A TRUSTING CIRCLE OF FRIENDSHIPS: Experience of a Nichiren Buddhist
January 20th marks 28 years since I committed my life to the practice of Nichiren Buddhism, and received my own Gohonzon(scroll). 1980 was the start of a new decade, approaching a new Millenium. At the time, I was a dancer with the DanceTheater of Pina Bausch in Wuppertal, West Germany. I’m even in a video on YouTube! At 1:21, you can see my shoulder; and at 1:27, you can see the side of my cheekbone. But don’t blink. Fame is like that.
During two of the years that I was with that company, we did two extensive international tours; one of SouthEast Asia, and the following year South America. I was able to connect with Soka Gakkai International members (Nichiren Buddhist lay organization)from around the world, and it was truly an awesome experience. Even if we didn’t speak the same language, we could always do gongyo (prayers) and chant “Nam MyoHo Renge Kyo” together. SGI is everywhere. But, I must say (without sounding like a xenophobe), that we do it best here, in SGI-USA!
Some of you may know that Germany is not known for its light comedies. Think of Goethe, Wagner, and Beethoven. Angst, anguish, and human suffering. I felt right at home. The tormented artist. In ballet training, we learned that if it didn’t hurt, you probably weren’t doing it right.
Early on in my Buddhist practice, I loved to study the writings of Nichiren Daishonin. They were so beautiful, so poetic, and so true. I especially liked the short ones that were only one or two pages long. One that really spoke to me personally was A Ship to Cross the Sea of Suffering. A good friend and fellow-Buddhist told me that the Sea of Suffering was choppy and very turbulent. He said, basically, that I was trying to cross it in a canoe. With lots of determined daimoku (chanting) and strong faith, I needed a strong and sturdy ship to survive the crossing.
“One who listens to even a sentence or phrase of the sutra and cherishes it deep in one’s heart may be likened to a ship that crosses the sea of the sufferings of birth and death….. “Even a single phrase cherished deep in one’s heart will without fail help one reach the opposite shore.
To ponder one phrase and practice it is to exercise navigation.”
A Ship to Cross the Sea of Suffering. (WND p.33)
I also learned that there are two kinds of Faith. One is like fire, that flares up hot and quickly, but dies out quickly, too, leaving not even a single member. The other is like flowing water. When I pictured flowing water, I pictured a mountain stream, like a babbling brook. Sometimes it babbled and ran freely; sometimes it looked like it wasn’t moving at all, but was moving deep under the surface; sometimes it moved with difficulty around rocks and obstructions and became a mere trickle, but it always kept moving. It was headed for the vast ocean and not stuck in the Sea of Suffering. That image always stayed with me through-out the years.
A very special year for me
This spring marks 20 years of living with HIV and AIDS. I was diagnosed with HIV in ’88, supposed to die in ’96. Almost did die in 2002, when I developed full-blown AIDS, and Hepatitis C. Recently, I took a treatment for Hep C with a very small success rate (35% of the very few who could tolerate the treatment at all), and count myself as my doctor’s only success story for that treatment. I attribute all my good health to my practice and SGI activities. Studies have been done on what is the common factor among long-term survivors. Is it diet or exercise or certain combinations of drugs? The only common factor seemed to be Attitude.
My practice has given me Hope. There is an answer to my prayers, I know the answer to my prayers, and I was in control of the answer to my prayers. The bigger the problem, the more determined I became, the more focused my daimoku, and the more sincere my efforts towards activities. I have been able to prolong my life.
I have to say, in all my years of chanting, that I have gotten a lot of stuff. I chant for stuff and I seem to get it, often much better than I ever imagined. I’ve chanted to pass an audition, and I was accepted. I’ve chanted for a job, for money, for my own health and the health of my friends. I have chanted to find a relationship, chanted to end a relationship, and chanted to get over a relationship. I chanted for a car with windows that went up AND down, A/C that didn’t spew black smoke, and was comfortable enough to take four people to our SGI conference center at the Florida Nature and Cultural Center outside Ft. Lauderdale.
It appears that the ship we are on to cross the Sea of Suffering has a pool, a disco, and a midnight buffet. Strong and sturdy and full of friends. Sure, I got lots of stuff.
But I also learned that there are two kinds of benefits: conspicuous and inconspicuous, and it was actually the inconspicuous benefit that was the most important. A change of character, a fundamental change in our outlook and our perception. As we change that, as a matter of course, we find ourselves surrounded by a reflection of the universe we have created for ourselves, and attract benefit into our lives.
The training and life of a classical ballet dancer, like many devoted artists, is somewhat like that of a monk; deeply absorbed in their art, but somehow disconnected from the outside world, from reality and humanity. We, as performers, learn the sacred rule of the 4th Wall; always a separation between those on stage in the bright lights, and all “those wonderful people out there in the dark”. It is a very safe place, and hard to breakthrough. It is difficult and awkward for me to open up to someone and have one-on-one heart-to-heart dialog, and share deep ideas and feelings. It is through my activities with my SGI family and my efforts toward my own human revolution, often stepping outside my comfort zone, that has enabled me to open up on a more humanistic level, and develop deep bonds with others. It’s a wonderful feeling.
Well, I’m still arrogant. And I still get overwhelmed by waves of emotion when I hear beautiful music or experience great art or poetry. But, my tears of sorrow have turned to tears of joy when I think of all the beautiful friendships I have had throughout these years. This is the greatest treasure I have received from my practice.
A very special year for me.
I am more determined than ever to forge faith like flowing water, by now a mighty river rushing to the ocean, with waterfalls and great white rapids. The current is too strong to ever be stopped.
At the end of 2007, we were encouraged to make an effort to do even just a little more each day. Just a little more Daimoku each day; a little more study of the writings of Nichiren Daishonin and SGI Pres. Daisaku Ikeda each day; a little more effort each day helping and caring for our SGI family and encouraging each other with words of our mentor.
Nichiren teaches us that “To accept is easy, to continue is difficult.
But Buddhahood lies in continuing faith.”
The Difficulty of Sustaining Faith. (WND p.471)
I still have big dreams. There is lots more to accomplish. But I will never regress.
What did I learn from my ballet training? Posture, strength, and flexibility.
What did I learn from my performing experiences? Courage, and confidence.
What did I learn from my experiences with SGI? Boundless Joy. And deep pride in my life, my practice, and for the SGI organization. And that, to me, is a wonderful thing.