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In 1979 I had reached a deadlock in my life. At the time I was in France completing a medical degree at the University of Tours. When I arrived in France from my native Togo a few years previously, I had felt isolated and overwhelmed by my new environment and the challenges it presented. For solace I turned to religion. I began attending mass daily and spent a lot of time in prayer and contemplation, becoming very absorbed in my newfound spirituality.
Later, however, as I became more involved in the student life at the university, I began to experience a tension between my attraction to the lively activity of my work as a trainee doctor, which I had come to enjoy, and the contemplative religious life that I had idealized. This caused me a great deal of suffering and confusion; I felt completely divided internally. Everything I had valued most highly was now in question, and I wasn’t sure which direction to turn.
The purpose of religion is not to draw us away from life and the world but to enable us to live a full and creative life.
An aunt of mine living in France noticed my inner turmoil and suggested that I try the Buddhist practice which she had recently started herself and about which she was very enthusiastic. I was not particularly interested, but some time later I agreed to accompany her to an SGI discussion meeting. The atmosphere at the meeting was completely refreshing and inspiring, and the explanation of Nichiren’s Buddhist philosophy made absolute sense to me. It suddenly became very clear that the purpose of religion is not to draw us away from life and the world, with all its imperfections, but to enable us to live a full and creative life, engaged with others and with society.
I left the meeting feeling deeply enthused and joyful. I remember skipping down the pavement with excitement! I was eager to put the practice of this new philosophy to the test as soon as possible.
The next two weeks were like a whirlwind. I began to see myself more clearly and realized how, for so many years, my life had been mired in inertia. It is difficult to fully convey the effect of this realization on me.
related article In Times of Crisis by Andy Bastable, UK Andy Bastable discusses his water projects with NGOs, including Oxfam and how his practice of Nichiren Buddhism has motivated him. Once I had these realizations, things suddenly began to move and change very quickly, especially in three areas of my life where I had felt particularly stuck. Within a very short time I had completed my thesis, got married and, four months later, in January 1982, returned to Togo.
On my return to Togo I began work at the University Hospital of LomÃ©. Conditions at the hospital were not ideal, and I faced many challenges in adequately caring for all the patients. I am a gynecologist and Obstetrician, and I felt that I would like to have my own clinic where I could take more complete care of the patients who came to me, and treat them in a more friendly environment.
In 1997 I was able to realize this dream and I am now doing my best to help mothers bear and raise healthier babies—the next generations of our country. When the Myoren clinic began, it offered only basic health care, but soon the facilities were expanded to enable us to perform surgery. It now employs 15 staff. My plan for the near future is to conduct educational programs on health care and prevention, as many of the cases we treat could be prevented through basic education.
When I returned to Togo, I also began to take part increasingly in the activities of a number of voluntary organizations within the community and am currently the vice president of one of these. I enjoy working together with friends to address the problems that face us as a developing nation. Some of the issues that we address include organizing the construction of wells in remote communities, making vaccines available, caring for the natural environment and facilitating AIDS education for young people.
One of the key issues is women’s empowerment. In Togo, many families take their daughters out of school at an early age, and only male children are encouraged to continue their education. This is a common gender-biased cultural attitude which I feel must be changed as we enter the 21st century. One of the programs that I am involved in aims to tackle this prejudice, providing basic education for girls who have been forced to end their schooling prematurely. Much of the motivation for me to become actively involved in the life of my community has come through the inspiration that I have received within the SGI, an organization that believes religion finds its purpose in an active engagement with the world and its problems, and that our true happiness comes through the efforts we make for the happiness of others.
related article 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. When I first returned to Togo, having experienced a series of dramatic and unexpected positive changes in my life since embracing Nichiren Buddhism, I was very excited to be able to share it with my family and friends. A number of my friends and family members agreed to try out the practice on my advice. They, too, began to experience concrete benefits. Soon a group of us were practicing together regularly, supported by an SGI member from Ghana and another from London, who were already in Togo. This was the beginning of the SGI organization in LomÃ©. Today, we are a growing group of individuals working for the positive transformation of ourselves and our communities. The youth members in particular are determined to realize SGI President Ikeda’s vision of making Africa the continent of the 21st century.
My return to Togo was also the beginning of a painful problem for me, however. This came in the form of opposition to my Buddhist practice from my in-laws. My husband, who is a sculptor and art teacher, also initially felt resentful of the time that I devoted to encouraging new members and building up our local SGI organization. My parents-in-law, however, were opposed to my Buddhist faith itself, which they found strange and threatening. Togo is a predominantly Christian country, where many people have not had much exposure to other religions, particularly those from the East. Unfamiliar religions are liable to be labeled “satanic.” For a long time this opposition from my family caused me a lot of pain, but I was determined to embrace them and change their negative opinions. Eventually my parents-in-law became less suspicious—even supportive—of my faith, as they began to understand that the SGI’s objective is to promote humanism and create peace. My husband, too, gradually came to respect and support the aims and objectives of the SGI and now actively supports my practice.
I feel that experiencing and overcoming these difficulties has enabled us to deepen and enrich our relationship and has been the cause of the beautiful harmony that we enjoy in our marriage today. I learned from this experience that it is possible to change marital discord—a possibility that at one point seemed so unlikely—by not giving in to the challenges and persevering with the clear goal of love before anything else. This and the many other difficulties I have had to face over the years have only helped me become a more caring person who is better able to understand others’ pain and more effectively offer them encouragement.
Now I feel a sense of deep satisfaction with my life. Each day is full, and in the evening, when I kneel down to perform my Buddhist practice, I feel a profound sense of gratitude for my life. Here I would particularly like to express my thanks to the many people who have supported my growth over the years. My encounter with Nichiren Buddhism turned out to be the most pivotal event for me which enables me each day to draw forth from my life a renewed sense of hope for the future and provides me with a profound vision toward which I can gladly devote my energy.
[Courtesy April 2001 SGI Quarterly]
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Fighting for My Daughter: Finding My True Mission
by Rachel Aspögård, Sweden
A Fierce Determination to Live
by Jharna Narang, survivor of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks
Creating a World Where All Belong
by Sinéad Lynch, Ireland