By Jonathan vanHarmelen —
Reverend Sasaki is no stranger to challenges in life; as one of the longest-serving Jodo Shinshu Buddhist priests in the United States, Reverend LaVerne Senyo Sasaki has helped maintain the presence of Buddhist church within Northern California for over 60 years.
Now almost 90 years young, Reverend Sasaki still preaches at Buddhist Temples. At a service at the Buddhist Church of San Francisco in October 2019, he recalled humorously the difficulties of holding services and keeping audiences chanting sutras for fifteen minutes.
Yet despite these minor frustrations, Sasaki remains proud of his work. The son of a Buddhist reverend and grandson of the first Buddhist minister of Canada, LaVerne Senyo Sasaki is one of many Buddhist priests in his family dating back twenty-six generations.
Born in Stockton in 1930, he moved with his family to Sacramento in 1939 when his father was selected to head the Sacramento Buddhist Church.
From 1942 to 1945, Sasaki and his family were incarcerated at the Tule Lake concentration camp, an experience that left a deep impression on Sasaki’s life. Part of the original Tule Lake group from before segregation, Sasaki’s family chose to stay at Tule Lake following the loyalty oath because of his father’s devotion to his parishioners, staying with them until their return to Sacramento in 1945.
The name “LaVerne” was even a product of his camp experience; when he returned from Tule Lake to Sacramento High School, Sasaki and his brother decided to change their names to ones that were both “acceptable” and uncommon.
He decided to be LaVerne and his brother Conrad, naming themselves after LaVerne and Conrad Kuwahara, two brothers in the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
After leaving camp, LaVerne Sasaki returned to his father’s church, where the building operated simultaneously as a hostel for returning families from camp.
Shortly thereafter, he decided to follow his father’s footsteps and become a Jodo Shinshu priest – a sect of Buddhism based on the teachings of the 12th century Buddhist priest Shinran Shonin and one of the most-practiced branches of Buddhism in Japan.
When asked why he entered the ministry, he recalled that as the oldest son he felt called to follow in his father’s footsteps and maintain family tradition. His other siblings, frustrated with the heavy responsibilities and hierarchy they saw among priests, avoided entering the ministry.
Conversely, when his father complained about the lack of Japanese fluency among Nisei, Sasaki sympathized with his father’s frustration and helped serve as interpreter.
Following his graduation from Sacramento State University, Sasaki travelled to Japan to study Buddhism at Tokyo University.
From 1953 to 1958, Reverend Sasaki pursued a Masters of Buddhist Studies at Tokyo University under the guidance of Shinsho Hanayama. Shinsho Hanayama would go on to be Bishop of the Buddhist Church of America from 1959 to 1968.
In 1954, the young Sasaki undertook a Buddhist pilgrimage through Burma (now Myanmar), India, Nepal, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) with Shinsho’s son Dr. Shoyu Hanayama, the head of the Seabrook Buddhist Church of Seabrook, New Jersey.
Upon returning to the United States, Sasaki entered a masters program in Religious Education at University of the Pacific, where he studied Christian education as a potential model for Buddhist education in the United States. His thesis, which provided a recommended one-year Buddhist curriculum for high school seniors for the Buddhist Churches of America, drew from his own travels and surveyed the current state of Buddhist teachings in postwar America.
While Sasaki did not directly reference incarceration in his study, he noted how following the Second World War Buddhist studies in America were “grossly neglected,” and that its revival would not only have a positive impact on the Japanese American community but improve the nation’s understanding of world events.
During his studies at the University of the Pacific, he served as the minister of the Stockton Buddhist temple and as an instructor of Asian philosophy at the university.
After completing his master’s program in May 1965, he assumed the position of head minister of the Mountain View Buddhist Temple, founded by his father in 1961 after his father left the Sacramento Buddhist Church the previous year, where he proceeded to serve as minister until 1990.
He then served as minister of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco from 1990 until 2000 when he “retired.”
This importance of bridging the generation gap between Issei and Nisei remained important to Reverend Sasaki throughout his life. He recalled that much of his early work was spent connecting with aging Issei bachelors – those first Japanese immigrants to come to the United States that led solitary lives – in the postwar years, part of what he identified as a ‘neglected community.’ He recalled once speaking with an elderly Issei man at a nursing home in Sacramento in the 1960s and noticed how the man wept when he spoke Japanese to him.
His encounters with elderly Issei bachelors, often isolated and forgotten, encouraged Sasaki to work with other neglected communities and offer his help.
Part of bridging communities has also been cultivating church membership among the community. When asked in 1977 about the state of church attendance, Sasaki affirmed that the success of a church does not depend on size – sometimes smaller is better for him – but about the importance of connections between the minister and the families attending.
Yet as attendance numbers have decreased over the years, Sasaki has continued to impress upon Japanese Americans and new Japanese immigrants the importance of maintaining such connections.
In an interview for Asiaweek in 1998, Sasaki stressed the importance of expanding Buddhist congregations beyond the Japanese American community, reflecting his career of fostering connections and making Buddhist teachings accessible to a wider audience.
Today, Reverend Sasaki continues to make appearances at the San Francisco, Mountain View, and San Mateo Buddhist Temples.
In 2017, Sasaki released his memoirs, Out of the Mud Grows the Wisteria, chronicling his life as a minster and personal reflections on the impact of Buddhist teachings.
When I asked him how he is coping with the trials of long-term quarantine wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, he said: “I find it as a special time to read, study, and reconnect with long lost friends.
“We should return to the Buddhist teachings of interconnections, of emphasis on interdependence and oneness of life, or Buddha-nature. This is also a much-needed time to do home chanting/meditation for Buddhists with their home “Obutsudan” shrine.”
In times of crisis such as these, the wisdom of individuals such as Reverend Sasaki can provide essential guidance.
When asked to give a memorial service in 2006 at the former site of Tule Lake for those who died during the incarceration, Buddhist Reverend LaVerne Sasaki summed up his philosophy in one phrase: “All these expressions, I believe, is expressed by utterance of the Nembutsu (Namu Amida Butsu) “thank you” for allowing me to live with all of life’s ups and downs with peace of mind within the wisdom of the Dharma. Our religious/spiritual way allows us to look at the pilgrimage theme of Dignity and Survival from this viewpoint.”