Never Giving Up
by Jun Ortiz
Philippines and Japan
Jun Ortiz was born in the Philippines in 1950. As a musician, he started traveling to Japan for work in the late 1970s. In 1979, he met Yoshiko, whom he married in 1981.
Jun encountered Nichiren Buddhism through a Japanese man who sat next to him on the plane during a trip back to the Philippines. Visiting this man, a fellow resident of Manila, Jun read many books about Buddhism and the philosophy of the Soka Gakkai. He was particularly struck by the idea of causality--the Buddhist principle that we both create the causes and are ultimately responsible for the effects which we experience in our lives. He was equally attracted to the idea that life is eternal and that the drama of our lives is enacted over a continuity that transcends this present existence.
Returning to Japan, he asked Yoshiko to take him to the Soka Gakkai center in Tokyo that he had been told about in the Philippines. Yoshiko's impression of the Soka Gakkai was not a positive one. She was surprised by his request and hesitant to fulfill it. But he insisted that it was important at least to find out the nature of the practice and organization before making any judgment. If they didn't like it, he reasoned, they could always quit. In 1980, Jun and Yoshiko joined the Soka Gakkai and began to practice Buddhism.
Yoshiko's parents were opposed to the idea of her marrying a Filipino and did not look favorably upon the young couple's Buddhist faith. Their first goal was therefore to convince her parents to accept both their marriage and their practice.
At the same time, Jun was struggling to adjust to life in Japan. He found himself battling with subtle and not-so-subtle forms of discrimination and to find steady work. The meaning of Yoshiko's parents' warning that love alone won't put food on the table became increasingly apparent. The couple used their Buddhist practice to find the inner strength to meet these challenges and, after one year, were able to convince Yoshiko's parents to accept Jun. They married in 1981 and soon had three daughters.
Yoshiko found work as an accountant, and Jun taught English from home. He was introduced to a talent agency and was soon doing character acting for Japanese television and films.
It was Jun's nature to encourage people, and he became a pillar of the Filipino community in the western region of Tokyo. If he encountered a fellow Filipino while shopping, he would introduce himself and give the family phone number. The Ortiz home became a gathering place for expatriate Filipinos. In the Soka Gakkai, he found a place where he was accepted as an individual, where the distinction between Japanese and non-Japanese was no longer important.
In 1995, Jun started experiencing dizziness and fainting spells. He paid this little attention, but found himself falling down at work, coming home with various injuries. Eventually, he fell down the stairs at home. An in-depth medical exam finally resulted in a diagnosis of degenerative neurological disease. Of unknown origin and considered untreatable, this disease leads to progressive loss of motor control, premature aging and death. Told that he would end up losing the ability to walk and be confined to bed, Jun and his family used their Buddhist practice to confront their fears and anxieties.
He continued to attend Buddhist meetings, holding onto railings in order to negotiate the stairs. Soon, however, any stairs became an impossibility, and he was no longer able to work. He started staying at home, where his ability to move became progressively more limited. Even movements in the home were a matter of crawling from one place to another.
With little appetite, he continued to lose weight and started to complain of lower back pain. When repeated massage therapy brought no relief, he was taken to a medical center where he was diagnosed with another, unrelated disease: a tubercular infection that was consuming his spine. The infection was treated successfully and actually provided an opportunity for Jun to find a place in the kind of facility that he needed for full-time care. As a pre-retirement-age man with a progressive disease, Jun was in a position poorly defined within the health system. The only private facility willing to accept him had a one-year waiting list.
At the time of his hospitalization, Jun was still able to make himself understood verbally. With the progressive loss of motor control, however, this soon became impossible. His family bought an alphabet board which served as a means of communication until the shaking of his hands became so violent that it was impossible to determine the letter he was pointing to. From that point, communication became a one-way affair, to the degree that his family would ask questions to which he would blink to indicate yes.
Despite a progressive loss of physical capacity, Jun's spirit of hospitality never flagged. He always welcomed visitors with a wide grin, and used his large and remarkably expressive eyes to communicate those things that could no longer be said with words. He would use his eyes to indicate that his guests were to be given tea or other refreshments, including even his special nutrient drink. There was, despite the loss of verbal ability, a clear sense of communication, of important emotions being shared and exchanged.
He had encouraged many SGI members, including those who had struggled with cancer, and it was this encouragement that came back to him in his own time of need. As Yoshiko recounts, "When he became discouraged, I assured him that he still had a mission to fulfill. I think the fact that he didn't give up despite his condition was a great encouragement to many people. He maintained his conviction to the end and in this way realized his mission."
While he was able to write, he kept a diary in English as his message to his family. As encouragement to his daughters, he wrote: "If you want to understand what your tomorrow will be like, think about what you are doing today."
In the summer of 2002, Jun expressed a strong desire to spend some time at home with his family. After detailed discussion with doctors, arrangements were made for him to spend the month of August at home. Yoshiko and their three daughters arranged their respective time off from school and work in order to assure that one of them was always home with Jun. Despite the difficulties, this proved to be an invaluable opportunity for the family to be reunited in a home setting. He also used his eyes to encourage his family members to engage in Buddhist chanting, the sound of which brought him apparent comfort.
After his return to hospital, the family members took turns caring for him, never failing to gather for birthdays and anniversaries.
Eventually, the paralysis started to affect his ability to swallow food. His doctors recommended inserting a feeding tube directly into his stomach, but Jun adamantly refused. He had earlier indicated that he didn't want measures taken if they would only assure that he was continuing to exist physically. This was a point that he had established for himself, and Yoshiko agreed. The detrimental impact of overriding his expressed will could not balance out any possible benefit in terms of extended life.
From that point, he went into a rapid decline, and on May 11, 2003, Jun Ortiz passed away peacefully, surrounded by his wife and daughters.
"Recently," says Yoshiko, "our daughters said to me, ' We're so happy to have parents like you and Daddy.' " I was so moved and I am sure Jun would have been too. That is what he left to our daughters, the memory of his kindness and a sense of pride in his example of someone who cared deeply about others. After Jun's death I found his diary. In it he had written, "Thank you very much for taking care of me. I hope you will enjoy the remaining years of your life."
[ Courtesy April 2004 SGI Quarterly ]