The Path of True Happiness
How Buddhism led Jwyanza Hobson to create positive change on a global scale.
by Jwyanza Hobson
One of the most profound encounters I have ever had was with artist and ex-Viet Cong soldier Le Hai Anh, as he showed me his drawings and sketches captured quickly while he marched the almost 500 miles from Hanoi to Danang when he was called to defend his country in 1964. These moments of beauty caught in the midst of destruction formed the basis of my study on Vietnamese contemporary artists while I was in Hue in the summer of 2015.
If you had told me only a few years ago that I would be engaging with this person and doing what I do today, I would have never believed you. But then again, I hadn’t yet been introduced to chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.
In 2009, I was 36 years old and had been working for almost a decade at a dead-end job in the casino gaming industry. Having only a high school diploma, I never thought that I would be able to do anything else. But that was the year I was introduced to the life-affirming practice of SGI Buddhism, receiving the Gohonzon on May 2, 2009. A quote from SGI President Ikeda that I had come across stated, “It is impossible to build one’s own happiness on the unhappiness of others” (www.ikedaquotes.org). I had the strong realization that my involvement in the casino industry was an attempt to do just that.
While chanting, I realized that what I really wanted was to further my education. My fundamental darkness told me that I was too old to start over and lacked the finances anyway. But I felt courage well up within me while I chanted, and I registered myself as a full-time student at a local community college. Inspired by the three founding presidents of the Soka Gakkai, I set on a path to help create a better learning environment for the students there by taking a position in student government, and soon after was appointed its president. I spent a fulfilling year cooperating with faculty, staff and administration, as well as students from all over California, advocating for students and creating a better learning environment for them.
When it was time to apply to a four-year university, I had accumulated a 3.8 GPA and had a lot of extracurricular work under my belt. I was feeling so confident that I only applied to two schools, but had my rude awakening when I learned that both had rejected me. Although I found myself in a position where I could see no solution, I continued to chant. A few weeks after having received my rejection letters, I got an invitation from the University of California Riverside to join its global studies program. I hadn’t even applied to UCR so the invitation felt a bit mystic! I accepted the invitation and moved to Riverside, California, from Los Angeles in 2014. I restarted the Soka Gakkai club on campus, which hadn’t been chartered for at least a year. I found another student member, and we began having SGI meetings.
I would rather fail trying than to lose by giving up.
Although I was very interested in studying abroad, I was still barely getting by financially. But I received a scholarship that covered everything—both my program and day-to-day expenses. And that’s how I found myself speaking to Mr. Anh as I pursued a research project about Vietnamese contemporary artists and the way that they transform the memory of war through their artwork.
He deeply touched me as being someone who turned poison into medicine, and I vowed to do the same. My dad had served in the Vietnam War, and the thought of him on one side and Mr. Anh on the other—these two men who are so important to me—made me realize that my mission in Vietnam was not over yet. It was up to me to continue healing the rift that still existed between our countries as a result of the Vietnam War.
As soon as I returned home, I started exploring ways to go back to Vietnam. I knew about the Fulbright Scholarship, but when I imagined a Fulbright Scholar, I did not picture someone who looked like me! After chanting about it, I realized that not applying would be a source of regret. I would rather fail trying than to lose by giving up on the idea of applying.
With three weeks left to apply, I acted quickly, gathering all the letters of recommendation from professors with whom I had cultivated good relationships. I wrote a personal statement that was guided by the values I had ingrained into my heart as a disciple of President Ikeda, with a particular emphasis on the importance of global citizenship and the role of education in creating positive change on a global scale. There was a lot of soul-searching involved in the application process. By the time I finished and turned in my application, I felt I had already won. Even if I didn’t win the Fulbright Scholarship, completing the arduous task of applying for it was a victory in and of itself.
It would be eight more months before I would receive the decision from Fulbright. I kept myself busy with my studies and Buddhist activities, sharing this amazing practice and philosophy of Nichiren Buddhism with new guests. Our SGI campus club even had six members receive Gohonzon in the first half of 2016. I excelled in my studies, determined to graduate from UCR with honors.
After some secondary interviews with a campus committee as well as representatives from the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam, I was informed that I had won the Fulbright Scholarship and would be embarking to Vietnam this summer to teach English for nine months. When I received the news, I was happy but not shocked. The winning of the Fulbright didn’t feel like I won the lottery. The fortune felt like the natural result of hard work and prayers.
I graduated summa cum laude a few months later with a bachelor’s in global studies and was the student commencement speaker. I took the opportunity to share a quote from Sensei with the graduating class: “Human society is made up of people who have met success and those who have not. No one knows for sure whether their life will be blessed by fortune or burdened by fate. The elation of triumph is short-lived, but those who understand that every setback, too, is only temporary and who continue to make steady efforts with confidence and conviction, can achieve truly great things. Ultimately, victory comes from never giving in to defeat” (www.ikedaquotes.org).
Looking back on the past seven years, I can clearly see the changes in my environment that have come as a result of my Buddhist practice. I went from desperately clinging to a job that on a deep level felt like a drain on my spirit to achieving academic excellence and getting to travel the world, not only because of my scholarly achievement, but because of the mindset that I have cultivated through applying Nichiren Buddhist philosophy to my daily life.
When I return from Vietnam next May, I will apply for a global studies or international relations graduate program, in an effort to cultivate a mind that can further the cause of kosen-rufu. Although my long-term plans are not clearly defined, I have deep faith that my prayers are leading me down a path to happiness and success!