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Life Stories

Based On a Vow

Gaining and losing all, I discover the foundations of a winning life. I’m Sherman Hom from Prescott, Arizona.

Sherman Hom in Prescott, Arizona, July 2023. Photo by Walter Rachel.

Living Buddhism: Thank you for speaking with us today, Sherman. You are an avid sharer of Buddhism. Since 2007, you and your wife, Anne, have helped 36 people to receive the Gohonzon and begin their own journey of human revolution. What drives you?

Sherman Hom: In sharing Buddhism, I feel that I’m accelerating my character transformation, my human revolution. This sounds wonderful, but it can also be scary. Chanting with the spirit to share Buddhism puts me on the accelerated path to confronting my deepest fears and anxieties. By keeping up a strong personal practice through chanting and study, I maintain the high life condition required to embrace these confrontations as opportunities to defeat negative functions in my life.

What’s an early example of this kind of transformation through propagation?

Sherman: A major one revolved around introducing my parents to Buddhism. They had immigrated from Hong Kong to the United States when I was a baby, in search of a better life. In America, they worked brutally long hours to build something here.

These were the 1950s; television was a new thing. We had one in our living room like everyone else. Airing every week was Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best, which broadcast an ideal of American family life. We gathered around it to watch, my brother, my sister and I. Never my parents; they were breaking their backs at their corner grocery store. This must be the life all my friends are living, I remember thinking in front of the TV. And it’s the opposite of ours.

Through high school and then college and then into my working life, I resented my parents. I was unhappy and blamed them for that. All my life, I blamed them, until I started chanting. I encountered Buddhism at 24, through a co-worker in 1975. He encouraged me to chant about anything I wanted. I didn’t know what I wanted, so I just chanted and three desires arose: To pursue a career as a research laboratory scientist; to establish a successful romantic relationship; and to repair my relationship with my parents. This last one came out of nowhere, while I was grooving one morning, just loving the rhythm, the energy, the feeling of chanting. At some point deep into that daimoku session, I had what you could only call an “aha moment”—a realization that brought tears streaming down my face: I am alive because of my parents.

It struck me to the core of my being, this appreciation, a nakedness of feeling, a thank you from the depths of my life. I’ve got to give something back to my parents, I thought. And then an eruption from my heart: Buddhism! It was freeing. Just a few days later, I traveled to the University of California San Diego, my alma mater, to request letters of recommendations for grad school applications. On my way there, I stopped in Los Angeles to see my parents for the first time in two years. They were amazed by the difference in my attitude toward them. We chanted together, and after, I turned to my mother to ask how she felt. “I can only think happy thoughts,” she said. Two months later, my parents received the Gohonzon. Within a year, I was accepted to a Ph.D. program and was married to my wife, Anne. My prayers had been answered, but they all stemmed from a deep internal change.

What’s another transformation you’ve undergone while practicing Buddhism?

Sherman: Something my parents did drive home was the importance of hard work. Even as I rebelled in high school, as I experimented with drugs and gave my parents grief, I excelled in school. Academic achievement was one way I felt seen. As my practice of Buddhism reawakened my desire to pursue a career as a scientist, I returned to school for my doctorate, completed a post-doc fellowship, then landed a job with a Fortune 500 company in 1985.

I’d been brought on to assist a team of specialists to clone a “billion dollar gene.” The billion figure came from the fact that, if we failed to clone it, it’s protein product would need to be purchased from another company to the tune of $100 million a year. When the scientists brought on to do this failed to make headway, I was asked to sit in on a meeting, during which it dawned on me exactly the method most likely to succeed. I gave my report to the division chief, and he asked me to lead the project. For weeks on end, I ate, worked and slept at the lab. I remember the moment I verified that I’d successfully cloned the gene—it is the only time in my life I’ve ever leaped into the air and screamed.

You were driven by a desire for professional achievement.

Sherman: Yes, but as soon as I cloned that gene, my job was terminated. It was the ugly side of big business, and it activated an ugly side of my karma. Prior to this, I’d experienced some depressive states but never like the ones I experienced then. The layoff cast me off the cliff of what I saw as my highest achievement, setting off a cycle of extreme hypomanic and depressive episodes that eventually settled into a deep depression in which I thought of suicide. This was my worst encounter with what was soon diagnosed as Bipolar Type 2 disorder.

How was Anne at this time?

Sherman: While I’d been in the lab day and night, Anne was on an entirely different mission, chanting with an entirely different focus. After trying to conceive a baby for over a decade with no luck, we agreed to adopt. The idea was that she’d stay home with the baby while I worked, but the opposite happened. My layoff came just two weeks after Courtney’s adoption. When my depression hit with no end in sight, Anne decided to return to work. I stayed at home, hardly moving, playing over and over again the way I’d end my life… But then I’d hear Courtney stirring, needing to be held or fed or changed. And it would stir me also. She needed me. I’d get up and take care of her.

I’d done something very common in our society, and very dangerous: I’d hooked my entire identity onto academic and professional accomplishments. It’s an unstable way to live. When I lost that, I felt I’d lost everything. Were it not for Courtney, my wife and our SGI community, I wouldn’t have survived the depths of that depression. Miserable as I was, and ignorant as I was, in caring for Courtney I was building a sense of self around something entirely new—around caring for another person. Without a doubt, I can say that our daughter saved my life.

In 1998, the eighth year of my ups and downs, I finally decided to seek guidance from a senior in faith. This leader listened—and I mean really listened, not saying a word as I dumped out all my fears and my struggles—then he opened up The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin and pointed me to its first letter:

You must never think that any of the eighty thousand sacred teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha’s lifetime or any of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas of the ten directions and three existences are outside yourself. Your practice of the Buddhist teachings will not relieve you of the sufferings of birth and death in the least unless you perceive the true nature of your life. If you seek enlightenment outside yourself, then your performing even ten thousand practices and ten thousand good deeds will be in vain. It is like the case of a poor man who spends night and day counting his neighbor’s wealth but gains not even half a coin. (“On Attaining Buddhahood in This Lifetime,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 3)

This passage struck me deeply. Like something was being hauled up from the depths of my heart. This leader stressed that my mission as a Bodhisattva of the Earth is to maximize my unlimited potential and to demonstrate to countless others that they too can overcome any challenge, transform any karma. I understood.

I began chanting in this way, to take control of my destiny, support my family and demonstrate to those living with mental health challenges that they can lead good lives. I’d sought treatment in the past without success and had given up. But as I chanted, I summoned faith that there did exist a path forward and that it was my mission to find and walk it. I searched and found an excellent doctor who prescribed me effective medication—the same medication I use today, 24 years later.

Now, I rely on my sense of mission, my vow as a Bodhisattva of the Earth, to keep me from sinking into depression.

This sense of mission has fueled your efforts to share Buddhism.

Sherman: It has. And my efforts to share Buddhism have fueled my character transformation. Since 2007, Anne and I have helped 36 people receive the Gohonzon. We understand that supporting someone in faith doesn’t end with them receiving the Gohonzon. It continues until they themselves develop the capacity to support others in faith.

What have you been up to recently?

Sherman: In my work, I’ve taken the lead in supporting New Jersey’s response to crises such as an anthrax outbreak and the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, I was hired as Director of Regulatory Affairs at a genomics service company, at which I recommend regulations for testing medicinal plants that have been adopted across the country. Recently, I’ve been asked to make recommendations at the global level. To be honest, taking this next step in my career, onto the world stage, is intimidating. And the fear I feel tells me that I have more human revolution to do. But the thing is, I want to. I want to believe, and I believe enough to know that the fear is worth confronting and overcoming, and that what awaits me on the other side is a stronger, wiser, more compassionate version of myself.

It sounds as though you not only fully embrace your unique mission as a Bodhisattva of the Earth but also thrive in it.

Sherman: “You shouldn’t be able to do what you’re doing,” one doctor has told me. “People with your condition are not supposed to live the life you’ve lived.”

The life I’ve lived is based on a vow to maximize the actual proof of the power of this practice and support others to do the same. It is based on a deep appreciation for those around me constantly supporting me to fulfill this vow.

To be prepared to share Buddhism with others takes a high life condition. My own fears and insecurities sneak in all the time. But I chant very specifically to put my fears to rest, to guide one more person to the Gohonzon and to Ikeda Sensei, to show them to the path of their vow.

When I share Buddhism with young people, even those I meet only in passing, I tell them: “This may be the only time I will meet you. We’ve talked and exchanged a little wisdom, but I want to give you my greatest treasure. Here.” And I hand them a Nam-myoho-renge-kyo card. I really mean what I say to them. To give someone Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, to me that really is my greatest treasure.

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