Mike Morris shares how he developed the courage to go for his dreams

by Mike Morris
LAUREL, MD.

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Mr. and Mrs. Morris (front center) with family. Photo: Rob Hendry

Living in Alabama, my mother’s family was Creek Indian and had suffered much persecution. My great-grandmother instructed me to be proud of being Creek but to keep it to myself. My father’s job in the U.S. Navy also required us to move frequently, so I never got the chance to fall in with a group of friends. Eventually, we ended up in Maryland.

I masked my feelings of rejection with anger and joined a gang when I was in the eighth grade. I became so unruly that my teachers signed a petition to have me expelled from the local county schools. When I was in the 10th grade, my parents divorced.

My only refuge was music. I had heard a powerful drum line at a parade when I was 12, and it woke something up deep inside me. I joined a drum class and, even though I couldn’t read music, I led us to state and national drum line championships.

After my parents’ divorce, my mother, two younger siblings and I returned to Alabama, where I finished high school. In college, my unruly behavior led me to avoid challenge and responsibility to the extreme. If class was too early or if I didn’t like my professor, I didn’t go.

I had a very low GPA with no chance of graduating. I enlisted with the U.S. Air Force, thinking that I could join either the Air Force Drum and Bugle Corps or the Airmen of Note, its premier jazz ensemble. But there were no spots. After 13 months and 13 days in the service, I was discharged honorably. My papers described me as “intense and ill-tempered toward the military—unadaptable.”

I moved back to Maryland and got word that a fellow ex-gang member was now a working musician and a Buddhist. I was shocked and called him up. He invited me to a local SGI-USA discussion meeting, which was filled with laughter and hope. I felt genuinely happy for the first time since my parents’ divorce.

I have played for kings, presidents and diplomats, trying to carry out President Ikeda’s vision for peace through the power of music. 

I received the Gohonzon on June 22, 1973. To truly put my newfound faith to the test, I chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo abundantly and participated in any activity I could. This led me to an opportunity to play in a baseball game at Soka University of Japan during an SGI training course. While our team was warming up, a car arrived in front of us. Out came SGI President Ikeda in a baseball uniform. He was there to play and coach us. My instinct was to rebel, as I had done with all my teachers, but I was impressed by his humility. He dug his cleats in the ground and rubbed his hands in the dirt as we played together. President Ikeda came up to me after the game and said, “I just want to be your friend.” His sincerity deeply touched me.

After coming home, I decided to practice with the SGI for the rest of my life. I earnestly dedicated myself to activities and got married to my wife, Mary, on May 3, 1975. We had a beautiful daughter together, but I struggled to provide for my family without a college degree.

After 10 years, I found myself still stuck in odd jobs, painting houses and hanging wallpaper. I told a senior in faith that I wanted to teach, but I was terrified to go back to college after 20 years while supporting two daughters. After learning that President Ikeda formed the Min-On Concert Association to build global friendship through cultural exchange, I also developed in my heart a dream to travel the world playing music.

I chanted for the courage to finally face my fears and engraved into my life Nichiren Daishonin’s words encouraging a disciple to advance with resolute faith. He writes: “[F]aith is the cornerstone. Because the Han emperor believed completely in his retainer’s words, the river froze over. And Li Kuang was able to pierce a rock with his arrow because he fully believed it to be the tiger that had killed his father. How much more so is this true in Buddhism!” (“The Real Aspect of the Gohonzon,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 833).

I returned to my college in Alabama to fix my disastrous transcripts. What transpired next was nothing short of extraordinary. When I sat down with the dean of humanities, he remarked that he had just come back from his best friend’s funeral. Blinking back tears, he stared at me and said, “You look just like him.” The dean got up and told his secretary to honor whatever request I had. And just like that, in a flash, my entire transcript was restored. I was able to graduate quickly and entered the University of Maryland’s Masters of Elementary Education program.

I was hired at a middle school teaching the same grade level I was in when I was almost kicked out of school. I taught as an English teacher, and the school let me teach some general music my last year.

When a music teacher found out that I played drums, he recruited me to be part of a prestigious jazz band. We’ve since played at premier jazz clubs and festivals around the world in front of more than a million people in over 14 countries. I have played for kings, presidents and diplomats, trying to carry out President Ikeda’s vision for peace through the power of music. The group I travel with directed the Airmen of Note, which I wanted to join years ago. I’ve taken my incredible wife, Mary, with me everywhere, and we’ve been able to have amazing experiences together.

I recently retired after 23 years of teaching. Mary and I are determined to continue to use our lives for kosen-rufu and show great proof of this amazing practice in our golden years of life.