Rev. Dr. Seigen Yamaoka Passes Away At 89

M. Editor  |  January 19, 2024

Rev. Dr. Seigen Yamaoka, revered Dharma teacher, mentor, and friend of everyone at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, passed away on December 15, 2023 at the age of 89. Rev. Yamaoka played a significant role in the development of Shin Buddhism in America. It would be no exaggeration to say that, without his vision and efforts, there would be no IBS as we know it today. 


Rev. Yamaoka served at the Buddhist Church of Oakland from 1964 and the Buddhist Church of Stockton from 1971, becoming the Bishop of the Buddhist Churches of America in 1981. During his fifteen-year tenure as the Bishop, he was instrumental in establishing the Campaign for Buddhism in America and the BCA Endowment Foundation. This capital campaign generated millions of dollars and established many of the professorial chair endowments at IBS including the Tamai, Aratani, and Ohtani chairs. These endowments provide the financial foundation for IBS. 


Also during his tenure as Bishop, Rev. Yamaoka fostered important institutional connections. Having received a degree from the Pacific School of Religion, he knew the importance of inter-religious dialogue, and so in 1982 he helped IBS become an affiliate of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU). This affiliation gave IBS students access to the vast resources of the GTU including the research libraries at UC Berkeley and provided an opportunity to strengthen our academic curriculum. In that same year, IBS became affiliated with Ryūkoku Univeristy in Kyoto, one of the oldest Buddhist universities in Japan. As a result of this partnership, a student exchange program has allowed IBS students to study in Japan and numerous scholars from Japan have been in residence here in Berkeley.


After his tenure as Bishop ended, Rev. Yamaoka returned to the ministry at the Buddhist Church of Oakland and began to teach again at IBS. In 2002, he received the degree of Doctor of Letters (bungaku hakase) from Ryūkoku University. He was appointed to IBS’s core faculty in 2009 and the next year was given the H.E. Kosho Ohtani Professor of Shin Buddhist Studies. In 2013, he became the IBS Vice President of Development. In that position he continued to find great success in the fundraising efforts of the Institute, generating substantial funds for student scholarships. 


Rev. Yamaoka long taught the course “Issues in Buddhist Ministry,” instructing and inspiring new generations of ministerial aspirants and Buddhist chaplains. By encouraging his students to engage in deep self-examination of their spiritual experiences, he helped them realize ways in which the Buddhadharma functions as a transformative spiritual force in their lives. This pedagogical approach was the focus of his 2017 monograph, Shin Buddhist Education: a New Perspective.


On the occasion of his retirement in 2021, IBS President Rev. Dr. David Matsumoto said, “When he was the bishop of BCA, Rev. Yamaoka’s dream was that IBS would someday gain accreditation, become a GTU member school and have a solid financial foundation…his aspirations and tireless efforts have enabled IBS to accomplish those goals.”


Dean Scott Mitchell added, “None of us would be here if it wasn’t for Rev. Yamaoka. His leadership and vision for Shin Buddhism in the United States made possible everything that we’ve been able to accomplish the last few years at IBS.”


Longtime colleague and friend at the Institute, Rev. Dr. Daijaku Kinst, wrote from Japan, “Rarely have I met a person so deeply steeped in the Dharma, so expressive of it, simply, clearly, in every way. His words, his being, and his example continue to accompany me in my own stumbling Dharma journey. Thank you for your gift of wisdom and example of what is possible when we fully entrust ourselves to the way.”


Rev. Dr. Seigen Yamaoka was awarded the status of Professor Emeritus at the IBS graduation ceremony on May 21, 2021. He left a remarkable legacy and a community of Dharma-friends who gratefully walk the path he set out before us.