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Stories and reflections on the Buddhist approach to life
I am 36 years old and have been practicing Nichiren Buddhism since 1990. My family chant as well, and I consider this my great good fortune.
In 1997, I left university with a degree in aerospace engineering. I moved to Nottingham accepting a very good job with a large aerospace company, designing and building aircraft engines. I chose engineering as I have a fascination for how things work; but I must admit that my work was simply the means by which I earned enough money to spend time on my true passion: horses. I’ve been riding since the age of six and my deepest desire has always been to work with horses. Unfortunately, my dream remained unfulfilled as the only careers I could find were poorly paid for very long hours, with no prospect of progression or development.
Five years into my employment at the aerospace company, I was a manager and doing well. I found it to be a great company to work for, and because of this, most workers stay for 20, 30 or 40 years. But I wasn’t truly happy because I wasn’t doing what my heart desired. I kept chanting for a change in my circumstances. One year at an SGI youth meeting, I determined to chant until someday I would have a viable career working with horses.
During the summer of 2001, I had a routine Papanicola test, also known as a PAP, or smear test. This is a screening test offered to all women between the ages of 20 and 50. It is used to detect premalignant and malignant changes in the cervix. I had a further two tests due to abnormal results and finally had to have a biopsy taken of the affected area. I rang the hospital just before Christmas and was relieved to be told that everything was normal. I left Nottingham to spend the holidays with my parents in London.
However, on my return home in the New Year, I found a letter waiting for me, asking me to attend a hospital appointment. I didn’t understand why, but when I saw a doctor, I was told I had a relatively rare, but very aggressive type of cervical cancer. I had no choice but to agree to have a hysterectomy to prevent it spreading rapidly. After believing that I was healthy, this shock diagnosis was devastating, not least because the hospital also gave me a leaflet on every worst-case scenario imaginable.
At that time, I was 27 years old and was responsible for supporting many young women within the Central England region of SGI-UK. A very good Buddhist friend of mine happened to ring me as I was walking back to my car from the appointment. She asked if I wanted to chant with her that afternoon. I immediately recognized this call as support and protection caused by my practice of Buddhism and went straight to her house to join her. We chanted for many hours together that day.
I had seven more days of annual leave from work and one month before my operation. I determined to do a great deal of chanting in the coming week and to fight and win against my cancer. I also determined to use this experience to encourage other people and to prove the power of Nichiren Buddhism. I decided to ask my company if I could work half-days until my operation. I would use afternoons to chant and spend time with my horses without exhausting myself. They agreed to this at my full rate of pay, for which I’m very grateful to them.
I studied the letters Nichiren wrote to encourage his disciples. I repeatedly read one in particular, “Reply to Kyo’o,” which says: “Believe in this mandala with all your heart. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is like the roar of a lion. What sickness can therefore be an obstacle? . . . A sword is useless in the hands of a coward. The mighty sword of the Lotus Sutra must be wielded by one courageous in faith. Then one will be as strong as a demon armed with an iron staff. I, Nichiren, have inscribed my life in sumi ink, so believe in the Gohonzon with your whole heart” (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 412).
I would spend hours crying through my chanting, not understanding why this had happened to me.
I would spend hours crying through my chanting, not understanding why this had happened to me. I just knew that I had to keep going—there was nothing for it but to rally myself again and again while I chanted in front of the Gohonzon, holding Nichiren’s words of encouragement in my mind. All the members in my area came to support me; they were like my big extended family.
I chanted that I would receive the best medical care; that I would win through—whatever that meant—and also that I would be really clear about what actions and decisions I should take, at every stage of my recovery. I also determined to attend our youth division celebrations for 16 March—Kosen-Rufu Day—that year, deciding that this would be one of my many victories.
related article Discovering the Best Possible Family by Donna Snyder Donna Snyder recounts how her Buddhist practice enabled her overcome a history of family estrangements and create a happy home of her own.
I used my faith to prepare for each step. Chanting with great determination to win gave me the courage to ask my consultant numerous questions. I wanted to understand my illness and the reasons for drastic surgery. One of the benefits of living in Nottingham was that my local hospital was also a cancer center, so my prayer to receive excellent medical care was already being answered. I chanted for the operation to be like a work of art for the surgeon and that my recovery would be textbook: no complications and discharged from hospital as soon as possible.
A few days before the operation I had my first major breakthrough: at one of our monthly study meetings, I recall sitting in the lecture venue, chanting and at the same time smiling to myself thinking: “This is ridiculous, I shouldn’t be this happy, considering I’m about to have a major operation and I have cancer.” I realized that circumstances don’t matter. You can be happy at any moment, in any situation.
The operation went smoothly, without a hitch. I was so supported by my “SGI family” chanting for me before, during and afterwards—it was amazing. The evening after the operation, full of strong painkillers I stumbled and fumbled my way through my evening chanting. The operation didn’t feel “finished” until I’d done this. Then I could relax. I had reached my first goal—the operation was over.
A few days later, the surgeon’s assistant came to check up on me. She said: “You know it was a beautiful operation.” Her words struck me as proof of my chanting for it to be a work of art.
In order to recover properly, I wasn’t allowed to ride my horses for three months—which was torture for me. However, I had a friend who had been introduced to the training methods of a horseman from the United States of America, called Pat Parelli. He and his wife have developed a system of natural horsemanship, which improves communication between horse and human. My friend invited me to watch a course she was organizing and I accepted.
It was at this course that I realized that this was the career with horses I’d been seeking. I discovered that there was so much I didn’t know about the psychology of horses, about how they feel, think, act and play. The benefits of the improved understanding and therefore the relationship between horse and human spoke for themselves. Horses were calmer and happier and so were their owners.
At the end of the course, I rang my company and told them I would be leaving. My timing was perfect, as they needed to make further redundancies and taking me out of a management position meant that they could save other staff from unemployment. They didn’t want to lose me, but this decision was right for both the company and for me.
I believe the key to turning this experience into a victory was that initial determination.
A generous redundancy package meant that I could afford to re-train in the UK for three years and then in the United States for a further two years. I’m now a Parelli instructor, teaching people with their horses every day. There is something incredibly satisfying about seeing a horse and human combination transform their communication in front of your eyes. I see the Natural Horsemanship organization I now work with as very similar to how the SGI works. We use wisdom, courage and compassion (Pat Parelli calls it love, language and leadership) to help human beings and horses find a way to work in harmony.
Amidst all my training, I was having regular checks on my health. The surgery removed all the cancer in the one operation, without the need for chemotherapy or radiotherapy. Five years on, I was discharged from medical care. I believe the key to turning this experience into a victory was that initial determination. The experience has enabled me to prove the power of Nichiren Buddhism. I never entertained the thought of losing. Daimoku gave me the courage and life force to make that a reality.
Now, nine years later, when I look back, I’m very clear that my illness was a benefit. Had I not been diagnosed with cancer, forced to take time out and therefore attend the Parelli course, I wouldn’t be doing what I do today. I wouldn’t be doing what I had always dreamed of since I was a little girl.
[Courtesy of Art of Living, SGI-UK, June 2010]
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