How my Buddhist practice empowered me to break through all limitations with a vow to bring happiness to others. I’m Aide Aguirre from Sylmar, California.

Living Buddhism: Hello, Aide! We heard you had a profound victory this year. Can you tell us about it?

Aide Aguirre: Yes, earlier this year, I was accepted to graduate school, which had been a goal of mine for 10 years. I was also offered a $40,000 scholarship, which seemed amazing until I learned that the total cost of the program would be $150,000, without housing or other necessities. I immediately began compromising my dreams, thinking: Is it really worth it to have all this debt? Can I ever purchase a home or travel the world like I dreamed?

It was then that I realized that I had been practicing Buddhism for this moment. And I had to ignore everything inside myself that told me otherwise.

Where did this disbelief come from?

Aide in first grade. Photo courtesy of Aide Aguirre.

Aide: This way of thinking had been reinforced in me as I grew up. When I was 2 years old, my mother brought me to the U.S. from Mexico without any documents. I found out that I was undocumented in first grade when a classmate told everyone in the classroom. I didn’t understand what it meant, but I knew it wasn’t good because others kids began telling me, “Go back to Mexico.” One day, I responded, “No, I’m going to stay here and do great things one day.” Then I was shoved into a locker. I felt so defeated, I didn’t even call for help. I remember thinking: They’re right. I can never do anything great. That feeling took over my body and mind. In that moment, I really believed I belonged in that locker.

How awful! Did that feeling last?

Aide: Yes, I felt like an imposter in every space. I tried to hide, partially out of fear of being deported but mostly because I wanted to avoid being judged by others. I didn’t leave the house much and hid behind my homework and books.

In the fourth grade, though, things changed. I took part in an essay contest about my future dream. I wrote about becoming a doctor, but as I wrote it, I thought, I’m undocumented, so it will never happen. I won the contest, but couldn’t receive the scholarship prize due to my status. One teacher, however, believed in me and pushed the principal to recognize me. I was awarded a certificate for academic excellence, signed by the U.S. president. This teacher inspired me to become someone who could stand up for others like she did for me. The seed was planted for me to go into education.

What a wonderful example. How has Buddhism cultivated this seed?

Aide: Just before I learned about Buddhism, my mother had a massive stroke, leaving her paralyzed and unable to speak. I had to care for her every day, while working part time. I felt powerless to transform our family’s situation.

Then, one day at a work meeting, my supervisor commented how, through practicing Buddhism for several decades, she felt empowered to overcome any challenge. I later approached her about it.

I was drawn to the Buddhist ideals that all people are fundamentally equal, possess limitless potential and can become happy as they are.

When I started chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, many things surfaced about my childhood that I had buried. But this time, I knew I couldn’t ignore these feelings, and I had to transform the root of my suffering. My whole life, I had survived on a tiny ounce of hope, but my Buddhist practice gave me limitless hope. I started to cast off the limitations I was conditioned to place on myself and dream big.

I was drawn to the Buddhist ideals that all people are fundamentally equal, possess limitless potential and can become happy as they are.

You mentioned your dream was to attend graduate school. How did everything work out in the end?

Aide graduates from the University of California Berkeley in 2010. Photo courtesy of Aide Aguirre.

Aide: Well, in April, I was still hesitant to take out a student loan, so I had not declared my intention of enrolling as the deadline quickly approached. I was depressed and even considered harming myself. Around this time, I began studying Nichiren Daishonin’s writing “Letter to the Brothers” with my fellow youth members. In this writing, Nichiren explains that the quickest way to break through our negative karma is to teach others about Buddhism. I decided that I would transform the mental health issues that had plagued my family for generations. The next day, I had a dialogue with a co-worker about Buddhism. I immediately felt a weight lift from my shoulders. I began introducing Buddhism to at least one person a day.

I decided that even if I needed to take out a six-figure loan, I would be capable of paying it back soon after graduation, and that I wouldn’t just own one home, but four, including one in Hawaii, of course. I was winning over that voice inside me telling me I wasn’t worthy of success.

To my surprise, I received a call from the university offering me a full scholarship, plus an additional stipend for living expenses! In that moment, I felt immense appreciation for my Buddhist practice, my SGI community and for my own life. I continued sharing Buddhism with others, this time based on deep appreciation for my life.

Aide and her family (l-r): sister, Karen; Aide; mom, Virginia; father, Rodolfo; and sisters, Virginia and Alejandra, in Santa Barbara, California, 2014. Photos courtesy of Aide Aguirre.

Though that was a great victory, the real victory for me was internal. My personality hasn’t changed, but my heart has. I used to be scared of saying something and having someone put me down like when I was a child. Now, when I feel like retreating, I know how to get through it. Now, I think, Aide, you’re going to win because you’re a disciple of Ikeda Sensei, and your life is valuable. That feeling of being invisible has been completely overshadowed by my vow for kosen-rufu and determination to speak up for justice. I’ve developed this conviction in the value and power of my life through this practice.

Has your family noticed your transformation?

Aide: Absolutely. When I started my practice, they were pretty skeptical. One of them even said that this was just a phase. Now, my family often mentions how much I’ve changed and how appreciative they are for the SGI. Soon after I received the Gohonzon, my father built me a sturdy Buddhist altar so that it would be protected even in an earthquake. My mother often reminds me to chant, and in 2019 my younger sister received the Gohonzon and joined the SGI.

In the past, I would think, We will be OK when we are financially stable or get past our issues. Now, I’m at a point where I can appreciate my family just as they are and for who they are. I’m also happy to report that my mother is in great health and that we have become so much closer.

What are some of your goals for your future?

Aide and her sisters (l-r) Virginia, Alejandra and Karen. Photo courtesy of Aide Aguirre.

Aide: I look forward to pursuing a master’s degree in higher education at the University of Michigan, with a concentration in diversity and social justice. My goal is to become the chancellor of the University of California school system to empower students of all backgrounds to feel seen and heard as they pursue higher education, and for them to become global citizens who contribute to humanity.

Seven years into my Buddhist practice, I see myself for who I really am—a Bodhisattva of the Earth. Now, I know I’m capable because I’m Aide. Period. I feel immense appreciation for the treasures of the heart I’ve developed. I’m beginning to understand that happiness from within is the most beautiful kind. I am and will continue doing great things.

Now, I think, Aide, you’re going to win because you’re a disciple of Ikeda Sensei, and your life is valuable.

Aide and her sister Alejandra, June 2021. Photo by Allen Zaki.