Telling a New Story

How James Lecesne awakened to his greater self by winning in the present moment.

by James License

I am a professional storyteller. As an author and performer, I specialize in bringing other people’s stories to life. But recently, I decided to tell a new story about myself.

After 20 years of practicing SGI Nichiren Buddhism, I ostensibly had a pretty good personal story. I had created an Academy Award-winning short film. I had written and performed two solo shows that were critically acclaimed and had scripted various plays, films and TV episodes. I co-founded The Trevor Project, which after 18 years is still the only nationwide 24-hour crisis intervention and suicide prevention lifeline for LGBTQ youth. I even got invited to the White House to represent The Trevor Project when the organization was honored in 2011.

But a few years ago, this story began to feel stale. Underlying the outward success was a sad narrative about myself; I hadn’t quite managed to hit the mark, not in my profession, my practice or my life. The voices in my head—my fundamental darkness with a heaping helping of devilish functions—were telling me: “It’s too late. You’re toast. Game over.”

But there was another voice, full of hope, insisting that I never give up. “Not yet. You know what your full potential looks like. Close that gap once and for all.” I determined to listen to the second voice and challenge myself to write a new story about me.

SGI President Ikeda has continually encouraged us to expand our prayers, expand our state of life and expand our courage. But to do this, I was going to have to challenge my own weaknesses and summon the great power of faith. I needed to fight my battle in the present moment and circumstances.

In the March issue of Living Buddhism, President Ikeda writes: “That’s why the present moment is what matters, not some time in the future. We need to strive earnestly in faith, deepening our commitment to our Buddhist practice and transforming our karma, right here and now. This is the way to accumulate the causes for happiness, which also contain the effect or result of happiness” (p. 44).

I began to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with appreciation for every circumstance and challenge.

I wanted to give up this notion that happiness is something just up ahead and around the corner. I made a determination to embrace my current situation, and regard it as the crucial moment both in my life and in my practice.

My first order of business was to throw myself into SGI activities and make myself available to the many new members in my ever-growing district. The effects were immediate and dramatic. I listened intently as fellow members generously shared the details of their heroic struggles in faith. I began to see that they had exactly what they needed in order to fulfill their mission as bodhisattvas. It was right there in front of them, not up ahead or around the corner. Overcoming this obstacle or meeting that challenge was the very thing they needed to prove to themselves that they were in fact Buddhas. And if that was true for them, then it must certainly be true for me as well.

James Lescene_NYTimes

I began to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with appreciation for every circumstance and challenge. I began to see the current obstacle not as something to be pushed aside or overcome, but as something precious because it was something I had actually drawn to myself in order to reveal my Buddha nature. I determined to live with the conviction that my mission here in this life is to lead people out of suffering—this is the vow of the Buddha, the vow I made every time I chanted.

My prayer immediately expanded beyond my own “self.” It wasn’t just about me, or my success or my career. Every activity in my life became a faith activity, an opportunity to become a leader.

I then drew on my 30 years of experience as a solo performer as well as my experience working with young people through The Trevor Project, and I created a work that addressed some of my deepest concerns about the value of human life and the need for each of us to be fully who we are.

My solo show, “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,” premiered in February of last year in New York City and enjoyed a nine-month run, winning the most glowing of notices from The New York Times. I recently returned from Los Angeles where the show was celebrated and seen. A nationwide tour is currently in the works.

In spite of the outward benefits, the most important change has occurred within me. Instead of sitting in front of the Gohonzon with a checklist full of demands, I spend the time strengthening my commitment to give and to love. And chanting has become the time of the day when I am truly practicing gratitude for my life and for everyone in it.

Of course, there are more challenges ahead for me, still areas of my life I intend to transform through this practice. In this Year of Expansion in the New Era of Worldwide Kosen-rufu, I am inspired to keep expanding my “self ” more and more, introducing many more people to our practice and using every opportunity to challenge myself.

As I expand my story even further, I am moving forward with unlimited hope—not just hope in my own individual life, but hope in a brighter future for the whole world.