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’.
Recently several of my clients have shared with me that they feel jealous and/or that they find themselves comparing their lives unfavourably to the lives of others.
But when we compare ourselves to others, we are ignoring our own uniqueness, as Daisaku Ikeda reveals when explaining one of Nichiren’s famous writings: “Cherries are cherries. Peaches are peaches. A cherry could never become a peach. It wouldn’t be necessary. Even if it did, it wouldn’t be happy. We should live in a way that is true to ourselves. We could not become someone else, even if we wanted to. Our lives are precious and irreplaceable.”
In other words you’re better off being the best cherry you can be rather than wishing you had been born a peach. (Or having facelifts until you look like a peach…)
I have had a few angry conversations in recent months. One with a fellow blogger whom I’ve never met, one with the BBC and one with the manager of my son’s football team. Whether I ‘won the arguments’ or not is irrelevant (except to my ego), whether I was right or wrong is equally by-the-by. Buddhism teaches the sometimes inconvenient truth that I attract these situations into my life, that my own inner anger is like a magnet that can pull me into conflicts and sometimes sees me being disrespectful and losing my temper more than I would like to.
Luckily I have learned a lot about anger from my 12-year-old son Leon. A few years ago, when I was trying to catch the cat to take her to the vet, I asked him to make sure he didn’t leave the back door open. Unfortunately he did, the cat escaped, we were going to be late, I exploded with rage… And he just calmly looked at me and said: “Daddy, getting angry won’t bring the cat back in.” I was gobsmacked and will never forget this humbling moment and the fact that he naturally focused on the solution instead of the problem. Chanting about it later, it occurred to me that anger is the first reaction of the stupid when it needs to be the last resort of the wise.
You may have seen the film, A Mighty Heart, starring Angelina Jolie. In this movie the Hollywood star plays the role of SGI Buddhist Mariane Pearl (right in the pic) who faced the deepest despair when in 2002 her journalist husband Danny was kidnapped and then beheaded by Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan.
At the time Mariane was heavily pregnant with their only child. A Mighty Heart pays tribute to her husband. Mariane poignantly describes how, after news arrived of Danny’s decapitation, she resolves nevertheless to move forwards with hope:
How can we become happy in life and carry on growing? One of the best ways is to choose an inspirational mentor. Here are 10 tips on how to choose a great mentor, based on my experience of both business and Buddhism. Choose someone who:
1. has been and remains a brilliant pupil / follower himself
2. sees your brilliance when you cannot find it any more
3. has strong enough self-esteem and humility to celebrate your successes rather than feel threatened by them
4. will stretch you to your limits (and beyond) while supporting you to the max
5. will hold you accountable when you can’t quite find the courage or honesty to do so
[pic shows SGI’s Daisaku Ikeda with his late mentor Josei Toda]
22 years ago when I first went to a senior Buddhist to ask for advice, I said to him: “I have a very big problem,” and he, the late John Delnevo of SGI UK (pictured), replied with a broad smile and a twinkle in his eye: “Congratulations.” I thought he must have misheard me so I repeated that I really was struggling with something (can’t remember what but it would’ve felt massive at the time – money / job / girlfriend / studies… or possibly all four…)
Again he smiled broadly and said, “that’s great news, well done!” Seeing my perplexed face, he made seven points over the next hour’s conversation that have stayed with me ever since:
Happiness is not the absence of problems
Problems are a fact of life “suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy” – this is what Nichiren Daishonin taught
The problem is never the problem, it’s the life state from which you approach the problem that’s the problem
The lotus flower of enlightenment only grows in the muddy pond of daily life – your challenge is a sign that your life is asking to grow. So, are you going to say Yes or No?
You’ve made the cause / karma for this situation (otherwise it couldn’t happen), so therefore you (and only you) have the power to change it. (This is the principle of personal responsibility behind the name ‘Thanking the Spoon’)
Any problem is a gift in disguise – it might be very heavily disguised sometimes, but it’s a gift all the same
When you change for the better, the world around you does too, as surely as a shadow follows a body, that’s how, one by one, we create world peace.
‘John D’, as we called him, was an incredibly wise, strict and compassionate man and it is hard in a list of 7 points to convey the warm encouragement that always shone from his life, earning the trust of people all around him. In fact it has taken me 21 years to really understand with my whole life what he said to me on that day in 1991. And some days I still forget.
The advice he gave was born of his own heartfelt personal struggles or ‘human revolution’ as we say in Buddhism, he lived what he taught, it was never about theory with John D. And looking back I realise he treated me with the deepest appreciation, seeing past my whingeing self-centredness and talking to the person I might one day become. I believe this is the mark of a great mentor.
So, as this wise man repeated at the end of our little chat: “You have a problem? Congratulations…”
PS. When I began writing this post, I didn’t intend it to become a tribute to John Delnevo, it was just going to be a list of 7 hopefully helpful points. Now I realise that it is the profound human connection that counted even more than what he actually said. ‘John D’, you rocked. Still in my daimoku. Thank you.
What is the ‘tipping point’ that can cause a small lovers’ tiff to escalate into a huge no-holds-barred argument? There are two little words which cause more damage than most – and neither of them is an expletive. I am thinking of ‘never’ and ‘always.’
As in: “You never listen to me properly!” (Bet she has, at least once.) “You’re always rude to my friends.” (Bet he is polite, now and again.) In short, the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that ‘always’ and ‘never’ are almost always never true.
Consider this scenario: John and Jane are both on the same personal development course. They’re both buying into all the good stuff that says that they could fulfill more of their potential, that they deserve success, that nobody can make them feel mad, bad or sad, that limiting beliefs sometimes hold them back, that they could set more exciting goals, that some powerful affirmations could boost their self-esteem… in short that they are pretty darned amazing.
At the end, does John turn to Jane and say: “You are truly amazing?” Unlikely. He’s too busy saying affirmations into the mirror such as: “I amtruly marvellous.” (And good for him, because it’s true.) Of course Jane is just as amazing, in her own unique Jane-like way; why wouldn’t she be? But John would make a more valuable contribution to society if he realised it. And vice-versa.