Connecting the Dots of My Life

Abe Uccello shares by encouraging others his own path is brightened.

Abe Uccello with his wife, Tracy Fipinger, and their rescue dog, Lulu, in Sarasota, Florida. Photo: Luis Tarnayo.

by Abe Uccello

In 2007, my father passed away after a long battle with a rare cancer. He was my best friend, and the pain of his loss dealt a heavy blow. He had always looked after my mother who had, throughout most of my childhood, struggled with severe mental illness. I wondered how I would take care of her in his absence.

At the same time, my family faced financial ruin due to the Great Recession, which began late that same year and lasted until mid-2009. Having worked in real estate, one by one, all of our material possessions were stripped away, and I became lost, spiraling downward into an abyss of drugs and alcohol trying to abate the pain of loss and despair.

My father had been a seeker in life and had taken me with him on a journey of learning about 14 different religions and philosophies. I inherited his seeking spirit. So when a friend introduced me to chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and Nichiren Buddhism in late 2007, I was intrigued by this practice—with its basis in the idea that the heart of spirituality rests within me and that the tools we need to overcome deadlock exist inside us. I learned that chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is the key to unlocking these inherent tools.

I started chanting in January 2008 and received the Gohonzon a few months later in March. While seeing the great value of chanting, I also approached Buddhism with some skepticism, which actually benefitted me. It drove me to scour Nichiren Daishonin’s writings, ask many questions and intensely study Nichiren Buddhism.

My wife, Tracy, seeing changes in my life as a result of my Buddhist practice, also joined the SGI in June 2008.

Seeking to understand SGI President Ikeda’s intent and vision for spreading Nichiren Buddhism, I took on leadership in the SGI. I visited members relentlessly and sought to share this Buddhism with everyone I met. I felt as though my quest to become truly happy would touch my father’s existence, and, as Sensei says, send waves of immense joy to him. My despair of having lost my father turned into the most beautiful connection with his life.

Despite progressing in my practice, however, by the end of 2013, I found myself going through the motions of life. Even though my family was healthy and strong, and we were steadily rebuilding our finances, I kept thinking to myself: What is my purpose in this lifetime? Surely, there must be more to life than just existing. I wanted to find a passion for living again.

Once again I immersed myself in the study of Nichiren’s writings and President Ikeda’s guidance. I repeatedly returned to the Gohonzon, determined to awaken to my mission. I wanted to find a way to connect the “dots” in my life, to give meaning to my experiences.

Throughout 2014, I chanted several hours a day to activate my mission. At the same time, many difficult and buried memories surfaced from my childhood. Vivid memories of mental health hospitals, jails and horrific treatment interventions flooded my mind. One such memory was of my mother being taken away in handcuffs and tears streaming down my face as I ran after the police car confused. She’s only sick, I thought. She’s not a criminal. This had led me to develop a fear of doctors and medicine, and fed my resentment toward my mother—I had never known how to place or make sense of these feelings.

At the same time, more trauma from my childhood surfaced, including vivid memories of abuse. These painful memories triggered my depression. In my most human and dark moments, I couldn’t see the purpose of my life.

Yet each time I chanted in front of the Gohonzon, I felt a glimmer of hope. My Buddhist practice helped me understand how to take responsibility for my life, to stop blaming others for my suffering, and to peel back the cloud or fog of resentment that I hadn’t been able to see past.

Sensei’s guidance of conducting home visits became my banner of hope. Through encouraging others, I was brightening my own way. This is what kept me moving forward.

A turning point came in July while at a leadership conference at the Florida Nature and Culture Center. A senior in faith warmly encouraged me about the importance of having the correct view of life. This correct view, he explained, is based on respect for the inherent dignity of each life. When we operate without this view, it’s easy to mistreat ourselves and others. But when we act based on this correct view, we can create the greatest value. He also encouraged me to win in spreading the philosophy of Nichiren Buddhism through my example, my personal victories—as a disciple of President Ikeda.

In December 2014, a good friend informed me that she had decided to pursue prison reform as the new secretary for the Florida Department of Corrections. She asked me to join her on this mission. I was hesitant and doubts raced through my mind: I’ve never held a government position, have an unfinished college degree in philosophy and will be surrounded by experts in the field. Clearly, my fear was holding me back. Once again when I received guidance, I was boldly encouraged: “Don’t hesitate.”

Through chanting to establish my mission for kosen-rufu, for my community, I realized that the culmination of all my experiences were manifesting in this opportunity. Mental illness, incarceration, child abuse, economics and the repetitive cycle of needless suffering are all paradigms that exist within the prison system.

Today, I proudly serve as the director of the Division of Development: Improvement and Readiness at the Florida Department of Corrections, overseeing hundreds of employees with the mission to direct a continuous level of education and intervention programming for nearly 250,000 lives in our custody. I also proudly support the members of the SGI-USA as a chapter leader and vice men’s region leader.

With certainty, new responsibilities carry the weight of new obstacles, but I am determined to make where I live and work “the Capital of the People,” expanding the ranks of fellow bodhisattvas, one life at a time.