by Ojok Grichang
PITTSBURGH

I was 10 years old when my family fled South Sudan during a lengthy civil war that eventually displaced 4 million people. There was nothing left for us there; no safety, no

Photo: Gabriel Colombo.

education.

We were separated for three chaotic years in Egypt and Syria, as we tried to immigrate to the United States. Finally, when I was 13, we began our new life together in Pittsburgh.

With my parents, nine siblings and me in a fairly small place, we fought a lot. It seemed like someone was always yelling, crying or harboring resentment. I would get so angry but hold it all inside, ignoring my problems and hoping they would just resolve themselves. It was easier to become invisible.

When I entered Point Park University in Pittsburgh, I made some great friends through playing soccer. In 2014, three of them started inviting me to SGI meetings. I told them several times that I was not interested, but they were not willing to give up easily. Every time I saw my friend Gabe, he would tell me about Buddhism and the importance of becoming happy. After a while, I thought about it and realized he was right. I didn’t recognize how unhappy I had become because misery became the norm.

When I went to my first Buddhist meeting, I remember feeling energized by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, and through our open discussions, I noticed that the members were approaching their obstacles in a positive way. It left me feeling hopeful and really happy, and I knew I wanted to practice. I received the Gohonzon on Oct. 14, 2015.

I had not been doing well in school when I joined the SGI. I had no focus and blamed my bad attitude on my family issues. But with the support of the local members, I began to see that my self-doubt and lack of confidence were only illusions, and that everything I saw in people around me was actually a reflection of my own tendencies that I needed to transform. For example, I had friends who were also fighting with their families and losing self-confidence. Shortly after I began practicing Buddhism, I helped two of them receive the Gohonzon. To watch my friends open up and overcome the walls they had built around their hearts was almost too much joy to handle!

Then, last August, something happened to me that solidified my conviction in the power of this practice. I was driving my cousin’s car and made an illegal turn. The police stopped me and asked for my registration. When I opened the glove compartment, my cousin’s unregistered, fully loaded gun fell onto the passenger’s seat.

I was frozen with fear, and just as shocked as the police were. They drew their weapons and made me get out of the car. I thought that was it for me. I really did. But instead, they took me to jail, with me chanting under my breath the whole time.

I was moved from cell to cell in groups, as we were fingerprinted or had our pictures taken. There were all kinds of people in there, but one thing was certain: Everyone was extremely angry. It felt like the worst day with my family, but a hundred times over!

It was explained to me that no one got out of jail while waiting to see the judge, which could take up to three weeks. I was scared but figured that I might as well introduce people to Buddhism. I chanted and spoke with some of the guys inside about the practice and our ability to take responsibility for things happening in our environment and not blame others.

I chanted in every cell, encouraging as many people as I could to join in. It reminded me of Nichiren Daishonin’s words: “One may simply chant the daimoku, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, only once a day, or chant it only once in the course of a lifetime; or hear someone else chant it only once in a lifetime and rejoice in the hearing, or rejoice in hearing the voice of someone else rejoice in the hearing, and so on in this manner to the fiftieth hearer” (“‘Expedient Means’ and ‘Life Span’ Chapters,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 68).

Once we started talking about Buddhism, people relaxed and stopped complaining. I gave them something to think about. I changed poison into medicine, and it was one of the greatest experiences. After only 14 hours, I was able to see the judge. It was unbelievable! Everyone was shocked, including the officers. All charges were dropped immediately, and I went home.

After this experience, I deepened my roots in faith, practice and study, no longer allowing my problems to sway me. In general, I have so much joy in my life, and it is reflected in my environment.

Ojok's younger brother Erat Ojoko received the Gohonzon on Feb. 19.
Ojok’s younger brother Erat Ojoko (center) received the Gohonzon on Feb. 19.

I am now the assistant soccer coach at my alma mater, and I am that much closer to my dream job of being a full-fledged coach. I even told my mother, who is devoutly religious, about Buddhism, and she smiled, saying, “Do whatever makes you happy.” I was definitely not expecting that! And my younger brother just received the Gohonzon! He sees how I have changed my perspective, and how I just keep moving forward, no matter what.

For the gathering of 50,000 youth in 2018, I want to bring all my friends from the local African community in Pittsburgh. I recently read about the time when SGI President Ikeda was 25 and had become the leader of the young men’s division First Corps. Reflecting on that time, he emphasized that to develop a solid corps of capable people, we need to have compassion for the person right in front of us and inspire each of them with burning faith. At first, I just couldn’t find the compassion to care for the person in front of me. But now, I’m challenging this spirit as a district young men’s leader and through learning from Sensei’s example.

Having experienced the horrors of war firsthand, I deeply understand the value of the SGI’s philosophy of humanism and its quest for world peace, which begins when one person stands up.