The Power of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo
by Neil Butterfield
"Dad, I'm in a bit of a mess. I went out last night with my mates and I've woken up to find the fridge is empty. Can you come over and bring me £10 for food?"
I was serving a customer in the shop at the SGI-UK National Centre, Taplow Court, as I fielded this stereotypical phone call from my son. I felt the usual mixture of frustration, despair and love well up inside me as I tried to decide whether I would be helping him most if I left him to starve in his mother's house until she came back from holiday. She had always been unable to say "No" to any of his demands, until I felt he was quite unused to solving his problems. In contrast I had got into the pattern of saying "No" to everything he asked for without really examining what it was he really wanted. I could not believe my son could have emptied my ex-wife's huge American fridge-freezer of its contents in 10 days. He must have something else on his mind, so I agreed that I would see him in a couple of hours.
I happened to ask the person I was working with if she had a son and we started sharing our war stories in the usual manner until she explained guidance she had received which had really changed their relationship. I had never considered guidance, so I was very curious to hear what she had been advised. "When I was fairly new to the practice like you," she continued, "I was told that I was not respecting my son's life and that when I did, his behavior toward me would change dramatically." I could understand most of the guidance as I was aware I had not been treating my son with sufficient compassion. I chanted an hour for his happiness, without really understanding how he could change towards me.
On the way to his mother's house I reviewed his life up to that point. He was the eldest child with two sisters. Unlike them he had not excelled at school except for football, at which he seemed to have an exceptional talent. I had no feeling for the sport and struggled to understand the people involved in it, so this was a big challenge for me. I encouraged him through the various village teams up to the National Academy. However, I was puzzled when he never went to team practices. I noticed he was always the last to arrive on match days and the first to leave. I tried to explain to him the politics of selection, as I attempted to get on good terms with the different coaches. But he never pushed himself forward. At first I put it down to shyness. As he got older, I began to see him as lazy. I could not understand why he would not want to develop his skills and fitness by training with the team.
At 17, he was drinking heavily. At 18, he lost his license through drink driving, and I drove him to work to his first job as a gym instructor. Three weeks into the new job he was called up for jury service. It was a complicated fraud trial lasting 10 weeks, and he never worked again. He started training heavily in the gym, his weight going up to 17 stone (108 kg) as he was using steroids. His temper became increasingly volatile and he kept erratic hours. His attendance record at college deteriorated. He lost his license again, smashing into five parked cars on the way back from a club. He fled the scene and the police found five wraps of cocaine in the dashboard. He went to university and dropped out. He had trials with a football club, but got glandular fever. The next year he went to another university and dropped out. He had trials again and got glandular fever again. His professional football dream was finished. The next year he went to a local university and dropped out in the second term. By now he was deeply in debt, as I had refused to pay for the last two university courses. Bailiffs started coming to the door and so he left the country. For the last two years he had been living off his girlfriend in the town where his mother was born. From relatives we heard he stayed in most days surfing the net, only going out to play football. He seemed to be becoming a benefits specialist.
Some of his struggles I could identify with, others left me totally bemused. I could not understand why he would not work. He had holes in his teeth which must be hurting, but he still chose to stay at home on his computer rather than earn money and get them fixed. I could not connect him to his family tree. Going only several generations back, he would find men who were explorers, war heroes and entrepreneurs. Where was the courage? Where was the determination? I could see family karma quite clearly revealing itself. Unconsciously he had felt rejected as the girls were held up as examples of how to behave and succeed. Children loved for what they can do rather than who they are. I remembered so well how I thought my mother preferred my photograph to me. My father and I were like blocks of granite grinding against each other. From the age of 15, I wandered around Europe during the holidays, returning the day before term started to a school I hated. Somehow I got through university, but, just like my son, I learned my real lessons outside the classroom, as I became increasingly estranged from my family.
My parents decided to die on the same day. I was looking after mother who was dying of cancer at home. My father was in a home as he had got Alzheimer's and had become violent. When I made my daily visit, the nurse always asked me if he knew me today, and I was embarrassed by the question. We had never known each other. When my mother stopped visiting, he refused food and drink until he starved to death. On the last day, as he lay curled up on a mattress on the floor, his body taut with cramp, still fighting, alone in his fear as I looked on helplessly, I made a determination that somehow I would be less incoherent with my son than my father had been with me. Somehow, if my life was to have any value, I would break the family pattern of strong, silent men who did their duty and never showed their feelings. Before the practice I knew exactly what I wanted to achieve, but could not seem to make the amount of progress I wanted.
When I started practicing about three years ago, I was advised to chant for something to prove the power of the practice. I did not feel that was necessary as I had no doubt I had made the right decision. I was also told that changing karma was the hardest challenge, which, to someone of my nature, sounded irresistible. On and off for two years, I chanted that I would change the family karma of the father being unable to communicate with his son. Other days I chanted for his happiness, as it seemed more important his suffering should diminish, with or without my involvement.
In the car, on the way to see my son, I played a CD that has slow chanting on it, intended for newcomers to Nichiren Buddhism, over and over again until my body was filled from head to toe with Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. I went straight to the kitchen and checked the fridge. It was half full. I went into the living room, sat down opposite my son and waited, not speaking. I just watched him, my mind open. He immediately started crying. He said he could not cope any more and we talked for more than six hours. We held each other and cried. Neither of us had ever done anything like this before.
My son explained he thought he had a type of mental illness similar to agoraphobia. He got panic attacks round people and it took him days to work up the courage to go into a shop. When he went to college and university, most of the time he had been unable to get out of the car and so he dropped out. He was unable to go to the doctor's on his own or go to a job interview. If he did get a job, he could not hold it down. Most of the time he was unable to leave the house, so he spent most of his life on the computer. The only thing he still enjoyed was football, but he could not cope with the people.
As I watched him talking, it all started to make sense. He was not lazy at all--he had tried so many times to start again. I could feel his determination and his courage and I felt so proud of him. I could see now how he fitted into the family and how I could re-attach him to the family. I could really feel his struggle and I was ashamed I had doubted his Buddhahood, which was the point of the guidance. I was reminded that nothing in Buddhism is random. I had taken a phone call at the moment I was standing next to someone who had similar problems with her son and had received guidance. I would never have gone for guidance, so this was the only way for me to have heard this message. I was paying particular attention because it was a mother talking. If the message had come via a father, I would probably not have been able to hear it.
I felt such relief as I watched him talking. I knew I would never have to reach out in understanding for him any more, that now he would always be inside me just like my daughters. I felt much lighter as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Suddenly I felt a physical wrenching in my heart and a block of ice crashed to the ground, splintering into tiny shards. To my amazement I realized I had been given everything I had chanted for as I knew my son's sons and all their sons' sons as far as the eye could see would never again be closed off from one another.
There is a passage in one of Nichiren's writings that reads: "...when one carries out the single practice of exercising faith in Myoho-renge-kyo, there are no blessings that fail to come to one, and no good karma that does not begin to work on one's behalf. It is like the case of a fishing net: though the net is composed of innumerable small meshes, when one pulls on the main cord of the net, there are no meshes that do not move. Or it is like a garment: though the garment is composed of countless tiny threads, when one pulls on a corner of the garment, there are no threads that are not drawn along" (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 133).
[Courtesy of Art of Living, SGI-UK, July 2006]