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I grew up in a small town on the border between north and south Ireland during the ethno-religious conflict. The conflict was between elements of Northern Ireland’s nationalist community, who mainly self-identified as Irish and Catholic, and elements of its unionist community, who mainly self-identified as British and Protestant. One side of my family lived in the south and the other in the north, so I grew up with an understanding of the divisions on either side of the border.
My parents moved to the town before I was born, when my father, who was a commandant in the Irish Defence Forces, was stationed there. Given that it was a staunchly nationalist town and my father’s job was to lead the battalion that safeguarded the southern border region from the activities of the guerrilla nationalist army, it was no surprise that my family was not welcome there.
Highly sensitive to the tensions around me, but without any satisfactory explanation, I developed into a withdrawn child who lacked a sense of belonging. My outlet became study and artistic expression and, by my early teens, I was suffering from regular bouts of depression. Haunted by a sense of responsibility to speak out against injustices I did not yet fully understand, but lacking the courage to do so, I felt like a failure.
Throughout this time, I had a tenderly-held dream to someday dedicate my life to bringing hope and happiness to people.
I excelled in my studies, completing a philosophy degree and, later, one in art for film. However, I continued to suffer from a deep sense of insecurity on a social level. This led me into a number of relationships within which I experienced gender-based violence, further compounding my low self-esteem.
Everything changed when I started practicing Nichiren Buddhism in my late 20s. There were three immediate, radical changes I experienced in my life. The first was that my daily practice of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo summoned a formidable strength and optimism from deep inside me. The second was that, for the first time in my life, I felt a strong desire to talk to many people. The third was the profound realization that it was entirely up to me whether or not my life would be happy.
SGI activities helped me recognize my own value as a unique human being.
I also realized that in order to fulfill my dream, I needed to learn how to cooperate well with others—something that didn’t come easily to me due to a lifetime of avoiding doing so! SGI activities, which are rooted in the core belief that each person has Buddha nature that manifests in the qualities of compassion, wisdom, courage and a strong life force, became my training ground for doing this. There is no limit to this highest human potential, and as such, Buddhism sees all human beings as equal. SGI activities helped me recognize my own value as a unique human being, and this gave me the confidence to start encouraging others to see this in themselves.
I tried to sustain a career in film and theater, and the short-term nature of the work suited me well—when relationships became difficult I moved on. As I deepened my Buddhist practice, I recognized this tendency as my lack of courage and left my work in the arts to get a “regular” office job that I couldn’t run away from.
I got a job in a property company and gained fantastic skills in dealing with people and in organizing. Consequently, I was able to develop my self-confidence in earnest. I also had to develop my courage to speak out after encountering unjust situations. I started reading feminist literature and volunteered at women’s rights conferences, meeting many inspiring and courageous women who were committed to raising the banner of women’s empowerment.
In 2010, I read a message by SGI President Daisaku Ikeda that was to have far-reaching effects on my life. It was the occasion of the 10th anniversary of UN Security Resolution (UNSCR) 1325, which recognizes the gendered nature of conflict and calls for a shift in the positioning of women from helpless victims to active agents of change during and after conflict. In his message, President Ikeda called for the full participation of women, not just in times of conflict but also in times of peace.
Upon reading this message, it felt like a dam that had been lodged in my heart for a lifetime was broken by a strong, fierce current of joy and courage. In that moment, I made a promise to work on the implementation of UNSCR 1325. My desire was so strong that I had no doubt that this would infuse my daily chanting with the power to make this goal a reality.
I went on to complete an MA in Community Education, Equality and Social Activism with first-class honors and, on the last day of the course, my determination manifested in the most amazing way. The National Women’s Council of Ireland contacted me, asking if I would coordinate a two-year cross-border project called “Women and Peacebuilding—Developing Shared Learning.”
The project brought together hundreds of women who had lived through conflict both in Northern Ireland and in the southern border region as well as women who had been displaced from other conflict zones across the world and were seeking asylum in Ireland. The women shared their experiences of war, its impact on them and their families, their strategies for building peace and their recommendations for the future.
The work was deeply rewarding and also challenging. In the arena of social justice, the very inequalities and divisions that activists seek to transform can be reproduced within the workplace. Nichiren Buddhism teaches that even if the structures of society are changed to accommodate greater equality, inequality and injustice will endure if human beings do not transform their own hearts, a process referred to in the SGI as “human revolution.”
related article “I Am Master of My Mind”: Unleashing the Power of Transformation in Prisons by Sabra Williams, USA Sabra Williams is an SGI member and a successful film and television actor, whose career includes credits in Mission Impossible III and recurring roles in ABC’s Injustice and CBS’s Three Rivers. After making her mark as an actress and TV presenter in the UK, Sabra moved to the US in 2002, where she created the Actors’ Gang Prison Project. Launched in 2006, the project employs highly physical theatrical techniques based on the emotive 16th-century Italian “people’s theater” culture of commedia dell’arte. The work has proved transformative for inmates of the California prison system and has significantly reduced recidivism rates. Sabra was recently honored as a Champion of Change by the White House. That same year, I started participating in a trailblazing initiative called the Dublin City Interfaith Forum and, within a few months, I was appointed as its first chairperson. This had also been a long-held wish I had chanted for. The forum brings together 23 different religious communities to challenge the marginalization of new ethnic and religious groups within the city by creating all kinds of civic and educational events.
People both in Ireland and in other European countries have been inspired to see 23 different religious groups share such deep bonds of trust and friendship, especially on an island with such a complex religious and political history.
All of the qualities that are vital for my work both in gender equality and in interfaith I have been able to develop only because of the deeply transformative power of my Buddhist practice.
The world that I spent my childhood trying to envision—a world where all belong and contribute—is now something that I know humankind can work toward creating.