Siblings Lesleyann “LA,” Audrey and Lewis Kingman, of Lawndale, Calif., all joined the SGI-USA a year apart. This is their story.
World Tribune: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. We understand you joined the SGI-USA a year apart, starting in 2014. What led you to the practice?
LA Kingman: I was the first to receive the Gohonzon, on Sept. 14, 2014, which was my birthday! But it was a long, tough journey for me.
WT: How so?
LA: Ever since I was little, I had been closed off. I would be in a corner by myself reading a book, while other kids were playing. For me, it was like I had always been alone. I didn’t know how to interact with other people. We were raised in a devoutly religious family, but when my grandmother died in 1999, it felt like my entire world crumbled. I couldn’t understand how a good person like her could go the way she did, in a car accident.
After that, I got even quieter, and my temper shortened. My mom and I began to fight a lot, and I pushed everyone away.
I went through high school not caring whom I hurt, because I was so hurt. I couldn’t find the answers that I needed in the places I was looking. I was so very, very lost.
WT: How were you introduced to the SGI?
LA: In 2013, I really wasn’t doing anything. I had graduated from college in the Philippines in 2010, and I decided to go back to school. There was a club rush at El Camino College, with many different booths set up. I was drawn to the SGI-USA booth, because it was the only one that was shining in the light that day; all the others were in the shade. After my first few meetings, I realized I had found what I was seeking—a way to find my happiness, but also to bring happiness to my family. Of course, my mother is very religious, so it was a daunting task.
WT: You must have been very courageous to continue practicing. Who in your family did you talk to about Buddhism?
Lewis: That would be me. I was also attending El Camino College when LA was there, so I saw how enthusiastic she was about the practice. I just sort of tagged along to see what it was all about. I knew the struggles LA was going through, and I saw a positive change in her and how committed she was to pursue her practice.
When she received the Gohonzon, it was a life-changing moment for her. I realized that maybe this practice could give me the ability to change my life. I saw it in my sister so clearly.
So I was exposed to it before Audrey, but I was the last to receive the Gohonzon. I stayed on the sidelines for a while.
WT: Audrey, tell us about how you were introduced to the practice.
Audrey: LA snuck a copy of The Winning Life into my suitcase! I went to the Philippines in early 2014, and when I got there, this book fell out of my bag while I was unpacking. I’m a voracious reader, so I sat down and started studying it right then. It took me maybe 20 minutes to read the whole thing, in silence in my room, with the sun setting. It created this mood that shook me to my core and made me ask myself, What am I doing with my life?
My biggest struggle growing up was always looking down on myself. I felt like a failure, like I couldn’t live up to the expectations of my family. I became someone who hid behind a cheery façade, and I felt this immense burden to make sure my immediate family functioned.
When my grandmother died, I started questioning my faith. When I asked the elders, “Why did she die?” there was always this vague answer that didn’t sit well with me. From that moment on, I pretty much stopped going to church. But I was still looking for something.
When I came back to the U.S. in the spring of 2015, the whole family—my mom and dad, Lewis and me—went to see LA perform taiko drumming at a Mother’s Day performance at the South Bay Buddhist Center. I was struck by the ambience and the energy. It made me feel very relaxed and comfortable. I was drawn to it. So when LA asked me for a ride to another meeting on another day, I went with her and stayed. I had also been looking for something, and this practice dit with my vision of life. I received the Gohonzon on Sept. 5, 2015, just shy of a year after LA.
The thing I remember after the meeting is that our family had dinner at one of our mom’s favorite restaurants. It was one of the few times we ate together and had the best time.
WT: It sounds like all of you were very concerned about your mother’s reaction. What happened?LA: Even when I was a guest, my mom would let me go to SGI activities. She would meet the members in Wilson Park District, who came to pick me up, and started seeing them as her own family! My parents have come to appreciate the members and the SGI.
“When we chant together, I feel like our hearts unite. We’re not only creating fortune for our family, but also for everyone around us.”
Audrey: Our parents are very accepting now. It didn’t start out that way, but by gradually learning about Buddhism, they saw that there was nothing wrong with it.
When I received the Gohonzon, my mom learned about what the founding Soka Gakkai presidents went through, and the persecutions they experienced for upholding and spreading this teaching for the sake of the people. She said this helped her understand what the SGI is about and told me: “Thank God, you’re not going off into some mountain and shaving off your hair. I like your hair.”
We all still live at home, so our parents can hear us chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, doing gongyo and talking about SGI activities. (My siblings and I are youth leaders of Wilson Park District.) I think they’ve seen such a change in us, and that makes them happy.
WT: So after Audrey and LA became members, what inspired you to start practicing, Lewis?
Lewis: I had been taking my sisters to meetings, just dropping them off. But by November of last year, I decided to start sticking around. I had seen a change in both of them that I had not expected: LA was more outgoing and engaged, and Audrey was more confident. It really captured my attention.
I went to an intro meeting. Hearing the different experiences got me intrigued. There was a particular experience I heard that was so inspiring that it made me think about what I was doing with my life.
The very first time I chanted was in my car. I was working two delivery jobs, and there were some issues with customers. I chanted before work, and during that shift, I was absolutely calm; it was the smoothest shift I had ever had. Right away, I saw actual proof.
Then, for the L.A. Pan-Pacific Zone year-end meeting, I was asked to emcee with my sisters. There were almost 1,000 people there, and that was where I received the Gohonzon, on Dec. 18, 2016, a year after Audrey. The first thing I did was look for my mother in the audience, and she had tears of joy in her eyes.
WT: Tell us about your vow toward building a movement of 50,000 youth in 2018.
LA: I’m the district young women’s leader, and we have a lot of youth in our district. I’ve been to many meetings where you can really see their passion—how much the youth want to share this practice and help others find their happiness.
Our movement to have 50,000 youth stand up for the dignity of life is really about helping people become happy. We have to reach out to them. There are so many people, especially young people, who are suffering. The youth can be easily suppressed or distracted, and practicing Buddhism offers them an opportunity to stand up and say: “I’m taking hold of my future. I want to be happy!”
Lewis: Everyone is so divided, nationally and around the world. Gathering 50,000 youth is not just crucial for the SGI, but for history, in general. Young people are standing up, they want to be happy, and that’s going to spread. I was just appointed the district young men’s leader, and I’ve been bringing a friend to meetings. Our district is committed to having 10 active young men and 10 active young women by the end of the year.
WT: What does it feel like to chant with your siblings?
LA: I feel so much happiness. When we were younger, we weren’t close because of the age differences. Now we go out and do things together. Since we’ve joined this practice, our relationship is a lot better.
Audrey: It seems like when we sit down to chant together, we’re in age order, so I’m in the middle, between the two of them. And I’m the shortest. It’s like Frodo and the Two Towers when I chant with my siblings! But seriously, I feel relieved. For me to be sitting there between them, knowing what struggles they’ve been through, our life conditions meld together and we move forward with joy.
Lewis: When we chant together, I feel like our hearts unite. We’re not only creating fortune for our family, but also for everyone around us. I feel so fortunate; I never thought I would meet so many amazing people in one organization, much less in one room. We all have our struggles but we chant to bring happiness to ourselves and to others as well. As Nichiren Daishonin writes, “If one lights a fire for others, one will brighten one’s own way” (“On the Three Virtues of Food,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 2, p. 1060). For me, that’s everything.