Soka Gakkai International
Buddhism in Action for Peace
History & Philosophy
Stories and reflections on the Buddhist approach to life
by Leonides Arpon, USA
My parents left the Philippines for better work opportunities in Israel, and although I was born and raised there, the law denied me citizenship.
Because of my Filipino ethnicity, I also dealt with racism daily. One of my more vivid memories as a child was sitting with my mother at a bus stop when a man spat toward us and yelled, “Dirty Filipinos.” Another time, I remember swimming in a public pool when a woman yelled, “Get that brown boy out of the pool; he is polluting it.”
My home should have been a safe haven, but instead my father “raised me by the belt.” This, to me, felt normal, but what really stayed with me was the verbal and mental abuse that I endured: “You are nothing. You are a piece of trash.” Worst of all, I believed it and grew angrier as the years went by.
Among the few people I trusted was a family that my parents worked for. They treated me like their own son. One of the family members was a famous dance teacher, and she personally mentored me and enrolled me in an acclaimed dance school. Dance became my way of proving my worth to myself and others.
related article An Unfolding Story by Nomsa Mdlalose Nomsa Mdlalose, a storyteller from South Africa, shares her own story about discovering what Buddhism means to her. Despite being an accomplished performer and teacher by age 18, I had to make a painful decision: leave Israel or risk being arrested and deported.
Up until I was 18, the government had allowed me to live in the country as my mother’s “dependent,” but once I became an adult I was no longer allowed to work or live there. It was unfathomable that the place where I was born and considered home could treat me as if I were an unwanted intruder. This injustice only added fuel to my already boiling anger.
I moved to New York, where I continued pursuing my dreams as an artist. The year was 1999. I successfully acquired a work visa and toured the world with a major American dance company. But no matter how much outward success I had with my career, the anger I had developed growing up manifested in failed relationships with women and my family. No matter how I tried to think positively, I kept seeing the same results.
After being invited to an SGI meeting in 2008, I remember feeling confused. I could not wrap my head around how people could be so happy despite facing personal challenges. At the same time, I was extremely inspired and moved by everyone’s life state, especially those who seemed to be suffering the most. My friend’s mother was dying of cancer, but still his spirit was unshakable. Wanting to experience that kind of life condition, I began practicing Buddhism myself.
After I started chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, I began to notice how much I had let my environment affect my behavior. I also realized that my feelings of not being able to control my anger were related to my lack of self-worth and self-confidence. The first thing I chanted for was to respect my own life and that of others, even those I inwardly begrudged.
At the time, my parents were living in England, where they were unemployed and risked deportation. My mother was also suffering with depression. When I shared Buddhism with them, my father became furious and threatened to disown me. My Buddhist practice, however, enabled me to recognize the positive qualities I inherited from my parents, which I was never able to see before. I summoned up the courage to express my deep respect and appreciation for them. Recognizing a tremendous change in me, they were inspired to start chanting and joined the SGI in 2014. Today, my parents are British citizens. My mother also overcame her depression, and my father and I now have heart-to-heart dialogues.
Through my Buddhist practice, I learned to fully appreciate my struggles and even my upbringing in Israel. As a result, I determined to create a dance outreach project at my former high school in Israel and show the SGI-USA “Victory Over Violence” exhibition there. The mission of my project was to share the importance of recognizing different types of violence in order to weed them out through dialogue and to highlight the importance of people from diverse backgrounds uniting to take action for such a cause.
I arrived in Israel to start the program in the summer of 2011. However, the students I taught fought with one another and complained daily. They said things like: “Dance is useless. We already learn teamwork playing soccer,” or “This sucks. Dance is stupid.”
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. But I refused to give up. At times when they tested my patience and I could feel my angry nature resurfacing, I took action based on the words of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda. Through that, I found the wisdom and courage to inspire the students, and the most difficult ones started to lead by example and became my greatest allies.
By the end of the weeklong program, all one hundred kids of Catholic, Jewish and Muslim backgrounds had developed strong bonds of friendship, and the show was a total victory. The students kept asking if I could stay longer and when I’d be back.
I’ve learned that only when I change from within and recognize the unlimited potential in myself and others can I build a culture of peace anywhere at any time, starting with my immediate environment.
I am now happily married and am determined to create an even more harmonious family, especially for my wife and our baby. I share Buddhism with everyone I know because I really believe people can transform their lives and experience tremendous benefits.
President Ikeda says,“Even if you have a kind heart, great ideas or wonderful aspirations, if you don’t have the courage to translate them into action, you’ll accomplish nothing with them. In fact, you’d be no different from someone who doesn’t have such things at all.”
With these words in my heart, my determination now is to develop my artistry and teaching skills and use my experiences to enable people to discover their unlimited potential and contribute to society.
[Adapted from an article published in the April 3, 2015, issue of the World Tribune, SGI-USA; photos courtesy of Roxy Azuaje]
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