A Champion Perseveres
After Michael Somsan lost his eyesight in an attack, he learned that the only limitations are those you place on yourself.
by Michael Somsan
Two decades after a tragic attack left him blind, Michael Somsan reflects on how his Buddhist practice gave him the courage and confidence to rebuild his life in unimaginable ways—as a father, attorney and Ironman World Champion.
World Tribune: Thank you for sharing your inspiring story with us. Can you tell us how you lost your eyesight?
Michael Somsan: I was 25 and a U.S. Army lieutenant stationed in Fort Hood, Texas. One night in 1995, I went to visit a fellow soldier in Austin. I had left my puppy overnight in an enclosed porch, and his barking kept the neighbors up. When my friend and I went to move our cars the next morning, two neighbors, irritated with the barking dog, picked a fight with us.
WT: What happened next?
Somsan: One of them came after me with an 18-gauge shotgun. I was in my Jeep, when he shot me at close range. The next thing I knew, I was lying in a hospital bed, and everything was dark. “Turn on the lights,” I said.
“The lights are on, lieutenant,” a voice answered.
That’s how I learned I was blind.
WT: What was the healing process like for you?
Somsan: I was in a coma for about three weeks before undergoing over 13 surgeries. From the hospital, I moved to a Veterans Affairs (VA) blind rehabilitation center in Tucson, Arizona. It drove me crazy to be in my 20s and living at a rehab center, with no sense of purpose.
WT: What did you learn there?
Somsan: I had to learn how to do everything again, and this meant learning to be patient with myself and others. I’ll never forget when my instructor, who was also blind, taught me how to make a salad. He gave me the ingredients: a knife, a cutting board, a plate and a bottle of dressing. Although I cut myself five times, I managed to put the salad together. When I tried to eat it, however, I couldn’t taste any dressing. I had squirted it around the plate.
After tripping and falling often, and hitting many other obstacles along the way, I eventually learned to walk with a cane and then with a service dog. After more than a year of rehabilitation, I moved into an apartment on my own, over the objections of my family. A year later, my sister and her fiance moved from Hawaii to the same complex to assist me. They were SGI members and invited me over whenever they had meetings.
WT: What was your reaction to learning about Buddhism?
Somsan: I had always been skeptical about religion, but I tried chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. When I attended SGI-USA meetings, I found the members to be genuinely kind and compassionate people. They treated me like any other human being. I had never encountered a religion that not only strengthened you when you were struggling, but also taught you to embrace your struggles.
WT: How did your practice affect the way you lived your new life?
Somsan: In time, I adjusted to living with a disability, but I harbored deep anger toward the man who shot me. I learned that, after he made bail, he completely disappeared. I chanted about my anger and studied SGI President Ikeda’s guidance for clarity. He writes: “When the shadows of death, destiny, persecution, adversity, illness, failure or destruction loom near, people tend to succumb to fear, trepidation, cowardice, anguish, anxiety, doubt and anger. It is the power of inner-generated hope that dispels such darkness” (The World of Nichiren Daishonin’s Writings, vol. 1, p. 158).
Based on this guidance and my earnest prayer, I channeled my anger into an intense interest in the U.S. legal system. I decided that I wanted to become a lawyer.
WT: Taking that first step must have required great courage.
Somsan: I knew that by going back to school, I was taking the risk that I could fail spectacularly. Even when I sought career advice from a VA counselor, he told me: “Mike, you’re crazy! You’re blind! That will be really hard for you.” Since I had no idea how to read, write or study as a blind person, these were skills I needed to develop. I chanted for the courage to apply to graduate school, and shortly after, was accepted into a graduate program at the University of Arizona in 1996.
My program included a course in statistics, with formulas that were sometimes a page long. I was not deterred and chanted to overcome this challenge. I hired a Ph.D. student to help me comprehend the material, and I passed the course with one of the highest scores.
If you were blindfolded, how would you ground yourself? You would just stop. Then you would put your hands out, you would look for something to help you get your bearings. That’s what the Gohonzon does for me. It helps me find the light in the darkness.
At the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law, I often studied hundreds of pages of material in a day, with the help of three readers hired by the VA to assist me.
I earned both a master’s degree in public administration and a juris doctor in May 2002, and passed the bar exam on my first try.
WT: Congratulations! What type of law do you practice today?
Somsan: For the past 13 years, I have been a trial attorney, practicing mainly civil litigation. I also work part time as a judge. Despite holding several prominent legal positions, my proudest role has been to fight for the rights of the poor and disabled as a senior litigator at Legal Aid. Because of my Buddhist practice and experiences in life, I can better understand my cases as a lawyer and a judge. People want to be heard, and if you genuinely give them that forum, listen to them and work toward a fair result, everyone feels respected, and justice is achieved.
WT: How inspiring! In what other ways has your Buddhist practice empowered you?
Somsan: Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo in front of the Gohonzon gives me a place to search out my feelings. It heals me and keeps me calm. I never feel alone. If you were blindfolded, how would you ground yourself? You would just stop. Then you would put your hands out. You would look for something to help you get your bearings. That’s what the Gohonzon does for me. It helps me find the light in the darkness.
WT: Michael, you’ve been in the news recently for your most recent achievement: On Oct. 8, you were one of five athletes with disabilities who participated in the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. What was that like for you?
Somsan: I grew up in Hawaii, and I had always dreamed of doing the Kona Ironman. The event involves a 2.4-mile ocean open-water swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride through the lava fields of Kona, and then a full 26.2-mile marathon. It is very much a test of the mind as it is the body. But I strongly believe that your only limitations are those you place on yourself. Nichiren Daishonin writes, “Become the master of your mind rather than let your mind master you” (“Letter to the Brothers,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 502). When my doubts and fears crept in, I just chanted and thought about my family and friends in faith—the ones who said, “We’re chanting for you; we’re there with you.” Racing in Ironman gave me my self-confidence back. It instilled in me the belief that a broken body does not mean a broken spirit.
WT: What was the hardest part of the competition?
Somsan: The swimming was the most nerve-wracking part. I couldn’t have done it without my training partner and guide, Dominic Bernardo. While he was by my side in all legs of the competition, when his head was underneath the water, I couldn’t talk to him, which gave me panic attacks. You’re out in the open ocean—the abyss, I call it—for two hours. It really drives home the Buddhist concept of interconnectedness, when you are literally tethered to someone else and relying on and trusting them not just to help you finish the race, but to stay alive!
WT: You also became eligible to compete for a slot on the U.S. Olympic cycling team in the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. Congratulations! What would you say to someone who feels hopeless?
Somsan: Being a vice men’s leader for Gilbert Islands District enriches my life. I get to show through my own example that we should never be defeated by our circumstances, and that we must set high goals for ourselves and never be afraid to go after them. Actual proof in this practice is critical, and we must never give up until we have achieved victory! We must also realize that we are setting an example—good or bad—for others. In my own life, I hope to inspire my two daughters to be the best they can be and to never quit.
Taking on this Buddhist practice is like your own Ironman competition. Your mind can tell you: You’re weak. You’re not worthy. You don’t have value. You have to face these challenges. This practice gives you the ability to address and change those patterns of behavior that no longer serve you. An Ironman athlete must have a strong core to endure, and so does a practitioner of Buddhism!
WT: The theme for this year’s Ironman was Kupa’a, or perseverance. What does that mean to you?
Somsan: It means to be steadfast in all struggles. That’s what Sensei teaches us to do! There’s this moment toward the end of Ironman where, after swimming, cycling and running for over 14-hours straight, both the physical and mental pain are unbearable, and deep fatigue sets in. The last six miles, you’re running in complete darkness and silence. You’re by yourself, fighting your fears and doubts. But then you swing back around this bend in the road. Gradually, you see the light and hear the sounds of the crowd at the finish line. It’s the same in life. There’s always a period when you’re in pain and darkness, and you have a choice: to give up or to keep pushing yourself to get back into the light.
Finally, as I crossed that finish line, with both arms up signaling victory, the back of my racing jersey displayed the message that I live every day of my life: “Never Be Defeated!”