Forging My Character and Intellect

Jordan Stalker polishes his character as he pursues a career in academia.

Jordan Stalker

Living Buddhism: Thank you for taking the time for this interview. What was your life like growing up?

Jordan Stalker: I grew up in middle-class neighborhoods on the east side of Seattle but moved around from time to time because of my dad’s work as a manager in the electronics and manufacturing fields. A few years after I was born, my mother stopped working and supported our family as a homemaker. My parents did their best to be examples of kindness, dignity and warmth for me and my two older brothers, Dean and Sean. When I was 12, my parents brought my cousins Angie and Katrina to live with us.

Religion was not a topic in our household. In fact, I mocked religion and looked down on the religious. I was raised to have socially progressive ideals, but when making real efforts, if I didn’t easily succeed, I’d quickly move on to something else.

We understand that you started your undergraduate studies at the University of Minneapolis. Can you tell us about this?

Jordan: When my dad got a job in Minneapolis in October 2001, we moved there. I had just started my freshman year as a journalism major at the University of Minnesota when my brother Dean, who was still living in Seattle, was reported missing. (Sean was already living on his own.) My mother and sisters moved back to Seattle, and my dad and I stayed in Minneapolis.

In college, I tried to find my niche in life. At one point, I belonged to three different environmental groups, two political “activist” groups and several research projects. One day, I realized that I was surrounded by people who looked and thought like me but had no long-term vision for the future.

Something was missing in my life, and I was ready to find a philosophy that could give me a foundation and help build my character.

How did you encounter Nichiren Buddhism?

Jordan: In 2004, when I was in my last semester of college, I was volunteering for the Democratic National Committee when one of the supervisors caught my eye. She was smart and engaged, like me; but she was also joyful, not like me. After the campaign we began dating, and she told me about her Buddhist practice.

When she showed me her copy of The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, I thumbed through it. I was surprised that Nichiren seemed to be talking about exactly the kinds of issues I was facing in my own life. I would take my girlfriend to meetings and pick her up, and eventually I started joining her, doing my homework in the back of the room while she and her friends chanted. I also began reading up on SGI President Ikeda’s philosophy. I was especially moved by these words:

If universities produce people who look down on those who couldn’t attend college, what good is it? In one sense, college exists precisely for those who cannot attend it. Those who are privileged to attend a university should spend their lives working for the sake of those who couldn’t enjoy the privilege. (Discussions on Youth, new edition, p. 368)

As one of only a few who attended college in my family, I felt a sense of mission.

I received the Gohonzon in June 2006. That day’s simple ceremony at an SGI member’s home was more important for me than any academic graduation I could ever attend.

What happened next?

Jordan: In 2011, news of Dean surfaced and my family was notified that he had passed away. This was traumatizing for all of us. The SGI and my Buddhist practice allowed me to become a pillar of strength for my family—something I couldn’t have imagined being before.

Wanting to prove the power of Buddhism further, I decided to receive my master’s degree in communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago. During this time, my girlfriend, who had introduced me to Buddhism, and I broke up.

Instead of being consumed by my negativity over the breakup, which had been my tendency, I delved further into my SGI activities, especially as a member of the student division. As I read and studied more about Buddhism, I learned about President Ikeda’s time in Chicago.

In The New Human Revolution, President Ikeda recounts witnessing the discrimination of a young African American boy in Chicago’s Lincoln Park that prompted him to resolve to “build a society truly worthy of your love and pride” (vol. 1, p. 145). I wanted to contribute to this grand vision for humanity.

Inspired by my mentor’s resolve, in 2010, I wrote to President Ikeda expressing my determination to obtain my Ph.D. by the time I was 33.

And now you’re completing your Ph.D. in mass communications at the University of Wisconsin Madison!

Jordan: That’s right. I’m on track to receive my Ph.D. right around the time I turn 33 this July. But this was by no means an easy journey. In 2011, I was out of work and had received rejection letters from doctoral programs for the third time. That same year, I was appointed the young men’s leader for Illinois Region, which covered almost the entire state of Illinois, including 26 counties and spanning eight hours north to south.

I further resolved to win in every aspect of my lie . . . I chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo more and challenged myself to pursue my dreams for the sake of kosen-rufu instead of my own ego.

This appointment gave me renewed inspiration and appreciation for the opportunity. Rather than thinking that I didn’t have gas money or that I needed to apply for jobs instead of driving four hours to visit one member, I challenged my capacity to care for others.

I supported student division campus club activities during the school year, and, in the summer, I spent entire days with future division members playing basketball, eating together and studying Buddhism. I began sharing my struggles openly and honestly with other young men, something I had never been able to do. Still, my situation wasn’t changing on the outside.

How did things change?

Jordan: In The New Human Revolution, volume 6, President Ikeda says: “The growth of the student division is the growth of the Soka Gakkai. The progress of the student division is the progress of kosen-rufu and directly linked to the progress of peace in Japan and throughout the world” (p. 271). His words to students strengthened my resolve to battle my self-doubt and bring forth the confidence that I am an important person for kosen-rufu.

I further resolved to win in every aspect of my life, without compromising, and made more dedicated efforts to do my human revolution and yank the root of complacency and entitlement out of my life. I chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo more and challenged myself to pursue my dreams for the sake of kosen-rufu instead of my own ego. I applied to two programs that offered doctorates in mass communication.

One day in the spring of 2012, after a Soka Group shift, I received a letter of admission from one college, offering to fully cover my tuition as well as a part-time teaching assistantship. Two weeks later, I received a letter of acceptance from the University of Wisconsin, my school of choice, which was close to home and ranked number one in its field. However, they were unable to offer funding, which meant I would have to take out substantial loans.

What helped you navigate these choices?

Jordan: On the surface, it seemed like I had to decide between getting a full ride or taking on crippling loans. Refusing to compromise in my prayer, I continued chanting, mustering my faith for absolute victory, to show the power of my life as a disciple and to demonstrate the greatness of my mentor and the Gohonzon.

Around this time, I traveled to India to meet the family of my girlfriend, Shaifali. Three days after reaching India, right after chanting with Shaifali and her family, I received an email from the director of graduate studies at Wisconsin with an offer of full funding! Not only did he offer a 100 percent waiver for my tuition, but he also offered me a teaching assistantship in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the very school that had accepted me months earlier but without funding.

During my struggle to achieve this proof of victory, Shaifali had been supporting me every step of the way. I immediately accepted the offer and chanted to the Gohonzon with complete appreciation. Shortly after, I proposed to Shaifali. We got married in 2013 at the Chicago Buddhist Center, with a photo of Lincoln Park on our wedding program. My wife today is an assistant professor at Midwestern University. I am so fortunate to share my life with such a powerful woman.

Congratulations! How has your practice helped you since?

Jordan: I learned that academic training can only get me so far, but religion builds heart, character and humanity. None of the academic training I received from the greatest institutions in the world prepared me for the barrage of health challenges that my family has faced, especially recently.

Within the last two years, my mother had a massive stroke, my father faced health issues, and my wife and I went through a miscarriage. During these trying times, never once did I think, I am so glad I know so much about communication theory. I relied on my prayer and President Ikeda’s guidance. I relied on the things that, above and beyond my intellect, strengthened my character. My wife and I are now expecting to welcome our daughter in June!

Looking back, what has been your biggest change since starting your Buddhist practice?

Jordan: My basic life tendency used to be self-directed anger. I would worry constantly and look for negativity in every situation, always expecting to be disappointed. Though I thought that religion was for the weak-willed and foolish, I myself had a poor character with no sense of belonging or foundation. Buddhism gave me the tools to transform my anger into compassion and the means to always challenge my human revolution.

I am determined to share this Buddhism and the greatness of President Ikeda through my own behavior as a student, professor, young men’s leader, son, husband and father. With President Ikeda as my mentor in faith, I will always work on behalf of the people.