World Tribune: Thank you, Tanya and Donna, for sharing your experience with us on how you have developed a harmonious family across generations. Donna, how did you begin your Buddhist practice?
Donna Greene: In 1974, I spent a month traveling through Italy with Tanya, who was 2 at the time. I was in a small town in the southern part of the country, when a young man approached me about chanting Nam-myoho-rengekyo. He took me to a meeting, which was entirely in Italian. The one thing I understood him say was, “If you practice this Buddhism, you can protect your daughter.” I loved Tanya so much; my greatest fear was that something would happen to her. I began chanting and noticed amazing changes in my life. I decided to receive the Gohonzon when I came back to Boston.
Tanya Henderson: As a child, I had the great fortune of falling asleep at night to the sound of my mother chanting. From her, I learned to always chant from my heart and to teach others to do the same.
WT: Tanya, how did you learn about the power of this practice?
Tanya: High school proved to be a difficult time. My parents divorced. I became clinically depressed. I fell in with a bad crowd and began abusing alcohol and drugs. By my sophomore year, I had failed five out of my six classes and was being suspended on a weekly basis. A few months into my junior year, my high school guidance counselors told my mother that I would not be allowed back into school until I received treatment because they feared that I would take my own life.
WT: This must have been such a difficult time for both of you. Donna, how did you respond to this challenge?
Donna: I was scared, but surprisingly confident that Tanya would break through. I believed Nichiren Daishonin’s words that “Those who believe in the Lotus Sutra are as if in winter, but winter always turns to spring” ( The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 536). Since I was involved in my local district, I always had people around me offering me encouragement. I would wake up at 5 a.m. every day to chant for Tanya’s happiness, and I chanted with members on my lunch break. I also shared my Buddhist faith with others, and five of my friends received the Gohonzon during that time. By refusing to lose hope and by breaking through my own fear, I believe my daughter was able to make a breakthrough as well.
Tanya: My mother’s prayer was powerful enough to convince me to attend an SGI Youth Festival in Philadelphia that summer as a member of the Fife and Drum Corps. A glimmer of hope woke inside me, and I thought to myself: If I can spend a week fighting for world peace, then maybe I can fight for my own life. For the next two years, I worked hard to get healthy and do well in my classes. By graduation, I was an A student, awarded the “Most Improved” and voted homecoming queen.
Donna: I remember they had a huge homecoming parade, where the crowd started chanting “Tanya!” As she passed by in the parade, Tanya called out to me, “Thank you, Mom, for not giving up on me!”
WT: What a remarkable transformation! Tanya, what did you do from there?
Tanya: I attended a local community college and threw myself into my academics. Then, in the fall of 1991, I had the great opportunity to meet President Ikeda when he lectured at Harvard University. When he shook my hand and thanked me, I felt his belief in the vast potential of my life, which I had been unable to see. I realized that I needed to dream bigger, and I determined to become an international human rights lawyer who would stand up to injustice.
Soon after, I became pregnant with my first son, Alex, and 15 months after his birth, my second son, Tyler, was born. My clinical depression resurfaced, and my marriage to my children’s father became wrought with alcoholism and fear. I eventually left with nothing but my two sons and the Gohonzon.
WT: How did you hold on to your dreams during this time?
Tanya: In 1997, I moved in with my mom and stepfather for two months, and I chanted hours upon hours to win over my suffering and to not give up on my dreams. With my precious sons at my side, my prayer now passionately included being the type of mother who would enable my sons to become great leaders for peace in the 21st century.
I studied President Ikeda’s lecture on Nichiren’s writing “Letter to the Mother of Oto Gozen,” which was written to one of his female disciples who was a single mother. President Ikeda writes: “‘What kind of future do I envision?’ we may ask ourselves. ‘What kind of self am I trying to develop? What do I want to accomplish in my life?’ We should paint this vision of our lives as specifically as possible. This ‘painting’ becomes the design for our future. The power of the heart enables us to actually execute a wonderful masterpiece in accordance with that design” ( Learning from the Gosho: The Eternal Teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 129).
Over and over, I read this passage while chanting to bring forth the courage to execute a great “masterpiece” for me and my sons. At age 26, with two babies in tow, I applied and was accepted to Suffolk University Law School in Boston.
WT: Congratulations! How did you balance every aspect of your life?
Tanya: I had to work really hard, and I based everything on my prayer to the Gohonzon. As I resolutely chanted to fulfill my mission, everything fell into place. For example, I was offered a job in the school’s law library that covered my food and daycare costs, and allowed me to study while I worked. Also, my stepfather and step-grandfather stepped in to pay my rent.
During those three years, I dropped my sons off in the morning, went to work and then school. At night, I wanted to give my children my full attention, so I studied after they went to bed. Despite my difficult schedule, I would chant each night to fully absorb my studies. I also shared Buddhism with my professors and classmates, and seven of my colleagues received the Gohonzon during this time. As a result of my efforts in school, I made the dean’s list, was awarded prestigious scholarships and graduated law school in May 2001 with tremendous joy and pride.
Donna: I remember Tanya waving to Tyler and Alex, who were 5 and 6, in her cap and gown. I looked down at Alex and noticed that he was crying. He wiped his eyes and said, “I’m just so proud of my Momma.”
Tanya: I felt like we went through law school together. It was because of them that I couldn’t give up. After passing the bar, I began my law practice as a child welfare attorney representing abused and neglected children. Still, I never forgot my dream of becoming an international human rights attorney. In 2009, I became one of 20 students in the world accepted into the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.
At Fletcher, I was able to share my mentor’s vision for peace and human dignity through a weeklong symposium featuring the SGI exhibition “From a Culture of Violence to a Culture of Peace: Transforming the Human Spirit.” A few months later, I was shocked to bump into a classmate from Uganda at the Boston Buddhist Center. When I asked him why he was there, he said: “Tanya, as you know, I am a Christian. However, I came to the U.S. to learn how to bring peace to my country. I read what your mentor, Daisaku Ikeda, has written about building cultures of peace. I believe that he has the answer. So now I will take him on as my mentor for how to bring peace to my country of Uganda.”
WT: What a deeply moving victory. Tanya, how did you continue to build a harmonious family?
Tanya: As I sought to build my own career and contribute to the world, I never gave up on my prayer that my sons would grow up to be strong leaders for kosen-rufu in the 21st century. A year and a half ago, however, my relationship with my son Alex derailed.
During his senior year in high school, he started hanging out with new friends and, within a short time, was smoking pot on a daily basis. It was awful to see my son, who had always been so bright and excited about life, dull and stoned. His destructive behaviors worsened when he moved to New York to attend college. It got to the point where he was flunking out of school, hanging out with gang members and selling drugs. I was terrified. I had no idea what to do, because he stopped communicating with me.
In January 2014, my mother and I made a joint determination to eradicate the addiction karma in our family and completely transform Alex’s situation.
WT: Donna, how did you cope as a grandmother?
Donna: I was gripped with fear. I had lost my brother to drugs and even as I prayed for Alex, part of me felt he was doomed. I decided to face my fear with strong prayer. When I recalled Tanya’s transformation in high school, it reminded me to have confidence. I asked myself, If Alex were President Ikeda’s grandson, how would he pray for him? I thought, He would pray for Alex to become his greatest self. As I prayed this way, I immediately felt lighter.
WT: Tanya, how did you manage your work life with the intense challenges your family was facing?
Tanya: In my profession, I had traveled to Africa and the Middle East to work on women’s and human rights issues. I also worked in U.S. policy, charged with the task of building a coalition of global women political leaders from the U.S., Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East who collectively advocated for the role of women in ending violent conflict and building sustainable peace. Similarly, as a district women’s leader, I chanted every day to build and strengthen the unity among our members so that each person could experience great personal victory. At home, I was praying to do the same thing—open the lines of communication with my son and to support him unwaveringly until he won. Through the united, strong prayer of my mother and me, we saw a major shift.
WT: What happened?
Tanya: One morning after I had chanted abundant daimoku, Alex unexpectedly called to tell me he decided to quit school. Instead of flipping out, I asked questions in an effort to understand what led him to this decision. While I was at work, he called again to share that he decided to stay in school but switch majors. He called back 13 times that day and texted me 22 times—each time with a new stance. One time, he called to tell me that he had found a new life mentor— his 19-year-old friend who had been involved in gangs and “really understood life.” His last call of the day was at midnight, when he just asked, “Mom, do you still believe in me?” My response was, “Always, Alex.”
WT: What happened next?
Donna: Neither of us heard from Alex for a few weeks, and we were deeply worried. I called Alex and was finally able to reach him. I reminded him of the benefits of practicing Buddhism. Unexpectedly, he said, “Nana, I think that you are right, and think that everything in the universe is trying to tell me to chant.” The week before, his girlfriend was given a Nam-myoho-renge-kyo card on the train and said she thought it was meant for him. Soon after, he said he was in a “really bad situation.” One of the kids he was with found an old skateboard in a dumpster. When Alex looked at it, he saw “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” written in big letters on the bottom of it.
He said he knew in that moment that he needed to stop what he was doing and leave the situation immediately.
Tanya: A few weeks later, he told me that the friend that he was with was arrested and sentenced to three to five years in prison. I continued to pray deeply that Alex would win over his suffering and fulfill his unique mission in this world. Since then, he has completely turned his academic situation around, earning straight A’s on his midterms last fall. We now talk at least an hour or two a week, and he apologizes if he misses one of my texts.
In early summer, we enshrined the Gohonzon in his home, and he tells me that he chants and does gongyo on most days. Most encouraging to me is that he is happier and more grounded than I have seen him since childhood. Also, my youngest son, Tyler, began attending Soka University of America in Aliso Viejo, Calif., last fall.
WT: What have you taken away from these experiences?
Tanya: The starting point for family harmony is always my own human revolution. My daily battle to win over my own doubt and feelings of powerlessness helped me awaken my son to his unlimited potential, just as my mentor did for me more than 20 years earlier. And, like my mother, I have the great fortune to pass on this life-affirming philosophy to my children. The key to our collective victory—invincible faith.