Soka Gakkai International
Buddhism in Action for Peace
History & Philosophy
Stories and reflections on the Buddhist approach to life
by Fern Brown, Canada
After 36 years of practicing Nichiren Buddhism, I can truly say that, at 84 years of age, my life is wonderful. However, this has not always been the case. I grew up in the countryside, a few hours outside Montreal. I was the youngest of five children in a home where there was no love and I was constantly told I was stupid, crazy and ugly. At the age of six, my job was to scrub the floors at home, but whatever I did, it was never good enough. In addition, due to not having enough food to eat, I suffered from poor health including severe asthma and other ailments. My childhood was miserable, and I experienced physical and psychological violence.
At 10 years old, I dropped out of school because it was too far away for me to walk to. I began working to help support my family, often up to 30 hours a week. I was eventually employed by two women who were very resourceful and opened their own restaurant. I worked hard in the kitchen and they were good to me. One of them would often say she “saw something” in me. She would teach me about life, saying: “I know you will understand.” I received my first-ever Christmas gift from her: a pair of gloves.
However, over the years, my job situation was a constant challenge. From the age of 19, I had a string of waitressing jobs and struggled with feeling inferior to everyone and having no self-esteem. I moved to Montreal, and then to Los Angeles. I thought that by moving to California I could start a new life and leave my past behind. But my problems were quick to follow me. Nothing changed until years later when I started practicing Buddhism.
Over the years, I overcame a severe case of tuberculosis, but I still didn’t know how to fundamentally change my situation. At 47 it was hard to find good waitressing jobs, and my luck dried up. My life was like a black hole with no future ahead. I had married, and then separated from, a man who was an alcoholic. For the second time in my life, as I could see no other alternative, I contemplated suicide. This time, I had a foolproof plan and had chosen the date, a specific Monday in April. Then, the Sunday before I was going to kill myself, a customer invited me to a Buddhist meeting due to be held the following Wednesday. A few years earlier, I had read an article on Buddhism and was curious. I remember telling myself dryly: “I can postpone my plans for a couple of days. It won’t kill me!”
Those who believe in the Lotus Sutra are as if in winter, but winter always turns to spring.
I found the atmosphere at the meeting natural and friendly. As soon as I saw the Gohonzon, I knew this Buddhism was what I’d been looking for. I just knew. I chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo right away and even tried to join the recitation of parts of the Lotus Sutra. After that first meeting I wanted to attend meetings regularly but I was living nearly 20 miles away from the meeting place in Culver City and my only means of transportation was a broken-down car. After two months of chanting for another car, even though I had no credit card and no job, I was able to get a brand new one thanks to the resourcefulness of a good salesman. Soon after that I got another waitressing job. Most importantly, I kept that job for quite a while.
I will never forget the SGI members in Culver City because, for the first time in my life, I felt I had a caring “family.” My life, however, didn’t change overnight. I spent a lot of time chanting. At first it seemed that the more I chanted, the worse things became. However, Nichiren’s words: “Those who believe in the Lotus Sutra are as if in winter, but winter always turns to spring” always inspired hope in me.
related article Repaying My Debt of Gratitude by Hisako Nojo Hisako Nojo's practice of Nichiren Buddhism became a way for her to confront feelings of regret and guilt regarding her mother who succumbed to Alzheimer's disease. A few years into my Buddhist practice, I was chanting one day about my unbearable childhood, and it suddenly dawned on me that I was living with the results of my own causes. I told myself, “You have some cleaning up to do.” Immediately, the anxiety and pain that had always been inside me disappeared. That day I started to chant for my abusive mother, with whom I had always had a terrible relationship. Now, I am able to talk about my childhood and not suffer.
In 1978, I moved to northern California and started to hold Buddhist meetings at my home. The main focus was chanting, studying Buddhism and sharing our practice with others. I could gradually feel myself becoming happier and knew that for the first time I was building a steady foundation for my life.
Fourteen years ago, at the age of 70, I decided to return to Canada after an absence of more than three decades and so I packed up my belongings, rented a truck and drove across the USA with my dog as a companion. I immediately contacted my fellow SGI members when I arrived in Montreal, where I have been practising ever since.
There may be a retirement age at work, but there is no retirement age in life. How then could there be any retirement age in the world of faith?
If people are having difficulties, I know chanting can help them. Since I started chanting, I am able to forge genuine connections with people. I now feel so different from the shy, alienated child and young woman I used to be.
Between the ages of 74 and 80, I was a social activist for pedestrian rights. After one of my neighbors was killed crossing a crosswalk on a green light, I decided I had to take action. I started a petition and collected some 1,000 signatures calling for the reduction of speed limits and a crackdown on traffic violations in my local borough. One newspaper reporter published my comment: “People get killed by cars and it’s considered an accident. I think it’s criminal.” It took courage to speak out in public, be interviewed by the media and take part in council meetings at City Hall. Without my Buddhist practice, I never would have done it.
My life has changed so much during 36 years of Buddhist practice. Now, when someone does something to me that I don’t like, instead of churning up inside, I go to the Gohonzon and chant. The writings of Daisaku Ikeda, the president of SGI, encourage me all the time. Now also in his 80s, he is an extraordinary person.
related article Summoning up the Determination to Win by Lyla Cansfield Lyla Camsfield's experience with cancer enabled her to test the power of her practice of Nichiren Buddhism and to develop the courage to pursue the career of her dreams. I’m now 84 years old and in good health. When people complain about getting old, I say, “I’m sorry! I didn’t get there yet!” As Mr. Ikeda says, “There may be a retirement age at work, but there is no retirement age in life. How then could there be any retirement age in the world of faith?” As a young practitioner, I began chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo for money, but I didn’t get money. I got something more profound that will go with me when I die. I believe I am cleaning up my heavy karma through chanting, and I am confident that I will have a better life next time. The self-confidence and joy that I have gained from chanting, as well as the feeling of being part of the human family, no one can take these away from me.
[Adapted from the July 2012 issue of Soka, SGI-Canada; photo courtesy of SGI-Canada]
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