Summoning courage, I discover my passion for discussing Buddhism with young people.
by Deepthi Gopi
Over two weeks in May, four students at the pre-K-12 school where I work suffered violent deaths. These tragedies, followed by the news of the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, cast a heavy cloud over every classroom and hallway. I had to do something, but what? A senior in faith shared guidance from Ikeda Sensei about the fundamental interrelatedness of my inner transformation and the transformation of my environment.
Chanting that weekend for the absolute happiness of the students and everyone at work, I realized it was crucial for young people to have the means to awaken to how precious and noble they are. A vow emerged from my prayer: to discuss this Buddhist practice with young people.
Many students and staff take the train to school, which lets off at the edge of campus. On Monday’s morning ride, I got to talking with a co-worker who mentioned she was teaching a class called Mindfulness, which covered a range of strategies to promote inner peace and fortitude. Of course, I mentioned my own practice of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.
“Hold on,” she said, “isn’t that Nichiren Buddhism?” She listened, nodding, as I described how the practice helps me connect with my inner reserves of courage, wisdom and compassion. “Yeah, this is what the kids need. Would you teach the class tomorrow?”
“Yes!” But as the day wore on, doubts surfaced. I imagined a disgruntled parent asking, Who are you to teach this class? But chanting that night, reflecting on what was happening at our school, I realized, This is exactly what I’ve been chanting for. I decided I wouldn’t miss this opportunity.
When I went in, I was surprised to see the dean. Apparently, he co-taught the Mindfulness course. He broke the ice by asking everyone what we’d had for breakfast (cereal for me, but not much; too jittery to finish). Then he handed it over. I was curious about these students—14 in all—who had chosen to take a course called Mindfulness.
I asked why they were here. One young woman said she felt disconnected from, and wanted to connect more deeply with, her internal self. I decided we might as well start there. I kicked off with the Buddhist view that happiness exists, as the young woman suspected, inside, not outside, ourselves. Thus began a back-and-forth about happiness, the Buddha nature, negativity and Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. We watched a Buddhability video about Naima Mora, whose rediscovered happiness through Buddhism after her sudden rise to fame as the winner of “America’s Next Top Model” led her into a dark depression. It set off a storm of questions.
“How did chanting help Naima get out of her dark place?” “How did she know she had the potential to be happy?” “Why do you repeat the chant so many times?”
Great joy bubbled up within me. I had vowed to share Buddhism with the youth, and I had followed through!
I was a bit taken aback by the eagerness and thoughtfulness of the questions, but I did my best to answer them. The heart of Nichiren Buddhism, I told them, is the conviction that we each have within the power to overcome any problem that comes our way. As problems arise, however, it’s easy to forget that we have this power. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is not some magic phrase but a declaration of our conviction that we have this power within. Because negativity and self-doubt can be so strong, we repeat this declaration until we begin to feel the deep conviction that we really do have the potential to change our lives for the better. Then we take action and inspire others that they can too.
We then discussed some quotes from Sensei. One was a big hit, about finding happiness by living with integrity, true to who you are. Then I asked the dean, “Would it be all right if we chanted for a little bit?” He paused from his furious notetaking to wave me on.
We chanted together for a minute, very slowly, and then our time was up. The dean thanked me and asked that I put my slideshow up online as a class resource, saying that this was what the students needed, especially now. I let the students know that they could email me or stop by my office any time to talk. (And some have!)
Great joy bubbled up within me. I had vowed to share Buddhism with the youth, and I had followed through! On the next day’s train, I asked my co-worker if I could teach a class like that every year. “Of course!”
I’ve realized that I have a passion for discussing Buddhism with young people, and I’ve begun looking for other avenues to do so. I’m so glad I had the courage to overcome my fears and speak about this philosophy with the people in my environment. We are Buddhas, all of us, and while that class was just the beginning, I feel that these students have formed a connection with this unchanging and eternal truth.