Experience

Walking the Path of Happiness

How chanting taught Brent Lengel to believe in his own Buddha nature.

by Brent Lengel
HARLEM, N.Y.

In 2008, the sudden death of a close friend shook me to the core. Though I was eight months into a theater production as an actor, I quit and hiked the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia for six months.

Life seemed so fragile, and I sensed that my limited success in theater could also end at any moment. I felt as if I were walking on the edge of a cliff, and one gust of wind could send me tumbling down and disappearing into the clouds.

In spite of my fears, I decided the following year to move to New York City from Louisville, Kentucky, to chase my dream of becoming a playwright. I began building a name for myself and became the playwright-in-residence for a successful theater company. Eventually, I brought seven of my productions to the New York stage, each time receiving good reviews.

Instead of embracing my success, I found myself increasingly overcome with anxiety and fear. My doubts grew when my fiancee, Melanie, was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an incurable inflammatory illness. In 2012, she was rushed to the emergency room, and the four surgeries that followed left her without a colon and both of us with an uncertain future and an ever-growing stack of medical bills we were afraid to open.

I felt like the biggest fool in the world: How dare I be so thoughtless, so arrogant, as to pursue a career in the arts? What good were my plays when they wouldn’t put food on the table? How important were my stories if I couldn’t secure care for the woman I love, nor provide a stable environment for the children we both hoped to have?

After just a few minutes of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, I felt energized, as if the anxiety that had plagued me for so long disappeared.

I was overcome with anger and bitterness, both at myself and the world around me. Even when my writing career began to take off in a big way, all it did was terrify me. When my fundraising campaign brought in more money, it only meant the bar was that much higher. In short, I feared both success and failure, because the better I did and the higher I climbed, the narrower the ridge became, and the more treacherous and certain my eventual fall would be.

I began to feel the need to have faith in something. That’s when I recalled one of my colleagues who practiced Buddhism. I gathered the courage to ask him about it, and a few days later he took me to the SGI-USA New York Culture Center. After just a few minutes of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, I felt energized, as if the anxiety that had plagued me for so long disappeared. I continued chanting from that day on, and on March 15, 2015, I received the Gohonzon.

Though I enjoyed chanting, I struggled with the idea of having a mentor. When I opened up about this to my young men’s leader, he suggested I simply read SGI President Ikeda’s writings. I started with A Youthful Diary. Learning that Sensei, as a youth, struggled with the same anxieties I faced moved me. Knowing that he had been there and had gone on to accomplish great things gave me the courage to dream bigger.

I felt hope well up within me, and I realized I could support my family while pursuing my dreams in theater. I also made a firm commitment to the SGI’s mission of worldwide kosen-rufu and even helped my roommate receive the Gohonzon in April 2015.

Around that time, my partner’s symptoms began to improve, and her health has become steadily stronger. I’m now appreciative for our struggles as they brought us closer together. Melanie and I are getting married this fall.

My work continues to improve, as does my art. I am currently collaborating on a new rock opera with a major underground Goth band, and I’m working with two Hollywood directors to create a short film to benefit wolf conservation.

Most of all, chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo has taught me to believe in my own Buddha nature and to view life’s challenges not as threatening enemies who are sure to destroy me but as obstacles I can use to forge my life. I’m still walking that ridge, but the path has gotten wider, the clouds have blown away and the sun is out. I can see the future in all directions and instead of being racked by fear and anxiety, I am excited to take the next steps in my life.

In November 2015, I was appointed the young men’s leader for Bridgeview District in Harlem, New York. Together as a district, we are determined to stride confidently forward and become a shining example to our community, never once neglecting our work as Bodhisattvas of the Earth.