Powered by her vow for kosen-rufu, Shobhan Giterson, of St. Martin, finds the strength to rebuild her community amid the devastation of Hurricane Irma.
Thank you for sharing your experience with us. How did your family start practicing Buddhism?
Shobhan Giterson: St. Martin is a small island in the Caribbean with a population of about 33,000. In 1984, an SGI member from St. Croix came to St. Martin on vacation and introduced my mother to Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and the SGI. Inspired by the idea that she could become happy, my mother started chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and became the first person on the island to start practicing SGI Nichiren Buddhism. She soon introduced her entire family and, eventually, even my father who was studying to become a Catholic priest. Today, we have 150 families practicing on the island.
What inspired you to embrace the practice?
Shobhan: I suffered from severe asthma and allergies as a child. During my asthma attacks, which occurred often, my mother would always chant with me in her arms. Because of my weak constitution, my mother was very strict with me about chanting so that I would transform my health karma.
I had my first real experience in faith when I was in the sixth grade. I had poor grades, and the teachers told my parents that I might be sent to a lower-performing high school as a result. At 11, I made a determination to improve my grades and started chanting twice a day. That year, I finished the academic year at the top of my class and was able to attend one of the highest-performing high schools on the island. This was the first time I felt, Whoa, chanting really works!
I was so inspired by this, I started telling my friends in high school about Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. I was part of a high school dance team that held practices at my home. We would chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as a team before practice and end with gongyo. As a team, we were undefeated! Two of my high school dance team members received Gohonzon and are still practicing today.
Wow, that’s encouraging! Did you remain on the island after high school?
Shobhan: I moved to the Netherlands, where I received my bachelor’s degree and graduated in 2008. I then started a master’s program and that’s when I learned I was pregnant. I was happy to start a family. However, at six months, during a visit home to St. Martin, I went into premature labor with no one at home. I ended up delivering my baby girl, Aixia, on my own. When a relative came back to the house, she was shocked to see Aixia in my arms, the umbilical chord still attached, and took me to the hospital right away. Aixia’s lungs were underdeveloped and she ended up passing away. I was extremely devastated and could not get out of bed for days. My father came into my room and with strict compassion, encouraged me to chant at this crucial time and become strong.
I did gongyo and read SGI President Ikeda’s guidance. His words still resonate in my heart today:
No matter what the circumstances, you should never concede defeat. Never conclude that you’ve reached a dead end, that everything is finished. You possess a glorious future. And precisely because of that, you must persevere and study. Life is eternal. We need to focus on the two existences of the present and the future and not get caught up in the past. We must always have the spirit to begin anew ‘from this moment,’ to initiate a new struggle each day.” (Buddhism Day by Day, p. 315)
I made a determination to fight for kosen-rufu on behalf of my daughter and my family, to complete my master’s within a year, no matter what, and never to become a victim of my circumstances. I determined to encourage others through my experience, and, through chanting for Aixia, I was able to understand profoundly the preciousness of life. Within a year, I graduated with my master’s as promised. It was with this victory that I welcomed my daughter, Sevahnna, into my life two years later. She is now 5 years old and the joy of my life.
I moved back to St. Martin in 2016 after 12 years in the Netherlands. When I returned, it was difficult to adjust to life on the island.
What was your turning point?
Shobhan: This year I was asked to attend the SGI Youth Training Course in September. At first, I didn’t feel spiritually ready or worthy of going. I was struggling at work and felt anger and resentment toward my co-workers. But I did attend, and through my encounters with SGI youth from all over the world, I deeply renewed my determination to work for the happiness of the people in the Caribbean.
We understand that while you were in Japan, you learned that a Category 5 Hurricane was headed for your island. What was going through your mind at the time?
Shobhan: While chanting at the Hall of the Great Vow for Kosen-rufu, I made a vow that the SGI members in the Caribbean Islands would truly stand up for kosen-rufu, starting with me. Shortly afterward, I spoke with my father who told me the news of the hurricane. Based on my renewed vow, I was able to see this tremendous setback through the eyes of faith—as an obstacle trying to stop the advancement of kosen-rufu on the islands. I was determined not to be defeated!
What was it like traveling home?
Shobhan: The hurricane was expected to hit St. Martin shortly after my arrival back to the States, so I was redirected to New York. I thought I would be delayed from returning home for a few days, but due to the severe damage the hurricane caused to the island, I remained in New York for 17 days.
While there, I wrote to President Ikeda every day. Unable to see my daughter, I was scared for her. But I put complete trust in the Gohonzon and returned home on one of the first flights from Miami back to the island.
I have so much appreciation for the members in New York for taking care of me and to members all around the world for their prayers. Through their care, I was able to feel President Ikeda’s spirit, and I learned through their lives how to truly care about others.
How has the recovery gone in St. Martin since your return?
Shobhan: Many of my family members and friends lost their homes, but everyone has come together to rebuild the island. About 60 percent of the electricity and water is back up and running. I’ve been getting to know neighbors that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. The schools had a soft opening, and my daughter went back to school the first week of October. I have also returned to work.
In light of these experiences, what is your determination moving forward?
Shobhan: My determination is that the youth in St. Martin stand up for kosen-rufu and that we bring 50 youth to the 50,000 Lions of Justice Festival in 2018! I want to work together with the men’s and women’s division members to foster capable youth throughout the islands who have unshakable faith. Toward that end, we started holding introduction-to-Buddhism meetings twice a month. At our first meeting, we welcomed three youth guests!
Although it is a humble start, I feel now more than ever that it’s time for propagation to unfold here in St. Martin, so that people can lead victorious lives, filled with courage and hope.