changes necessary to make the teachings relevant and accessible. An unwillingness to change, coupled with passive-assertive behavior, indicated nothing would ever change. Furthermore, the emphasis on ritual and long standing Hongwanji activities keeps the minister busy enough that he/she cannot devote sufficient time and effort to Buddhist education and community relations. I began to think that given what I thought to be the present conditions, it would be impossible to make a significant difference within the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii. At that point I began to contemplate leaving the ministry.

My ego told me that by creating activities and educational programs to make Buddhism more widely available to all people would save the religion and surely that was a good thing. My ego also told me that, of course, for me to accomplish this goal everyone had to follow my lead. In the reality of life, this “good thing” never materialized because I had failed to take into account other people also need to realize their own goals and to accomplish anything in this world involves people working together toward a common goal.

In the world of Buddhism, there are many difficult practices challenge both the body and the mind; however I have concluded that the most difficult challenge is to face one’s true self: full of potential to do wonderful things and at the same time full of self-centered, self-justifying motivations that can lead to terrible results. We tend to justify poor or mean behavior with our good intentions and goals; and, so, in this life the most dangerous and the most cleaver adversaries are ourselves because we will do anything to justify ourselves to protect our egos.

When I had decided to resign, I did not fully understand myself and my inner motivations. I was most fortunate, however, to be surrounded by good Dharma friends who helped me curb my hastiness to leave the ministry. Although it would be several years later before I would understand his methods and intentions, Bishop Yosemori wisely did not try to force me to reconsider. Instead, when conditions were appropriate, he suggested a change of assignment where I could think more clearly about my situation. Although Bishop Yosemori never intimated at the time, I now realize that the change would be an opportunity to see my self-centeredness.

One of the manifestations of my self- centeredness was my blindness to all the positive things occurring around me because of the diligent efforts of others. To mention all the happenings is difficult because there were so many. During my time with the Honomu, Honohina, Papaaloa and Papaikou Hongwanjis we had accomplished many things. Because of the help of Richard Fujii, Kenneth Fujimoto, Bob Mento, Mitsuo Murashige, and many others we learn and did things together.

Fortunately, for me, I did reconsider and accepted the new assignment at Wahiawa Hongwanji. Being in a different setting did help me to see “myself” a bit more clearly, and thus I was more willing to learn from life and to grow as a human being. Alas, though I was far from my goal for I began to be impatient with the organization’s inability to correct what I perceived to be inequities and the prevailing inability to accept and to carry out changes. My desire to leave the ministry was rekindled; and, once more, my old-and new- Dharma friends counseled me to be patient and to reflect. I thought about how we tend to remember only the mistakes and poor behavior of others and to forget our own mistakes and nastiness. This selective memory makes one judge and jury and punishes the perceived crimes in many ways: anger, criticism, verbal abuse, physical abuse, rejection. My rejection came in the form of resignation.

And new Dharma friends came in the form of people like James “Jimmy” Iha, who was an educator and community leader. It was from Jimmy Iha that I learned about nurturing community growth and leadership through collaboration. Yuki Kitagawa taught me the value of human relations and caring for our community. Glenn Hamamura and Rodney Moriyama taught me about planning and creating conditions for better collaboration within a community. And like my previous assignment, there are many more too numerous to mention who were a part of a combined effort to share the Teachings and to be of service to the community.

An important function that friends and family fulfill is to mirror ourselves. They can reflect both conscious and unconscious motivations and characteristics. On the positive side what we enjoy in another person reflects what we like about ourselves, while on the negative side that which angers us is actually what we dislike most about ourselves. If some people irritate us because they are selfish and they do not acknowledge or credit us, the reason for the anger is that we, ourselves, are also selfish and greedy for credit and acknowledgement. As more aspects of myself are revealed to me, the more I can accept them as part of me and work toward understanding them. With understanding comes the ability to put them to rest or to work with them; but by removing myself from the context of community and organization, I also lose my mirrors and the key to seeing my true self.

In my role as a minister, I am constantly reminded of the Teachings of the Buddha and Shinran Shonin. I cannot run away from them. Although ministers are human beings like anyone else, people tend to create high expectations of them, which are not only unrealistic but also unfair. Those high expectations, however, have heightened my awareness of my own inadequacies. Without that awareness, I may become complacent and self-satisfied. Therefore, only when I am highly aware of my own spiritual and personal growth and at the same time involved with living life that I do find satisfaction and inner peace.

The following joke, which may have originated in the mainland United States, has been passed from minister to minister and goes like this:

A member asks a minister: “Why did you become a minister?”
The minister replies: “Bad Karma.”

Indeed, I am truly thankful that someone such as I, who is very selfish and egotistical and burdened by “Bad Karma,” can as a minister, hold the Dharma close to me. I am also grateful for the Good Karma of good Dharma friends I have met and continue to meet on this journey of life — and the story continues.

How Joyous I am, my heart and mind being rooted in the Buddha-ground of the universal Vow, and my thoughts and feelings flowing within the dharma-ocean, which is beyond comprehension! I am deeply aware of the Tathagata’s immense compassion, and I sincerely revere the benevolent care behind the master’s teaching ever compelling.

(Shinran Shonin, The True Teaching Practice and Realization , Chapter 5, The Collected Works of Shinran Volume1, page 291)