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The mentor-disciple relationship in Buddhism functions to enable individuals to exceed their expectations of themselves, as Abraham Uccello discovered.
After a long battle with a rare type of cancer, my father passed away in 2007. He was my best friend, and the pain of his loss opened a hole in my heart that I felt could not be filled. He had also looked after my mother, who struggled with severe mental illness, and in his absence, I wondered how I would take care of her.
While this was going on, my wife and I were facing financial ruin amid the Great Recession. One by one, our material possessions were stripped away, and I became lost, spiraling into the use of drugs and alcohol as I tried to numb my despair. I frequently raged in anger, and this created a divide in my marriage. At the moment where I thought I would end my life, I encountered Nichiren Buddhism.
Throughout his life, my father searched for meaning, and as a child, I went with him on his journey of exploring different religions and philosophies. I inherited his seeking spirit, and when a friend introduced me to chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and Nichiren Buddhism in 2008, I felt as if I was finally home. I was overjoyed realizing I already possess the ability to overcome any deadlock in my life and that chanting was and is the key to unlocking the power of my life.
With my most sincere efforts in practice, my anger turned to compassion and a deep gratitude began to fill the hole in my heart. I felt as though my quest to become truly happy was also impacting my deceased father, bathing him in waves of joy. The despair of having lost my father flowered into the most beautiful connection with his life. I was able to end my terminal romance with drugs and alcohol and find appropriate care for my mother. Today, she is highly functional, holds steady work and is a trusted member of her community. Starting anew, she and I began to piece together our relationship of mother and son. I now know the joy of having a mother.
As I studied the writings of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda, I strove to deeply understand the mentor-disciple relationship in Buddhism and transform my character to that of someone I could respect and be proud of. Seeing the changes in me, my wife also decided to begin practicing Nichiren Buddhism.
related article Serving Society by Ana I. Ruiz Núñez and Tina Rosén Two Buddhists working in social services in Spain and Sweden respectively discuss how their Buddhist practice influences their approach to work. We practice Buddhism to develop indestructible happiness. By the end of 2013, I found myself comfortable with my circumstances and had stopped challenging myself. Even though my family was healthy and we were steadily rebuilding our finances, I kept thinking to myself: “What is my purpose in this lifetime? Surely, there must be more to life than just existing!”
Throughout 2014, I immersed myself in the study of Nichiren’s writings and Daisaku Ikeda’s guidance and chanted with a determination to awaken to my life’s purpose before the year was out. I wanted to find a way to connect all the experiences of my life and give meaning to them.
During this process, I began to experience a deeper understanding of the mentor-disciple relationship—the path of self-development spurred by the teaching and inspiration of the mentor. It was within this process that many difficult memories surfaced from my childhood—vivid recollections of my mother being taken away in handcuffs, of tears streaming down my face as I ran after the police car confused, telling myself, “She’s only sick, she’s not a criminal.”
One after another, painful buried memories resurfaced—my mother’s tears and fear, sexual abuse resulting from being left in the care of so-called friends . . . I understood how this had fed a resentment toward my mother and cynicism toward society. I realized that I had never known how to place or make sense of my memories and emotions. It was my commitment to the path of mentor and disciple that enabled me to take responsibility for my life, stop blaming others for my suffering and clear the fog of resentment that was clouding my judgment.
Then, in December 2014, a friend working in prison reform was asked to take on the huge professional responsibility as head of the Florida Department of Corrections, and she asked me to join her as her senior advisor.
Initially, I was full of doubt, lacking confidence in my abilities. My fear was holding me back. Through abundant chanting, I realized that the culmination of all my experiences was manifesting in this opportunity to make a positive contribution to society. Individuals within the prison system are often caught up in repetitive cycles of suffering that include mental illness, substance abuse and child abuse. I had to break through my doubt and fear if I was to live up to my commitment to the path of mentor and disciple to which I had pledged myself. Realizing this provided me with the courage needed to make the decision to accept the job and not waste this golden opportunity.
For three years, I proudly served as the director of the Division of Development for the Florida Department of Corrections, overseeing hundreds of employees with the mission to direct the education and rehabilitation programming for nearly 250,000 people. I initiated a series of groundbreaking programs and reforms aimed at rehabilitating incarcerated people, treating them as human beings capable of transforming their lives as opposed to the incurable discards of society. In 2018, I began a new job with Florida State University, College of Social Work, Institute for Justice Research and Development, which researches solutions to crime and behavioral health issues, both nationally and internationally. I have also taken on leadership responsibility within SGI-USA to support members in Florida, Puerto Rico and 17 island nations of the Caribbean.
With a strong conviction in faith and a galvanized determination to confront all challenges, I am determined to continue to grow and make where I am peaceful and happy. Having begun this journey in desperation and despair, today my life is filled with happiness, purpose and gratitude.