To Never Be Defeated

Todd Harper rebuilds his life through the transformative power of Nichiren Buddhism.

Todd Harper

Though I’ve been practicing Nichiren Buddhism since 1979, I reached a point in my life about a year ago when I realized that I had been coasting, oblivious to critical areas of my life.

In December 2014, due to high anxiety, I resigned after 22 years of elementary school teaching. In the last few years of my career, I had changed schools and grade levels several times, and I was no longer sure of myself at all.

My class of sweet third graders was slipping out of control, with the most troubled students acting out their frustrations. Every morning before work, I would spend more than an hour chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, but by midday, my mouth was dry and I was shaking inside. I had no joy and didn’t even recognize myself. I thought, I used to be able to do this, but now I can’t live this way. Though retirement was only five years away, I couldn’t hang on anymore. It was over.

Around the same time, my wife informed me that she was sorry, but she was leaving. Our 22 years of marriage was, for me, quickly coming to an end. But looking back, I now see that our marriage had been heading down a troubled road for a long time. We love our daughter, Libby, and though we do our best for her, as a couple, we hadn’t spent a lot of time doing things together. I had taken for granted that as long as we both practiced Buddhism, things would somehow work out. But our lives were moving in different directions, we didn’t communicate, and my wife couldn’t take it anymore. She moved out in February, and we started the divorce proceedings.

The coldest and most bitter wind was blowing in my heart. With no career and a crumbling marriage, I felt like I would never laugh again. I would get a partial retirement but not enough to sustain me. How am I going to make it? I thought. I was shaken to the core. I felt like I had failed my leaders, failed my daughter and failed my mentor, SGI President Ikeda. I wondered if I might just disappear and die.

But I couldn’t. I had people to live for. I had a mission. But what was it? How was I going to dig out of this hole?

President Ikeda says: “Prayer is the courage to persevere. It is the struggle to overcome our own weakness and lack of confidence in ourselves. It is the act of impressing in the very depth of our being the conviction that we can change the situation without fail. Prayer is the way to destroy all fear. It is the way to banish sorrow, the way to light a torch of hope. It is the revolution that rewrites the scenario of our destiny” (December 3, 2004, World Tribune, p. 8).

As I chanted and struggled with my reality, I realized that I could no longer depend on others; I had to become strong on my own and rebuild my life from the ground up. I needed to take some kind of action.

That winter, while visiting a member facing intense struggles, it hit me. Chanting and studying are important, but just doing these things by myself isn’t enough, I thought. My tendency, the tendency of many men, is to retreat and isolate oneself when facing a struggle. But that’s exactly the time to do what is counterintuitive—reach out to others.

I vowed to do 100 home visits, no matter what. Though not usually one to make numerical goals, the more I challenged this, the more I felt this was the right thing to do. Practice for self and others is the eternal way of practicing Nichiren Buddhism. This was my time to ingrain this in my life. I chanted to have some kind of breakthrough each week to encourage the guys I visited. I immersed myself in each issue of Living Buddhism to find encouraging passages to share.

This became the driving force of my life. I had to win and open up the vision for my own life to inspire those around me.

From the cold of winter, spring dawned in the most amazing ways.

I wanted to have a sustainable life that included spending time outdoors, staying physically active and eating good food. I analyzed my spending and cut back on nonessentials. I underwent job training, expanded my gardening, learned how to deep freeze my vegetables and how to can apple sauce.

One morning after a morning of vigorous chanting, a cold call to a senior citizen home resulted in my singing and playing piano at senior residences. Last year, I played at 12 locations and enjoyed it. In addition to weekly jazz gigs, I also began working at an apple orchard—a job I thoroughly enjoy and find deep meaning in. But still it wasn’t enough work.

In connection to my interest in gardening and my work at the orchard, a teacher at my daughter’s middle school asked me to come in to talk about seeds. It was a true joy: the students were engaged and thinking. I realized that talking to this age group was still enjoyable for me and that being around youth was an important part of my life. I soon became a substitute teacher there.

In August, I was further inspired when I attended the Men’s Conference at the SGI-USA Florida Nature and Culture Center. I finally felt, My life is going to work out. After I came home from Florida, filled with sheer joy, I helped a friend receive the Gohonzon.

Still, I needed more work to cover my expenses. I casually explained to the general director of the school I was subbing at that I might have to work at another school to make ends meet. Surprisingly, she said, “No!” and the school created a position for me. I’m there three days a week—it’s the best job for me.

It is so wonderful to belong again to a school, especially one that I believe in. I come home tired, but happy. I have time to compose, play at senior centers, develop my garden and then some.

As for the divorce, everything went smoothly and respectfully. My ex-wife and I are on good terms, and our daughter has started high school in my neighborhood.

By December 2015, I had completed 101 visits to the men, and the men’s division members in my chapter are doing more visits as a whole.

I wouldn’t trade what I went through for anything else. I know now that I will never be defeated. When I meet a guy whose life has been shattered, I can confidently say to him, “You can do more than survive—you can transform your life with this practice!”