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Life Stories

An Inside Job

Seeking the mentor, I master my anger to win at my work.

Transformation—Bert Phacharasap with his wife, Merilly, and dogs, Torry and Obi in New Orleans, July 2022. Photo by Clara Fernandez.

by Bert Phacharasap
New Orleans

Numbers posted by my stepfather on the front door of the house counted down the days to my 18th birthday. He and I didn’t talk much, but I gathered I should be out of the house before it hit 0. At the last minute, unsure of what to do, I signed up for the military. In October 2001, the night I turned 18, I cried myself to sleep on a bunk at a boot camp in Great Lakes, Illinois. There were many nights like this. 

Growing up, there was a lot of anger in my house, and I carried that anger with me to boot camp where I got along with no one.  

On Sundays, we had four hours to write letters or attend religious services. One Sunday, I heard a sound in the religious services building. It felt familiar, somehow, and I followed it down the hall to the farthest room. Inside, people were chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Warmly, I was welcomed. For three months, I joined this weekly SGI meeting before transferring to Pensacola, Florida, in 2003.

There were no SGI meetings held at the Pensacola barracks, but nonetheless, the warmth of the SGI reached me there; once a week, a couple from Mobile, Alabama, drove six hours to take me to and from meetings in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. This constant care led me to receive the Gohonzon that May. 

In the military, anyone of higher rank is effectively your boss, which, for a young person, means hundreds of bosses. Yet, I encountered few true leaders—most commanders didn’t show deep care in raising me into a capable person. Beyond showing up looking halfway decent and knowing how to take commands, there wasn’t a great deal expected of me. These expectations were summed up in the blunt parting words of a senior officer, seeing me off on my journey into society. 

“Just don’t become homeless.”

Indeed, I nearly did, multiple times over the course of the following six years. It was my anger. Any conflict that arose at work led to a blowout argument, imploding over a dozen professional relationships in half as many years. 

In 2012, without money even for gas, my car sputtered to a stop on the side of the freeway. My young men’s leader drove out to meet me with a gallon of gas. “Don’t worry,” he said, sealing the fuel cap, “you’ll come out of this stronger. We go through these things so we can encourage others.” 

After nine years of practice, I was still taken aback by this kind of leadership. No matter how many times I fell down, no matter how many times I lost jobs, never once was I talked down to, never once given up on. Instead, I was reminded of my mission to break through, to show that human revolution is possible.  

It was only now, facing the repeated consequences of my deep-rooted anger, that I began to seriously chant about the mentor-disciple relationship. The young man who had met me with a gallon of gas now visited me to study Buddhism. I remember reading an exchange between Ikeda Sensei and future division members, in which Sensei expresses his limitless confidence in their potential.

He’s my friend, I realized. He wants me to become happy and accomplish all my goals. I said to myself, I’m cool with that. 

In 2014, I landed myself an entry-level job at a company where I could see myself working long-term. I shared a tiny office with my assistant manager, a kind older woman with whom, surprisingly, I got along. Until, one day, I tapped her shoulder and asked for a favor. I don’t remember what I asked for, exactly—something small and routine. But I must have asked bluntly, either that or she felt it was something I should do myself, because it was as though I’d tapped an invisible switch: where before I’d sat across from a nice person, I now sat across an angry one. All day, every day that week, tension thickened in our little office, like a pressure cooker. In summertime, with no AC, we sat there, simmering. 

At this point, I’d lost at least a dozen jobs. My opportunity at this one had arisen from taking action on a sincere prayer to find a job where I could grow. But each day, I felt the two of us inching closer to the brink of a blowout, an argument that would end this job as all the others. 

However, I was a leader in the SGI at this point, not only seeking guidance, but giving it, too, sharing Sensei’s guidance with other young men and challenging them to apply it to their daily lives. Thinking of these young men, I thought, “I have to walk the talk.” 

That night and early the following morning, I chanted abundant daimoku to create value from the situation. I had a realization: She is a reflection of my own life. Whether I stay or leave, if I don’t change my angry nature, angry people will follow me like my own shadow. I began chanting deeply for her happiness. The next day, I went into work calm. Not once did I engage my colleague with anger, and the day after, for reasons I’ll never know, she retired. I had changed, and my environment had responded. I had shed, for once, my angry shadow. I stayed on, receiving five promotions in the following five years. 

Today, I have a wonderful relationship with my boss. I respect him, and he respects me. I say what needs to be said, always out of respect, for the sake of creating unity. 

Just recently, I was speaking with a young man feeling overwhelmed at work, wanting to quit his job. I understood him well. 

There are, of course, jobs that are unhealthy, and sometimes the best thing to do is leave. That said, I shared with this young man that, in my case, the key was to transform myself, right where I was. “Face it now, and you’ll come out stronger,” I told him. “Because you’ll have done your human revolution.”

from Ikeda Sensei  (Discussions on Youth, p. 27)

Even if you think you’re hopeless and incapable, I know you’re not. … Though others may disparage you, please know that I respect you, I believe in you. No matter what circumstances you now face, I have absolute confidence that a wonderful future awaits you.

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