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Life Stories

The Surest Route

Confronting life’s workaday struggles, I learn to live—and write—deeply. I’m Judy Juanita from Oakland.

Photo by Sanya Lu.

Living Buddhism: Judy, thank you so much for speaking with us today. You’re a published author, poet and essayist. How has Buddhism helped you realize your potential as a writer?

Judy Juanita: Well, thank you. About potential, I’ll start by saying—it isn’t everything. A single vice can deadlock a person of great promise. I saw this early on in my father, a graduate of Langston University, son of one of Oklahoma’s first Black oil millionaires and, as a Tuskegee Airman, among the first Black aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps. But in this last achievement, he picked up a gambling habit, which he brought home from the front during World War II.

Though he was in many ways a superb father, this vice of his would often turn our home into a battle zone. When he lost at the racetrack, he’d take his anger out on us, pawn household items and leave the family finances in tatters.

It was my mother, a hardworking civil servant, who always picked up the pieces. From her I heard no end of complaints against my father, but that wasn’t all I heard. She was always spinning stories, telling tales; a passion for stories I believe I got from her. But the way of the gambler—the light-hearted certainty that, for the brave and gifted, life was full of shortcuts to success—this I may have gotten from my father.

What did that look like for you as you got older?

Judy: I was so full of energy, moving at 90 miles per hour. As a member of the Black Panthers, I saw myself as a revolutionary and had nothing but scorn for 9-to-5 jobs and the careful day-to-day plodding and scrimping of the people who worked them.

Any room I walked into, I was fairly certain I was the smartest one in it. Whether or not I really was is another matter. I talked a good game and could move a crowd.

“You’ve got a tongue like a pair of scissors,” my father used to warn me. But I zipped around with that pair of scissors, my “murder mouth” as it was called back then, making my own way through society, snipping shortcuts, I thought, straight through its fabric.

Like my father in his 20s, I had a few impressive accomplishments beneath my belt, all on account of my quick mind and quicker tongue. In every aspect of my life, I moved quickly.

In June 1968, at age 21, I married, became pregnant that fall and had a baby boy in the summer of 1969. My marriage gave me some stability, but I was still the same Judy.

“Oh, Judy,” my friends would say, “she doesn’t need drugs—she’s already high!” They meant to say I was a good time, a free spirit, and it’s true, I was. But they meant something else as well—that I was ditzy. Money, budgets, rules—all these were the worries of other people, the squares and the rubes. Not my concern. I mean, I’d simply lose money or leave the house without enough in my wallet. In either case, my level-headed husband was the one who picked up the pieces. That is, until he wasn’t. My lapses of carelessness enraged him, and one day, he had enough. I was 31 when we divorced and was suddenly on my own, working as a freelance journalist, a single mother with a rambunctious little boy.

A tight situation.

Judy: Mm-hmm. No quick and easy way out of that one; no more running from myself. On welfare, food stamps, in Section 8 housing, I was fighting losing battles on every front. If I kept the car running, I couldn’t pay rent. If I paid rent, the lights would get shut off. If I paid the electricity bill, the phone line would get cut. If I paid for the phone, they’d cut the gas.

Deeply frustrated with the end of my 10-year marriage and under immense financial pressure, I began to release my frustration as my father had when he’d lose at the racetrack. I would harshly punish my son.

When did you realize you needed to course correct?

Judy: Out for coffee with a friend one day, I mentioned that my car was in the shop. It was always in the shop, it seemed, because I was always getting into accidents. As I explained this to her, her eyebrows hitched higher on her forehead.

“I want to make sure I heard you right: The car is always in the shop because you’re always getting into accidents?” she asked.

“Well, yeah,” I said, “but, it’s not like I ever get hurt. I’m lucky that way, you know.” I shrugged it off, laughing, but she wasn’t laughing with me.

“Listen, I don’t want to hear you use that word lucky,” she said. “You’re not lucky, you’re fortunate. But you’re burning up that fortune fast—the way you’re living, you might already be running on empty.”

This was on a Friday that she said this.

“Tomorrow, I want you to wake up, shower and dress like you’re going to the office, but come to my place. We’re going to build some fortune.”

I’d never been to her apartment, but it was a real treat, unlike any apartment I’d ever been to. Almost like a little palace. There, facing the Gohonzon, she taught me how to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.

“What do you need most?” she asked.

“Housing,” I said right away.

“Then let’s chant for housing.”

I kept on chanting and, within the month, landed what felt nothing short of miraculous—a little “palace” of my own, what they call on the East Coast a “railroad flat,” an apartment that runs the building back to front, the rooms connected by a long hallway. Of course, I kept chanting after that, but I thought Nam-myoho-renge-kyo was something of a rabbit’s foot—a good luck mantra to fulfill material wishes. I didn’t understand at all the concept of human revolution. I dabbled in the practice for some years. Eventually, I came to a meeting and was struck by the straightforward rationality of Buddhist concepts.

Judy with her grandson Jamir (left) and son, Juno (right), in Berkeley, California, December 2019. Photo courtesy of Judy Juanita.

Did you begin to apply Buddhist practice more deeply, to engage your inner life?

Judy: Well, yes, but slowly, almost without realizing. I’d listen to people give their experience about how Buddhism had transformed their life, and I had the same scorn for most of them as I’d had for most people who went through life at a slower, steadier pace than I.

One experience I remember was from a young man who chanted to get a job as a florist. He’d gotten that job, and he went on to describe how much joy it gave him to arrange the flowers in their vases. I remember thinking: What? That’s nothing! And yet, beneath the derision, almost unnoticed, my heart was moved, if even just a little bit, by this experience, by the sincerity of the young man who gave it. His rich inner life nudged me to consider the state of my own.

When did you begin to practice in earnest?

Judy: It was when my son, just a few months into my taking up a steady practice, confronted me. I gave him a smack, and he said to me, with all his little self, “I’m tired of you slapping me around.” In that moment, I realized that there was something wrong with me—not with him or the world or other people, but me, my inner life. My son had told me, in his way, that I had some deep inner work to do. Because I was chanting, I really heard him.

I dove deeply into my Buddhist practice, seeking tutelage for the first time in my life, from Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, Josei Toda and Ikeda Sensei.

This opened me up to seek tutelage in other areas as well. As a writer, for instance. I’d always considered myself one of those rare breeds of writer—a natural. I had a chip on my shoulder. It took the positive functions in the universe to take me by the scruff of the neck and sit me down, as it were, for a talk, for me to really listen.

It’s as if they were saying: “Slow your roll, sister. You’ve got a lot to learn before you can become all that you think you are. … You’ve got to slow down so you can appreciate greatness.”

I was inspired by Nichiren’s writings, where he states, “Whether you chant the Buddha’s name, recite the sutra, or merely offer flowers and incense, all your virtuous acts will implant benefits and roots of goodness in your life” (“On Attaining Buddhahood in This Lifetime,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 4).

In chanting daimoku, cleaning our Buddhist center or making a financial contribution, all my actions began to reflect and strengthen the great inner life condition of Buddhahood. Financial contributions were especially profound for me, since they required me to deeply consider my own relationship with money and deepen my faith in the causes I was making for the sake of Buddhism.

My son, when he left to live with his father at 15, gave a toast at his farewell dinner. “Thank goodness I’m getting out of here,” he said. “Buddhism is for people with bad luck.”

Though our home life had become lively and fun, my war with bills lasted for many years, and financial hardship was an inescapable part of it. I thought about his comment for years, and it spurred me to win, to show actual proof of the power of the Mystic Law and my own abilities, not only as a writer but as a human being. Even in times of financial hardship, I did my best to contribute what I could during the May Commemorative Contribution activity out of deep appreciation for having encountered a great mentor and philosophy that was helping me emerge from my arrogance as a more thoughtful, more present person.

Judy on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, February 2023. Photo by Sanya Lu.

Would you say this transformation has also affected your writing?

Judy: Mm-hmm. The greatest benefit has been that I know how to deeply appreciate life. No longer considered the ditz or the speed demon of the family, I’m the rock, the one people can rely on in a time of crisis.

On my 60th birthday, in 2006, my son stood to give another toast, this time to my character. He’s not one to jabber, but he just went on and on about how much value I’d created and was creating with my life.

The character arc of the protagonist of my novel Virgin Soul goes from being selfishly concerned with her own opinions and desires to someone who is concerned about other people. My greatest achievement in life—and I absolutely credit my Buddhist practice—is not that I was successfully able to write about such a transformation but that I lived it.

These days, I work as a full-time professor at the University of California, Berkeley, teaching youth who are undergoing significant transformations of their own. I stopped looking for shortcuts to glory long ago. Instead, I learned to search for heart-to-heart connections, giving praise to the great potential inherent in all life. This, I’ve found, is the shortest, surest route to happiness.

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