Interview: Rev. Kodo Umezu

Rev. Kodo Umezu recently retired as Nishi Hongwanji’s Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) bishop after serving eight years. We spoke to him via Zoom online earlier this month.

Previously Rev. Umezu was BCA’s Center for Buddhist Education director and had been a minister at California Nishi temples in Oakland, Los Angeles and Fresno. He also spent four years in the U.S. Navy. Born in Japan, he attended Kyoto’s Ryukoku University and Berkeley’s Institute of Buddhist Studies. Rev. Marvin Harada succeeded Rev. Umezu as bishop in April.

The coronavirus pandemic forced temples to physically close and rethink how to serve members. According to Rev. Umezu, now is a good time to reflect on the temple organization and question if the current system for serving members is still beneficial like in the past, or if organizationally, we need to adapt to changing times.

Now, for example, people have discovered online resources, such as Zoom and live streaming, for sharing the dharma, holding services, and conducting meetings. Meanwhile, temple buildings and social halls—expensive to maintain—remain empty. “If we can’t use the building,” he said, “what is the best way? What is the best solution?” He also said although we can’t use the buildings now, doesn’t mean the buildings are obsolete. Once we again can have in-person activities, we’ll need physical places to meet, hold group discussions, feel a sense of community and share the nembutsu teachings. Dharma is best shared person-to-person, so we shouldn’t rush to abandon our physical facilities that are home to Dharma-centered activities, he said.

As a long-serving Jodo Shinshu minister in the U.S., Rev. Umezu witnessed many changes over the decades—temples evolving from Japanese-speaking to English-speaking, the rise of Buddhist education and IBS, declining membership and a severe minister shortage. “As long as people are stepping onto the temple grounds,” he said, “it is up to us to welcome them.”

Born into a Nishi Hongwanji temple family in Fukuoka, Japan, Rev. Umezu grew up watching his minister father visit temple members’ homes and officiating services. He felt a deep sense of Buddhism’s value from his devout grandparents. “The way they lived really gave me the impression that Buddhism is part of my life,” he said.

During the annual memorial service for Shinran Shōnin, called “Hō-on-kō,” some members stayed at his family’s temple for as long as seven days, attending services three times a day, and spending much time together. Rev. Umezu said it was like a retreat, where members were “soaking themselves in a ‘dharma bath.’” He said, “They don’t go to the temple every Sunday, but they really listen, touching them deep inside with spiritual nourishment.”

Rev. Umezu is a second son, so his older brother was expected to become minister of the temple. “I was the spare tire,” he said. “I think my dad was expecting me to be something else.”

Nonetheless, he studied Buddhism at Nishi Hongwanji’s Ryukoku University. He was accepted as an overseas minister, arrived in the U.S. in 1973, and began serving as a minister at the Fresno Buddhist Temple. He visited temple members in their homes and in hospitals, just like his father did. The largely Japanese American sangha warmly welcomed him and he felt at ease. “Everyone was so nice,” he said.

Yet, he felt he needed to understand and more broadly experience American culture. The best way, somebody told him, was either “go to jail or join the armed forces.” A billboard beckoned, “Join the Navy, See the World.” He enlisted for four years.

“Their pay was better than ministers’ pay,” Rev. Umezu joked. “I thought maybe this was one way to immerse myself.” He jumped in, washed toilets by hand, mixed with different ethnicities, and heard constant cursing. “It was eye-opening,” he said. “Every other word was the f-word.” He served on a supply ship for submarines in Europe doing administrative work. After his military service, he returned to the ministry.

Publishing texts and creating resource materials are vitally important in helping English-speaking people understand and appreciate Jodo Shinshu, Rev. Umezu said. Nishi Hongwanji published “The Collected Works of Shinran” in 1997, which wasn’t really long ago. Previously it was extremely difficult to study Shinshu without such resources. He said he hopes Higashi Honganji also continues to translate and publish Buddhist texts, especially works by prominent Higashi teachers such as Rev. Daiei Kaneko and Rev. Ryōjin Soga.

A shortage of English resources in the past hindered how younger generations related to Jodo Shinshu, Rev. Umezu said. For example, first generation Japanese Americans (Japanese: Issei) who were fluent in Japanese understood sermons about Shinshu by Japan-born ministers. By contrast, later English-speaking generations focused more on the historic Buddha and basic Buddhist teachings, in which English writings were plentiful.

English resources are especially important for students studying to become Jodo Shinshu ministers in this country. “If we don’t give them enough materials, it’s hard for them to study,” he said. “They need to be guided, not just about rituals and history, but by remembering we are here to hear Amida Buddha’s Vow.”

Over time, Jodo Shinshu has made inroads in this country. The U.S. Veterans Administration appointed BCA minister Rev. Hiroshi Abiko as its first Buddhist chaplain in 1988. The Boy Scouts of America now recognizes the Buddhist Churches of America, allowing for Buddhist services to be conducted alongside other religions at jamborees. Still, more needs to be done. Rev. Umezu remembers attending a national chaplaincy meeting in Washington D.C. and being the only Buddhist and Asian among 180 attendees.

For today’s temples to thrive, they must be places where everyone feels welcomed and at home, he said. They are places where we share our lives—through services, weddings, funerals, meals and social activities. He said: “We share our happiness together, cry together, and share our journey in this life together.”

Most important, Rev. Umezu said, is for everyone—members, temple leaders, ministers—to remember that “Amida Vow’s was established for us” and to share that wish with other people.


-Rev. Ken Yamada, editor, Shinshu Center of America