After leading the Buddhist Church of Sacramento for 32 years, Bob Oshita gave his final sermon Sunday with characteristic humor, humility and insight.
Gazing out on a sea of smiles and tears, Oshita, 67, said that before he came to Sacramento, he’d taken a six-year leave from his Buddhist ministry in Los Angeles.
“I was making poor life decisions,” he said, until one day his dad asked him, “When are you coming back to become a minister? It’s the only thing you’re any good at.”
Reverend Bob, as he’s affectionately known, said he realized he couldn’t pursue any other profession that would let him “be the best and most real person I could possibly be.” His mentor Dr. Mokusan Miyuki taught him “the goal of Buddhism is to become a true human being of no rank. Buddhism is not about being nice. It’s about being real.”
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Oshita added that the essence of Buddhism is to live in the shade of others, “and because I live in the shade of so many people, I am fine. ... I am able to connect with my most genuine self. Thank you for allowing us to be part of your lives and the lives of your children and grandchildren. Because of you, we will forever be interconnected in the karmic fabric of life.”
After Sunday services at the Jodo Shinshu temple, students at the Sunday Dharma School where Oshita’s wife, Patti, teaches, led the audience in a “Farewell Song” backed by a ukulele: “We will meet again real soon, this is not goodbye, This is just the truth of change, we don’t need to cry ...”
Oshita did rub his eyes when more than 500 people gave him and Patti a standing ovation and came up one by one to be purified with incense from the temple, which was founded by Japanese immigrants in 1899.
“He married us in 1987,” recalled Linda Masuda, with her husband, Donald. “He has the best, most positive outlook, and we learn something from him every time.”
Ruth Seo said she has been visiting the temple for nearly 50 years.
When Oshita first arrived, “he used to hang out in the gym with my son Kirk, who was 11, and play basketball,” Seo said. “Now, Bob plays with my 11-year-old grandson Kyle.”
Seo said when her mother died last July at age 100, Oshita came over. “He did a little chant and said exactly the right words to comfort us,” she said. “He said she knew that she had lived a good life, and we had tried to help her.”
After several thousand funerals, a few hundred weddings and decades of classes and sermons, the Oshitas plan to travel and help care for Patti’s 99-year-old uncle and 93-year-old father, both in the Central Valley. “We’re pretty much on call 24-7,” he said. “I’m lucky because I don’t think of any of it as work. It’s a good time to retire while you’re healthy and love what you do. It’s kind of important that you don’t overstay your welcome.”
He said his Japanese American parents worked on an Iowa farm sexing chickens so they wouldn’t have to go to an internment camp during World War II. When they returned to San Francisco, anti-Japanese hatred was still rampant and the only place they could rent was so infested with fleas, “my mom said, ‘I couldn’t pick the fleas off you fast enough.’ ”
Oshita attended the San Francisco Buddhist Church until he was about 15, “when I discovered girls and had other places to be.” In a psychology class at UC Berkeley, he told his classmates he was raised Buddhist, and “the class was so excited they had a live Buddhist they asked me what it was all about and I had no clue. So I researched it not out of curiosity but out of embarrassment.”
He learned Buddhism is “not a religion, philosophy or theology, it’s a culture of awakening, just opening your eyes and seeing things clearly as they are, not as we want them to be.” Some people don’t want to awaken “because it’s much easier to believe, ‘I’m right, you’re wrong; I’m better, you’re worse.’ If there is a tradition that says let’s get rid of all the religious traditions in the world and let’s be good and kinder to each other, that’s Buddhism.”
He and his wife were both ordained in Japan. Though there are many schools of Buddhism, “we’re all teaching the same thing,” he said.
Oshita said his wife has been with him every step of the way. She, too, used humor Sunday to encourage the congregation to donate to the church’s coming annual rummage sale. “It’s not impossible to live a much simpler life,” Patti Oshita said. “I know I have too much stuff, but my attachment to my stuff is temporary. Our happiness is not found in the things we own or possess.”
Patti Oshita said her husband’s secret is that “a part of him will always be 9 years old.” He admits he loves cartoons, especially “Phineas and Ferb.”
He recalls going to the funeral of a grandfather and seeing the deceased man’s 5-year-old granddaughter, who wondered why everyone was so sad. “I asked her her name and her favorite cartoon. She said she likes SpongeBob. I said, ‘I like SpongeBob!’ and gave her my favorite episode. Her eyes lit up and she said, ‘That was good! How about this one?’ ”
That human connection – and the ability to laugh together – allowed the little girl to talk to him about the loss of her grandfather. “People ask what happens when you die – we don’t know. That’s what I like about Buddhism, there is great mystery to life and death,” he said. “I’ve been in homes where there’s a really tragic loss of a young mother or a young child, and somebody blurts out, ‘God just wants another flower in his garden.’ What does that mean?”
“We have to hold close to the people we love when we have them,” he said. “We know every day is a gift, and the best we can hope for is to let go of life without regret.”