Discovering the Best Possible Family
by Donna Snyder
I grew up as the youngest of three girls in a troubled family in New Jersey. My father, who had a history of abandoning us from time to time, left for good when I was just a baby, leaving my mother without financial or emotional support. She did her best to raise us on public assistance. At that time and place, a huge stigma was attached to being a family on welfare; being a kid without a father made it even worse.
I remember the humiliation my mother suffered when the social worker visited us and berated her for being on welfare. I was so ashamed of where we lived that I never invited any of my friends over. In fact, whenever the doorbell rang, we ran and hid. Growing up this way, I never felt good enough and longed to be someone else.
My mother never overcame her despair over my father's abandonment. When I was 12, she lost the battle with her internal demons and committed suicide. Another relative, who had her own mental challenges, came to live with us. Ours was a very tense and unstable home. I felt like a normal person in an insane environment; nothing made sense to me.
None of my friends were aware of the reality of my life. I hid it all very well, but I had a deep inner feeling of inferiority. I found no solace in our family's religion; it hadn't helped us a bit.
The summer before my senior year of high school, my sister Barbara, who had already moved away from home, was introduced to Nichiren Buddhism and became a member of the SGI. Shortly after she started chanting, we moved into a wonderful apartment together, a short distance from my high school. It was the first time that we had lived in a stable environment.
Barbara often invited me to attend SGI-USA discussion meetings, but I always said no.
With the challenges I was already facing, I didn't need one more thing to feel insecure about, to make me feel different from my friends. But from time to time, when she wasn't home, I read the World Tribune. Inspired by the testimonials I read, I eventually decided to give chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo a try.
While creating a peaceful society was one of the goals of the SGI, world peace wasn't one of my immediate targets. It wasn't even on my radar. My wish was to attend college, so I chanted for the money to do so. For many people, college might seem an ordinary goal, but in my family it was an extraordinary one. No one had ever done it.
Within a few months, I received an unexpected insurance check that was just the right amount for me to start my education. I went on to receive scholarships and financial aid that enabled me to complete my college degree. The closed doors and deadbolts in my life opened as I chanted, participated in SGI-USA activities and did my best to support others in their Buddhist practice.
When I completed my college education, jobs in social service were scarce. Within a week of graduation, however, I found a rewarding job in my chosen field, in which I have worked ever since.
I was truly developing great fortune through my consistent efforts to fulfill my vow for kosen-rufu, in other words, to take action for the spread of Nichiren Buddhism. I had decided that I wanted to pursue graduate studies but again had no money to do so. Soon, an opportunity came up through my employer, and I was selected to go to New York University's Graduate School, with all expenses paid.
During the years, I chanted for my father's well-being, not knowing if he was dead or alive. In 1991, when my sister Barbara, a friend and I visited the Soka Gakkai Headquarters in Tokyo, we had an opportunity to meet with SGI President Daisaku Ikeda. He thoroughly encouraged us and then said, "Please don't make your parents worry." This really struck me. Why were my sister and I there to hear this? As I chanted to understand President Ikeda's words, it occurred to me that perhaps, in some corner of my father's life, he was worried about us. I decided to find him so that I could tell him he didn't have to worry, that all three of us were fine.
The objective of my chanting took on an entirely new aspect. It was no longer just about concern for my father. I had come to realize that I needed to do this for my own life. Within a few months, I located and contacted my father. He was living in New Jersey and was very ill. He agreed to see me. Filled with a million emotions, I chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo all the way there.
I think he expected that I was coming to berate him about the past. I told him I hadn't come about the past; I came about the future. I told him that my sisters and I had wonderful lives; that all of us had a wonderful Buddhist practice and that he didn't have to worry.
He died the following week. I will always be grateful to President Ikeda for the words that made me reflect on my own heart and take action.
In 1994, I fulfilled another cherished dream--I purchased my own home. I got an interest rate that no one had seen in 50 years. My attorney was so sure it was a typo in the paperwork that she actually called the bank to inform them of their error. But it was no error. I now live in a beautiful home and am happy to answer the doorbell and welcome visitors.
In addition to the history of estrangements in my family, we'd never had a lot of success with romantic relationships. Early in my practice, I learned that another person, no matter how nice, cannot be the source of my happiness. I seemed to attract men who liked me, but not my practice of Buddhism. For me, that was a deal breaker. Despite being very happily single, I felt I should take on the challenge of transforming this aspect of my life. I chanted determinedly and came to see that it was up to me, and no one else, to create this change.
I chanted about this, realizing that I was the one who put limits on what another person would accept about me. When I take responsibility for my life through my prayer--in other words, through what I vow to achieve by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo--the path opens without fail.
Soon after this realization, I met a wonderful man. We share the same values and vision, and he is very supportive of my Buddhist practice. He has two great children with whom I have a wonderful relationship. His son started chanting with me when he was 12.
I am filled with appreciation for President Ikeda, whose guidance and encouragement have inspired me to practice Nichiren Buddhism and change my life in so many ways. The days of feeling "not good enough" are over, replaced with hope and the confidence to ceaselessly develop my unlimited potential.
[Adapted from Living Buddhism, SGI-USA, Jan-Feb 2008]