Lee Zimmerman, of Prospect, Kentucky, overcomes his business struggles by embracing the spirit of financial offerings in the SGI.
by Lee Zimmerman
Living Buddhism: Thank you for sharing your experience with us! What was life like growing up in Kentucky?
Lee Zimmerman: I was raised Jewish along with my three brothers in a very privileged and happy home in Louisville. My father was a physician for 57 years. Though I continue to cherish my Jewish heritage, I came to embrace Buddhism as my spiritual path.
How were you introduced to Buddhism?
Lee: My best friend, Larry, received the Gohonzon in 1971 and started to tell me about the Buddhist practice. Around that time, I was deep into the hippie counterculture movement and began using heroin. I stopped using the drug in 1975 but was prone to relapses at times when I had a physical injury or was going through a hard time.
After getting clean, I became a licensed stockbroker but felt that I was missing something spiritual in my life. I could not verbalize it back then, but I was in search of “treasures of the heart.”
Eventually, just to prove to Larry that chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo wouldn’t work for me, I tried it out. Obviously I proved to myself that it did work! On February 13, 1985, I received the Gohonzon.
That’s wonderful! How did your life develop from there?
Lee: A few years later, I married Sherrill on June 11, 1988. We adopted our son, Nathan, six years later.
About 10 years into our marriage, I was looking for an entrepreneurial opportunity and decided to open a center for children with medical challenges. The facility is set up like a day care, but the staff are medical professionals—from nurses and speech and behavioral therapists to nutritionists. The children under our care suffer from many conditions including under-developed organs, seizure disorders, pulmonary and cardiac abnormalities, and cerebral palsy—conditions that require skilled nursing care. We became the first facility of our kind to open in Kentucky.
In 2000, Medicaid began working with us because of the improvements they saw in the children and their families enrolled at our center. Excited by this development, I hit the ground running.
By 2004, however, I found myself sitting at the desk of a bank’s “work-out” department, pleading with them to give us a loan so that we could stay open. This was the third bank I’d gone to. Two banks had already turned us away.
What led to this downturn in your business?
Lee: The original business model had failed on many fronts, and I’d made some strategy mistakes. When I tried to expand too quickly, we ran out of money. I had to lay off 50 percent of our staff, and we weren’t sure how we were going to pay the remaining staff. I was looking at bankruptcy, both business and personal, and I began strongly doubting my Buddhist practice, thinking, I know it has power, but can it really help me?
How did you approach the situation?
Lee: I sought guidance from a senior in faith. He recommended that I get in front of the Gohonzon and be completely honest, laying everything out in my prayer. He also encouraged me to strengthen my relationship with SGI President Ikeda by closely reading his guidance and by writing to him. I began to diligently chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. I spent hours in front of the Gohonzon, challenging myself to be totally honest with the universe and ultimately, myself, about who I was, what I wanted to do and why I wanted to do it.
“I have become a better father, husband, employer, friend and citizen—an altogether better person.”
Six weeks after sending my letter to President Ikeda, I received a message from him saying that he was praying for me. This message moved me, filling my heart with gratitude and helping me feel connected to my mentor. My attitude about everything changed.
I began studying Buddhism seriously and took action for kosen-rufu. I began living the practice each day—not just in theory, as I had a tendency to do. Now I had confidence in my ability to carry out my human revolution.
I read over and over the passage from Nichiren Daishonin in which he says: “You must never think that any of the eighty thousand sacred teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha’s lifetime or any of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas of the ten directions and three existences are outside yourself. Your practice of the Buddhist teachings will not relieve you of the sufferings of birth and death in the least unless you perceive the true nature of your life. If you seek enlightenment outside yourself, then your performing even ten thousand practices and ten thousand good deeds will be in vain” (“On Attaining Buddhahood in This Lifetime,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 3).
What did you realize?
Lee: I began seeing the true reality of my life and realized that I could become a person who impacts this world. My sporadic reliance on drugs transformed into a quest for unshakable happiness, and I became 100 percent committed to never relapsing. Something clicked in me, and I became confident that advancing kosen-rufu was the most important thing, not my personal fame and fortune. And I decided to dream bigger and prove the power of this practice once and for all. My job was no longer just a job; it became my mission, the way I would advance kosen-rufu.
What happened next?
Lee: Well, the May 2005 Commemorative Contribution activity was approaching. As the only member of my family who practices Buddhism, I never felt the need to discuss my contributions to the SGI with my wife, Sherrill. In fact, I had been hiding my contributions from her and had been contributing with great reservation, feeling obligated to give money that I felt I could not afford.
As I was chanting to be completely honest with the Gohonzon and myself, I also decided to be honest with my wife about this. I asked her if we could sit down and talk. I was nervous. I knew that the amount I wanted to contribute to the SGI-USA was going to be, let’s just say, uncomfortable. But, I told her that I didn’t want to contribute again without her knowledge and support. Rather than feeling obligated, I now felt that this was an opportunity for my family to give to the greatest movement on earth.
When I presented the amount to my wife, she agreed. We both felt the freeing joy of altruism. I also realized that by hiding contributions from Sherrill, I was shortchanging her compassion. By opening up to her, I experienced her generosity and support on a deeper level than ever before.
Here we are 12 years later. Our lives are completely different, but what has remained the same is that every year we discuss our contribution to the SGI-USA, and every year we’ve been able to increase the amount significantly.
How did you resolve your business difficulties?
Lee: So, back to 2005—one week after Sherrill and I made our first joint contribution, I was at the fourth bank, still trying to save my business. I met with the president of the bank through a mutual friend, laid out my business plan and honestly told him that if this didn’t go through, I was going to have to shut down my business.
The bank president said: “I really like what you’re doing for the children and the community. I’m going to give you a shot.” The bank gave us a loan and a line of credit.
From that point on, we surpassed all projections. We paid off the debt in a mere six months. We are now a multi-million-dollar company with seven locations across Kentucky and Florida, and we will soon be expanding into Texas. I have 450–500 employees, and we take care of an average of 500 children during the school year and over 700 in the summer. I get to do something that I love every day, knowing that I am making a difference in society.
That’s amazing! What was the change that took place in you?
Lee: The courage to be honest with myself and my wife stemmed from a newly developed confidence that whatever happened to my business or financial circumstances is separate from what happens in my heart. Even if I never made a profit and my businesses closed, the treasures of the heart could not be destroyed.
It was a confidence that I was doing the right thing for the right reasons. Was there going to be a return financially? Honestly, that wasn’t important to me anymore. The joy of contributing based on my human revolution—that is the real victory.
Thank you for sharing! How has your practice developed since then?
Lee: I continue to self-reflect, asking myself: Who am I? Who do I want to be? I am constantly aligning myself with President Ikeda’s guidance and the kosen-rufu movement. My biggest realization has been that I am capable of becoming so much more compassionate and efficient. Then I work hard to manifest this in my life.
Over the door to my office is a sign with three words: “Compassion, Wisdom, Courage.” I try to infuse all of my decisions in business, family and my everyday life with these three qualities of a Buddha. And without fail, this has led me in the right direction.
Challenging myself to live based on the philosophy of Nichiren Buddhism in every aspect of my life has totally changed who I am. People always comment on how joyful I am, which was not the case in the past. I have become a better father, husband, employer, friend and citizen—an altogether better person. With appreciation for this fact, I constantly share this practice with others. Since the beginning of this year, I have helped five people, including three youth, receive the Gohonzon.
Toward November 18, 2018, and the gathering of 50,000 youth, I’m determined to help 12 more people join the SGI-USA. I am especially determined to introduce many young people to Buddhism, to the power of the Gohonzon and to SGI President Ikeda’s philosophy of absolute happiness.
Reflecting on your experience, what are your thoughts about contributions to the SGI-USA?
Lee: I can’t overstate the importance and joy of dedicating my life to kosen-rufu. Sure, those initial contributions I made were uncomfortable at first. But sometimes it’s uncomfortable to expand your life and challenge yourself to develop in new ways. The fact of the matter is that, through sincerely challenging myself to become a capable person for the world, I have developed treasures of the heart that will never be destroyed. To me, joy and appreciation are the keys to giving. It’s a joy that comes from knowing that, just by contributing to kosen-rufu, I’ve already won.