by Lonnie Sheinart
In my second year of marriage, my husband, Allen, was diagnosed with AIDS in 1989 and given six months to live. He had received a bad blood transfusion during a 1984 surgery, just a few months before receiving the Gohonzon.
Shortly after, I learned that I also had HIV. We were both devastated. How could this happen to us? we wondered. Allen had been practicing Nichiren Buddhism for five years, and I for 14 years. But we came to truly understand that we were embarking on a new journey of faith together.
As deep as the searing pain was watching my husband’s gradual physical and mental decline, there was also tremendous joy. We shared many intimate thoughts and feelings. And with every ounce of energy, we challenged ourselves arm in arm with the members of our fantastic chapter, chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo abundantly and making heartfelt, life-to-life connections. All of us together grew so close and learned a lot through Allen’s fighting spirit to live and die with dignity.
By deepening our faith and continuing to participate in kosen-rufu activities, Allen extended his life by six incredible years. On June 16, 1995, my sweetheart died in my arms, having accomplished his life’s mission victoriously.
Until then, I had put much of my personal life on hold, as I worked a demanding sales job, maintained the home we had purchased, fulfilled my leadership responsibilities in the SGI-USA and took care of my husband and his ever-changing needs.
One month after Allen’s death, I was let go from my sales job. I felt so heavy and apathetic. I desperately missed Allen by my side, and my only hope lay in facing the Gohonzon to chant, but even then with a heavy heart. I never would take my own life, but I could not shake the feeling of wanting to be with my husband.
My kosen-rufu activities constantly pushed me out of my darkness, along with my selfless friends in faith, who offered me tremendous encouragement and support.
During that time, I transformed years of pain with my family. For 65 years, my parents devoted their lives as top religious leaders of another faith. As a result, they never understood or accepted my Buddhist practice, even pushing me out of the family. I loved my parents, and this hurt me deeply. When I had asked a senior in faith how I could share Buddhism with my family, I was told that when my family praised me, they would be praising the Buddha.
After seven long years, I finally revealed my illness to my mother and father. I had not told my parents all that time to protect them from further suffering. They threw their arms around me and told me how much they loved me, and that they would do anything to help me. My dad called me his heroine and said he had never known a more courageous woman in life. It was a major turning point for me. Who would have thought that my HIV status would allow me to touch and encourage so many people, especially my own family?
Buddhism is win or lose, and I’m going to win no matter what! This is my declaration as I chant in front of the Gohonzon.
There are many challenges living with HIV/AIDS—one is that women don’t want to be identified. They are afraid of the stigma, worried about losing jobs and friends, and being judged. We are still in the minority of the HIV/AIDS population, and many live in shame without disclosing their illness to anyone close to them. As you can imagine, this sort of isolation triggers depression.
Through an AIDS organization I support, I met a young woman who was experiencing that same sense of isolation that I am so familiar with. Almost mystically, she and I had friends in common, friends in the SGI. “I know Nam-myoho-renge-kyo!” she said. It was easy to introduce her to the practice, since our mutual friends had been talking to her about Buddhism for a while. She received the Gohonzon in March 2016.
Through the same organization, I met another young woman and her partner, and we connected immediately. They also joined the SGI that same month.
In the first few weeks of practice, all three of them started to transform their depression and began to feel the joy of life. The tremendous support of SGI members offered them a safe haven for the first time since their diagnoses.
One of these young women has now won over her depression, gotten a car and received a great promotion at work. She was recently appointed a district young women’s leader and has already helped two others begin their Buddhist practice. With the strength that chanting has given her, she is now able to share her story with many others, something she could never do before. She recently said: “Since I’ve begun chanting, I’ve learned to recognize the Buddha in myself and pull strength from within. I have hope now!”
My prayer has always been to raise young leaders who will stand with SGI President Ikeda. I’ve made an even stronger determination as we advance toward the 50,000 youth gathering in 2018. Recently, I was a guest speaker at UCLA as part of its “Positively Speaking” series. I shared highlights from my 30 years of living with HIV, weaving my Buddhist practice throughout my presentation. One of the other panelists came up to me afterward and said he wanted to learn more about Buddhism. That same week, he attended an introductory Buddhist meeting with me. More recently, I befriended a young, talented jazz musician who will receive the Gohonzon this month, and I’m over the moon!
I’m very fortunate to be part of the 3 percent of people with HIV who are asymptomatic. Today, the virus is undetectable in my body, and my health is excellent. I’m so grateful to have the Gohonzon and to be a member of this incredible SGI family. I chant to fully accomplish my mission every day and to be 100 percent healthy, so I can contribute to kosen-rufu and show tremendous actual proof in society.
Buddhism is win or lose, and I’m going to win no matter what! This is my declaration as I chant in front of the Gohonzon. Whatever comes at me, I have to overcome it. This is how I continue to change my karma into mission!