This interview by Rev. Ryuta Furumoto originally appeared in the Japanese section of the Wheel of Dharma BCA Newsletter in September 2016. Rev. Adams translated it into English so that our English-speaking readers could enjoy hearing from one of our most energetic Sangha members.
For this month’s interview I spoke to Mrs. Yuko Suruki, a Dharma School teacher at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple.
In this interview, we hear from a Dharma School teacher who is working to share the Buddhadharma with the children who will carry the Buddhist Churches of America into the next generation. I was particularly interested in Mrs. Suruki’s perspective as an English-Japanese bilingual Dharma School teacher who knows the cultures of both the United States and Japan.
Where were you born?
Toyama is known as a place where Jodo Shinshu Buddhism thrives. Does your family in Japan belong to a Jodo Shinshu temple?
Yes, my father is the second son of a temple priest, so our family is Jodo Shinshu Buddhist. My father worked as a school teacher and did not become a priest, but I recall that whenever I visited the temple where my father grew up I would run around in the temple and the grounds playing with my cousins. However, I wasn’t a very serious student of the Dharma back then and wouldn’t chant the sutras every day at home. I would only chant Shoshinge at Obon and New Year’s, when my family would chant along with a tape recording. I didn’t understand the meaning of the words I was chanting, and my legs went numb from sitting on the floor, so I hated chanting. The thought of the ozōni (a traditional holiday stew) that I would get to eat at the end of the service was what got me through it. In the end, however, those experiences provided me with a good religious education that likely planted the seed for me to start coming to the temple here in America.
Why did you come to the United States?
During my second year of high school, I studied in Ohio as an exchange student. After high school, I enrolled at California State University, East Bay. When I graduated, I returned to Japan where I worked for about three years until I found an opportunity to transfer to a job in the United States and moved back to the East Bay. Then I met my husband who is a second-generation Japanese American, so we married and settled down here. Including my time as a student, I have been living in the United States for over 25 years.
Why did you start coming to the temple?
I wanted my daughter to have a religious education. Initially, I had no interest whatsoever in temples or the Dharma, but when my daughter asked me what our family’s religion was, I was taken aback. My daughter was seven years old at the time, and one of her good friends who comes from a devout Catholic family had told her about their church. Right around that same time, my daughter was attending the Japanese Language School that meets at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, so I got to know Rev. Furumoto, who was the resident minister then. When he learned that I am from Toyama and that my father is the son of a temple priest he said, “You should come to the temple,” so I started bringing my daughter to service. My daughter made friends in the Dharma School program, and I got to be friends with the other parents. Before long I began teaching Dharma School myself. It’s been six years since I started coming to the temple.
What are the main points you emphasize in teaching the Dharma School students?
The importance of playing nicely with others and joining our hands in gassho (the traditional Buddhist gesture of respect and gratitude). These are simple matters, but they make a big difference in our lives. The students I teach range in age from three to five-years-old, so I set my expectations accordingly. Also, last year we started a summer Dharma School program with Rev. Henry. It’s a one-week program with students from elementary to high school ages at the temple from morning to afternoon learning about Buddhism and Japanese culture. We focus on Buddhist education and this year’s theme for the week was “The Golden Chain.” When we had our first morning service on Monday morning the children all chanted quietly, but by the last day on Friday they were all chanting Juseige and reciting the Golden Chain with nice loud voices. I believe that living with awareness of our connections with others and getting along well with others is the essence of the Buddhist path.
What do you like about Jodo Shinshu?
No matter how busy we may be, we can live with freedom in our hearts. I believe that this is because we are touched by the vast heart of the Buddha. I enjoy listening to Rev. Henry’s Dharma talks each Sunday because I get to hear that Nembutsu teaching. Even though the Dharma has been there right in front of me since I was child, it is thanks to my daughter that I have come to encounter this wonderful teaching.