Skip to main content

Life Stories

Breaking the Thick Walls of Karma

My family’s bout with COVID-19 became a catalyst to transform our relationships and become closer than ever.

Jose Zabala (center) with (l-r) daughter, Natasha; wife, Martha; son, Isham; and daughter-in-law, Madison, June 2021.
Jose Zabala (center) with (l-r) daughter, Natasha; wife, Martha; son, Isham; and daughter-in-law, Madison, June 2021. Photo by Slade Geiger.

by Jose Zabala
Tallahassee, Fla.

There’s nothing like a wedding to bring out family karma, especially during a pandemic. The wedding of my son, Isham, this past February set in motion a string of events that enabled me to transform some health and family karma. As an infectious disease expert, however, I worried that family members might contract COVID-19 at the gathering. I struggled with what to do, knowing that if I didn’t attend, I would disappoint my family. So I did my best to make sure safety measures were in place.

In addition, I was facing unresolved issues with my brother and sister. Since our mother died in 2012, we had become distant. We hardly ever spoke, and when we did, we bickered over petty issues; this all turned into a thick wall among us. I resolved that this wedding would become an opportunity to transform my family dynamics. In the end, it was a beautiful wedding, and I was so proud of Isham.

Several days later, however, my brother told me that he had tested positive for the virus. Sure enough, about five days later, my wife, Martha, developed a cough and high fever. She had recently battled cancer and had a number of other health conditions, so we were worried. We both tested positive, and I was so upset with myself, wondering whether I could have prevented this.

I focused on caring for Martha, but several days later, I struggled to breathe. Hyperventilating, I drove myself to the emergency room and chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as if my life depended on it. Fortunately, this was the worst of my symptoms, and they gradually improved.

Returning home, I chanted with a renewed determination to beat this virus and change my karma. A senior in faith encouraged me to not only conquer this illness but to develop a more expansive state of life and, in the process, develop a happy and united family. Despite my illness and time spent caring for Martha, I continued supporting my district, where I serve as the men’s leader. I reached out to the men and young men and worked for the success of our activities. Thanks to these efforts, I didn’t succumb to my problems and rose above my own concerns. I also continued encouraging my wife not to give up the fight.

During this time, too, I seriously chanted about my relationship with my siblings. I’m the older brother, and I came to realize that my care for them came off as overbearing and arrogant. I decided that I needed to accept them for who they are and treat them with respect. I began speaking with them almost every day over the phone. We talked as a family like never before. All our previous issues became insignificant. Instead of being angry or suspicious of one another, we let our guards down and for the first time in many years were able to joke around. Recently, my sister said to me: “Jose, let’s be more than just brother and sister. Let’s be friends.”

As an infectious disease expert and Bodhisattva of the Earth, I have deepened my resolve to help end this pandemic. Soon after my symptoms passed, I received notice that I was eligible for the vaccine. This is how we can end this pandemic for our global family, I thought. That weekend, my wife and I received our first dose, and our second a few weeks later. I feel that this was an important cause for my health and my family’s health, but most of all, this was a crucial step in the fight against this deadly pandemic. Today, my wife and I are healthy, though we have seen the toll that COVID-19 can take on one’s body. Thanks to my Buddhist practice, I took this illness and turned it into a new appreciation for life and my family.

And I’ve built the confidence of a lion that no matter how difficult the times, I can change any poison into medicine.

from Ikeda Sensei (The Wisdom for Creating Happiness and Peace, part 2, pp. 101–02)

Don’t let the devil of illness shake you. Decide that you and your family will enjoy your lives and be happy, come what may. Decide that, no matter what your circumstances, you will create a wonderfully happy family. That should be your fundamental attitude.

Read more