This is the second of the three articles by three MVBT Girl Scouts who are working for their Padma Award. Each scout is writing about a woman who is a Buddhist Reverend within the Buddhist Churches of America.
By Senior Scout Kendall Ho
Reverend Etsuko Mikame was born in the Shimane Prefecture, Japan. Growing up in a family temple that was founded in 1662, she would help manage and conduct the daily services. For example, she and her grandmother would ring the bell six times every evening before conducting service. In her daily life, she would go to school regularly, just like everyone else. Both her father and older brother are ministers and, originally, she wasn’t really interested in also becoming a minister.
She went to college and majored in English literature. After graduating, she found a job at a medical company. Unfortunately, during this time, she experienced many difficulties with her boss. Her boss was very strict and particular with the way things were done. At first, Sensei was grateful for the advice, but, as time went by, the advice became very intimidating. Due to the fact that she was young and inexperienced, she made a lot of mistakes while talking on the phone or speaking to others. With the constant criticism, she felt that anything she did was wrong. “I originally was very cheerful because I was full of motivation,” says Reverend Mikame, “but my mood was getting darker day by day because I couldn’t enjoy my job.” Being nervous at her daily job was affecting her outside life too. Later, someone told Sensei about her boss’s difficulties at home. While she thought of the boss’s behavior as understandable, she couldn’t find it in her heart to sympathize. She had been in a tough situation herself at the time. “Eventually, my body and mind were not well balanced, and I took a leave to take a rest, so, soon after, I quit the job.” She had struggled about where to go in life at this point. When she met with her grandmother, who is also a minister, she suggested that she study Buddhism in Kyoto, Japan.
In Kyoto, Mikame Sensei would start her studies at a Buddhist seminary. This seminary was to teach the basics of Buddhism. Then in order to become an ordained minister of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, Reverend Mikame had to receive a “Tokudo” orientation, which takes place at the Head Temple (Nishi Hongwanji) in Kyoto, Japan. Tokudo is considered to be one of the first formal steps, where one is now considered to be a student of the Nembutsu teaching. After graduating from the seminary, she applied for a hundred-day training course called “Fukyoshi Katei.” This is where ten experienced Buddhist ministers teach the students how to present and make Dharma talks. They give advice on how to improve a transcript to the students as well. These ministers were also Hongwanji’s official certificated speakers who were allowed to speak within the halls of the Hongwanji. These ministers, during the Fukyoshi Katei, would travel all over Japan to give Dharma talks to other temples. At the end of the training period, students share their own Dharma talks in front of the very strict board of instructors. With this step, Reverend Mikame was able to earn the license to become an official, certified speaker at Hongwanji. This seemed like a very short training period, which is why I asked if she had done any more training. She responded that we are Jodo Shinshu Buddhist who believe that no matter what, eventually we all will end up in the Pure Land. Therefore, we don’t need strict practices or rituals.
After her formal training, Reverend Mikame stayed at a temple in Kamogawa City, in Chiba prefecture. This coincidental opportunity was introduced to her by her best friend, who also happened to be a minister. Since the former resident minister had passed away, no one was living or regularly taking care of the Temple grounds. The new resident minister, who drove down to take care of Temple activities, and the temple’s director allowed her to live there until she moved to the U.S. If the two were busy, she would help conduct some services on the weekends, and teach English during the rest of the week. This happened a year before she was assigned to any temple by the Hongwanji or the BCA.
During her last three months in Chiba, she would help another temple in a different city. At this temple was another female minister who was the chief resident minister. “She is over 70 years old, but so active and energetic. She was born in a temple family,” says Reverend Mikame. ”She didn’t expect to take over the position of the resident minister from her father at all.” When the chief minister was younger, she used to live in France for her job and had no intentions of going back to Japan. Later, the father of the chief minister got sick and wanted the chief to take over his position. She couldn’t help but to come home.
“Now, it is common to find female ministers, but around forty years ago this wasn’t the case,” says Mikame Sensei. Female ministers were still a minority and the chief minister experienced discrimination from many people. After taking over for her father, some of the Sangha would criticize her for being a female. They would say that a female’s sutra chanting would have affected one’s birth in the Pure Land. Because of her gender, people didn’t accept her as a resident minister of their temple. “However, she didn’t give in. She always tried to treat everyone equally and talked to her temple members. She never cuts corners and never does things halfway when it comes to the Temple activities and services. Her efforts, wholehearted dedications, were gradually appreciated by her Temple members.” To this day, the current chief minister is loved by many people, not just the Sangha but many others as well.” Reverend Mikame admires people just like the chief minister. “A leader who has a clear vision and a mission as a leader. [However,] the most important trait is the ability to include and treat everyone equally regardless of differences in age, gender, or position, being equally compassionate to anyone.”
After gaining new experiences and teachings, Reverend Mikame was assigned to the San Jose Buddist Church Betsuin in the United States. Upon arrival, she found many differences between Japanese and American temples. One difference, for example, is the number of people affiliated with the temples. At San Jose Betsuin, there are many organizations within the Temple such as Jr. YBA, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, the choir, BWA, Dharma School, and etc. Plus, there are multiple generations, young and old, coming to hear the Dharma. She was surprised by the many different organizations that comprise the San Jose Betsuin. She mainly emphasized the size of the Sangha. At her home Temple in Japan, there are only about sixty Temple members. Here in the United States, we have weekly services that last about an hour long. However, at Mikame Sensei’s home Temple, services are only held once or twice a month, but last up to two to three hours long. As a result, there are more memorial services than Dharma talks.
Interviewing Reverend Mikame was very interesting but also very inspiring. Being a high schooler myself, I am thinking about the next big steps of my life. Finding out that Reverend Mikame had struggled with similar problems with pressure and stress helps me believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Namo Amida Butsu —
With Kindness & Gratitude Beyond Words