By John Sammon —
Ron Kobata spent a career teaching the Buddhist faith, conducting services, offering counseling and serving as an emergency chaplain for police officers, but if you ask him why the religion today attracts more diverse parishioners—he will say its all-inclusiveness.
“Buddhism teaches enlightenment; you become inspired,” Kobata said. “You are valued, engaged and aware. It’s what we can share, an aliveness. In Buddhism things are related and connected. Thus, as people we are not separate, we all depend on each other.
The focus is on life,” he added. “Nothing exists independently, but is interdependent. Things in the world are always changing.”
Kobata indicated that another part of Buddhism’s appeal is it takes a non-aggressive approach in its teachings and attitudes. That includes respect for other religions and different beliefs.
“In Buddhism we don’t have a strong evangelical agenda,” Kobata said.
Kobata lives in Portland as a retired ordained Buddhist minister. His career spanned the great decades of changes beginning in the 1970’s. He recalled the differences between the Buddhist temples in which he served located on the Pacific Rim from Japan to Hawaii and California.
“The Buddhist temple where I served in Hawaii was interesting for example because it was an inter-faith service,” Kobata said, “Christian and Buddhist.”
Kobata’s ancestors came from the Kumamota area, a prefecture (county) on the island of Kyushu in the south of Japan. His grandparents immigrated to California in the early 1900’s where they took up tenant farming.
His father Hiroshi lived in Eastern Washington State (Yakima area) and his mother Harue grew up near Gilroy and Watsonville in California.
“My dad was a second generation U.S. citizen (Nisei),” Kobata said. “He was sent back to Japan to receive his education and graduated there. But when World War II approached his family saw that things were getting serious. He returned to the U.S.”
The U.S. Government in 1942 authorized the imprisoning of 120,000 mostly Japanese American citizens living along the West Coast for no reason other than ancestry. Kobata’s family members were sent to Heart Mountain, a barbed-wire-enclosed guarded concentration camp in a remote part of Wyoming.
His parents, of high school age, had met at the camp.
Kobata agreed it is somewhat ironic and almost humorous that his father was offered a position on a police force at the camp composed of prisoners, policing the very camp that had taken away their rights and imprisoned them.
“My dad got recruited (camp police force),” Kobata said. “He had a martial arts background.”
Kobata’s mother performed clerical work at the police department office inside Heart Mountain.
His parents remained prisoners through the war and afterward in 1946 moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, where they were married. Then they moved to Ogden. Hiroshi Kobata took up the trade of a watch maker and made it a lifelong career.
“I was born in Ogden and when I was an infant we moved to San Francisco where my father had been offered a job watch-making,” Kobata said.
Kobata attended Washington High School in San Francisco and then City College of San Francisco, where he said he still had no idea of what he wanted to do. He enrolled at UC Berkeley.
“I was taking different courses, but I had developed an interest in religion,” Kobata said. “My parents and I belonged to the Buddhist Temple of San Francisco and I joined social youth groups like the Young Buddhist Association.”
Kobata said it was an ordained Buddhist minister and teacher, Taitetsu Unno, who greatly impressed him and who became a mentor.
“It was the way he (Unno) explained Buddhism that resonated with me,” Kobata said.
Kobata attended UC Berkeley and got a BS Degree in Religious Studies, then a Master’s Degree (MA), attending the Institute of Buddhist Studies at Berkeley in 1970. He said he was caught up in the social unrest of the early 1970’s and its protest movements.
“I felt we needed to engage as a society,” Kobata said. “I was involved with the Third World Movement on the campus. This is what led to the establishment of ethnic studies at the University.”
Kobata journeyed to Japan for ordination in the Buddhist faith and spent over three years in Kyoto, considered a founding capital of the religion going back hundreds of years, the site of numerous temples. In Kyoto he met and married his wife Sayoko, who was a Japanese national.
“We lived with Sayoko’s parents in Kyoto,” Kobata said. “They were very accommodating to us.”
Kobata’s denomination in Buddhism is called the “Jodo Shinshu” and is referred to as “Shin Buddhism.”
Returning to the U.S. Kobata got an assignment to serve at a Buddhist temple in Washington State near a small agricultural town of Auburn for a few years; then returned to Japan for further study.
“I felt I needed more of a foundation,” Kobata said. “I wanted to learn more of the spiritual side of Buddhism, more than just what you can learn in books. I was visiting Buddhist teachers in Japan to learn more from them.”
In 1981 a friend in Hawaii and a Buddhist minister William Masuda called and asked Kobata if he would come to Hawaii and serve in the Honolulu Buddhist District headquarters there. Kobata worked at the Main Temple in Honolulu where he said he was low on the totem pole. There were eight more experienced ministers already serving at the facility.
Eventually Kobata was assigned to take up a minister’s position at a Buddhist Temple on the island of Maui where he would serve for over 20 years.
There were four temples of denominations on Maui.
“I served 18 years at one of them (Kahului Hongwanji Temple) and another five years at a second,” Kobata said.
In the 1980’s agriculture, the growing of sugar and pineapples, was a major part of the economy in Maui. This would later fade to be replaced mostly by tourism.
“Most of our parishioners were of Japanese American heritage,” Kobata said. “Maui became a very expensive place to live. Young people could not afford to live there unless their families owned a business.”
Kobata said the diverse nature of the population on Maui (different ethnic groups, tourists, mainlanders, locals), was an opportunity for him to try and break out of an “insular” stance with Buddhism on the island.
“In the past temples could become insulated as an ethnic and cultural entity (only Japanese),” he said. “For example, I had a person on Maui who recognized me said to me, “You’re from the Japanese Temple.”
“I said no, it’s a Buddhist Temple, this is a world religion. I wanted it to be more inclusive to all people,” Kobata said.
He volunteered to join an interfaith team of ministers (chaplains) on Maui whose mission was to support police officers during the stress of events including accidents, suicides, fires and disasters. This included the delivery of last rites for dying victims.
“I had just begun as a chaplain on the (police) team when an Aloha Airline jet broke apart in flight and made a forced landing at the (Kahului) airport,” Kobata said. “The plane was barely able to land. There were injuries among the passengers. One flight attendant was sucked out of a hole in the plane and was killed.”
Kobata provided counseling and support for the stricken passengers of the flight.
“After that the police chief on Maui realized the importance of our team,” he said. “Serving with interfaith chaplains from other religions on the team was for me especially enriching and meaningful.”
In 2005 Kobata was asked to come to the Buddhist Temple in San Francisco to become a resident minister at the invitation of a newly elected bishop, Koshin Ogui.
“I was at the BCA (Buddhist Churches of America headquarters in San Francisco) for four years,” Kobata said. “Then I became minister at the Buddhist Church of San Francisco. It was an easy move. The church was next door to the BCA.”
Kobata retired last August. He said he greatly enjoys being closer to family. He and his wife have three grown daughters, Tabitha, Mindy and Trina.
Kobata indicated that while Buddhism has been mostly a faith of people of Japanese heritage in past years, today it has grown to attract more people of other ethnic backgrounds because of its welcoming nature.
“It’s a religion of awareness,” Kobata said, “a religion that teaches gratitude.”
Caption: Rev. Duncan Ryuken Williams (left) and Rev. Ronald Kobata at the memorial program is Crystal City, Texas, on Nov. 2, 2019. In July, Williams and other Buddhist leaders risked arrest to protest the proposed transfer of 1,400 children to the former WWII detention facility at Fort Sill. Photo courtesy of Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik