For years, I struggled with understanding my mission in life. I was raised Jewish in New York City, where there was strong familial pressure to become a doctor or dentist. Without too much resistance, I went to dental school at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and received my dental license.
After graduating from dental school in 1981, I joined the U.S. Navy Reserves as a dentist and was stationed at Camp Pendleton in San Diego. I then moved to Los Angeles in 1984 and continued to practice dentistry for one year. Convinced that the profession was no longer for me, I tried many other jobs, which included working as a stockbroker. Whatever I tried, I felt unfulfilled.
In September 1987, I divorced my first wife. Shortly after, I was introduced to Nichiren Buddhism by two young women. At my first SGI meeting, I witnessed in the participants a sense of conviction and joy I had never seen before.
Through chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo about my mission in life and seeking guidance in faith, I decided to return to dentistry, this time as a person with a mission to serve others. I thought about many of my patients who seemed downcast and lacked hope. I knew that with my newfound Buddhist practice, I would be equipped to make a profound difference in the life of each patient.
In February 1990, I had the opportunity to support SGI President Ikeda’s historic 17-day visit to Los Angeles. Observing his actions, I saw what it meant to infuse each aspect of our lives and each action we take with the compassion of the Buddha. I wanted to understand President Ikeda more, and following his visit, I began reading many of his books and speeches.
One guidance that struck me from his 1990 visit was “Buddhism Is the Clear Mirror That Reflects Our Lives,” in which he says, “Just as you look into a mirror when you make up your face, to beautify the face of the soul, you need a mirror that reflects the depths of your life” ( My Dear Friends in America, third edition, p. 97).
From reading this guidance, I began chanting to the Gohonzon to become a person who could contribute to society from my heart.
Although I wanted to use dentistry to contribute to the well-being of others, I couldn’t picture what this looked like in reality. In 2000, a friend from dental school and his partner started a nonprofit nongovernmental organization called International Health Emissaries, which invites medical and dental professionals and volunteers to travel to countries to provide medical and dental care to indigent people at no cost.
Although my friend invited me on many of their trips overseas, I couldn’t accept these great opportunities, because of my deep-seated insecurity and lack of confidence in my skills as a dentist. I’d have thoughts like: I never wanted to be a dentist anyway; and These dentists are going to make me look like an amateur. My own anxiety and negativity functioned as a concrete wall between me and my dreams.
In recent years, I came across the following lines from President Ikeda’s poem “To My Beloved Young American Friends”:
Faith is— to fear nothing to stand unswayed the power to surmount any obstacle. (Songs for America, pp. 69–70)
Reading this, I thought of all of the fears that were limiting my growth as a disciple of President Ikeda. I began chanting more than ever and taking more action to visit and encourage the members in my chapter to develop a state of life in which I truly feared nothing.
Several months ago, I was offered the opportunity yet again to travel with IHE. After chanting abundantly, I was confident that this was the answer to my long-held prayers to contribute to the happiness of others as a dentist! Just a few weeks later, I was on a plane bound for Lima, Peru.
Displaced by political upheaval in the ’70s and ’80s, the people there live in homes fashioned from wood, sheet metal and corrugated boxes. They received access to running water just two years ago, but still lacked electricity. Even so, the people were bright and cheerful.
We arrived each morning to the clinic at 8 a.m. to find at least 100 people lined up for treatment. As our bus pulled up to the site, they would clap and sing songs, showing their profound appreciation to receive free medical and dental care. I chanted abundantly each morning to fully serve each precious patient and display President Ikeda’s heart to each person I met. Throughout the trip, I made many strong friendships and introduced several people to Buddhism.
Returning to the U.S., I determined to build a stronger community right where I live and give hope to my neighbors, who most likely have running water and electricity, but may not be happy.
This dental mission to Peru was truly a mission of the heart. Through this experience, I feel as if I finally grasped, to some extent, the warmth and breadth of President Ikeda that I started seeking 24 years ago.
Finally, for the first time in my life, I am beginning to understand my profound mission as a dentist for kosen-rufu. My profession is not something that was forced on me, but something I needed to tackle in order to fulfill my deepest mission—that of a Bodhisattva of the Earth.