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Turning Despair Into Hope

by Greg Johns
Australia

Greg JohnsGreg Johns

I grew up too fast in a household completely permeated by my father's alcoholism. I believe he suffered from the unrealized dreams of a creative youth, and that his suffering manifested as binge drinking. His drinking had a profound impact on my mother, my six siblings and upon me. I would spend each week with a deep anxiety in the pit of my stomach in anticipation of the carnage that my father's alcoholic state over the weekend would inflict upon the people I cared about most deeply.

I lacked self-confidence and this lack of self-worth manifested itself as obesity, which began as a side-effect of the steroid-based drugs I was taking for my asthma. I suffered academically as I missed a great deal of school. I struggled with lessons and became more and more enraged with the arrogant way my teachers treated me and the vicious bullying I was subjected to by my classmates. There were few opportunities to experience hope or joy, and apart from an abstract idea of some future joy after death promised through the religion I had been taught at school, I had no concept of a sustainable happiness. Soon after becoming a teenager, observing the complete failure of both my own and my mother's prayers, I dismissed religion.

I felt incapable of experiencing any type of happiness and thought that no one else could understand my pain or my experience. I formed barriers constructed from anger, cynicism, hopelessness, self-loathing, insecurity and fear. I hoped to escape dealing with reality through these self-imposed barriers and avoided interaction whenever possible. This profoundly painful belief, unknown to me, guided every action and decision until the age of 22 when I met Nichiren Buddhism and the Soka Gakkai.

My parents separated when I was 15. This worsened my, by that time, overwhelming depression. I had to live with just my father for the last year of high school. That year was very dark and very intense. Every weekend I would rally myself to return to my father after spending the two days with my mother and the painful isolation and resentment I felt towards my father turned into hatred. I was guilt-ridden and out of control of my teenage mind. Perhaps the same sentimental attachment to my mother that prevented me from committing suicide also prevented me from getting interested in drugs or alcohol.

Somehow, I found I could express some of my frustrations and darkness through playing the guitar and, later on, the instrument that gave me a professional music career--the drum set. After escaping school at the earliest opportunity, without any success in exams and, despite believing I couldn't succeed at anything, I found work in a supermarket. I worked hard, lost a lot of weight and started to socialize. I also started taking drumming lessons. However, nothing I did seemed to lift my mood. I was depressed and rarely saw the lighter side of life. After completing school I moved in with my mother for a few years. After a complete physical collapse, my father stopped drinking and reunited with my mother. They were able to live a civil life together until his passing.

A few years on I moved to a larger city and began my career in music. I met my wonderful wife, Marie, and we moved in together almost immediately. That was 29 years of a blissful relationship and two wonderful children ago! A year after I met Marie, Keith Stirling, a legendary jazz musician, joined the band I was working with and he introduced me to Nichiren Buddhism. He simply said, "If you wish to play the drums better, just chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo."  I did not even know it was Buddhism when I started chanting.

There was such a profound change in my behaviour and demeanour that, within a few months, my wife and many of my friends began chanting. As I wanted to know what it was that I had been chanting, I went back to Keith who explained some of the concepts of Nichiren Buddhism. Soon, we started a small group dialogue meeting at our house on a weekly basis, and soon other young people joined and started supporting each other in their practice. We started to study SGI President Daisaku Ikeda's guidance. I yearned to view life with the positivity and clarity obvious in Mr. Ikeda's writings. I am indebted to all the sincere leaders who guided our early practice. One such leader offered to study Nichiren's writings with me and I made every effort to travel over three hours to get to his home every week. Gradually my understanding and appreciation for my life began to deepen.

So what had happened to my depression during this period? It certainly had not disappeared. However, something profound was occurring, something that I find difficult to explain but that was very real and visceral. I was becoming more powerful than the effects of depression. I realized that there was something more important than my own feelings or limitations. I had been introduced to the concept of hope.

Through supporting others to become happy, I forgot the belief that had become so engraved in my childhood, the belief that I could never experience happiness. I was able to establish my own life without changing who I was or trying to escape my previous experiences. The depression that had seemed like a dark and destructive tendency was now providing me with a joyful opportunity to empathise and engage with others who were experiencing challenges in their lives.

I began to believe in my own potential and the potential of all people to transform their lives, no matter what their situation or experience. As Nichiren teaches, it is possible to bring out our highest potential or Buddhahood--which is not an end or a result in itself, but a continuum of experience--based on determined efforts and sincere prayers. I realized other people were more important than my depression, which I began to value as a means to connect to others and make a contribution to society, as a qualification of my own humanity. My view of happiness changed; for me it is not a feeling or a situation, but a state we can manifest through challenging our doubts and fears, through prayer and dialogue with others.

I believe that Nichiren has provided us with the most exceptional philosophy. It is a practice that is accessible to all people--even someone like me. It is not steeped in rules and regulations. Instead, it emphasizes the importance of each individual and provides a practical method for self-reflection (chanting) and a way of overcoming isolation (discussion meetings which connect us to others). 

I would never have imagined how wonderful life could be and that there is always limitless possibility for further transformation and value creation

SGI-Australia created an exhibition called "Dark to Dawn: Being Creative about Depression," that has been shown in many locations across Australia since it was created in 2007. My own struggle with depression provided a powerful impetus for my involvement in the creation of the exhibition. The exhibition presents dialogue as the first creative step in transforming depression into a sense of purpose and well-being.

Depression has fuelled my transformation through the practice of Buddhism. I am eternally grateful to my mentor Mr. Ikeda, to my wife, children, mother and father and to my fellow members who provide me the opportunity to grow and learn every day. I am determined to do more to support and nurture my relationships with those around me. I would like to help create a new direction which treasures human beings above self-interest and profit.

The group dialogue meeting that began twenty-eight years ago continues to be held in our home every two weeks. I trust completely in the small group dialogue movement that is the Soka Gakkai, whose purpose, as Mr. Ikeda says, "is to foster people who can create value and contribute to social prosperity and world peace."

These hope-filled words, also written by Mr. Ikeda, continue to inspire me:

A great human revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation and, further, will enable a change in the destiny of all humankind.

[Adapted from an article from the April 2011 issue of the Art of Living, SGI-UK; photo courtesy of Greg Johns]

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