Skip to main content

Life Stories

What Hope Means to Me

How I gained the courage to face my fears.

Omar Gonzalez in New York City, where he overcame his drug addiction through his Buddhist practice and changed poison into medicine. He is now studying sociology to become an addiction counselor. Photo by Marco Giannavola

by Omar Gonzalez
Queens, New York

When I became a Buddhist in 2017, my friend told me that it would be easy to start my practice but hard to continue, so I would have to learn how to never give up on myself.

I kept these words close to my heart when a year into my practice, I admitted myself to a hospital after nearly dying from a drug overdose.

I had hidden my drug problem well by using in my neighbor’s house, distancing myself from family and loved ones, and missing family gatherings because I feared being cast out.

I knew the power of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. The first time I chanted, I felt such overwhelming peace that I cried. So, in the darkest days of my addiction, I would just sit in front of the Gohonzon, sometimes chanting, sometimes sitting silently or sometimes crying out in pain. I knew deep down I was a good person, but I didn’t know how to change.

My near-death experience was my turning point. I was tired of the sick cycle of relapsing and was ready to address my disease and the pain underlying it.

In my case, I experienced trauma at a young age. In 2003, after failing my first attempt at college, I joined the U.S. Marine Corps at 18, believing it was my best option. After basic training, I was sent to fight in the Iraq War.

Life there was beyond description. For months, I narrowly escaped death in combat zones, evading bomb after bomb at all hours. On top of that, I endured derogatory remarks and even threats from those who were supposed to protect me. The war left me with deep physical and emotional trauma, which only fueled my anger and resentment toward others.

When I was discharged in 2005, I struggled with how to process my experiences. I was deeply depressed and suffered from insomnia and. nightmares. I felt lost, so I turned to toxic people, places and hard drugs to hide from my pain.

The difference this time was that, after a year into my Buddhist practice, I was chanting. This enabled me to rouse a fighting spirit that I didn’t have previously.

I used my time in the hospital to chant as much as possible and detox. I did gongyo alone in the ward’s quiet room in the morning and evening and chanted throughout the day. I also studied Nichiren Daishonin’s writings to gain a further understanding of Buddhism.

This gave me the courage I needed to share about my addiction with my mother and the mother of my son. To my surprise, they were very supportive, and my mother came to visit me in the hospital.

I realized that my family wanted me in their lives and that I was the one who had distanced myself from them. I also started to tell other patients and staff members about my Buddhist practice. One friend I used drugs with in the past started chanting with me and has now been clean for over two years.

My friends in the practice also came to visit me. They reassured me that I could win over any obstacle I face in life and showed me that people could change and lead a beautiful life filled with love and kindness.

I am now two years sober and clean from all drugs and alcohol. My overall demeanor and outlook on life is now positive. As part of the Veterans Affairs Compensated Work Therapy program, I worked at the same hospital where I was admitted. Now, I am a college student studying sociology with the goal of becoming an addiction counselor.

The Year of Hope and Victory is the SGI’s theme for 2021. Hope is about having a clear understanding of who I am. It means being able to admit when I have a problem and take it to the Gohonzon and the people in my life, so I can find a solution. I don’t have to do it alone. That’s what hope means to me.

from Nichiren Daishonin (“The Difficulty of Sustaining Faith,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 471)

Many hear about and accept this sutra, but when great obstacles arise, just as they were told would happen, few remember it and bear it firmly in mind. To accept is easy; to continue is difficult. But Buddhahood lies in continuing faith.

Read more