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Digging Beneath the Surface to Realize My Dreams

Victory— Francisco Estrada-Belli next to one of his finds at Holmul, a Maya Classic period site, in Guatemala, July 2018. Photo by Jesus Lopez.

SGI-USA member Francisco Estrada-Belli, of New Orleans, is a research professor in the Middle American Research Institute at Tulane University. He is known for his expertise in Maya archaeology, remote sensing, geographic information systems and spatial analysis using digital technologies such as LiDAR (light detection and ranging). He is a National Geographic Explorer and has several published works on the Maya civilization. On Nov. 4, he and his team received Tulane University’s 2022 Research, Scholarship and Artistic Achievement Award, an award given to honor outstanding scholars and recognize exceptional research achievement. The World Tribune spoke with him about how his Buddhist practice informs his work.

World Tribune: Thank you for speaking with us. What got you interested in the Maya civilization?

Francisco Estrada-Belli: My mother is Italian, and my father is Guatemalan. I grew up in Italy, but we would often go to Guatemala to visit family. When I was 7, we visited the ancient Maya ruins at Tikal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mesmerized, I asked a lot of questions, but no one had any answers. I told my parents during that trip that I wanted to be an archaeologist to study places like Tikal. 

After I completed my education in Italy, I left my family and friends to follow my dreams in Boston, where I attended graduate school. It was there that I finished my Ph.D., got my first job and got married. Then, together with my wife and two children, I moved to New Orleans. 

WT: What happened then?

Estrada-Belli: I didn’t have a full-time job when we first moved. I was teaching as an adjunct professor, but luckily my wife could support the family. I was mostly at home with the kids while my wife was working. 

Then, in 2016, we divorced. This was a difficult time for obvious reasons, and I was incredibly sad about not being with my children. I went from their primary caregiver to a weekend dad.

I moved out and took on odd jobs to make ends meet. I thought my dream and life were over. 

That’s when a friend who lived in my neighborhood shared Buddhism with me. I was invited to a district meeting, and I started chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo every morning with these new Buddhist friends.

WT: Did you see any differences when you started chanting?

Estrada-Belli: Many of the things that I chanted for seemed impossible at the time, but things started to change quickly.

I chanted to continue working as an archaeologist, but because I took on other jobs, I no longer had time to do research. 

Soon after I began chanting, I was invited to participate in a large archaeological project that used LiDAR technology—laser-based mapping, that, like an X-ray, can artificially remove and see below the forest canopy—to map a Maya civilization in northern Guatemala. I’ve been an expert in LiDAR technology since I was a student, so I became one of the leaders of this project. I chanted a lot during this time. Our laser scans revealed that Maya cities were much larger than previously thought! The success of the project led to a published article in Science magazine and an opportunity to take part in a popular National Geographic documentary. Then, in 2019, I was offered a full-time job offer at Tulane University.

WT: How have you used your Buddhist practice to face challenges at work?

Estrada-Belli: Buddhism teaches the principle that if there are things that you don’t like about the environment, you need to start changing things within yourself. 

I knew I had an ego. In academia, it’s hard not to have one. In working with a large group of people to get this article published, there were many difficulties in coming to a consensus about anything! 

Whenever my ego gets in the way, it causes problems. I knew that things could go poorly if I did not challenge this. Not overcoming my ego meant not getting our article published or several people losing out. So, I made a determination to do my human revolution first, and I chanted to not let my ego get the best of me for the sake of the project, for everyone involved and for the benefit of science. 

The article was published in September 2018 to great success!

Since then, I’ve been able to keep my ego in check a number of times. It’s still a challenge, but I constantly redirect my attitude at work based on my Buddhist practice.

Francisco in New Orleans, November 2017. Photo by Elena Daniele.

WT: What does success mean to you?

Estrada-Belli: Absolute success is absolute happiness. 

There are rewards and benefits in life that come in our family and career, for example—getting recognition. But the ultimate success is achieving happiness from within. 

In my district, I feel so much satisfaction in talking to my fellow members and supporting others. I’m very grateful to the SGI for being an incredible network of support for me and to Ikeda Sensei for his mentorship and inspiration. 

WT: What would you say to young people who are just starting out in their careers?

Estrada-Belli: I would tell them to choose something that they really like so that it doesn’t feel like hard work—even though it will be! And, if they want to achieve their dreams, they can, but only by challenging their human revolution and never giving up! 

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