How Buddhism taught Elysée Degre to never place limits on his dreams.

by Elysée Degre
BRONX, N.Y.

In May 2014, I was among the 3,000 people who received the Gohonzon at a meeting in Abidjan, the economic capital of Ivory Coast, my home country. The joy I felt at that moment was boundless.

Due to the ongoing political turmoil in Ivory Coast, I had not been able to receive the Gohonzon for the first 12 years of my practice. I made an effort as often as I could to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo in front of the Gohonzon at the home of my district leader, and I prayed earnestly to one day have the Gohonzon in my own home.

What drew me to Buddhism? As a child, I grew up seeing a great deal of dysfunction in my household, with severe and frequent arguments between my parents. Whenever I witnessed my mother in tears over the fights she and my father had, I felt enormous frustration. I became withdrawn, but if I felt wronged, I would get angry and fight at a moment’s notice. At times, I acted violently toward my siblings.

I didn’t know how to change my ways and even looked to the church for help, but I struggled to find the answers to many life questions. When I was 17, I met a young man who told me about Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and said that chanting these words would make me a great person. I liked the sound of that.

The next Sunday, I went to my first SGI meeting, where all the members were friendly, joyful and smiling. I started to chant every morning and evening, with a strong determination to be in full control of my own actions and life.

My parents were against my practice and asked me many times to quit and come back to the church, but I continued chanting. Amazingly, my attitude started to change. I no longer felt that constant anger running through me, and instead became more gentle and loving. I learned to love my family more than I had before, and my grades at school also improved. My family and friends started to see that this practice was having a good and solid effect on me. I was so happy the day that my mother told me, “Never give up your chanting.”

This would prove crucial when I was faced with a life-or-death situation. In 2010, Ivory Coast’s presidential election ended with both candidates claiming victory, leading to civil war. Rebels eventually overthrew the government and killed many people who had supported the previous president. On May 27, 2011, they came to my older brother’s home because he had worked for the former government. There is no doubt that they planned to kill him. Fortunately, he was not home, but instead they found me and two of my brother’s friends. They pulled their guns out and yelled at us to get into their vehicle to take us away.

“To fight” means to win over my weaknesses, to do my human revolution, to chant and take action.

At that moment, I started chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo frantically in my heart. Right before entering the vehicle, the rebels asked my brother’s friends if they knew me, and they both said, “No.” I was released. One of the young men they took was never seen again. Had the insurgents known I was the brother of the person they were looking for, they would have killed me for sure. I’m confident that I was protected through my strong faith.

I later met my brother at a hotel. All night, I could not sleep. I was chanting for my family and had so much gratitude for my Buddhist practice. When the civil war ended later that year, none of my family members were harmed and not one SGI member died. Everyone was protected.

Finally, during my Gohonzon conferral ceremony in May 2014, I’ll never forget what the leader asked us. He said: 1. Will you practice with the Gohonzon for your entire life?; 2. Do you accept SGI President Ikeda as your mentor?; and 3. Do you understand the importance of practicing with the SGI?

Burning with the wish to actualize SGI President Ikeda’s vision that the 21st century become the Century of Africa—a century in which ordinary people flourish—we all answered with a resounding “Yes!”

For anyone thinking about receiving the Gohonzon in the U.S., my advice would be to receive it as soon as possible! SGI-USA members are truly fortunate to not have to wait as long as I did.

My relationship with my family is another wonderful thing that has changed completely through the practice. My father supported me financially to pursue my college education and insisted that I attend the best school. So two years ago, I left Ivory Coast for New York and received my master’s in international business law last year. My mother’s relationship with my father changed as well, and my older brother joined the SGI in 2012 in Ivory Coast. Buddhism has taught me to never place limits on the dreams in my heart.

This quote by my mentor, President Ikeda, has always inspired me to keep going during tough times: “I hope no matter what happens, you will always advance with hope. Especially I hope that the more desperate your  circumstances, the more you will press on with unflagging hope. Please keep challenging things with a bright and positive spirit, always taking care at the same time to safeguard your health” (Faith Into Action, p. 127).

Growing up, I understood “fight” as doing violence to someone else, to take out my anger and get what I wanted. It was physical, aggressive and negative. But today, thanks to the SGI and President Ikeda, it has a completely different meaning. “To fight” means to win over my weaknesses, to do my human revolution, to chant and take action, and when faced with a difficult situation, to not be swayed, so that I can overcome all my obstacles and emerge triumphant!

I’m determined to introduce Buddhism to all my family and many friends here in New York and in Ivory Coast, and to become a great person who can support Bronx Region become a champion of kosen-rufu.

I am also beginning my doctoral studies in family law here in America. My dream is to see a Soka University in Africa. Too many young people there grow up in violent situations without education. We need to stop this and do something. Through education, I think I can help my homeland and other countries in Africa to become more peaceful and happy. I vow to prove the power of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and become victorious, no matter what!