Changing the Times

by Eyrún Ósk Jónsdóttir, Iceland



Changing the Times, by Eyrún Ósk Jónsdóttir, IcelandMy mother met Nichiren Buddhism in 1978, four years before I was born, and became the first SGI member in Iceland. As a child growing up in the early 80s in Iceland, times were difficult—the unemployment rate was high and inflation was burdening society. I observed the struggles of my family and neighbors and the effects of the crisis in my immediate surroundings. During these difficulties my parents showed great strength and creativity based on their Buddhist faith.

When we ran out of food, my mother would chant strongly and with great determination, and it never failed. The phone would ring and someone would invite us for dinner, or someone would show up at the door with a bag full of food as a gift, or there would be an advert on TV that a local shop was having an anniversary celebration with free barbeque for the customers. My father, who was unemployed at this time, also never lost heart and was determined to find creative means to provide for the family.

At the age of eight, I began to work after school, walking house-to-house selling different things for my father’s various business ventures, ranging from fish to fireworks, from cakes to small radios, and everything in between.

related article Practice for Oneself and Others Practice for Oneself and Others [© Bull’s Eye/Getty Images] Nichiren Buddhism promises that one can attain Buddhahood in this lifetime. But what does it mean to attain Buddhahood or enlightenment? Shakyamuni, the historical founder of Buddhism, became known in his time as the Buddha because of his ability to understand people’s sufferings, to show them that they possessed the inner resources to overcome their problem During those early years, I learned one very important thing from my parents: the combination of hard work and this Buddhist practice makes everything possible. Together, my family managed to turn the impossible into the possible and, by the time I was in my teens, we had totally overcome our financial difficulties and were now enjoying the life we had always dreamed of. We had a house, a summer house, horses and dirt bikes. We all had secure jobs and my father’s businesses were thriving.

However, on October 6, 2008, the financial crisis hit Iceland. In the morning, one of our largest banks was nationalized and started a domino effect. Over the next two weeks, almost all our banks were nationalized or went bankrupt. Our currency crashed until it had lost more than half of its original value. Foreign currency transactions were suspended for weeks and the market capitalization of the Icelandic stock exchange dropped by more than 90 percent. Many businesses went bankrupt and homes were repossessed. As a result, there were a series of violent demonstrations in which both civilians and police were injured.

As I witnessed the mortgage on my apartment doubling and funds for several of my projects being suspended, I started experiencing an ever increasing degree of anxiety and despair. The thought of losing my house or my job was unbearable. I also became extremely worried about my family, particularly about my father’s health, as the strain of economic worries tends to affect his physical condition. I could feel a growing tension surfacing between us and I was becoming increasingly worried. I determined to overcome this situation and began to chant strongly.

I quickly realized that the cause of my suffering was not the financial situation at all. In fact, I have been dealing with anxiety and fear, related to the financial instability I experienced as a child, all my life. Long after my family changed their economic situation, little things like going to a restaurant and having to wait for the food to arrive would cause me anxiety. Or when I went to a party I would quickly calculate the number of people against the amount of food on the table to make sure there was enough for everyone, and if I thought there was not, I would be on edge during the entire event. The only thing the economic crisis had done was to make me face my latent insecurity—in other words, my lack of faith.

related article Buddhism in Cuba Buddhism in Cuba by  Joannet Delgado, general director,  SGI-Cuba Joannet Delgado, general director of SGI-Cuba, shares her journey of discovering Nichiren Buddhism and how it took root in her country. I determined to use the situation to deepen my faith and that it would be a source of great fortune for my family and for the young women I was supporting. I decided that no matter what would happen I would continue to encourage my family and the members.

I shared my determination with the young women, and together we decided to start an encouragement campaign, in which we wrote down the names of people we knew were being affected by the situation and we chanted for them, imagining that we were piercing their life with Daimoku; and then we engaged in a dialogue with them on value creation. With this campaign we determined to turn SGI Iceland into a fortress of creativity. We managed to get all the members in Iceland to join with us.

Shortly after we launched the encouragement campaign we were contacted by one of the three television channels in Iceland, Skjár Einn. They had decided to start a series, in between programs, of messages intended to encourage people. They asked various distinguished individuals to participate, including my mother, who is the general director of SGI Iceland, and she spoke on the behalf of the organization. In her message, she referred to one of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda’s editorials where he said: “There are no problems or difficulties in the human realm that we, as human beings, cannot surmount.” The messages were aired on primetime television for two weeks.

There is no true happiness other than upholding faith in the Lotus Sutra.

I decided to use the campaign to encourage the students at Flensborg College, one of the schools I teach at, who I had noticed were feeling very bleak about the situation. I developed a series of exercises and workshops and challenged them to come up with creative ways to encourage others. Afterwards the student suggested that we organize an encouragement “happening” at the school and create various events around the theme of encouragement over the entire day, with the aim of inspiring the 800 students and teachers at the school. The event was a great success and afterwards many of the students and staff said that we had become a source of inspiration for them. As a result of this project one of my students began to practice Buddhism.

As my mother and I were pouring all our energy into the encouragement campaign and SGI activities, the life state of our family naturally lifted. My father proposed that we make a determination as a family to win together and that no matter what would happen we would all support each other. In an instant we became closer to each other. I felt such an amazing sense of security and a conviction that everything would turn out all right. Nichiren writes: “There is no true happiness other than upholding faith in the Lotus Sutra. This is what is meant by ‘peace and security in their present existence and good circumstances in future existences’” (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 681).

Despite the economic crash or the situation in society, my family continues to base their life on Nichiren Buddhism and work hard to transform the times. For me, this conviction is “true peace and security,” and it arose from encouraging others.

What is more, through encouraging others, SGI Iceland started gaining the trust of people in society. People started streaming into our meetings.

The reason why people are being drawn toward the SGI, we have been told, is because SGI members were the only ones giving hope and offering a direction for Iceland at this time, when things seem hopeless. In March, we held the “Seeds of Change” exhibition at the City Hall in Reykjavík. We invited the president of our country, Mr. Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, to open the exhibition and speak at the event. In his speech, he praised the SGI for our efforts to offer a vision for Icelandic society in these crucial times.

[Adapted from Art of Living, SGI-UK, July 2009]

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