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My mother and I first attempted to escape communist Czechoslovakia in 1985, when I was 5 years old. We went as far as the Adriatic Coast, but, as she couldn’t speak English, my mother was unable to convey her intention. Discouraged, she took me back to our home city, Brno.
My mother spent the next year hiding her efforts to learn English, a forbidden language, before we tried again. It was high drama—she almost drowned at one point, and when we finally escaped aboard a train, she hid me under a pile of clothes to escape detection.
After more than a year living as refugees, we arrived in Boston. When I was 12, we moved to Los Angeles, where eventually both my mother and I began practicing Nichiren Buddhism.
By that time, however, I had begun an even more difficult journey. As a child, I was often sick, usually with severe sinus problems or scarlet fever. I never saw myself as different, but by the time I was in preschool, partly because I seldom spoke and never made friends, my mother already knew I needed more help than most children.
In 1999, aged 19, I was diagnosed with severe depression, and my behavior continued to deteriorate. In 2003 I was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, which is a form of autism.
related article Bridge from a Soundless World by Shin’ichi Yoshida, Japan As a baby, Shin'ichi Yoshida was diagnosed as being deaf, but he practices Buddhism in the Soka Gakkai through sign language, chanting and the warm-hearted support of his group who also learned to communicate through sign language. The year 2005 was very difficult. I started carrying several stuffed animals in my backpack and talking through them when I could not bear to talk to people directly. Most of the time, however, I simply did not talk. I relied on my mother as a caregiver—I couldn’t even dress myself. My thoughts were increasingly filled with rage, depression, even suicide. Doctors worked to find the best balance of medications for me, but in the process I suffered side effects such as dizziness and anger. At times, I felt like I would simply evaporate.
Two years later, at the age of 27, I attended my first SGI meeting. At first, chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo seemed to have little effect. I kept chanting, but instead of feeling better, my built-up anger and frustration came out. I knew intuitively, however, that chanting was a means through which I could confront my anger and learn to understand my negativity. More importantly, I gradually felt myself getting stronger.
During those early meetings, I sat in a back corner and rarely interacted or spoke. When I did speak, I brought out my stuffed animals and spoke through them. I was never judged or looked down on for my behavior; instead, I was encouraged to continue to attend meetings. I slowly came out of my shell, started talking with people, and made friends.
In 2008, my mother developed a persistent cough, which the doctors found to be lung cancer. The following year, as my mother underwent treatment, I moved into a residential training program that would teach me the skills I needed to live independently. I continued chanting and attending Buddhist meetings. The more SGI activities I took part in, the more I wanted to participate. It felt like a new world was opening up before me.
A big turning point for me was when I joined the SGI-USA taiko drum group. In late 2009, preparations were under way for “Rock the Era” youth festival marking the 50th anniversary of SGI-USA, which was due to be held in July 2010. As a stepping-stone to “Rock the Era,” the taiko group took part in the January 2010 Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Santa Monica. I participated along with more than 700 SGI-USA youth members as we marched victoriously through a rainstorm.
Through chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, I turned my anger and fear into a force that propelled me forward.
Despite the downpour, we all worked together and finished the parade. At the time, I did not enjoy the challenge, but now I look back on the event with deep pride that I didn’t let anything stop me. I believe this experience is an analogy for my own life that, based on my Buddhist practice and the support of the people in my life, I will let nothing stop me.
I was proud to be part of “Rock the Era.” I learned to persevere and not be swayed by little things. One day, I realized I was no longer carrying stuffed animals with me—I had gained the confidence to deal with people directly. During this time, I read SGI President Ikeda’s journal, A Youthful Diary. Over and over, I was encouraged by how he battled his own illness, constantly finding the strength, one day at a time, to not be defeated. His words resonated with me because as a young man, although Mr. Ikeda experienced ill-health, he kept going; although he experienced doubts, he kept going. I determined that I would also move forward despite my own contradictions.
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. As the year progressed, my mother’s health worsened. That’s when I buckled down and got serious about my Buddhist practice. Through chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, I turned my anger and fear into a force that propelled me forward.
I started to emcee our area discussion meetings and took on the responsibility of being a young men’s leader. Moreover, for the first time in a long time, I started to have dreams, including the dream to study history at the University of California and to become an advocate for others with mental health issues.
In November 2010, I stayed at my mother’s side, chanting with all my heart as she took her last breath. My mother was always my hero, my protector. She made sure I gained the tools to live my own life. Now it’s up to me to continue building a contributive life.
I have gone from being unable to talk with others or take care of myself to being someone who lives on his own, has dreams for the future and makes a difference to the lives of others. And this is just the beginning.
[Adapted from an article in the January 1, 2013, issue of World Tribune, SGI-USA; photo courtesy of World Tribune]
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