Defeating Illness by Propagating Buddhism

Bruce and Karen Kraut defeat illness by joyfully working for kosen-rufu.

Bruce Kraut's battle with Parkinson's disease helps him and Karen, his wife of 32 years, become closer and happier than they ever thought possible. Photo: Ken O'Ferrall.

Bruce and Karen Rae Kraut

Living Buddhism: Bruce and Karen, as longtime practitioners of Nichiren Buddhism, you have fought for the happiness of so many people for decades. And in recent years, you’ve continued to do so amid Bruce’s battle with Parkinson’s disease. Can you describe how you’ve dealt with this?

Bruce: Fifteen years ago, the tremor started on the ring finger of my right hand. I knew something was wrong, but, for several years, I was in denial. I was afraid of losing control of my life.

Finally in 2004, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a disease in which the brain’s dopamine cells are severely depleted, causing gradual loss of motor functions.

Karen: After 20 years of marriage, when I felt life would be smooth sailing, we received this diagnosis.

Five years later, the tremors were so pronounced on both sides of his body that Bruce could not shave, or hold a fork or pen. He decided to have brain surgery in July 2009. But something went very wrong. After that, he was unable to speak, walk unassisted or drive. Within a day, I had become a full-time caregiver. He had four surgeries on his brain in one year.

What was that like?

Karen: Before then, I had been in denial just as much as Bruce. But at that moment, I completely committed myself to his protection and safety. We didn’t realize it at the time, but this was when we really started to transform our lives.

I read everything I could about the Buddhist perspective on illness. In one dialogue with doctors, SGI President Ikeda cites a philosopher who said, “A person who has never been ill only understands half of life” (Humanism and the Art of Medicine, p. 9).

Before his illness, we were struggling with poor communication in our marriage. Due to our busy schedules, we got into a habit of not communicating. I began to feel alienated from Bruce and blamed him for the lack of closeness in our relationship. There were times when I even considered divorce. I went through this internal struggle for several years.

My responsibilities in the SGI saved me at this crucial moment. While I was tortured by my anger and resentment toward my husband, I was able to elevate my life condition daily by doing SGI activities and encouraging members.

When Bruce fell ill, we united our hearts in front of the Gohonzon for the first time in a long time. This brought us closer than I ever thought possible. Together, we chanted to the Gohonzon to fulfill our shared mission as disciples of President Ikeda.

When Bruce fell ill, we united our hearts in front of the Gohonzon for the first time in a long time. This brought us closer than I ever thought possible.

Bruce: As we confronted my health situation with our Buddhist practice, my condition fluctuated between progression and regression. But I always came back to the Gohonzon and Sensei’s guidance, determined to never be defeated each time.

Did you take any other steps to cope with the illness?

Karen: Bruce and I began attending a Parkinson’s support group, made up of married couples, where mostly the husbands had Parkinson’s. At these meetings I spoke with the wives and learned how much they were struggling.

Some of the husbands became verbally or emotionally abusive toward their wives, even blaming them for their unfortunate circumstances. Others had stopped communicating all together, isolating themselves in their final stage of life. But Bruce was the opposite, showing me love and appreciation for every little thing I did for him. We did our best to use these encounters as an opportunity to encourage others.

Through this, I saw the result of our years of Buddhist practice. The worse his symptoms got, the kinder and gentler he became. He smiled and never became angry when he couldn’t shave or do the hundreds of things we take for granted every day. I was so blown away by his behavior as a human being. I have to say, I fell in love with him all over again. A closeness began to grow between us that is hard to describe.

Through introducing people to Buddhism, I have created countless human connections and magical moments with people.

Bruce: Despite my condition, I continued abundantly chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and sharing Buddhism with people. Within three years, I regained the ability to speak, walk, drive and take care of many other daily tasks on my own.

Karen: I also began making meals for Bruce to improve his health. I’ll never forget one day spending several hours preparing a particular meal. While cooking, a profound inner joy came over me. This was a deep, quiet connection to Bruce that was different from anything I had ever felt. I feel an oasis of quiet between the two of us. Although we still have lives full of things to do, we have tapped a well of profound love and feeling between us that is impossible to put into words.

Photo: Ken O'Ferrall.
Photo: Ken O’Ferrall.

That’s beautiful. What approach do you take to share Buddhism with people?

Bruce: In 2013, during the campaign to introduce 3,000 young people to the SGI-USA, Karen and I started going to the nearby college campuses to meet and talk with youth about Buddhism. Once a week, we supported local SGI campus clubs by engaging in dialogue with college students. Each time, we spoke to 20 to 30 students.

Karen: Whenever we talk to the students, we always ask them about their studies and interests. We also love speaking with international students from all over the world. We are able to bring up Buddhism very naturally and encourage them to use Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to go after their dreams and goals.

Bruce: The students are so happy to speak with us. Even if they aren’t very interested in Buddhism, they enjoy having someone to talk to and share their aspirations with. I recently read something from President Ikeda where he said, “When we share Nichiren Buddhism with someone [even if they do not take faith], trust remains” (March 2016 Living Buddhism, p. 37). I found this to be very true. Just by engaging in dialogue with young people and talking to their Buddha nature, we develop a deep bond.

Karen: Every week, I always tell Bruce, “After I speak with 10 people, I’m done.” But Bruce always encourages me by saying, “Let’s just talk to one more person.” We usually don’t leave until after at least another 10 conversations.

Bruce: When we talk to the students, we make sure to tell each of them how extraordinary they are and that they have a great mission to fulfill. At the end of our dialogue, we give them a round of applause and they love it, always parting with a big smile on their faces.

How do you keep track of all these people you talk to?

Karen: When we started this in 2013, I recorded the names of each person we spoke with. Looking back, I’ve written down over 2,000 names of young people Bruce and I have personally introduced to Buddhism. Several of them received the Gohonzon and some have introduced their friends who have become members of the SGI-USA. We keep the stack of cards with everyone’s name written on them in a drawer next to our Buddhist altar and chant for the absolute happiness of each person.

Bruce: I make sure to go through those cards every day and chant to deepen each person’s connection to Buddhism. Chanting every day for them and looking forward to meeting new people gives me so much energy and excitement for life. Through introducing people to Buddhism, I have created countless human connections and magical moments with people.

The Krauts have written down more than 2,000 names of people with whom they have shared Nichiren Buddhism. Every day, Bruce chants “to deepen each person’s connection to Buddhism.” Photo: Ken O’Ferrall.

What have you learned about young people through your many conversations?

Karen: I love youth! Youth are open-minded and bright. When I see a young person, all I think about is how much potential they have and that their development is what will make a hopeful future.

What have you learned from this experience?

Bruce: I have so much appreciation for my illness. While I am still afflicted with Parkinson’s, I can talk, walk, take care of many tasks on my own, and even lift weights at a local gym! In fact, each week, I drive over one hour to Riverside, California, to introduce people to Buddhism and attend SGI meetings.

My illness has taught me what is essential in life: giving limitless courage and hope to people by telling them about our Buddhist practice.

Karen: If Bruce had not become ill, I would not have overcome my self-absorbed nature and made a truly deep commitment to his happiness. I feel that together we have truly changed our karma into our mission.