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Life Stories

As Rivers Do

Facing my father’s illness, I learn how to hold my ground and triumph in faith.

Triumphant—Miho Saito in Santa Monica, Calif., January 2023. Photo by Allen Zaki.

by Miho Saito
Long Beach, Calif.

As early as elementary school, I begged my parents, Japanese immigrants, to swap out the seaweed, rice balls and tuna that drew so much attention to my lunchbox for inconspicuous “all-American” PB&Js. It wasn’t enough that we were Japanese in suburban Torrance, California; we had to be Buddhist, too. 

“We can’t be friends because you don’t believe in God,” a girl told me firmly on the playground. Even then, I wanted to run off, somewhere beyond the ’burbs, where I was sure I’d find “my people”—who appeared in my mind as a band of fellow misfits coming together on the fringes to work out some alternative, better way of living, beyond skin color, culture and religion.

 Come college, this longing led me to work on an Idaho farm with refugees, to study abroad in Ecuador and to travel across South America. After graduating, that same longing inspired me to travel cross-country with my then-boyfriend in a converted 4Runner. As beautiful as these experiences were, by the end of the road trip, I came to see that I had made a habit of running—running from the work of building a strong state of life.

I came back to my parents’ home in Torrance depleted, my relationship on its last legs. It was at home, the very place I’d always yearned to escape, that I finally gained a foothold on life and stopped moving from one place to the next. With the support of the young women’s leaders in my region, I leaned into my Buddhist practice. Through abundant daimoku, I came to see that I’d been running long enough. 

In the winter of 2018, my dad had an extensive checkup. When the results returned, he was informed he had stage 3 lung cancer. Overnight, our peaceful family life became consumed by doctor’s appointments, hospitalizations and treatments. My dad rose to the challenge and promised us that he would fight this illness with a smile, transforming it into his greatest mission.

I, on the other hand, made a very different promise, assuring him that I would be chanting for him from afar. As suddenly as the cancer had struck, I’d struck up a relationship with someone new and packed my bags to move to Hawaii. “It’ll be OK; this is temporary; we’ll be fine,” I told everyone I knew. 

The wisdom I gained through abundant daimoku was crucial—I anchored myself in front of the Gohonzon and made the timely decision that my mission was not to be found in some far off place or some new romance. Ultimately, I didn’t move to Hawaii, but that didn’t mean that I had acknowledged the situation for what it was. After my dad underwent surgery to remove the tumor, I assumed everything would return to normal. A year later, the cancer returned, stage 4. From then, intensely anxious about my father’s health, I lapsed into my old tendency of seeking escape from suffering through romantic relationships—“serial dating”—searching for fulfillment, confidence, strength… and coming up empty handed.

A turning point came in the fall of 2020, when I was sexually assaulted by someone I was dating. For days on end, I sat in front of the Gohonzon, crying. Of course, I knew that what had happened was not my fault, but chanting, I began to see just how desperately I had been seeking to distract myself from the pain of my dad’s illness and how constantly I’d been chasing external fulfillment because I didn’t believe I could transform my life from where I stood. One day, a few months after the assault, I realized while chanting, Miho, you don’t believe that you’re a Buddha. In fact, I didn’t even know what believing such a thing would mean or look like.

Realizing this, I began chanting desperate daimoku to do my human revolution. Internally, walls came tumbling down. At this point, I’d just accepted new leadership, and I started connecting with each young woman in my region to help them awaken to their Buddhahood. Crucially, I began seriously chanting head-on for my dad’s victory.

Miho with her family (l-r), brother, Justin; father, Steve; mother, Naomi; and dog, Chubby, in Long Beach, Calif., September 2022.

Up until the very day he died, my dad battled with an utterly undefeated fighting spirit. Instead of running away, I also began taking everything to the Gohonzon, uniting with my family. 

I anchored myself in front of the Gohonzon and made the timely decision that my mission was not to be found in some far off place or some new romance.

When doctors told my dad he had two weeks to live, it was me he had to reassure.

“What am I supposed to do when I miss you, Dad?”

“Just chant to the Gohonzon,” he said, “and you’ll remember.” The day before he died, he shared with me his view of life and death. 

“In life, your life is like a river; in death, it merges with the ocean.”

I have nothing but gratitude for my father’s illness, because by confronting it head-on, united in faith with my family, I was able to transform my core. Throughout this process, I moved to Long Beach into a home that I love with an incredible partner; my SGI activities became a source of pride as I grew together with the young women in my region; I booked a series of national commercials and realized that I want to become an actor, that I have a passion for storytelling. My brother, too, stood up in faith. My greatest breakthrough was that I transformed my heart of cowardice to one of courage.

I’m no longer running away but forward, as rivers do, as my father did, toward an ever greater self, as vast as the ocean.

Seeking eternity within impermanence, / crossing over delusion to nurture confidence, / building happiness from anguish, / rush forward from today / toward tomorrow / in the prodigious battle that is / our human revolution!

from Ikeda Sensei  (“The Sun of Jiyu Over a New Land,” My Dear Friends in America, third edition, p. 214)

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