Living Buddhism: Hello, Kristopher. You have so many inspiring faith experiences, from overcoming cancer to breaking through in your career. How did you develop a foundation in your Buddhist practice?
Kristopher Sanders: I owe so much to my grandmother who began chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo in 1987.
She was interested in Eastern philosophy and had been studying Hinduism when she met an SGI member in her neighborhood. She decided to practice Buddhism, and soon after, my mother and aunt noticed that she was much more positive and even warmhearted, so they began chanting, too.
When I was a child, my mom and grandma often brought me to SGI meetings, where I made some of my closest friends. Living on the West Side of Chicago, the care and support I experienced in the SGI showed me that a world of peace and harmony is possible.
But my faith was put to the test in 2010, when I was 20. I was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which spread to my lungs. I chanted abundant daimoku [Nam-myoho-renge-kyo] and put my whole life into SGI activities. During this time, I often repeated to myself, Kris, you must live for the sake of kosen-rufu! This vow to live for the happiness of humanity gave me the strength to hold on to hope and continue fighting for my life. In 2011, after two surgeries and months of chemotherapy, I was cancer-free and remain so to this day.
This vow to live for the happiness of humanity gave me the strength to hold on to hope and continue fighting for my life.
That is fantastic! How did this victory change your life plans?
Kristopher: I developed a passion for math and how systems work. I wanted to contribute to society by creating something to benefit humanity. I went back to school and got my associate’s degree in science and then entered the Illinois Institute of Technology for a mechanical engineering degree.
How did you navigate school?
Kristopher: I couldn’t predict how rocky the road would be to becoming a mechanical engineer. At one point, I nearly failed out of school due to poor grades and was put on academic probation. I also had to work part-time jobs to pay tuition. I constantly battled the thought that I wasn’t meant to be a mechanical engineer or succeed at all.
This is where my Buddhist practice came in. I continued to encourage others as a young men’s leader and chanted whenever I could. After chanting or doing an SGI activity, I returned to the library refreshed and focused intently on winning on my next exam or assignment.
Most nights, I slept in the library, using every possible moment to study. Because I was a commuter student and lived about an hour away round trip, that extra hour was precious study time I couldn’t afford to waste.
How did your efforts pay off?
Kristopher: I graduated in 2018 and landed my first design engineering job at a manufacturing company. This was a one-year contract position, which meant that I would either be eligible for a for a permanent position or terminated. I was also not given health benefits, vacation days, bonuses or retirement. But having used my faith to overcome cancer and win in school, I determined that I would show actual proof at work.
Every day, I got up early to chant and ensure my day was victorious. I also continued to strive in SGI young men’s division activities. During this period, I shared Buddhism with my friends and began participating in SGI-USA’s Sustaining Contribution program.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. My co-workers had their wages cut, and the company froze hiring. Fortunately, my boss told me that I could remain as a contract employee.
I was more determined than ever to become a full-time employee and recalled Ikeda Sensei’s guidance to become indispensable at work. I made extra efforts to become an invaluable employee.
In The New Human Revolution, Sensei gives the following guidance, which struck me deeply:
You’re also bound to encounter hardships of one kind or another. But if you steadfastly persevere in your practice of Nichiren Buddhism, they will be resolved over time. If you continue to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo earnestly, you will gain good fortune and experience personal growth. No matter how hard things are for you, you must never give up hope. Have solid faith in the Gohonzon. Whatever challenges you may face, you have the Mystic Law. As long as you embrace this eternal and imperishable Law, you will not fail to become great victors in life. (December 6, 2019, World Tribune, insert, p. E)
In addition to my immediate tasks, I took the initiative to learn new product lines and prepared myself so that I could respond to any job I was given without hesitation. I also absorbed everything I could from co-workers and senior engineers.
In December 2020, I got a call from my boss, saying our CEO approved my hiring as a permanent design engineer. This salaried position came with a pay raise, health benefits, retirement, vacation time and other perks. This was a big breakthrough and a major way to end 2020. Despite the fact that I had made the determination to achieve this goal and took action to achieve it, I was still shocked! My practice truly taught me that my life has limitless value and that I am deserving of success.
That is a powerful victory. We understand you had another major development over the past year.
Kristopher: Yes, during a doctor’s visit in 2019, I was told that I was at high risk for a severe heart attack due to obesity and a compromised immune system from having undergone chemotherapy.
I’ve struggled with being overweight my entire life, but this warning from the doctor was my wake-up call. I had tried to go on diets in the past, but they either didn’t work or I didn’t have the willpower to continue. If I tried to exercise, I would injure my knees and hips due to my weight.
Through chanting about this, I realized that I extended my life once, and I had to live as long as possible and use my life to advance kosen-rufu together with Sensei. From this prayer, I developed the wisdom and strength to completely change my eating habits and lifestyle. I stuck with a healthy, effective diet and began to steadily shed pounds. Eventually, I was able to safely exercise and began a routine of running, push-ups and sit-ups. And since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the SGI-USA Young Men’s Division initiated a campaign called “Run YMD,” where we gather virtually every Saturday morning for 30 minutes to receive encouragement and report on how we are taking care of our health. Then, we exercise on our own, whether it’s going for a jog or lifting weights indoors. As a result, I’ve lost more than 120 pounds!
Congratulations, Kristopher! Your example is truly inspiring. What are some of your goals for the future?
Kristopher: Thank you so much. My greatest benefit of Buddhist practice is knowing that I am in the driver’s seat of my life and that no event or circumstance can throw me off course.
I was recently appointed the young men’s leader for Chicago Central Region, comprising the heart of Chicago. I want to increase my compassion and help other young men like myself win over all their obstacles and build lives of which they can be proud.
One of my goals toward 2030 is to have my own engineering firm that designs products and machines that contribute to the betterment of society. And finally, having witnessed the devastating violence on the West Side of Chicago since my childhood, I’m determined to widely spread the SGI’s philosophy of respect for the dignity of life to people throughout the neighborhood and one day open an SGI-USA Buddhist Center here!