On a damp Saturday afternoon, on April 16, 1983, I walk through the streets of Montreal to Amber’s apartment. I am 30 years old and doing my shaky best to recover from a nervous breakdown and suicide attempt three months before.
Amber and I crossed paths earlier in the week at a local tv station commercial audition for models. She has changed so much I didn’t recognise her at first. There’s a calmness and openness in her face that has softened her striking features. When we get talking I discover that these qualities have penetrated deeper than the surface.
She said she’s been practising Buddhism for a year. I replied that I read a book about Buddhism the previous year and I found the ideas in it comforting. She told me that the kind of Buddhism she practises is dynamic. In the state I’m in, that word holds a lot of appeal for me. Then the clincher is when she says:
“With this Buddhism, you can change your karma.”
Really? I thought I had to just suffer the effects of all the bad causes I had made.
Life kept punching me in the face, and every time I recovered from the blow, Life just punched me back down again. I had nothing left with which to fight back. No options except to continue to try to numb the pain with more alcohol and street drugs. I had fantasized about suicide since childhood. Now that I’d actually attempted it I was all too painfully aware that if I didn’t get seriously better, I’d try it again. Because I saw suicide as my Emergency Exit.
I arrive at Amber’s place, a one-room apartment with a kitchenette and bathroom. Similar to my apartment, but larger and with more character. She makes loose-leaf herbal tea for us in individual metal tea balls. Our conversation is stilted, awkward. We don’t know each other well. Then I accidentally drop my tea ball. It bursts open, spewing out wet leaves onto the wooden table. She cracks a joke at me, and the ice has broken.
She asks, “Would you like to try chanting?”
I say yes, and she leads me to another area of the room. Following her example, I kneel on the floor in front of a small wooden cabinet on the wall. She lights two white candles and a stick of fragrant incense and opens the doors of the cabinet. Inside it hangs a beautiful paper scroll with ancient Chinese and Sanskrit calligraphy on it. She tells me it’s called the Gohonzon.
She hands me a little white card, like a business card. It has four words printed on it: Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. She helps me to pronounce the sounds: Nam-myo-ho-ren-gay-kyo. Then she shows me how to place my hands together in front of my chest, with my palms together and my fingers and thumbs of each hand straight and touching each other. She suggests I place the little white card with the sounds written on it between my thumbs and first fingers, so I can see it easily “in case you find it difficult to say.”
We start chanting slowly together for 10 minutes. That is, she chants, and I, my eyes glued firmly on the white card, stumble and mumble along as best I can. Most of the time the sound I produce is unintelligible, but towards the end of the 10 minutes my tongue gets it: “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.” And it feels good…
We stop and she closes the cabinet. She tells me that faith in this Buddhism is based on actual proof. She shares a couple of stories of receiving benefit when she really needed it, and impresses on me the importance of chanting twice a day and praying for something specific, so I can experience my own proof.
I walk home through the rain under my black umbrella, saying “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” all the way, because it makes me feel good. Lighter, somehow. I have even agreed to go with her to a small late-morning meeting about Buddhism the next day. Unheard of! I’m never awake on a Sunday morning as I need to sleep off my Saturday night partying until 3 a.m. in Montreal’s many bars and clubs.
Now that I can say the chant properly I’m freed up from the little white card. Before I chant for 10 minutes by myself that night, with my limited mental capacity I consider what Amber said about chanting for something I really want or need. I think:
“I’m living on welfare, so I need money. How do you get money? You work.”
As I chant, I pray simply, like a child, repeating in my mind, “I pray for work, I pray for work.”
In the morning, Amber and I attend the meeting in a downtown apartment on Mountain Street. The hosts are a Japanese couple in their thirties, a chef and a housewife, with two little boys. Like Amber, they have a Gohonzon, housed inside an impressively large wooden altar. My broken brain can hardly understand a word of what the small group of people talk about after the chanting. But I catch myself thinking:
“At last… I’m in a room of positive people.”
Our hostess, Aiko, offers delicious Japanese tea and cookies afterwards. Before I leave to walk back to my studio apartment, she talks with me a little about Buddhist practice. I find myself saying to her that it’s what I’ve been looking for.
Following instructions, I chant by myself that evening for 10 minutes. “I pray for work, I pray for work.”
I do the same Monday morning. The modelling agency I just returned to for representation calls me with two photography bookings for that week. Two! I continue chanting twice a day with my simple prayer. The agency calls again on Tuesday, and again on Wednesday. I work four days that week as a photography model.
Amber calls me on Thursday to ask how I’m getting on with chanting. I ask her if I’m dreaming. She laughs, and tells me to keep doing it, and learning about it, because my life will open up in ways that I can’t imagine.
If you would like to find out more about practising Buddhism in SGI (Soka Gakkai International) you can go to https://www.sokaglobal.org/. If you live in Canada, you can go to https://www.sgicanada.org/. SGI has a presence in 192 countries and territories in all.
My thanks to Simon Tanenbaum (https://www.simontanenbaum.com/) for the photo of my hands.