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Life Stories

The Power to Shape My Destiny

In Buddhism, I discover a long-sought path to empowerment.

Mission—Oscar Adams with his family, (l-r) son Sage; daughter, Summer; wife, Dawn; and son Aspen, San Leandro, Calif., July 2023. Photo by Jin Han.

by Oscar Adams
Oakland, Calif.

Once my mother closed her door, she’d be gone for hours. You can imagine, left alone in the living room, a 5-year-old begins to wonder: Why am I alone? What’s behind that door? For entertainment, I’d tiptoe to her room, silently, slowly crack it open and watch: the drugs passed hand to hand, the pipe smoke, the rubber band wrapped around her arm, the needle going in. 

By the time of my mother’s death in 1999, I’d begged her countless times to stop using. When she died of cirrhosis and HIV, two years after my sister’s overdose, I was left at 18 feeling powerless to protect those I loved.

By then, I’d been dating for four years a young woman I’d met in the local library. My friend nudged me one day, “Bet you can’t get her number.” On the other side of the room, she was talking with her sister. Little did I know that I was about to make a connection with a bodhisattva. 

Dawn’s home was so different from mine. We often came in to the smell of incense and the sound of her mother chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. I was raised to believe in God, but I didn’t understand religion. What I did know was what that home felt like: peace.

Dawn and I moved in together in 1999, and married in 2004. I’d come home and she’d be doing gongyo. I never joined in, but I’d heard it so many times that, while washing dishes or putting groceries away, I’d find I was doing gongyo with her in my head. Many times, I wanted to sit down with her, but I had this notion—a stupid one—about being the man in the house: that she ought to follow me, not the other way around. It was my ego, simple as that. But as the years passed by, as I cycled through one dead-end job after another while her life and career took off, I began to wonder if I wasn’t missing out. Working as a security guard, there were often long, dead hours I’d use to read, usually the Bible or the Quran. By that time, I had also read Malcolm X, The Nation of Islam and The Black Panthers. I was seeking a mentor, really—a way of life that led to empowerment. Without her knowing—my pride wouldn’t allow it—I began to read works by Daisaku Ikeda on Nichiren Daishonin’s writings.

For instance, I read: “If you think the Law is outside yourself, you are embracing not the Mystic Law but an inferior teaching” (“On Attaining Buddhahood in This Lifetime,” The Writings of Nichiren  Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 3). I understood it to mean that empowerment did not exist in anything that was not already within my own life. I thought of my mother, who had never read a word of Daisaku Ikeda but whose fighting spirit had shone through even from the depths of her suffering, in moments when she told me, as she often would, to try my best and to never give up. 

No one pushed me to begin my Buddhist practice. Dawn opened our home for discussion meetings, and I’d be sneaking into the kitchen for a glass of water and run into some men’s division members. They were kind, energetic, happy to see me. I began talking with one of them, and all he encouraged me to do when it came to the practice was to maintain a seeking mind—to ask questions if I had them, to keep asking if I got an answer that I didn’t feel I understood, and to read to my heart’s content to find my own answers. 

One day in 2013, I came home and, as usual, Dawn was chanting before the Gohonzon. I put the groceries on the kitchen table and went to her side. “I’m ready,” I said. 

“OK,” she said. On Aug. 24 of that year, I became an SGI member and joined the Gajokai Academy (now called the Young Men’s Division Academy). I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life but had come to the understanding that destiny was not something that needed to be submitted to but could be shaped by my own determined prayer and action. I came across guidance from second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda urging youth who were unsure of what they wanted to do in life to just dive into something. As a result, they would elevate their life condition and eventually discover their chosen path.

This guidance was a tipping point for me. I decided that I could and would take my life into my own hands. For some time, I’d wanted to return to school to get my master’s. I’d been interested in psychology and sociology but had been unable to imagine how I’d pay for my education or how I’d make time for it as a new father. If anything, I was busier than I had ever been, involved as I was in the Gajokai Academy. But I also had more drive, more energy than before. My mother-in-law suggested a program through which I could get my master’s in social work for free, from a federal program that trains child protective service workers. 

In 2014, I applied to graduate school. The application prompted me to tell about my life, about the things I’d been through that would help me relate to the population I’d be working with. The population referred to being children who’ve been abused, neglected and impoverished. Wow, I thought. My life had all of that

It took me 17 years to join the SGI. But since then, if memory serves, I’ve not once been without a leadership position. Raising our daughter and twin boys, working full time, going back to school, kept me very busy but joyfully so. And this practice and community have supported me tirelessly. Supporting members as a leader feels to me the natural way to repay my debt of gratitude.

Over these years, I have not been perfect. I have been blown about by foolishness, jealousy and insecurity—in short, my own ego—as well as my successes and failures. I’ve fallen down along and very nearly off the path of my human revolution. But in those moments, even at my lowest, I’ve maintained a determination to get back on the path of inner transformation. What would Ikeda Sensei do in this situation? I’ve asked myself. And always the answer I arrive at is: He’d fight! Harder than ever, he’d fight for kosen-rufu!

Just last year, I became a licensed therapist. In work and SGI activities, at home as a father and husband—in everything I do—I strive to bring forth the hidden strength in my life and others, to help them grasp that they have the power within to shape their destiny.

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