In Memory of Tom Okamoto

by Rev. Marvin Harada.

Part of my work for the BCA that I do is to help plan and put on the seminars for Minister’s assistants, which we call the “MAP” (Minister’s assistant’s program). I have met all of the Minister’s assistants that are serving our local temples in the BCA. Recently, the minister’s assistant from the Lodi Temple, in Northern California, Tom Okamoto, died in a tragic swimming accident in Hawaii. In September, we had a MAP seminar that Tom was at. For the first time, we had all of them give a dharma talk at some time during the seminar. Tom volunteered to give the Dharma talk at the San Francisco Buddhist Church after our visit to the Colma cemetery in San Francisco where we have a special monument honoring BCA ministers who have passed on. Our own Rev. Satoshi Hirata’s name is engraved on this huge monument. Tom shared his experience of his very first MAP seminar that had occurred a few years before. It was a most beautiful and meaningful Dharma message that I would like to share with all of you. Sadly, it was the last Dharma message I would hear from Tom.

The following is the message I heard from Tom that I have put into my own words.

I would like to share with all of you, my experience of my first visit to Colma, a few years ago, when I attended my very first MAP seminar. At that seminar, I saw on the schedule that we were going to have to go to Colma. I thought to myself, “Isn’t there more important things we should be doing instead of going to a cemetery? We should be listening to lectures on Buddhism and Jodo Shinshu. We should be studying the sutras. Wouldn’t that be time better spent than having to go to a cemetery? At that first MAP seminar, I even expressed this to Rev. Umezu, our CBE director. He didn’t say much in response, and we still went to the cemetery.

When we arrived at the Colma cemetery, I looked at the huge monument that had engraved on it, the names of past BCA Ministers who have passed on. I started to read the names of the many ministers. I read names of some of the wonderful Senseis we had at San Jose when I was young and growing up. Hojo Sensei, Tokunaga Sensei, Tsumura Sensei…….and many others. My eyes welled with tears. So many wonderful memories of those Senseis came to my heart and mind. How many years had I listened to their sermons. I had learned so much from them over the years.

And suddenly I realized, why we were made to come to Colma as part of this MAP seminar. How stupid of me to think that this would be a waste of time. I even had the gall to say something to Rev. Umezu about it. Seeing the monument made me realize the great tradition of Buddhism that I am a part of. So many wonderful teachers, from my past ministers,

and on back to Shinran Shonin, himself, so many wonderful teachers have brought the Dharma to me. I felt both deep gratitude for my past teachers, and deep shame about my having been made to see myself.

Namandabutsu, Namandabutsu.

The Shin Buddhist spiritual experience is characterized as an awakening to two kinds of deep mind. The first mind is an awakening to our ego self. The second mind is an awakening that goes beyond our ego self, to be touched by the heart of the Buddha, to be touched by the heart of the Dharma. The realization of these two deep minds occurs simultaneously, at the same instant. To me, Tom’s experience shows us clearly this awakening of the two deep minds. When Tom saw the names of his past Senseis, a feeling of deep gratitude arose in his heart and mind. At the same time that he felt deep gratitude for his past teachers, and the entire tradition of Buddhism that had brought the Dharma, the truth of Namuamidabutsu to him, he realized his own ignorance and stupidity as an unenlightened sentient being for having thought that visiting Colma would be a waste of time. On top of that, he thought, ...and I even had the gall, to say something to Rev. Umezu about it! Wasn’t there more important things we should be learning? How could I have thought that there would be something more important to learn at this MAP seminar?

Tom’s Dharma message and experience is a wonderful teaching lesson to all of us who follow the path of the Nembutsu. True realization and insight has more than just a moving emotion of gratitude or joy. It has within it the insight into our ego self, of our ignorance. Shinran Shonin’s insights all reflect this kind of character.

Thank you Tom for showing me what is Jodo Shinshu through your message.

It is very gratifying to meet such wonderful Minister’s assistants that are serving our various Sanghas and temples in the BCA. Tom Okamoto, as a person, and with his Dharma message, will remain deep within in my heart and mind.


Rev. Marvin Harada