Lee Malone learns that human revolution and the spirit to never be defeated are the keys to victory in all endeavors.
Living Buddhism: Congratulations on your recent appointment as an SGI-USA vice general director! Can you tell us about your upbringing?
Lee Malone: I grew up with loving parents, the second oldest of nine siblings with four brothers and four sisters in Long Island, New York. I was raised in an all-black Pentecostal church, and my mom believed she had the “Holy Ghost” and spoke in tongues—in Pentecostal tradition this means speaking the divine language. On Sundays, we went to church from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m., and then went back from 6 p.m. until 10 p.m.
My father was an upstanding man who worked three jobs to support us. Despite being raised in a good, loving home, I still had a lot of fear in my heart and struggled with a lack of confidence, always doubting whether I would succeed.
How were you introduced to Nichiren Buddhism?
Lee: Of all things, I never imagined I would become a Buddhist.
I joined the U.S. Air Force at 18. I eventually moved to Tachikawa, Japan where I was stationed, with my wife Linda, who is from the Philippines. There, I noticed that many people around me were chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. The first time I heard it, I was sitting on the steps outside an apartment building on the base. It sounded at first like a swarm of bees, but it sparked something inside me.
Then, I started bagging groceries at the base store and met a co-worker named Luther. There was something different about him. He told me that he and his wife were Buddhist. When I came home from work, I smelled incense coming down the stairs of our apartment building. A lady who lived there was doing gongyo. Then, a guy named Pringle moved into my Air Force unit. He had recently received the Gohonzon. I could not get away from Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.
When did you finally join the SGI?
Lee: In 1976, Linda had attended an SGI meeting, and, when she came home, she told me that she wanted to start practicing Buddhism. I was upset because of my fear of religion, thinking, If we do this, I am going to hell.
But two weeks later, we received the Gohonzon with our daughter, Lissa. You could say I was a “closet Buddhist.” If I was chanting and someone knocked on the door, I would quickly blow out my candles, wave my hands in the air to dissipate the smoke and flush the incense down the toilet—like a kid trying to hide his smoking habit from his parents. Over time, however, I began to wonder,What am I afraid of?
What changed your mind about your Buddhist practice?
Lee: The local members were so happy for me. And when someone is happy for you, you start to feel happy, too.
Weeks after I received the Gohonzon, I was invited to attend a meeting with SGI President Ikeda. At the meeting, we were kneeling on tatami mats, which are made of straw. Not knowing who President Ikeda was, all I could think about during the meeting was how much my knees hurt!
But the next day, when a photo of the meeting was printed in the Seikyo newspaper, the members were all smiles, saying: “Lee! You did gongyo with President Ikeda! This is amazing!”
I guess they could have been jealous, or thought, I’ve been practicing for so long, why didn’t I get to meet Sensei? But they didn’t. All I could feel was their joy for me. They really taught me about President Ikeda through the way they took care of me.
That is very moving. What helped you grow as a new member?
Lee: I was always being pushed out of my comfort zone to be the emcee at discussion meetings, give study presentations or even give encouragement. I hadn’t even fully mastered gongyo! When I didn’t want to do something, they encouraged me to do it anyway. Two months after joining, they made Linda and I district leaders. We knew nothing but they trusted us and took great care of us. Because of the training from those members and learning the mentor and disciple relationship, I learned how to fight and win and, most important, how to take care of the members.
Also, since I was having difficulty telling others about my practice, the members told me to study Nichiren Daishonin’s writings. I remember studying “On Persecutions Befalling the Sage” and learning about the young men of Atsuhara who were persecuted because of their faith and died because they wouldn’t give up. What would I do in their situation? I thought.
I learned early on that I’m practicing to change myself—not other people.
Nichiren tells his disciples: “Each of you should summon up the courage of a lion king and never succumb to threats from anyone. The lion king fears no other beast, nor do its cubs. Slanderers are like barking foxes, but Nichiren’s followers are like roaring lions” (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 996).
Though at first I didn’t fully understand what Nichiren was saying, I chanted about it and began to feel more confident. I opened up about my Buddhist practice with friends and family. I learned that fear is an illusion created in my head.
I learned early on that I’m practicing to change myself—not other people.
How has this foundation of Buddhist practice transformed your life?
Lee: Throughout my 40 years of practice, I’ve learned two main things: 1) to never give up, and 2) to always work on my own human revolution.
When I look at the Gohonzon, I see both the good and the bad in my life. I don’t beat myself up for the bad that I see. Instead, I rejoice that I am able to perceive my weaknesses and work on myself to be a better human being. I have to understand how wonderful it is to know myself—not only the good things, but also the shortcomings—and I ask myself, What am I going to do about it?
After 22 years of being in the Air Force, I retired in 1989. I was anxious about what would happen next, again thinking that I wouldn’t succeed. But I chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to challenge my lack of self-confidence and looked for work that would be the most fulfilling for me. As a result, I landed a job as the director of a program for juvenile offenders.
What were your responsibilities at your new job?
Lee: I interviewed youth in juvenile halls all over Los Angeles County to see if they were good candidates to come into one of our group homes, where they could go through counseling and transition back into society as contributive citizens. Many of the youth in our custody were physically and sexually abused, many of them hurt themselves or were in gangs.
Every day, I got up early in the morning to chant and raise my life condition. Then I would go into work and treat people with respect. It was there where I learned how to encourage youth to do their best, no matter what their circumstances.
Based on your many years of working with young people, what do you think is the key to raising youth?
Lee: First, you’re never too old to learn from youth. When I was appointed as a vice general director, I got wonderful encouragement from a young men’s division member, who said, “Lee, just be yourself,” and that is what I will do.
The key is to build relationships with them.
I try to be the type of man that young people can talk with about anything. So I’d say, even if you don’t agree with them, be someone whom youth can talk to.
You mentioned that you were inspired deeply by the goal of the SGI-USA youth to gather 50,000 young people in 2018. Can you talk about that?
Lee: This goal that the SGI-USA youth set toward 2018 reawakened in me the determination to show actual proof and share this Buddhism with more people.
It reminded me that people are really suffering. By helping someone to receive the Gohonzon, not only do you give them the tools to overcome their suffering, but you also gain immense benefit.
When that goal was announced, I decided to show my 100-percent support of the youth. So I determined to personally help five friends receive the Gohonzon by the end of 2016. In October, two of my friends received the Gohonzon!
What have you gained through your 40 years of practicing Nichiren Buddhism?
Lee: I’ve learned how to live the best life from President Ikeda. He taught me that if you practice Buddhism correctly, you should stand out as a human being and be true to yourself. It’s about how you treat people. For me, that means being the best co-worker, neighbor, son, brother, husband and father.
Like Sensei, we must show actual proof in society. I feel that though Buddhism is not a popularity contest, people have to see that there is something different about those who chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.
After retiring, I started working part time for the SGI-USA at the Riverside Buddhist Center. I wake up every morning at 4:30 to get in front of the Gohonzon and chant to serve the members. I choose to challenge myself in this way, because I want to win in life. I end my prayers every morning and evening with, “I’m a disciple of Daisaku Ikeda, and I’m going to win.”