20 years to receive the Gohonzon

I recently wrote an experience describing some of the life events that lead to me receiving [the] Gohonzon last year (I’ve never been sure people insist on omitting the definite article when referring to the Gohonzon). I originally sent this to my great friend, Jason Jarrett (pictured – me on the right) who had been so instrumental in nurturing my Buddhist faith. He read it out so beautifully in the October 2011 episode of his wonderful abuddhistpodcast.

So, a few months later, I was invited to read this out for real, at the 2012 new year’s HQ study meeting in Sutton Coldfield. The invitation came literally within an hour of something that had caused some upset. The timing was quite amazing, and encouraged me to accept the invitation despite my smaller self screaming NO!

My 20 year journey to the Gohonzon

My experience began 20 years ago, in an anxiety support group. After working long hours away from home to support my mom after her marriage breakup, and I burnt out – My GP had me on medication that made me feel terrible, resulting in regular panic attacks.

So there I was, on the mental health treadmill, sat in a room full of people with whom I felt little in common. Naturally, I gravitated to the one person in the group I could relate to as another burnt out “professional”.

Deborah was studying for her law exams. We talked at length about the nature of our problems and towards the end of the anxiety group sessions she gave me a copy of Richard Causton’s book now sold as The Buddha in Daily Life. She also invited me to a district meeting in Selly Oak. I accepted.

A few days later, I drove to a side street in Birmingham. It looked quite ordinary, although really I didn’t know what to expect. No orange flags, or statues of the Buddha in the window. In fact there was no sign of life at all.

I began to convince myself I had got the wrong date or address. I sat for a while longer and finally plucked up courage to get out of the car. It was dark and I felt truly out of my depth as I walked to the door. I gingerly pressed the bell button, hoping it wouldn’t make a sound but in fact it was quite loud.

A light came on behind the opaque glass door, and I could make out a stairway, and a figure dashing down to meet me – I could hear the drone of what sounded like chanting. I had the sudden urge to run away, or ask for a fictitious name, anything that would help me escape… too late… The door opened, and I was invited inside.

I was shown upstairs into a room full of people who were chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo at breakneck speed, including Deborah – her friendly face did little to calm my nerves. I was offered a seat, which I gladly accepted – my legs had turned to jelly.

I sat through Gongyo. Bearing in mind, this was the long Gongyo that was practiced before the SGI split from the priesthood. People were reciting it by heart – and fast! The sound, and the atmosphere were electric. I remember stiffling a giggle – it was just so intense!

After Gongyo had finished, Debbie introduced me to a few of the members. Nobody tried to browbeat me with their beliefs, but they were all quite curious to know how I felt – Probably because I had gone a sort of pale green colour due to another panic attack.

I tried to stick out the meeting, but the anxiety symptoms wouldn’t go away. As was becoming habitual, I made my excuses and left. As I drove home my anxiety subsided, and I began to regret having come away. I shall never forget that first meeting, and the warmness of the people there.

Unfortunately, my life had to get worse before it would improve, and my anxiety tightened its grip. I began to withdraw and become agoraphobic – afraid to travel very far, and avoiding social contact whenever possible – it was not surprising looking back that I soon lost touch with Deborah.

However, the seed had been planted. Nam Myoho Renge Kyo stuck firmly in my mind, and I would chant it from time to time – sometimes out of desperation, and sometimes out of rapture, but rarely regularly or with any conviction.

The next 15 years of my life were a mess of remission, regression, divorce, and many more visits to various mental health services, and ironically a job in the NHS for several years.

It was around this time that I married the most wonderful woman, Dawn, who’s birthday on 28th April was doubly easy to remember as it also marks the date when Nichiren Diashonin first announced the Daimoku!

I started working for myself as a photographer but my health continued to drag me down and prevent me from attending assignments. It was only after we underwent the strains of caring for Dawn’s mom, Millie, while she steadily lost her fight with lung cancer, that things began to change for me.

I’ll never forget the evening when Millie passed away in the room which is now my office at home. Shortly before she died, she held my hand, and asked me, “you will look after Dawn, won’t you?” – Dawn had previously been married to an abusive man, so the gravity of Millie’s question was clear. I assured her that I would always be there for Dawn. Within a couple of hours, Millie slipped away in the company of her children.

This was a turning point. Despite being at such a physical low, I determined to sort out my life and become capable of supporting my family instead of feeling physically dependant on them. I was still suffering from terrible fatigue and anxiety, being unable to walk or travel without feeling totally exhausted.

I had to get out of this mess. I was afraid I would suffer with Chronic Fatigue for the rest of my life – That I would never be able to overcome any serious obstacles ever again. I felt so low there were times I sat alone in my small studio and wept for hours.

Then, a few weeks later, I came across abuddhistpodcast, a kind of buddhist radio show on the internet. The style and content gripped me, and then I heard the name, Nichiren Daishonin! – That rings a bell! I immediately turned the house upside down, and uncovered the book I had been given so long ago. Nichiren Daishonin’s buddhism was back in my life! Was it just coincidence, or serendipity? Regardless, something in this buddhism clicked and I decided to take the bull by the horns and engage with it.

I decided to get in touch with the producer, Jason Jarrett, who had just recorded his most recent show from his hospital bed while suffering encephalitis! Jason’s warmth and enthusiasm for helping me understand Buddhism was incredible.

A few months later I visited Jason and his wife, Karen at Taplow Court, and subsequently met Jason when he attending meetings in the midlands. Slowly I began to build my faith and learn more about the practice. Various local leaders of the SGI took the time to visit me in my home, which I greatly appreciated. Considering my continued procrastination, their patience was commendable!

I felt I would put things truly to the test when, after almost 12 years of estrangement, I decided to end the silence between me and my father. It was very emotional, and has diffused a great deal of anger and unhappiness.

Knowing that we could have reconciled our differences sooner remains regrettable, and yet I am joyful that, unlike so many father-son feuds, we had realised the foolishness of our situation before it was too late.

By this time my business had grown to provide me with a realistic income. Then, about three years ago my neighbour was diagnosed with cancer. A carpenter by trade, being restricted to spending time pottering around his home was clearly affecting his spirits. I asked him if he would make a Butsudan for me. He kindly accepted and built me a lovely Butsudan. I also found myself starting to gather various books from the SGI, and chanting more regularly. So what was I waiting for? Why hadn’t I joined the SGI?

I was still afraid, and my low energy made me unsure if I was worthy or able to fulfil a role in the SGI.

I continued chanting more and more often. Sometimes in front of the Butsudan, sometimes walking the dog, sometimes while driving. Like a great wave rising as it approaches the shore I could feel an increasing conviction that chanting was changing my life – filling me with hope for the future.

Then, in October 2010, after a lot of hard work and encouragement from friends and family, I realised a life long ambition and got my pilot’s license – On one hand, this was a great achievement, but on the other, it just allowed me to be antisocial above the clouds.

However, I felt sure I was on a roll, so I pressed on with tackling my social anxieties and decided a few months later to take the plunge and attend a Wolverhampton and Dudley district meeting.

Why had I left it so long? I’ve met some wonderful friends there who I feel I’ve known for years. I always return from meetings feeling inspired, energised and hopeful.

A few months ago, I had managed to sneak away from the office for a quick flight. It was a warm day, and the air was turbulent and hazy near the ground.

As I climbed through the bumpy air, my journey through Buddhism to this point ran through my mind. Some flying students dislike the turbulence so much they give up learning to fly altogether. Likewise, our initial buddhist practice can get off to a rough start and we can become equally discouraged.

As I climbed through the haze the visibility was awful – and likewise, my initial practice didn’t give me the insight into my life that I was expecting. But just as clear skies were above me, I knew by continuing my practice, things would definitely improve.

Above the haze and everything became silky smooth and crystal clear. It was a moment of clarity in more ways than one. By maintaining my faith and conviction in the Lotus Sutra, and the SGI’s noble values I knew that my understanding of the vast beauty of the law would grow – giving me a better view of reality as it really is, and not subject to my limited wisdom.

In that moment I made the determination to receive the Gohonzon. The truth of course, was that I always had been, but now the desire was burning in me like a torch.

At the very next meeting, I made it known that I would like to receive the Gohonzon into my life. Needless to say, my friends at the district were thrilled that I had taken the plunge.

On 2nd October 2011, I stood up on the platform at Taplow Court, and to jubilant cheers from my wife and friends who had come to support me from the district, I received the Gohonzon from Sue Thornton. I’m not too proud to admit that tears of happiness streamed down my face as I returned to my seat in the hall.

So, how has it changed my life?

I realised that my work was starting to take over my life, so a few weeks ago I sold part of my business so that I could slow down a little, and focus more on things that add value to my life.

My baby grand daughter, for example, is soon to undergo an operation to deal with a cyst in her brain the size of a tennis ball. We’re still not sure how things will turn out, but instead of focussing on what might go wrong, I now cherish every moment I can spend with her.

Also, as I was writing this, I was asked to give another example of a challenge I had overcome since receiving the Gohonzon.

Of the four devils, illness is one of the most difficult to overcome, perhaps because it can seem so unfair and arbitrary, it can be very demoralising. Mental illness, especially, can present a particularly difficult challenge to our happiness. Because it affects our mind – the very part of us we need to master in order to overcome our delusions, mental illness can be very debilitating, and difficult to conquer.

I’m standing here doing something that I simply could not have done a year or so ago – at least not without a raft of tranquilisers. In fact I would probably have done anything to avoid it.

The reason I have overcome my fears to deliver this experience today is that I have come to firmly believe we are all connected. I’m a Buddha, and you are all Buddha’s too. When I look at you all, I get the same feeling I get when I face the Gohonzon – like the sun, warming my bones on a winter’s day, your compassion elevates me.

It’s a wonderful feeling, and gives me the wisdom, courage and compassion to strive for benefit, growth and ultimately happiness despite adversity in my life. It’s a wonderful state – and one I hope to help others realise in their own lives for many years to come.

I only hope that I am able to give back to my family, my dear friends in the SGI, including Rita, Barbara, Klara, and my dear friend Jason Jarrett, the gratitude that I owe for this wonderful practice. Thank you.

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