SGI-USA member Michele LaMontagne is the second woman to reach the rank of brigadier general in the New Mexico National Guard and its first female commander. The World Tribune spoke with her about her career and how she uses her Buddhist practice in her daily life.
World Tribune: Thank you for speaking with us about how Buddhism has informed your career. What brought you to Buddhism?
Michele LaMontagne: Around 2010, my partner at the time was an SGI-USA member, and she invited me to activities. I was raised Catholic, so I didn’t feel connected to it. But I was curious, so I would sit back and watch. One time at the local Buddhist center, I listened to the unified voices of everyone chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, and it hit me: This is it. Still, I was in that first phase for four to six months where I would go to the district meeting and just sit in the background. No one pressured me.
WT: What compelled you to embrace the practice?
LaMontagne: It was interesting. When I started going to meetings, a pioneer member said to me: “Pick something to chant about. If you want absolute happiness, this practice will work.” I decided, OK, let me pick something and chant. The year before, I had eaten oysters on vacation that gave me a [foodborne illness] I couldn’t shake. I chanted to get rid of it, and two weeks later, it was gone. I saw that this practice works. That’s why I stuck with it.
WT: You had an accomplished career in the military before you began practicing Buddhism. How has your practice impacted your career?
LaMontagne: Being introduced to Buddhism later in my career has shaped my approach. A lot of it has to do with developing more compassion and empathy for both people affected by someone’s behavior and those doing things. When someone makes comments that aren’t respectful, often they’re not out to harm someone. They’re just ignorant of how their behavior lands on people. I’ve learned to be openhearted and open-minded, and I find people aren’t defensive when you take that approach.
WT: Can you share a time you put your Buddhist practice to the test?
LaMontagne: In the first few years of my practice, I was in line to be promoted. My whole family was going to come out to the ceremony, but then someone else got the promotion instead. I didn’t use my practice, thinking You’ll get it next time, as if a positive attitude would be good enough. But internally, I was not OK.
A few months later, the same thing happened. Someone else was promoted ahead of me. I was upset. But this time, I used my practice. I chanted for the best possible outcome for my career. And I read this passage from Nichiren Daishonin: “Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy. Regard both suffering and joy as facts of life, and continue chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, no matter what happens” (“Happiness in This World,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 681). I wrote this down in so many notebooks and shared it with other people as encouragement.
Then it happened a third time—but my reaction was different. I was not fazed. I knew that with my Buddhist practice, something better than I could imagine would happen. Then I got promoted. And promoted again. And promoted to brigadier general. There were so many moments I wanted to give up. But I kept moving forward.
WT: Incredible. How has your practice developed since then?
LaMontagne: One of my qualities is that I’m very disciplined. I’m good with being determined to chant and read every single day, even if it’s just a couple of pages. That’s important for me, because if things aren’t in my forefront, I can forget it’s a tool for me.
Working for others is what I’m passionate about. I’m also on a National Guard committee that works on programs and policies to make the military inclusive for everyone. We’ve made real changes.
WT: How do you view your unique mission in society through the lens of your practice?
LaMontagne: If one of the things we’re striving for is peace throughout the world—kosen-rufu—what better place to influence that than in an organization like the military.
Ikeda Sensei uses the phrase “developing capable people” over and over. In my military job, civilian job and the SGI, we’re here to raise capable people. We’re here to be happy ourselves, but we also have a responsibility to take care of others. If we want this society and the world to progress in a direction of less conflict, we have to invest in and support people other than ourselves.
What would you tell a young person who wants to pursue a career in the military?
Michele LaMontagne: As SGI members, we use our Buddhist practice to help others find absolute happiness. When people are happy, societies are peaceful. I think the military is a place where you can jump in feet-first and have an immediate, positive impact on your environment. If there are more people with Buddhist practice in the military, we can have an impact and change the world.