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When I was born in Japan in 1954, my eyesight was so limited that I was considered blind under Japanese law, although it was not until I was 19 that I lost all sight. I started learning piano when I was five, trumpet when I was nine. I started working professionally as a musician from around the time I was 13.
I studied music in New York on a scholarship in 1982 and moved there permanently in 1983, when I was 29. I was introduced to Buddhism and the Soka Gakkai in 1977 by my music teacher who was teaching me jazz theory and trumpet.
I fell in love with New York City. It is a great place for a musician. You’re surrounded by good players and teachers. I think it’s a perfect environment for me. Of course it’s very hard to live there, to make money as a musician, and even harder with a disability. But believe it or not, people there are very nice. I appreciate the multicultural environment very much.
Because I’m blind, I got involved with different agencies that provide services for the blind, or which conduct research. I started writing articles about my life, my views and opinions about social services, or about culture and music. At the same time, because of my Buddhist practice, I naturally felt I wanted to dedicate more of my life to the betterment of society and to world peace. My life changed as a result—and I was able to expand the spiritual side of my life.
Artists have a tendency to always think about themselves or become egotistical. Sometimes that’s important in order to get into my own world and create some art or music. But after I started practicing Buddhism, I realized that if I kept that attitude, I couldn’t really improve as a human being, and that would limit my ability to express myself as an artist. So I first strive to improve myself as a person. To grow you really have to go out and deal with different types of people and work with them. Before practicing Buddhism, I only thought about myself.
As an artist, you are living in society, creating art for other people. You’re not just doing it for yourself. I think that that is the artist’s mission—how many people you can encourage. In order to create that kind of art, you have to understand people, what kind of suffering they have, what kind of happiness they want to get.
Several years ago, I created a nonprofit organization in New York, the International Communication Service for the Blind (ICSB). This offers direct services for the blind and the severely visually impaired throughout the world.
related article A Home with the Homeless by Richard C. Brown, USA When Richard Brown was introduced to SGI and the concept of Buddhist compassion, he was inspired to imagine a goal of bringing justice into the hands of youth and individuals in prisons and in homeless communities. We focus on individual needs, sometimes through very small-scale volunteer work. Recently a woman called me up and told me that her parents are blind and she wanted to send them a wedding invitation in Braille. So I translated the invitation into Braille and sent it to them. It’s the kind of thing that maybe a large agency wouldn’t want to deal with, because it’s so small-scale. I often visit schools, corporations and other volunteer groups, and I talk about life as a blind person. Sometimes I just play music for the kids at the blind school or teach computer music to blind musicians.
There is a lot of talk about barrier-free societies. I think there are two sides to this. The first is what might be called the hardware side. Wheelchair-accessible buses, elevators at train stations, Braille signage on the elevators.
But what is even more important is the “software” side, which is people’s attitudes, people’s minds, people’s hearts. People’s hearts can create barriers, because they don’t understand each other.
In order to create a truly barrier-free society—in both the hardware and the software sense—both sides, people with disabilities and those without, have to really communicate with each other. Both have to take responsibility.
Within the disability community, I often hear comments like “society doesn’t understand the disabled person, our lifestyle.” But at the same time, people with disabilities need to make an effort to understand the attitudes of able-bodied persons toward us. I was 23 when I first went to rehabilitation, and that was my first time ever to deal with another blind person. So I understand how someone’s first experience dealing with a blind person or a person with a disability is going to be difficult and disorienting. The person with the disability has to understand and appreciate the courage it might take a nondisabled person to ask, “Can I help you?”
I can cross the street by myself, but if someone offers to help me, I never say “no.” I always say “thank you so much” and we cross together. And they feel better. Perhaps that good experience will encourage them to feel that they should continue to help disabled persons.
At the same time, of course people in society need to make more of an effort to understand the experience of being blind, or in a wheelchair, or having any type of disability. That’s why I always go out to talk to the kids at schools.
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. I do a lot of question-and-answer sessions when I speak at schools. They ask very straightforward questions. They ask how I get around. They want to see me use a cane. So I show them. I teach them how to walk with a blind person. And they feel comfortable very quickly. Everyone wants to try walking with me.
I think it’s important not to get oversensitive. For example, I was visiting a friend’s house once, and in the middle of my visit, his wife very naturally asked, “Do you want to watch TV?” And I could feel her thinking she had said something stupid. But it’s important not to be oversensitive.
I think we need to think about what it really means to be independent. Many disabled people believe, “I can do anything by myself. I can go out... .” And the hardware aspects we talked about earlier help with that. But we live in society. We can forget that we have to deal with people.
I’ve been living in New York City by myself now for 21 years. I cook, I can go out and do just about anything by myself. But there are also a lot of things that I do need sighted help to do. And this is a very important part of my life, because it creates an opportunity for me to interact and communicate with other people. And I don’t want to lose that.
In the future, with improved technology, better access and so forth, I might need much less of this kind of help. So improvements in the hardware side of barrier-free technology might actually end up lessening opportunities for basic shared communication as a human being.
Buddhism talks about our mutual interdependence. That is the reality of human society. We all need each other. It’s just that society is structured so that nondisabled people don’t need to be very conscious of all the help that they receive from others.
[Courtesy January 2003 SGI Quarterly]
Only One Yes
by Clayton Surrat, USA
The Power of Friendship
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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