Would you travel alone halfway across the world to spend a few hours on a sacred mountain, not knowing whether the experience will heal you or break you? This is the unspoken question facing Diane Esguerra (aka Diane Southam) at the start of her memoir, Junkie Buddha. Her journey to Peru is a touching tribute to her treasured son Sacha, who has recently died from an accidental heroin overdose and whose ashes she plans to scatter on Machu Picchu. Along the way we discover that Sacha’s drug addiction and subsequent schizophrenia began in response to serious sexual abuse by a teacher at his boarding school.
In theory, I shouldn’t have liked this book. I don’t read biographies, I don’t read travel memoirs, and my simple brain doesn’t normally handle stories with flashbacks. Junkie Buddha crosses all three boxes. But knowing that the author was a Nichiren Buddhist and a trained psychotherapist, I decided to give the first chapter a go and see if it gripped me. It absolutely did and 230 pages later I’m so happy that I finished this entrancing tale. I loved every word of it.
A two-trip journey
The narrative takes you on two trips, an emotional journey of grief and healing and a cultural exploration of the Inca Trail. It is a physical and spiritual journey depicting the mountains and valleys of both. Along the
way we meet witches, shamans, dodgy hoteliers and unreliable coach drivers plus would-be suitors flirting with our intrepid narrator. The whole adventure is laced with humour, dashes of exotic South American cocktails and occasional Buddhist chanting.
Do you ever reach a point in your life or your Buddhist practice where nothing seems to make sense any more? When you feel you’ve made all the right causes to change a situation, but the benefit still doesn’t appear? Or when your faith, practice and study have seemed so strong and complete, and yet a cherished dream lies in tatters at your feet? Or when, out of the blue, you are floored by a serious problem with your health, work, finances or a close relationship? You may even find yourself remonstrating with the Gohonzon, saying, “Why me? What have I done to deserve this?!”
Too weird to be true?
If this is you at the moment (sometimes it is me…), give yourself a big pat on the back and say: “Congratulations to me! I did it! I kept my promise!” And then remind yourself that, as taught in The Lotus Sutra, you made a vow as a Bodhisattva of the Earth to ‘voluntarily assume the appropriate karma’ in order to teach others about Buddhism. But why on earth would you make such a vow? Why would you choose to be born in difficult circumstances, why would you go looking for such deep suffering? It just seems too weird and extraordinary! After all, there are no mentions of masochism in Nichiren Buddhism :-)! Of course, Nichiren actually taught that we made this vow so that we could, through our struggles, develop the wisdom, courage and compassion to move other people’s hearts. So that they too will feel inspired to discover and reveal the joy and dignity in the depths of their own lives.
In this experience about using the power of dialogue to discover our shared humanity, my friend and fellow SGI Buddhist David Hill reveals how his experience of being HIV positive helped him develop compassion for racist and homophobic people who persecuted him in his community. David is an ex-coal miner from Derbyshire UK and his courage, warm wit and determination make his story one of the most moving I have ever read. With profound thanks to David for letting me include it in my book, I feel he is an example to us all of how to chant for the happiness of people who have hurt you.
“Some nineteen years ago I was discharged from hospital with a life-threatening illness and the advice to get my affairs in order. My chances of survival were slim, I was weak and frail and did not really want to carry on with my life. While in hospital and without realising it, I had been introduced to Buddhism by a visiting volunteer worker who chanted to me while I fell asleep. I was not in much of a state to take it in at the time and didn’t start to practise myself until many years later.
Ostracised for being gay
“I returned home to my small homophobic racist town and found my house had been sprayed with graffiti, saying ‘Gay with Aids lives here’.
Ignore what you might read on Wikipedia or IMDB, my fellow SGI member Sabra Williams is much more than an actress and TV presenter. I first met her on a Buddhist summer course in the UK nearly 30 years ago, when she was an energetic and focused Lilac (Byakuren) Chief inspiring half a dozen other young women to care for 200 SGI members on the course. I knew that since then she’d swapped London for Hollywood, finding her professional feet with The Actors Gang, a theatre company run by Tim Robbins (of Shawshank Redemption fame). So, why the move from London to LA? “We were too comfortable,” says Sabra, referring to herself and husband Yogi, “We wanted to shake our lives up, so we sold everything and jumped on a plane!” That’s the first answer I wasn’t expecting…
So much wisdom pours from Sabra’s lips that it’s hard to know where to start. So let’s rewind to the beginning of her own Buddhist practice in 1985. “I was a crazy off the rails teenager from Notting Hill Gate, London. I felt so frustrated that I often wanted to put my fist through a wall. And although I was a talented dancer, I was doing too much cocaine. Two of my dance teachers introduced me to Buddhism. They told me I had bags of potential but would waste all of it if I carried on the same way. They just said ‘chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo‘. To be honest I thought they were taking the piss. But then I thought, what the heck, it’s free and I’ve got nothing to lose, why not give it a go?! And the first time I chanted, everything fell into place, it all just fitted. And I’ve never missed Gongyo since, not even when I was in labour!”
(Please note, I first published this post two years ago, but after coaching several people recently about family issues in the run-up to Christmas, decided to share it with you again…)
During the festive season, when you spend more time with close family, do you ever find yourself saying: “You’re really winding me up,”? or “She got on my nerves,”? or “They made me angry,”? Let’s explore whether that is really true. Or whether it means that you give all your power away so that other people or circumstances decide how happy you are. You may have spotted where I’m heading here and this post may help keep things more harmonious this Christmas…
Over 700 years ago, Nichiren Daishonin wrote: “One should become the master of his mind rather than let his mind master him.” This means we have the power to choose how we want to perceive and respond to a situation, rather than being tossed around by the ebb and flow of events. (That might of course include choosing to get angry or winding ourselves up, but the difference is, we know we have a choice.)
In modern psychology, this ability is often called ‘reframing’. As Auschwitz prisoner of war Victor Frankl famously wrote, in his book, ‘Man’s search for meaning’: “The one thing you cannot take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me.” Frankl’s situation was horrific – everything (seemingly) had been taken from him – family, friends, dignity, food, clothing and freedom. And yet he found the inner strength to master his mind when so many around him were losing theirs.
Nowadays though, our first instinct is often to change how we feel by shopping / drinking / comfort eating or other types of consumption. All of this contributes to extra global warming, by the way.
SGI’s second President Josei Toda without doubt developed an ability to change from the inside (much better for our beautiful planet…) describing Buddhahood in this way: “It is like lying on your back in a wide open space looking up at the sky with arms and legs outstretched. All that you wish for immediately appears. No matter how much you may give away, there is always more. It is never exhausted. Try and see if you can attain this state of life.”
Where was Toda when he experienced this state? On holiday? In a beautiful park in Tokyo? At the top of a Mount Fuji watching the sun edge below the horizon? None of the above. He was actually in solitary confinement in prison (for being a Buddhist).
All that you become begins in your mind
Buddhism says that all the situations in your life including (from a karmic perspective) what happens to you – all of your ‘be, do and have’ – begin in your mind, which is why it makes so much sense to ‘master your mind’. We can summarise ‘The Buddha Mind for dealing with challenges’ as follows:
I created this situation, therefore I can create the solution
Because life is precious, every ‘problem’ is a gift in disguise
Therefore when faced with obstacles, “the wise rejoice and the foolish retreat”
Any problem is your life asking to grow, say YES (instead of grumbling inside).
Here’s a great chance (yes, another one) to get over your ‘smaller self’
The lotus flower only grows in a muddy pond. Focus on the flower, not the mud.
How can I use this to fulfil my life purpose?
I will face whatever it takes to fulfil my personal mission in life
This low life state (angry, grumpy, blue, resentful, frustrated…) absolutely does contain latent Buddhahood
What is the ‘problem’ trying to stop me doing? Then Just Do It. Now. Darkness disappears when the sun of action shines
Suffering and problems are a fact of life, for you, me, saints and sages
Make your desire for Kosen Rufu (world peace) bigger, deeper and more sincere.
And if none of the above seem to be working, remember this famous quote from Nichiren Daishonin:
13. “And still I am not discouraged”.
To be strong is to master your mind
To master your mind is to instinctively and increasingly realise that all of the above is true. To constantly develop the strength to choose how you feel and develop a bigger all-embracing state of life whatever is happening to you. As Carl Jung wrote: “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.”
Daisaku Ikeda says: “True happiness is not the absence of suffering; you cannot have day after day of clear skies. True happiness lies in building a self that stands dignified and indomitable like a great palace – on all days, even when it is raining, snowing or stormy.”
So, see if you can chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo with this conviction: “I am not my past. I am not my psychometric profile. I am not the role I have played to survive so far. I am not the product of my childhood. I am not my job description. I am a Buddha. I am who I choose to become.”
Much more on all of this in my book, The Buddha in Me, The Buddha in You, available now for pre-order on Amazon UK.
Do you need to look good and be right all the time?Are you over-sensitive to rejection? Are you surviving instead of thriving? Do you find it difficult to say ‘sorry’, even when you know you are wrong? Do you get angry and defensive easily? Do you find you need a lot of praise and validation to feel less anxious? Will you do anything to avoid failure? Do you get jealous easily? I have certainly experienced all of the above during my 30 years of Buddhist practice. And yes, I have wondered if ‘my bum looks big in this?’ So if you are sometimes like this (most human beings are…), it might be time to move your ego out of the way and focus on your Big Beautiful Buddhahood instead.
By ‘ego’ I mean our smaller self, our unenlightened self, the self that is dominated by fear and anxiety and lashes out in anger.The self that may have helped you survive difficult childhood experiences, adding layers of protection to shield you from further pain. This ego has a positive intention (protection and survival), but if it dominates your life, it will slowly stifle your heart and strangle your soul.
first of all, warmest thanks to the thousands of you who have supported this page over the last two years! Thanks to you I found a wonderful publisher for my book. So this is just to let you know that ‘The Buddha in Me, The Buddha in You’ (based on this blog) is now available for pre-order on Amazon UK. The book will be out in the UK in Feb 2016. I will do another post once my publishers – Rider (part of Penguin Random House) have placed it with other publishers in the USA, India etc… when it will also appear on the Amazon.com website.
This will be the world’s first personal development book to teach that individual fulfilment comes from making a vow to raise the life state of the whole planet (Kosen Rufu). More on the book here. Right, now that it’s on Amazon, I’d better crack on and finish the final manuscript! Love, Light and NMRK,