Transforming Suffering into Mission
by Ana Bran
When in the world of anger, we are always engaged in invidious comparison with others, always seeking to excel over them. The resulting distortions prevent us from perceiving the world accurately; we fall easily into conflict, locking horns with others at the slightest provocation. Under the sway of such anger, people can commit unimaginable acts of violence and bloodshed.(1)
Personally and professionally, I have experienced and witnessed the catastrophic and immeasurably painful consequences of war--they reverberate throughout a lifetime and are passed on to generations. The impact of war affects every member of a family, the entire community and the nation. After a war, buildings can be rebuilt but lives are shattered forever. My experience is just one but you should know that there are millions of people who have been affected by war. Most of them are not able to talk about their pain and many others didn't survive to tell their story. Those stories are full of atrocities and indescribable inhumane behavior. People inflict all this pain on other people.
Beginning in 1977 in El Salvador, there was constant persecution of religious leaders, journalists and teachers. Sometimes people would be taken from their homes and never seen again. Teachers who identified with social justice issues were the primary targets. During 12 years of war, 200 teachers, 14 priests, four nuns, one bishop and 14 journalists were killed, including University of El Salvador Rector Felix Antonio Ulloa and Central America University Rector Ignacio EllacurÃa. All told, 70,000 were killed during the civil war.
My first direct experience of the war was at the end of 1979. I was driving home in my car. My youngest brother and my two sons were with me. Several bullets were fired at the car--the gunmen were just meters from us. In the morning we discovered the bullet holes.
On July 4, 1980, the routine of my life was abruptly broken. I worked at two schools--one in the morning and one in the afternoon. It was midday, and I was traveling between the two schools. My two sons, ages six and eight, were with me. As I parked the car on the street in front of the school where I teach in the afternoon, five men with guns in their hands walked directly towards me. This tactic was well known as the "Death Squad" style. There were several witnesses. Many of my first year students were waiting for my arrival at the school. The presence of the children did not stop the men from using violence. I was worried that their killing me in front of the children would forever cause the children trauma. So I gently touched the face of one of the men and asked him, "Please do not kill me here in front of the children, they will suffer too much if they see it. I ask you for the love that you have for your mother."
They put a bag on my head, put my hands behind my back and placed them in very tight handcuffs. My wrists were twisted into a painful position. I was then pushed into the cabin of a utility car. As the car drove away with me in it, I could hear the cries of my oldest son, asking the men to take him with me or leave me there with him. It pained me greatly to imagine what he was going through at that moment. We drove for a while and arrived at a place where I was made to walk down several stairs and a long narrow corridor. I suffered endless abuse, assault and humiliation at the hands of my captors. The torture took many forms.
Because of the fast and effective intervention of several international humanitarian organizations--they exerted enough pressure--I was released within 24 hours. However, I was forced to sign blank documents that presumably could have any statement written on them. Before leaving, I was told many times that I would be followed every second of my life. The faces of the men, their uniforms, their voices and their smell were seared into my memory.
At that time, the only choice left was to live in self-exile. We first took refuge in Nicaragua. Although it was a new country, new people and new environment, the memories were still very real and vivid. I suffered from post -traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Hallucinations and voices in my head were constant, as well as nightmares. Nine months after our arrival at our new home, my younger son died in very tragic circumstances. My suffering was excruciating. It was a daily struggle for me to keep going.
At this most distressing and painful time in my life, I met Joyce, a compassionate woman who was a member of SGI-Nicaragua. She patiently started talking to me about Nichiren Buddhism and how I could help myself and rebuild my life again. I could barely focus on anything for even half a minute. Dr. Navarro, another SGI-Nicaragua member, used to travel several hours every Saturday afternoon to meet with me. He would sit beside me and help me chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. He shared encouraging words with me and offered me sincere support. Their love and compassion was the turning point in beginning my own Buddhist practice. I felt welcomed and embraced. They showed genuine concern and respect for my well-being. A few weeks later I started chanting together with them. Because of my emotional condition, I was unable to participate in large meetings. But their concern was that first and foremost, I could feel well. I always think about them with deepest gratitude for their selfless and compassionate dedication.
We eventually moved to Guatemala. There we faced multiple challenges, most them related to serious immigration problems. My practice was becoming consistent and my faith was becoming stronger. My determination to overcome every difficulty was constantly tested in many different ways.
Living through these experiences helped me to truly understand the consequences of war and the resulting personal trauma--the divisiveness and the pain that families suffer. I have seen children lose their entire family. I have spoken with parents unable to find their missing child. I have witnessed the most despicable behavior--the dehumanization of individuals and the devastating and destructive power of the world of anger.
Then we had the opportunity to relocate to Australia. That was the greatest benefit I received. We had chanted for many years to find refuge in a safe and peaceful country as far as possible from our homeland. Coming to Australia gave me the wonderful opportunity to repay my debt of gratitude for all the benefits that I had received in my years of practice in the SGI.
I resolved to use my life experience to help families who also had suffered through traumatic wartime experiences. In 1989 I began working with refugees arriving in Australia from Spanish-speaking countries. In 1992, I received a most rewarding opportunity to begin working in an assistance program for survivors of torture, war and trauma and their families. These families arriving from various war torn countries were from diverse ethnic backgrounds and had differing religious beliefs. Working for and with these families has been an extraordinary and inspiring educational experience for me. They share stories of the most horrific, cruel and unimaginable situations. It is my privilege to be there when they arrive here in Australia and begin their journey of rebuilding a new life.
Through my practice and study of Nichiren Buddhism here in Australia with my fellow SGI-Australia members, I have been able to understand the profound meaning of my past experiences. I have transformed my suffering into my mission--to help other human beings overcome their pain and restore their lost trust in humanity. Chanting consistently day and night gives me the wisdom and strength to replace despair with hope in the hearts of these people. Walking the path together to recover their human dignity and reconstruct their lives brings immense joy to my existence. Faith, practice and study of Buddhism are at the center of my life. I live every day with profound appreciation and eternal gratitude, while fulfilling my mission.
Without the qualitative elevation of individual human beings, neither social transformation nor the creation of a more positive society is possible.(2)
In October 2007, Ana Bran was appointed as the national women's leader for SGI-Australia. This article is based on an experience presented during an exchange meeting with local Japanese Soka Gakkai members during a November 2007 SGI leaders' training session in Tokyo.
(1) "Restoring the Human Connection: The First Step to Global Peace," 2007 Peace Proposal, January 26, 2007
[Adapted from an article in the November 9, 2007 issue of the Seikyo Shimbun, Soka Gakkai, Japan]