Learning to Trust
by Angie Ng Choy Hong
The memories of my mother used to fill me with indescribable sadness. At the age of four, she was given away, and had no contact with her own parents ever since. She was raised as an orphan, and grew up to marry my father at a young age. When she turned 30, she contracted a dreadful illness, a systematic degeneration of the motor nerves and muscles. I was six then. In the following 12 years, I literally saw my mother wasting away, both physically and spiritually, right before my eyes.
My father was seldom around. He worked long hours, and away from home. As a daughter, the responsibility fell on me to take care of my mother. And so, throughout my childhood and teenage years, I spent most of my time accompanying my mother to and from the hospital, and attending to her needs. Living constantly under the shadows of death and pain, I used to wonder what life was all about.
I never knew what my mother thought about life and death or her own suffering. She was, by nature, a quiet person, and kept very much to herself. She went about her ordeals silently, without speaking a word, not even complaining about her pain. She seemed to be living in the world, and yet not of the world. When she slipped away at the age of 42, after battling her illness for 12 years, I was overwhelmed with both sorrow and a sense of the futility of life itself.
In retrospect, those years were surreal. I felt like I was trapped in a bad dream. But it was the beginning of my deep quest for the meaning of life. I was 18 when my mother passed away. Two years later, when my childhood sweetheart, Cliff Chan Chong Peng, proposed to me, I took it as an opportunity to begin life afresh--to try to leave my past behind. I had no idea of what was in store for me!
As my parents were seldom around, my siblings and I received little education and nurturing at home. We were not taught the ways of the world. Most of the time, we had to fend for ourselves against people who bullied us so much so that we thought the only way to protect ourselves was to play rough and tough. We spoke crudely and behaved badly, and we were known in our neighborhood as the wild and unruly kids. I did not know what it means to be feminine, polite and courteous.
So, when I married into the Chan family, both my in-laws and I had a great culture shock! I interpreted their "cultured and poised" speech and behavior as pompous and hypocritical. My in-laws saw my forthright and "uncultivated" mannerism as uncivilized--the result of a terrible mismatch!
Seeing the intimate and close relationship between my in-laws, especially that of my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law, was surprisingly painful. I had to learn to let go of the intense yearning to be close to my own mother. Due to personality clashes and differences in opinions, my in-laws and I did not get along. I felt completely out of place in the Chan family. This feeling of being unwanted and unwelcomed in the family further compounded my feelings of insecurity and inner conflict.
To make matters worse, Cliff, who had been doing very well in the corporate world, decided to set up his own business shortly after we got married. It was bad timing, and he almost went bankrupt. He was the eldest son, and my mother-in-law had depended on him for financial and psychological support. I was inadvertently perceived as bringing ill fortune to the family. While we struggled financially, my mother-in-law continued to "pamper" her children--inviting everybody home over the weekends and festivities, and cooking sumptuous meals which I resented greatly. Being independent and self-sufficient, it was difficult for me to understand how mature and full-grown adults could still cling to their mother. I also felt I was being ostracized because of my crude manners and loud speech. To avoid the unpleasant situation at home, I would often take my son out for window-shopping the whole day or simply wonder around aimlessly.
What I did not realize was that the daily psychological strain and unhappiness began to take a toll on my health. In 1981, I gave birth to my second son, but the joy was short-lived. He was born with some birth defects, and was kept in the hospital for further observation. It was during this time that a friend introduced me to Nichiren Buddhism. However, being skeptical and stubborn, I refused to chant and asked her to prove the power of her Buddhist practice by praying for me instead. After a month of painful struggles in the hospital, my little boy died of heart failure. The stress of caring for him during my confinement period, coupled with the heartbreaking news of losing him was just too much to bear. I plunged into the depths of hell, and suffered from severe depression. Even then, I found it difficult to bring myself to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.
My health deteriorated rapidly. I suffered from frequent diarrhea, hair loss and acute body aches, and rashes began to develop all over my body. Initially, I thought that all these were postnatal symptoms and just ignored them. However, they turned out to be the beginning of a horrible nightmare. Nine months later, I was hospitalized with terrible mouth ulcers, fluctuating fevers, fainting spells, insomnia and increasing hair loss. The blood test revealed that I had Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE), a serious disorder of the immune system. The illness could be fatal. My condition, in fact, had reached such a critical level that even the doctor who examined me remarked that my survival was miraculous. Hovering between life and death, I heard Nam-myoho-renge-kyo for the second time from one of my sisters-in-law. I started to chant for my life.
I was not prepared to die. I was only 23 years old then--in my prime. I was meant to live to tell my story, not so much of overcoming my illness through the power of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, but how through deepening my understanding of the mentor-disciple relationship in Buddhism, I was able to expand my life beyond my wildest dreams.
As I battled my illness, which I eventually prevailed over with the power of my Buddhist practice, I began to realize at the same time that I needed to confront the deeper issues in my relationship with my in-laws, particularly with my mother-in-law. To be sure, my mother-in-law was not a difficult person, and I honestly believed that I was not either. It was just that we have different values. As much as I would want to hold on to my views, I knew I needed to change my perception and attitude toward my in-laws to transform our distant and frosty relationship into a cordial and harmonious one.
It was a tremendously difficult task as I was proud and headstrong. I sought guidance in faith and was told that I needed to do my human revolution--to change my arrogant life-tendency which was drawing such reactions from the people around me, and that the solution also lies within my own life. It was a struggle to embrace this guidance that I had to accept responsibility first before I could hope to change my circumstances for the better.
Chanting sincerely to the Gohonzon, however, did make me see the wisdom and truth of these words. Somehow, this realization empowered me and I instinctively knew that the situation at home was an opportunity for me to make a great leap forward. I realized too that my life had been based on fear and lack of trust. I did not trust myself or other people. I realized that I must now learn to trust my mother-in-law. I must learn to love and respect her as my own mother--without distinction whatsoever. I must also learn to develop a big heart, and accept that it is natural for a mother to love her children unconditionally.
At about the same time, I was given responsibility in Soka Gakkai Malaysia to support members in their Buddhist practice, which I did to the best of my ability. I opened up my house for kosen-rufu activities for members living in the vicinity. I studied President Ikeda's guidance on the art of dialogue, and challenged again and again on improving my relationship with my in-laws through sincere and heart-to-heart interactions. Instead of resenting my mother-in-law's sumptuous cooking, I decided to join her in the kitchen to learn from her. This has become a great memory, and an asset now as I had in the process, picked up the best of her culinary skills and excellent cuisines.
Putting my pride aside and challenging my grudges through the Mystic Law, my mother-in-law and I became the best of friends through time. Our mutual faith in Nichiren Buddhism became a great anchor through which a lot of our misunderstanding was resolved. I began to see many wonderful virtues in my mother-in-law. She was compassionate, generous and magnanimous. She would often visit members in the hospital, bringing them warm and nutritious food. On such occasions, she would consult me on how best to encourage members. We both shared incredible joy and happiness in this endeavor. Our mutual trust and confidence had deepened so much that she would often ask her own children to consult me on certain matters.
By the time my mother-in-law passed away, we had become so close that I felt we had won together in the battle over our own prejudices and weaknesses. We had proved, together, the power of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. I also felt I had changed something very deep in my life--from a sense of futility over life when my own mother died to a sense of purpose when my mother-in-law passed away. I realized, through the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, that we are born into this world to enjoy both life and death.
Boon Jau, my son, was two when I embraced Nichiren Buddhism. Having lost my own mother when I was young, and battling an incurable illness myself, I had a sense of urgency of wanting to leave something for Boon Jau--something indestructible and of immense value. I wanted him to be awakened to his own unique mission and become strong, courageous, as well as to lead a victorious life.
At that time, my medical condition was so uncertain that I could not imagine that the day would come when I could actually see him graduate!
Having experienced a heavy and sad childhood myself, I was determined to ensure that Boon Jau would have beautiful and joyful memories of his childhood days. In matters of faith, I tried to lead by example, and refrained from putting too much pressure on him. President Ikeda said that faith is a lifelong struggle, and practicing Buddhism should be a joy-filled and liberating experience. I wanted to make sure that my son would grow up with this memory.
After some research and soul-searching, Boon Jau finally decided to apply for admission into Soka University on his own accord. He even got into the much coveted education faculty of Soka University, the foremost in Japan, to study for a Bachelor degree in Education. Foreign admission into the course was stiff because of the high standard of language requirement. Students must be fluent in the Japanese language in order to read texts written in classical Japanese.
The next five years of his life at Soka University were fraught with hardship and challenges. He emerged from the vigorous training to become a strong individual who is deeply appreciative of his mentor and his ideas--an innermost resolve which I have cherished since he was two years old.
When Boon Jau graduated, I was overwhelmed with deep gratitude that I was still alive to see him through. My tears flowed ceaselessly when he told me he would dedicate his life for kosen-rufu--sharing our mentor's dream of striving for a peaceful world!
It was not an empty promise or a pledge made at the spur-of-the-moment. He had since moved on to pursue his Master in Education degree at Soka University of America--determined to contribute to humanity through the sphere of education.
Through developing my relationship with my mentor, I was able to build my life on solid ground. The threat of my illness is still very real, but I have not allowed it to stand in the way of my spiritual development or that of my family.
After 22 years of practice, and living vibrantly until this day with an incurable illness, it has dawned on me that the purpose of our practice is to realize the vast potential of our Buddhahood--a state of life characterized by absolute and unshakeable happiness, boundless wisdom and infinite compassion that can never be destroyed by time and space.
[Adapted from Winning in Life, Soka Gakkai Malaysia, 2004]