My faith experience begins with the seeking spirit for confidence, but that was not necessarily realized at the beginning of my journey. It’s relevant to start my experience at the beginning of the story, for you to truly understand my takeaway, from my visit to the Florida Nature and Culture Center.
My story started really about two years ago, searching for the correct Buddhist path. My colleague, Stephanie Thomas, shared her mom practiced SGI Buddhism, along with another one of our colleagues named, Susan Brewer. Even though, I thought asking about religious views at work, could be interpreted very taboo. I was genuinely interested in SGI practice after reading some of President Ikeda’s writing from the SGI-USA website.
By coincidence, (the mystic law, really) within a week, I shared the elevator alone with Susan Brewer. We were both leaving work for the day and I thought, this is definitely the best opportunity to inquire about SGI with the least amount of potential workplace conflict. Susan and I sat outside the building, talking for at least thirty minutes and she promised to locate a district near my home and invited me to be her guest.
My first meeting at Red Mountain District, I also brought my daughter, Nina, who was only 3 years old at the time. Our visit gave me insight that I could not ignore. There was an obvious connection that Nina and I both shared with the surrounding environment. I was given the freedom to ask deep questions about the practice, received deeper responses, and listened to shared personal experiences of actual proof, specifically from Susan, Sally Marks, Tomo and Alicia White. Based on the knowledge from that meeting and the intense gut feeling that of the environment feeling so right, I joined SGI and began practicing immediately.
Shortly after I began practicing, I made my first determination to shakabuku my close friend, Morgan Le Seth and her son, Danero. Morgan and I both shared general Buddhist perspectives and had previously talked about going to a Buddhist meeting together. Based on my personal experience, I was confident that if Morgan visited a Red Mountain District meeting, she would see the same value as I had. Only one month later, Morgan and Danero were my guests and joined the practice during their first visit, just as I had.
For most of the first year, I read a lot of study materials, participated in planning and district meetings, and attended Sunday with Sensei as often as I could. Nina and I chanted together at home and though skeptical of organized religion, my husband, Zach supported our practice of Buddhism. At this time, he had not attended any SGI meetings or activities because there was no interest or proven benefit in his eyes. It was just something he respected as my personal view, and he supported my perspective.
This past winter when it was announced that the Youth Division would be singing a song at New Year’s Gongyo Nina insisted on participating. I gladly brought her to practice each weekend necessary, even though she was only 4 years old at the time, she loved learning the song and dance moves and did perform during the 2012 New Year’s Gongyo. We also attended the event as an entire family because Zach would never miss out on an opportunity to watch his family shine with happiness doing what they love. New Year’s Gongyo really inspired my decision to increase my participation in another SGI activity, after watching the beautiful dance performance by the members of United Colors for Kosen Rufu group.
It had been thirteen years, since I had danced or performed on a stage, but I was inspired by Nina’s high life condition while participating in the Youth Division activities. I too loved to sing, dance and participated in many drama performances when I was in high school. Recalling those moments, I remembered the sincere happiness it brought to me and the pride it brought to my parents. So I believed joining the dance group would reignite that sincere enjoyment and create even more happiness in my life. I attended the first dance group meeting in January and I was overjoyed to learn that both my daughter and I could be part of the group. Emmanuelle remembered Nina from teaching the Youth Division the dance portion of the song they performed at New Year’s Gongyo and said, “I would love for you to bring her next week.”
Truth be told, when I went to the first dance practice, I realized it was a lot harder than I remembered it was. Even though I was confident in all the other aspects of my life, I just couldn’t bring that confidence out during dance practice. I couldn’t understand why I was having so much trouble learning it, but I didn’t quit. In fact the opportunity to help the group in a different capacity occurred. I was very proud to help the dancers by capturing the moment through recording their submission video for the First Annual Ikeda Youth Ensemble. These ladies have all inspired me in so many ways, and when they were selected to represent our territory; I was so genuinely happy I knew they would have continued success at the Ikeda Youth Ensemble in May.
Even with individual dance lessons from my close friend, Khushboo, I was unable to learn the dance in its entirety prior to the conference and also was not able to perform it for Sunday with Sensei. I felt very defeated by not getting the opportunity to attend the Ikeda Youth Ensemble. So I asked Alicia White for some guidance and she suggested, we meet with Lori, the Women’s Division inspiration in the dance group and to my complete shock, Lori gave it to me straight, “You don’t have any confidence when you dance, you don’t believe in yourself. You always doubt yourself, so you are never going to get to dance with that attitude.”
Ok, that was officially the first reality check, I had experienced in the practice. Unfortunately, my initial internal feelings were self-denial because I felt so confident in every other aspect of my life. But after discussing the conversation, I had with Lori and Alicia with Zach, he reworded Lori’s intended message in a slightly more gentle perspective. He said, “She wasn’t saying you aren’t a confident person, Lori was saying you needed to apply that confidence to your dance practice or you will never really get it.”
I realized they both were completely right. I was no longer the confident stage performer I was in high school. I did doubt my ability to remember the dance moves, to stay in rhythm with the group and I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. As the dance group continued to practice for the Ikeda Youth Ensemble, they group were asked to dance at Daisaku Ikeda Week and planned to learn a Hawaiian dance number from another SGI member, Dolly Abad.
My first impression of Dolly was her genuine Hawaiian spirit, energy and confidence. Dolly taught us more than how to dance; she inspired true Ohana spirit in the dance group. (Ohana is the word for family in the Hawaiian culture.) With that same spirit, I made the determination to learn the Hula dance, no matter what, even if it took private lessons, a deeper understanding of the Hawaiian culture and chanting more daimoku than ever before. I was going to do it all.
While researching the Hawaiian culture, I began to seek a deeper understanding of the significance of sensei’s choice to visit Hawaii first. I was inspired to learn how President Ikeda was immediately welcomed as Ohana from the very moment he arrived by the Hawaiian people. I was most inspired by Dolly and her daughter’s Ohana spirit, each week during dance practice. I remember after every practice, which often lasted for an hour or more, when we were all sweaty, Dolly insisted every dancer hug and kiss each other’s cheeks, because it was Hawaiian tradition. This was definitely Nina’s favorite part of dance each week for sure. I think she even received two rounds of kisses and hugs sometimes.
During May Contribution this year, I was not able to contribute in a serious financial way. So I asked Khushboo to help me by organizing a Summer Youth Division Theatre program. This was two large determinations to make to further my commitment to kosen-rufu. Making those determinations really deepened my faith. I obtained actual proof by the success of those determinations.
My first successful dance performance was during Daisaku Ikeda Week in July and I gained so much confidence in myself, I decided to even join Dolly’s Hula School as a regular student. I loved Hula, the Hawaiian culture, and the deeper understanding of the mentor-disciple relationship I had learned from it. Only two short weeks later, our Youth Division had their first theatre performance and inspired everyone in audience, which was nearly standing room only with their confidence. But I must acknowledge, both of these determinations were all made possible with the help of many efforts of many SGI members. The parents who committed to bringing their youth to practice and helping out in various capacities, inspired me to continue being a leader and I knew it was time to set a more challenging determination. Thus, I made what I thought would be a nearly impossible determination to attend a conference at FNCC before the end of this year.
I had previously selected the WD/YWD Leadership Conference occurring September 21st-24th and when our YWD Territory Leader, Sophia Chang, asked the question in early May, “Who is coming with me to the Conference?” on the Central Territory Facebook group page, my reply was “I wish I could but I don’t have the financial success I need to do it.” Her response “So we will chant.”
There was yet another obstacle which was out of my control. I was only recently appointed a district leader and the conference was intended for Chapter Leaders and up. I realized that this determination I had made was going to be the biggest challenge, I had made to date. I knew I would face the three obstacles and four devilish functions, also called sansho shima, but I couldn’t be sure how these would manifest in my life. But equipped with actual proof from determinations in SGI activities, had contributed so many unique improvements to my family and this had not gone unnoticed by Zach. When Nina and I increased our participation in activities, he also increased support and attended SGI activities, sometimes even a district meeting, because he knew how important Buddhism had become in our lives and how important support was to success.
On August 20th, I received an SGI-USA memo from the Southwest Zone Leaders stating there was revised registration information for the Women's & Young Women's FNCC Conference to be held from September 21-24, 2012, now allowing YWD district leaders to attend. My initial reaction was to forward the email to Zach and just wrote, “I want to go.” When I returned home an hour after my email, I was greeted at the door by Zach and the first thing he said was, “I fully support you going to the conference.” Within the hour, I had posted on Facebook, “I am finding a way to get to this conference.”
The next day, I was unexpectedly paid early by one of my teaching jobs, the exact amount for the conference registration fee. I couldn’t help but to feel this was the mystic law making it attainable. The next day, I called the Central Territory main office in Chicago and told the woman that I was mailing a check from Phoenix and asked is there anyway you can hold a seat for me until you receive the check. She confirmed my attendance over the phone at that very moment. But at this point, I still had to figure out the flight arrangements and I didn’t want Zach and Nina to be left alone the whole weekend, while I was off at an SGI Conference. I felt that wouldn’t be fair.
Luckily, with the help of our family, we were able to secure flight arrangements for Zach and Nina to visit our family in Pennsylvania, while I was at the conference. Oddly, the conference coincided with Zach’s dad’s birthday, how amazingly perfect right? In that same timeframe, I was also able to secure my roundtrip flight to Ft. Lauderdale from the closest airport to my house. The next thing obvious obstacle was to find someone who we trusted to faithfully, to care for our two dogs. Thankfully Alicia and Tomo took on the responsibility, the moment they heard I was confirmed to go to FNCC. So it seemed everything was lining up to be perfect, or so I thought, but I had forgotten about sansho shima.
If I only knew how many times sansho shima would face us as a family that month. But every time I would question my intent to go, Zach would reassure me, “Everything is going to work out.” About two weeks before the conference, I was faced with a demon of the past, which made me question my readiness to be able to attend such a fundamentally life changing event because if this demon could persuade me for the second time in my life - how could I possibly expect to attain success with a faith based opportunity, if I couldn’t face one single demon of the past with confidence. Then, sansho shima struck again, only with my work. The load had tripled. I was assigned a major project which required, double the time of a normal project along with numerous meetings. Shortly thereafter, it was clear that my other two projects, had to be completed before I could left for the conference or it would affect my annual review.
As if my increased workload during the day was not enough, it was followed by having to prepare semester-long curriculum for two new courses. The courses were on ground, so I also had to begin instructing them immediately. It was seriously, one thing after another, on top of being casually sick throughout the month. I was beside myself in piles of work, which kept me from my regular Buddhist activities, consequently my determination dwindled.
Then, only one week prior to the conference, I became seriously ill (coinciding with my own birthday) to the point that my birthday meal was merely mashed potatoes. I was really ready to throw in the towel. It took me nearly four days to recover from the sickness, which made it almost impossible to finish my projects at work, but somehow I happened. The inspiration throughout every, sansho shima I encountered was met with Zach’s continued faith in me, and our family’s ability to overcome any obstacles by working together. During my serious sickness, he kindly typed as I dictated posts for my online students.
Even when I began to doubt my confidence to travel alone, two days prior to our departure, his reassurance was unwavering, he said, “You are going to this conference. You have had your heart set on this unattainable goal for months, now you are two days of achieving it and you have lost your courage? Stop worrying. Everything is going to work out and I already know that when you come back from the conference it will make our lives better. I can already see the change.”
Right up until a few hours before my flight departing to Ft. Lauderdale, I found myself crying in front of my Gohonzon. I was chanting for the safety of Zach and Nina’s flight because they had departed several hours prior. This was the moment when I realized that all of the challenges leading up to this event had already made it an accomplishment. Surely, something that makes you jump over every hurdle, has more than just a little value, it must have life altering potential.
I received a text message from Zach acknowledging their safe arrival, as I boarded my plane, I felt more secure with my own travel just from that one message. When I arrived at FNCC, for some reason I thought, I had already passed any sansho shima coming my way. We were welcomed by the staff and volunteers at FNCC like queens, I was excited to be on the first bus and shared that bus with both of our Central Territory Leaders, Women’s Division, Barbara Jenkins, and Young Women’s Division, Sophia Chang.
The first thing Sophia said as she introduced me to Barbara was, “Barbara you can’t imagine how inspirational her daughter, Nina is, she lights up a room with her bright Buddhist spirit. She always contributes during meetings and loves to lead sancho. I’m pretty sure, Nina is going to take my job.” Obviously, my smile was ear-to-ear because Sophia knew my daughter by first name and remembered her questions at our Kayo-Kai meeting in Phoenix from earlier this year.
Next, we received our room assignments and I had hoped to take a nap before orientation that night. However, the excitement of being at FNCC propelled me out of my room for photos. I also needed to discuss my unique dietary constraints with the chef, and of course, visit the gift shop because I that’s what girls’ do. As I was walking back from the gift shop to my room, sansho shima struck again.
I had neglected to consider I was in Florida and sometimes the sky just opens up to dump a torrential down poor of rain. Unfortunately, prior to my trip I had neglected to acknowledge how busted up my sandals were mostly because it doesn’t rain in Phoenix. This was the point in time I really acknowledged that more challenges were going to continue to present myself right as the leather tops began to separate from the sole of the sandals. In an effort to keep them in one piece, I quickly removed them and ran barefoot to the nearest building. I arrived at gymnasium, where buses of women were still arriving in the pouring rain with their luggage. I investigated the damage to my sandals. It became quite obvious my sandals wouldn’t make it through anymore rain and definitely wouldn’t survive the weekend.
My first question to one of the staff members was, “So how does FNCC feel about me being barefoot during this conference?”
The woman replied, “My dear, you can’t be barefoot, that wouldn’t be safe.” So I asked her if she knew of a potential solution, I had no form of transportation and only three dollars cash on me because I hadn’t anticipated the need to bring cash. She returned me barefooted to my room via golf cart and she said, “Don’t worry, I will find a solution for you.”
So there I was stuck in my room for quite some time, I placed my sandals on the air conditioning unit and hoped for the best. To use the time wisely, I began to unpack my bag, in an effort to ignore the elephant in the room. Again, sansho shima, I realized had completely forgotten to pack pajamas but remembered my bathing suit? I won’t deny at this point, I was just starting to ask myself, “Really, come on, why me?” I did not know who my roommate would be as she was still on her way from Northern California, and all I could imagine was how I was going to communicate that I had no night clothes to a perfect stranger. My anxiety kicked in because of the anticipation of awkwardness and that was when I started to feel really discouraged by the continued sansho shima. Followed by the overwhelming feeling of being completely alone, really sank in deep. I felt beyond broken without the presence of my little happiness spirit, Nina, and desperately alone without my emotional support from Zach.
It’s not that I haven’t ever traveled alone. I did it during college for conferences all the time, but I had my mom who persistently called me everyday. This time though, was very different. From the moment that Zach and I had met, we had never been separated for an entire day, nor had I ever gone a day without seeing Nina. That was the moment I broke down, all I could do was cry.
Not much time passed and Zach called, sansho shima had affected him, he was very emotional about not being with me as well. But all too quick, I had to end the call, and head to evening gongyo and orientation. The orientation included a video message from Danny Nakashima, National Men’s Division Leader and an email received earlier that morning from President Ikeda and Mrs. Ikeda, part of it read, “We are earnestly praying that your conference will be most meaningful and enjoyable. […] I hope that, while respecting and encouraging one another as sisters of the Mystic Law, you will establish a life state of eternally indestructible happiness and total satisfaction. Where there is harmonious unity, the flowers of benefit will blossom magnificently. My wife, Kaneko and I are earnestly sending daimoku every day for your ever-greater health and success, our dearest and most cherished friends – champions of noble mission.” After the orientation, I returned to my room inspired by the amazing words, but deeply missing the presence of Zach and Nina. We used FaceTime to say goodnight, everyone in tears, but with the determination that tomorrow would be a better day.
Our first session was a gosho lecture “On the Treasure Tower” with Linda Johnson, the National Women’s Division Leader and Amber George, the National Young Women’s Division Leader. The particular part of the study, I connected the most with was “To find enjoyment in every obstacle because conquering them makes us limitless.” Followed by, “Don’t ask yourself “why me?” make the change through sincere daimoku.” They reinforced that everyone must “own their own karma because it doesn’t just affect you, it affects your family.” Obviously, I felt a very shallow since I had let Friday be a “why me?” day. It was obvious after the lecture I required deep inner resolution and some serious daimoku to determine what my lesson from this conference would be.
Ironically though, the moment I remember the clearest out of the session was not merely the lesson. It was when Linda described her previous day. Before her flight to the conference, she was required to go to work to finish a serious case, which required immediate attention. For those of you who don’t know, she is a lawyer for criminal cases which often result in life or death convictions. She shared with us that in the 25 years she has practiced law, she did not have any direct links to any death executions, which was more than inspiring. She explained how her previous day started when her secretary brought in documents requiring her signature and accidentally dropped her pen under Linda’s desk. Linda proceeded to pick it up the pen and somehow managed to dip her hair in her morning coffee at the same time. And of course, she realized this after her travel clothes were covered in coffee. I couldn’t help but to connect completely based on my previous day’s experience. But her reaction to sansho shima was definitely not “why me?” she shared that, at that moment she knew this conference was going to be very significant to all the participants in some way. Her conclusion was the presence of sansho shima was actual proof of the definite success for every participant. I thought to myself, “Wow what a better attitude towards sansho shima. That’s a woman of true faith.”
After the session ended, we signed up for personal guidance. There were so many leaders attendance, that everyone at the conference who wanted personal guidance received at least an hour with the leader of their choice. I signed up for personal guidance from Sophia Chang and since I was one of the first people in the line, I specifically selected the final dinner we would share together. I knew that would be when I needed the most guidance.
The conference sessions were truly enlightening in perspective and definitely deepened my faith. When I visited Ikeda Hall, I felt an overwhelming urge to cry because I was so touched by the items included there. The most significant piece, in my eyes, was from the This Beautiful Earth photo essay series titled A Path at Windsor. It read, “There are those who build a path, and those who tear it down. There are those who continue to walk the path, and those who stray from it. I wish to be a person who forges a path; a person who persists in walking a path… No matter what; until the end, I will keep running. Even if I should fall along the way, and return to the dust of the land, because I believe in youth who will succeed me along this path, I will have not a single regret.”
I thought to myself, that’s the person I want to be. The rest of the conference really seemed to fly by so quickly, the staff in the FNCC office went to Old Navy and bought me, not just one pair of sandals but two. Each meal I ate was hand-crafted with kindness for my dietary limitations. I had received genuine inspiration, over and over again, significantly during the memorial service gongyo. I couldn’t help but to be overly emotional because many of the women I had met that weekend had unknowingly shared the same significant loss in our lives: our own mothers. As the women lined up, many of them still in their youth, they acknowledged the loss of their mother’s by name. This created sheer amazement and instant respect for each of them. Their strength, spirit, faith and courage to not share gave me the courage to share my own mother’s name without breaking down in tears.
It was all too soon for me that our final dinner arrived and it was time for my personal guidance with Sophia. As I waited for her at the table, I was overwhelmingly anxious because of what I realized I had to share.
Sophia first said, “I am so happy you were able to attend this conference.”
I replied, “I agreed it was indeed a great benefit.”
Then I paused awkwardly, “But what I had learned was not what I had expected. I realized I can not truly feel the joy and inspiration without Nina and Zach. Over the past three days, both Zach and I realized how significant we were to each other, and the time apart had diminished both of our spirits. Without their love, support and presence, I have missed them so deeply. It has prevented me from being in the best mindset to appreciate all of the benefits of this conference. The reason I am so troubled by this realization is because ever since Nina and I joined the SGI practice, I vowed to never force participation of the practice on Zach because I have always appreciated his genuine support. I do not need him to become a member on paper.”
I concluded with, “So now I am not sure what to do because I know I need to bring them both here to experience FNCC for a family conference, but I am still committed to my vow, not to force the practice on Zach.”
I was surprised by her response, “Jennifer, why don’t you think that maybe exactly the lesson you were supposed to learn?”
Dumbfounded, I replied, “But how can I attend a family conference if my husband isn’t a member?”
Sophia smiled, “Jennifer, Zach doesn’t have to be a member of SGI to attend. He only has to be a member of your family. And to me, it is quite obvious he is a significant part of your family based on the feelings you shared. What you learned here was the importance of the sincere love and unity that you already have in your family. They are the most important element in your life.”
She continued, “You should know, there isn’t a specific lesson anyone is required to learn here. Everyone has a different takeaway, which will continue to show them benefit in the rest of their lives. Your lesson was how important your family is to you and that you must attend a family conference together at FNCC, which is truly a great benefit to realize. Plus, you are leaving here with fresh appreciation for your family and when you go home, that benefit will continue to be there.”
In conclusion, my takeaway from my FNCC experience was: Everyone’s individual experiences should never be compared, only shared, because each person’s unique experience is important to them at that particular point in their life. Every obstacle I encountered was completely worth conquering, because I am now sincerely aware of how important Nina and Zach are to my faith.
On a final note, based on my experience at FNCC, I am sincerely confident my family will have SGI in our lives forever. I am most happy to share with you that Nina and Zach have already agreed to attend the next family conference at FNCC together.