Soka Gakkai International
Buddhism in Action for Peace
History & Philosophy
Stories and reflections on the Buddhist approach to life
I was born in Birmingham in the middle of England and as far away from the sea as you can get on a small island. Despite this fact I have always been fascinated by anything marine.
When I was 16, we moved to the South West coast of England, and for the first time I had the sea on my doorstep. I joined a scuba diving club. Two of the members were twins who had been accepted to study marine biology at a university in North Wales. I remember thinking that if there was anything that I wanted most in the world, it was to go to university in North Wales to study marine biology.
But that was an impossible dream. You need three “A” level qualifications to get into university in the U.K., and I had left school without even a single lower “O” level qualification. My teachers considered me stupid. The next year we moved to Brighton, and I was lucky to get a job at the Brighton Aquarium. There I met a man who had just started his own business importing coral reef fishes into the U.K. He offered me a job and also introduced me to his van driver who introduced me to Nichiren Buddhism. Although I thought it sounded too good to be true, I tried chanting “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” and soon gained proof of its effectiveness.
Then, after a year collecting coral fish in the West Indies, a tragic shipwreck meant I had to start all over again. I moved to London. One problem—no sea in London and in 1972 no aquarium either, so I spent five years working as a swimming pool lifeguard, not unhappy but feeling unfulfilled. Following the advice of an experienced Buddhist friend, I started to chant to find a “golden vision” for my life. I very quickly realized that it was to work with the sea, but how?
related article An Inextricable Connection by Amy Yomiko Vittor, USA Amy Yomiko Vittor, USA, inspired by Buddhist philosophy, studied the link between human health and the environment and followed her dream of making a truly lasting contribution Another friend encouraged me to apply to study marine biology in North Wales. Feeling I had nothing to lose, I applied and was amazed to find that this university had an intermediate year for people who had two “A” levels but were short of one. They had never had anyone before who was short of three, but they accepted me! In October 1978, at the age of 26, I started university. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. I graduated in marine biology and botany in 1982.
Being rash by nature, soon afterwards I stood up in a Buddhist meeting and made a determination that I would work as a marine biologist in London. But there still was no sea in London, and still no aquarium.
I applied for 50 jobs and ended up working in a coffee bar, but I never gave up on my dream and tried to be the best coffee bar worker in the world. In March 1985, I saw a job advertisement which read: “The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew [London] wishes to develop a living collection of marine plants.”
Two hundred people applied for the post of Kew’s marine biologist, but I knew that this was my job. I started work in June 1985. The deputy curator told me, “We want a display of living marine algae [seaweeds], we have no idea how to do it, most of the world seaweed experts say it can’t be done, so get on with it.” I was given a complete free hand.
I designed a habitat aquarium showing important plant-based habitats from both temperate and tropical seas. We have coral reefs, mangrove swamps, rocky shores, kelp forests, rock pools, sea-grass beds and open water displays, all very small but all showing the plants and animals that would naturally live there. We even have a 3D phytoplankton display showing the incredibly important microscopic plants of the sea that provide 50 percent of the Earth’s oxygen.
The marine display at Kew is enjoyed in many ways by our visitors marveling at the wonders of the marine world, by schools teaching coastal ecology and even by scientists doing research work. From the outset my main aim was for the marine display to bring joy and wonder to people’s lives. It seems from Kew’s visitor surveys that it does just that.
[Courtesy April 2006 SGI Quarterly]
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