FIVE QUESTIONS - Minister symbol of future for Soto Zen

By Mary Kaye Ritz / Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer

Mary Beth Jiko Oshima-Nakade, 43, trained entirely in Hawaii for her job as assistant minister at Daifukuji Soto Mission in Kona — a trend other major Buddhist sects watch with interest. The Soto Zen ministerial training program has been called a hope for the survival of the religion here, as members age and the face of traditional ethnic Buddhism changes.

Q. How did you come to be Hawaii's first homegrown minister of a major sect?

A. I did do some training in Japan when I was 19, at a Soto Zen nunnery. I was a teenager wondering if I should go into the ministry or nursing. I went into nursing. (Laugh.)

Different things led me to this path. Since I was very little, I was always surrounded by good Buddhist sensei. I grew up going to the temple. I really feel I've been blessed by the whole community, and wanted to return something. ... The formal decision came when my family returned to Kona in 1996. (She had been living in San Francisco.)

I became reconnected with the temple here. I started talking with the minister, who encouraged me. (I) began my training Jan. 1, 1999, and did all my training here in Kona, under my sensei here, of whom I have become a disciple. In the Zen tradition, the discipleship is very important.

Q. Is being the bright new hope for Buddhism's survival in Hawaii a heavy load to carry?

A. Yeah, it's a heavy load, with so many responsibilities involved. The training program is off to a good start, but at the same time, evolving. We have to revise the guidelines as we go along. I feel a great sense of responsibility. Our older members are aging, which is the large proportion of our members, but fortunately, in Kona we've had a number of new, non-Japanese families joining the membership. There are many families here who come to temple interested in Buddhist teaching. We even noticed that at our New Year's blessing service.

Q. You, however, were born and reared in your religion. How do these new members differ? Do they expect a different kind of Buddhism?

A. Yes. They want to understand the content of their rituals, understand the sutra. People born and raised in the tradition appreciate things as they were and don't question so much. They accepted it and were grateful. The new people are really challenging me, because I have to really study and explain these ancient things in modern ways.

Q. What's it like being a woman in what's often perceived to be a man's job?

A. I really enjoy it. For the most part, at least among other ministers and members of my temple, I'm grateful I'm respected. I haven't had women ministers to learn from. I think I've been inspired by my mom, a nisei and capable community leader. She didn't tell me in words, but I saw in her that women are capable of being temple and community leaders. I've also been inspired by a Zen woman teacher in Pennsylvania. I know some members are probably a little skeptical. "Priests are men, priests come from Japan." Older members are wondering, "I wonder if she can do it?" I just have to work hard and earn their respect along the way.

Q. Your daughter is a junior in high school and your son is 11. How does this affect your kids?

A. You know, I tell them they don't have to be Buddhist. It's a danger when we inherit things from our parents. I'm really into interfaith. I want my children to appreciate other religions. My son, he doesn't know; my daughter says she's a Buddhist. They have to go out and find their own way in this life.

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