BCA Ecclesiastical Leadership & Minister’s Assistant Program

Through this two part article, it is my intention to help clarify the important ecclesiastical relationship we have with our mother organization, the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha in Kyoto, Japan, and the role the BCA plays within this big picture. I also hope to help dispel any confusion as to who the religious leaders of the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) are, and the roles they play especially as they relate to the BCA Minister’s Assistant Program and the programs at the Jodo Shinshu Center. As Director of the BCA Minister’s Assistant Program (MAP), I am hoping these articles will bring some clarity to these areas.

The origins of the Minister’s Assistant Program goes back to the time of BCA Bishop Hakubun Watanabe, and was further developed under the tenure of Bishop Koshin Ogui. As with so many of our BCA programs, it has taken some time to fully evolve and implement. I am happy to announce that this program was approved by the BCA Ministers’ Association.

First of all, I would like to share with you some of the history of the BCA, while focusing on the ministerial aspects of our organization.

The Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) falls under the official jurisdiction of the North America District of the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha branch of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism with headquarters in Kyoto, Japan. The Bishop of the BCA is the officially recognized representative of the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha for the North America District. As the official representative, the Bishop is the head of all priests and lay leaders and members who reside within the continental United States.

Under the Bishop of the BCA is the Chairperson (Gicho) of the BCA Ministers’ Association, currently Rev. Patricia Usuki, and the President of the Buddhist Churches of America, currently held by Mr. Richard Stambul.

BCA has 60 temples in the continental United States of America, with headquarters in San Francisco, California located at 1710 Octavia Street. Our national headquarters is home to the Office of the Bishop, the BCA administrative offices, the BCA Endowment Foundation office and the new Jodo Shinshu International Office.

Located immediately adjacent to the BCA Headquarters is the Buddhist Church of San Francisco (BCSF). The chapel (hondo) of BCSF serves a dual purpose because it serves BCSF, but it also serves as the hondo for the BCA headquarters. BCSF also serves as the home registration temple for all Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha priests ordained by the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha under the jurisdiction North America District (BCA).

The BCA’s Jodo Shinshu Center (JSC), located at 2140 Durant Ave, Berkeley, California, houses our graduate school, the Institute of Buddhist Studies (IBS), the BCA Center for Buddhist Education (CBE), the Jodo Shinshu International (JSI) offices, and Ryukoku University’s Berkeley Campus. As stated on the IBS web site, “IBS is a leading American Buddhist graduate school and seminary that provides graduate level education across the full breadth of the Buddhist tradition with specialized training in academic studies of Buddhism, Buddhist chaplaincy and Jodo Shinshu Buddhist ministry.” The IBS is governed by a president and a board of trustees. The current President of the IBS is Rev. Dr. David Matsumoto.

The BCA Center for Buddhist Education (CBE) has been developing the lay education programs for BCA. The CBE is under the leadership of a board of governors of both Kaikyoshi and lay leaders of BCA. The Co-Directors of the CBE are Kaikyoshis Rev. Marvin Harada and Rev. Jerry Hirano. In conjunction with IBS, and the Jodo Shinshu International office (JSIO) under the direction of Rev. Kiyonobu Kuwahara, the BCA Minister’s Assistant Program (MAP) provides education, training and certification for American-born individuals who may want to become priests.

The BCA Office of the Bishop is responsible for all ecclesiastical matters for the North America District as they relate to the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha’s presence in the continental U.S. The current staff for the Office of the Bishop is made up of two co-Executive Assistants, Rev. Marvin Harada and Rev. Jerry Hirano, and the Secretary to the Office of the Bishop, Rev. Michael Endo.

It is this office which oversees and carries out the ecclesiastical and ministerial personnel issues for BCA. The Bishop of the BCA is nominated by the Kaikyoshi ministers of the Buddhist Churches of America Ministers’ Association.

In the event that the Bishop is not able to carry out the functions of the office, the Chairperson (Gicho) of the BCA Ministers’ Association shall serve in the interim until such time that a Bishop Pro-tempore can be named, and a new Bishop is elected. The Gicho, as head of the BCA Ministers’ Association is, therefore, second in ecclesiastical leadership in the BCA.

To be a member with full rights and privileges of the BCA Ministers’ Association, you must be an active Kaikyoshi of the North America District. Within this Ministers’ Association are eight district leaders (Kyokucho) from the Bay, Central California, Coast, Eastern, Mt. States, Northern Calfornia, Northwest, and Southern Districts. These eight district leaders form the cabinet of the Ministers’ Association. Directors (Kyokucho) of each district are elected or are appointed on a rotational basis, depending upon the guidelies of each respective district.

What is a Kaikyoshi?

The term Kaikyoshi is a special ecclesiastical designation or title granted by the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha to individuals who wish to serve as ministers in the overseas districts and regions outside of Japan (i.e. BCA, Hawaii, Canada, South America, Taiwan, Nepal, Australia, etc.)

To be a “Kaikyoshi” for BCA, a request for Kaikyoshi status must first be made by the Bishop of the BCA to the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha. Upon approval by the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, the individual may then be assigned to a temple as a resident minister or to some other official position by Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha at the request of the Bishop of BCA.

Individuals outside of Japan seeking Kaikyoshi status must have received tokudo ordination,and kyoshi certification from the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha. In addition, you must also have the appropriate degree from the Institute of Buddhist Studies or its equivalent as determined by the office of the Bishop of BCA and approved by Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha.

For ministers from Japan, Kaikyoshi status guidelines and rules are determined by the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha.

The second ecclesiastical designation under the Kaikyoshi category is called Kaikyoshi-ho (Assistant Minister). This is a designation recognized by Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, but has been used infrequently in the BCA.

This is an assigned position by the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha made at the request by the Office of the Bishop. It has been used at temples that could not be filled by a Kaikyoshi for a variety of reasons. This position may be held by individuals with Tokudo or Tokudo & Kyoshi.

As the title implies, the Kaikyoshi-ho are assigned to assist a resident or supervising Kaikyoshi minister. Kaikyoshi-ho, however, are not members of the BCA Ministers’ Association. These two levels of ecclesiastical designation -- Kaikyoshi and Kaikyoshi-ho -- are determined strictly through the Office of the Bishop of BCA.

What is a Minister’s Assistant?

The BCA Minister’s Assistant Program was established to fulfill exactly what the name implies: to assist ministers. It was started over 20 years ago as an experimental program. Having developed and evolved over the years since, the Minister’s Assistant Program has now been approved by the BCA Ministers’ Association.

The levels of BCA Minister’s Assistants are:

Minister’s Assistant with Kyoshi: Title “Reverend”

Minister’s Assistant with Tokudo: Title “Reverent”

Certified Minister’s Assistant: No title

Minister’s Assistant: No title

The BCA Minister’s Assistant Program falls under the jurisdiction of the BCA Ministers’ Association. This program is only open to BCA members who are specifically recommended by their resident or supervising Kaikyoshi minister. Members recommended for the Minister’s Assistant Program must also have the approval by their local temple board.

It should be noted that Minister’s Assistants who have not received the status of “Kaikyoshi” or “Kaikyoshi Ho” shall be considered “Minister’s Assistants” and not “Assistant Ministers.”

Perhaps this is where much confusion lies. When an individual, regardless of their country of origin, is ordained as a Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha priest (Soryo), he or she receives the title “Reverend.” This person is registered as a priest to one of the 11,000 Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha temples world-wide.

Most American-born priests are registered with the Buddhist Church of San Francisco under the jurisdiction of the BCA. Those individuals born in or from Japan, in a majority of cases, will be registered under a temple in Japan (i.e. their home temple).

However, to be ordained as a priest for the BCA, both the BCA and the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha require that the following qualifications be met:

All non-Japanese nationals must:

  1. Complete the 2-year Correspondence Course administered by Jodo Shinshu International Office (JSIO)

  2. Be certified as BCA Minister’s Assistant for a minimum of 2 years; receive a favorable interview by the Office of the Bishop;

  3. Complete a minimum of 4 of the 8 IBS courses required for Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha Kyoshi Certification.

To be accepted into the BCA Minister’s Assistant Program, the following criteria must be met:

  1. Individuals must be recommended for the program as a Minister’s Assistant by their resident Kaikyoshi minister (or supervising minister), and must work for a minimum of two years under their supervision while completing the 2-year Jodo Shinshu Correspondence Course, and learning the rituals, doctrine and history of Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha.

    This process helps to establish eligibility for becoming a Certified Minister’s Assistant; upon the recommendation by the temple Kaikyoshi and approval by the local temple board, the minister’s assistant is certified by the Office of the Bishop. Unless the individual wishes to move to the next level, the Minister’s Assistant can stay at this level indefinitely.

  2. Certified Minister’s Assistant (MA) is then be eligible to attend the BCA Minister’s Assistant Program (MAP) seminars. Certified Minister’s Assistants are required to attend at least one BCA MAP seminar every year in order for certification to remain active. Failure to do this can result in revocation of certification by their temple Kaikyoshi or the Office of the Bishop. The individual may also opt to remain at this level unless they choose to move up to the next level for Tokudo ordination.

  3. An MA with Tokudo ordination aspirations must have the intention to pursue eventual Kyoshi certification. Because Tokudo ordination requires the oath of a Jodo Shinshu priest, commitment to this path is only the beginning, not an end of itself. It is one’s personal commitment to study and train in Jodo Shinshu tradition for oneself.

    It is not a status, or even an accomplishment, but rather the manifestation of one’s acceptance of the Nembutsu teachings and desire to share these teachings formally.

    To qualify for this level, the individual must enroll at the Institute of Buddhist Studies and interview with the office of the Bishop. The Tokudo aspirant will be asked if they intend to complete the Shin Buddhist Certificate program (8 courses at IBS which can be taken online).

    To be eligible to receive the Tokudo ordination, they must complete at least four of the eight required classes. Upon completion of the IBS Shin Buddhist Certificate Program, the Tokudo Minister’s Assistant will be eligible to conduct all services required at the local temple, with the supervision of a BCA Kaikyoshi minister.

  4. This brings us to the final level of a Minister’s Assistant. This is the Minister’s Assistant with Kyoshi. This person will be qualified to perform all the rituals necessary at a BCA temple, with the supervision of a BCA Kaikyoshi minister. They will have served as a Minister’s Assistant for a minimum of four years, received the recommendation of their local resident Kaikyoshi minister under whom they have been training under, and will have received Tokudo and completed the Jodo Shinshu Certificate program through the IBS.

  5. In theory, anyone ordained is a “soryo” of the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha; those serving in BCA shall fall directly under the jurisdiction of the BCA Office of the Bishop. Unless such individuals have received Kaikyoshi-ho oHo or Kaikyoshi status, they shall follow the same rules established for all Minister’s Assistants, such as attending one MAP seminar per year, etc. In this way, they will be much better equipped to serve the needs of their sangha under the supervision of the local Kaikyoshi.

Because of the anticipated shortage of Kaikyoshi in the next several years, the need for ordained priests cannot be emphasized enough. The current Minister’s Assistant Program, which originated under Bishop Hakubun Watanabe, and which was further expanded and developed by Bishop Koshin Ogui, has now been approved and endorsed by the BCA Ministers Association, and is being fully implemented by Bishop Kodo Umezu and his administration.

Notably, this training program is the only English language program that meets the ordination requirements as set forth by the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha. Two of our recently conducted MAP seminars held on January 24-26 and April 4-6, 2019 at the Jodo Shinshu Center (JSC) in Berkeley, California, were attended by many BCA Minister’s Assistants, as well as five students from the United Kingdom and three from Canada.

The upcoming World Buddhist Women’s Convention on August 30 to September 1, 2019 in San Francisco, California will be considered a MAP certification continuing education seminar. Following the world convention, the next MAP seminar will be held on October 3-5, at the JSC. All of these seminars are organized and conducted under the direction of the Office of the Bishop, the BCA Center for Buddhist Education and the Miniter’s Assistant Program.

I personally would like to thank Bishop Umezu for his leadership, vision and guidance, and for overseeing the development of the many exciting programs in BCA. I hope I have offered some clarity to the workings of our BCA organization, as it pertains to our BCA leadership and our ecclesiastical relationship with the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha.

Should you have any questions, please contact the BCA Center for Buddhist Education or Rev. Jerry Hirano at jkhirano@msn.com.

-J.K. Hirano