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Life Stories

The Treasure She Left Me

Fighting toward my dream of becoming an educator, I come to understand my mother as a great teacher.

Photo by Christopher Corley.

by Emily Kuo
Augusta, Ga.

They came in their work clothes—some in uniforms, others in suits. All I knew about these people was that they’d known my mother. My father stood silently, jaw set, as they trickled in, as their boots and dress shoes filled the entry. From the mourning room the sound of their chanting filled the house.

I knew what my father was thinking. As he’d said earlier that day: “We should have never gotten mixed up with weird things! Should have prayed to Buddha!” The major Taiwanese Buddhist schools of his day had stressed prayer to a statue. 

I was 10 when my mother began practicing Nichiren Buddhism with the SGI and talking about how “the Buddha is within your own life,” something we all found weird. And yet, it was clear that whatever she was doing was working for her; it gave her a fighting optimism in the face of dire challenges—liver cancer, a failing kidney and the serious medical debts they incurred. She was a janitor, and my father, whose right side had been paralyzed by childhood polio, sold toiletries on the street. In such circumstances, I remember her putting aside a small amount of money each month to contribute to the SGI.

“Why?” I’d asked.

“So that this organization can grow,” she’d say, “and more young people have the chance to encounter this philosophy.”

We couldn’t afford a memorial service, but the SGI put a beautiful one together for us. Hundreds attended—I was astonished. Looking from face to face, it dawned on me that everyone there had gathered because, in some way or another, my mother had impacted their life.

“Study hard!” and “Put in your best effort!” were two encouragements she’d given often. Taking them to heart, I managed against all odds to get into college on a full scholarship. There, I encountered this Buddhism once again, in the student lounge during a commercial break of an airing of the Korean drama “Winter Sonata.” As though waiting for the break (and almost like she wasn’t really there for the show) a young woman turned to me and asked, “Have you heard of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo?”

Weird things! I heard my father say. Even so, we became friends, though I told her I wasn’t interested in the SGI. But one day, I saw her feeding coins into a campus pay phone, the receiver tucked against her ear, dialing numbers off a scrap of paper in her lap. “What’s up?” I knew that her financial situation was the same as my own, her future equally uncertain. “Inviting people to an SGI meeting!” she said brightly.

I had some change on me. I chewed my lip before saying, “Give me a couple numbers; I’ll help.” I got going on the pay phone next to hers. What I didn’t bet on was the first person I called needing a ride. I had a scooter. I chewed my lip before saying, “I’ll drop you off, but that’s all—I’m not interested in SGI.”

But when we got to the culture center, there were these women unloading food from the trunk of a car. 

“Oh! We have so much food!” they called. “Would you help us carry it in?” The food smelled delicious. “All right,” I said. Setting it down inside, another woman turned to me. “Ah! We have so much! Would you stay and eat with us?” The food was as good as it smelled, and the people reminded me of my mother: positive and energetic. By my senior year, I was coming out regularly, drawn to the spirit of the members—especially my peers. Encountering them in my youth proved a great treasure.

Racked with anxiety about my future, I sought guidance from my academic advisor, who warned against pursuing my master’s degree until I’d worked several years and paid off my mother’s debts. But the youth at SGI meetings emphasized my dreams. “You can do it!” they’d say. “Chant to win!” So simple and joyful—not complicated! With joy and appreciation, I began making monthly contributions, as my mother had, even when I struggled, and chanting earnestly about my dream to study in the United States.

In 2007, my senior year, I was admitted to a prestigious graduate school in Taiwan on a full scholarship. While there, my university conferred an honorary doctorate on Ikeda Sensei and even established a Daisaku Ikeda Research Room in the library. It was an acknowledgment that knowledge is neutral; to create value, it must be grounded in wisdom, directed by a powerful philosophy of life. And I, studying Sensei’s writings, was coming to understand how my mother, with her elementary school education and hardships, had become so wise, so joyful.

My Buddhist practice gave me the courage to pursue a master’s degree, then travel to America to earn a doctorate, a double major in curriculum instruction and teacher education at Michigan State University. All my causes for kosen-rufu crystallized in 2013, in the form of a tenure-track faculty position at a state university in Georgia, generally considered unattainable for international students like me.

After 2 1/2 years, my university submitted a green card application for me under “Outstanding Professor or Researcher”—the most demanding category. Just as I was to attend the 2015 culture department conference at the Florida Nature and Culture Center, my employer received a 14-page request for evidence from immigration. My university attorney said I had a less than 5% chance of approval and suggested I wait several years to resubmit. My dean agreed. 

At the FNCC, I sought guidance from a senior in faith. 

“Five percent?” he said. “If there’s a 1% chance, you oughta go for it!” 

Chanting abundant daimoku, I decided this was what my mother would have done, what Sensei would encourage me to do. I got to work putting my case together—what amounted to 42 pounds of evidence and a 24-page, single-spaced response. I submitted everything to immigration just before the deadline—something my attorney had claimed impossible. The following month, on my birthday, I received my green card in the mail.

Both my parents had difficult lives, their health conditions hindering them from freely pursuing their educations. Today, I work to reshape educational practices to support those with disabilities so they can freely manifest their full potential.

My family no longer struggles financially. My father receives physical and occupational therapy three times a week, and my sister takes good care of him. My family supports my SGI activities and warmly welcomes members to our home. 

Recently, Miyoko Hamilton, a pioneer member here in Georgia, passed away. She was like a mother to me, and I’d asked her many questions I never got to ask my own mother. “Do you think she was unhappy that I didn’t practice this Buddhism while she was still alive?” I asked her once. 

“No!” she’d said. “Your mother wanted to leave you with a life philosophy, not a religion for religion’s sake. She died knowing she’d left you with the memory of her fighting spirit!”

At every impasse, I’ve chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to muster courage, fight for my dreams and win. To know that a strong life force can transform any hardship into value is the greatest happiness in the world. It is the treasure my mother left me.

May 19, 2023, World Tribune, p. 5

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