Interview: Rev. Masumi Kikuchi
Rev. Masumi Kikuchi
Reverend Masumi Kikuchi has been with the Steveston Buddhist Temple for the past three and half years. She is returning to Japan to look after some medical issues. Rev. Kikuchi recently spoke to The Bulletin from Japan.
You were born at the Genkohji Temple in Amagasaki city, Hyogo-ken, where you family has been looking after the temple for over 500 years. Was it expected that you would become a Buddhist minister, or did you have a choice of professions?
From the time I was child, my parents expected me to become minister’s wife. However, when I was 18 years old, I developed a herniated disc in my lower back and it changed my life. I started seeking for the true meaning of my existence.
How are Buddhist priests and ministers regarded in Japan – are they treated with respect by everyday people? Is it seen as a respectable profession?
I think people respect Buddhist ministers quite differently in Japan. As you know, Japanese people are very polite and they treat us very respectfully. However, on the other hand politeness might create the space between people. Off course, it depends on each minister, but Japanese members do not talk with ministers the same as North Americans when it comes to questions and answers about Buddhism.
Can you compare the life of a Buddhist minister with, say, a Christian minister? Are the lifestyle and expectations the same?
Our tradition has permitted marriage since our founder Shinran about 800 years ago, so our life is quite similar to Protestant ministers. But in Japan, Buddhist temples seem owned by ministers instead of members, like in Christian organizations. But our temples in Canada are similar to Christian churches, which are owned by members.
What made you decide to come to Canada and become an overseas minister?
For me to become a Buddhist minister was quite natural as it is my family’s tradition. But when I was young, I heard about overseas ministers and I felt I really want to be one. Coming to Canada was coincidence. We are able to choose Hawaii, the US, or Canada. After my examination to become an overseas minister, by accident, I got an interview with the Bishop from Canada.
Are there many female ministers in Japan? How about in Canada?
In our tradition—Jodo Shinshu Hongwanjiha, the largest religious organization in Japan—we have over 10,000 temples, about 20,000 male ministers and about 8,500 female ministers, so more than one third are female. My grandmother, my mother and my three sisters are all ministers, however, at other temples they usually do house work as ministers’ wives. In our tradition in Canada, I am the only active female minister. I know some ministers’ wives who have received some ordination, but they are working more as minister’s wives.
Are there any special challenges being a female Buddhist minister?
Yes and no . . . I believe we have same opportunities as male ministers in Canada. However, because I am the first female Japanese minister in Canada, I think I have had to work harder than male ministers in order to have people trust me.
You have been in Canada for six years now – what is your impression of Canada? Does it feel like home now?
I really like Canada and feel this is my second home country. Canadian people are very polite and not too aggressive. The Steveston area, which is where I reside, I feel this is one of the best places to live!
You are leaving the Steveston Buddhist Church at the end of March – what are your plans after that?
I am going on medical leave, so I will concentrate on my treatment and rest. But I will study a little bit more in Kyoto to deepen my understanding of Buddhism.
I understand that you are a beautiful singer. Did you study singing or did it just come naturally? Is it a good skill to have as a minister?
Thank you very much for your compliment! I have loved singing from my university days. I belonged to university’s Buddhist choir. I had to practice four times a week during that time and did solos sometimes at the concerts. To learn the solo parts, I had to go my voice trainer’s place very often by myself—it was really hard. However, this skill may have given me more opportunity to “Reach the Hearts”. All religions are related very closely with music, such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and so on. I see chanting as Buddhist music and one of my teachers says, “You have to chant like a bird in the Pure Land . . . the birds sing so beautifully and make people aspire to be reborn into the Pure Land.”
What have you enjoyed most about being minister in Steveston?
As you know, I was in Toronto for three and half years. Compared to there, Steveston has a wonderful Japanese legacy. And people in Steveston are very laid back. I find I really like to be here. I love Steveston and the people in Steveston who still keep the Japanese concepts of “Giri” and “Ninjo.”
What are your interests outside of Buddhism?
So far, I am interested in just Buddhism and I think it will continue until my death. There are lot of things to do for Buddhist propagation and further study of Buddhism. I think this mentality comes from my parents who have worked for Buddhist propagation their whole life.
There are many challenges facing the world today. Do you see Buddhism playing any kind or role in helping to solve any of these issues, or is it more of a way of coming to peace within ones self? In other words, are there any ways that Buddhism reaches beyond the personal to become more activist?
In our teaching, self reflection and being grateful are most important. Buddhist achievement is attainment of enlightenment—to become “Buddha”, “the state of non-ego” or “the state of non-attachment”. Firstly, Buddhists seek for inner peace, and then help others. I know many Buddhist ministers who are very active in environment, political and social issues especially in Japan. Buddha feel other’s sorrow, and pain is his sorrow and pain. We respect Christian social activities and we should learn from them.
Are there any words or thoughts you would like to share with the people of Steveston as you prepare to leave?
Arigatou gozaimasu. Thank you very much! When I recover, I hope I will return to Canada someday! I will never forget your generosity, kindness and your heart warming Miyo-ben (Wakayama dialect). I will really miss all of you. May all attain the perfect peace . . . Namo Amidabutsu (I rely on Buddha of infinite life and light).