A Springtime of Victory
Marionette Fennell-Patterson strives as a single mother to raise her two sons into upstanding citizens.
Living Buddhism: Marionette, we are interested in learning about your 41 years of practicing Nichiren Buddhism. What was life like for you before you became a Buddhist?
Marionette Fennell-Patterson: My godmother established the first African American school of cosmetology in Boston, and everyone thought I’d go to college, have a family and take over the school. Instead, I got lost in a lifestyle of abusing drugs. I recovered from drug use a year before I had my first son, Sharif, and then less than two years later, I had Hazim. I enrolled in college and found work as a drug counselor.
Even though my life was back on track, I found myself always anxious about being a single mother of two boys.
When were you introduced to Buddhism?
Marionette: My sister had been chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo for less than a year, when she introduced me to it in April 1975. That was when Hazim was 1, and Sharif was 3. I was plagued by my family’s grave disappointment in me, and I feared raising my sons alone. I thought that I couldn’t succeed unless I had a career and a husband, and owned a home.
My stress triggered severe muscle spasms to the point where I had to wear a neck brace. Some mornings, the pain was so bad that I couldn’t even lift my head off the pillow. I tried yoga, painkillers, alcohol, meditation and various other things to deal with the stress. Needless to say, I was seeking anything that would help.
How did you change through your practice?
Marionette: Before I encountered Buddhism, I was very cynical, thinking, What’s going to happen is going to happen, and often complained about my life.
Chanting made me feel like I could dream again. Things weren’t rosy by any means. I struggled emotionally and financially but found great support in the SGI community. A couple of young women often visited me to chant and teach me gongyo. I was also taught early on that making efforts in my Buddhist practice would help me dramatically change my life. This included sharing Buddhism with others, taking on leadership to support others in their Buddhist practice and making financial contributions to support kosen-rufu. At first I thought I had too much going on for all this, but I began to see my Buddhist activities as training for my life.
Through sincerely making such efforts, I saw myself becoming stronger within and better able to face my difficulties—so much so that I no longer needed that neck brace!
How did your Buddhist practice help you raise your sons?
Marionette: I seriously chanted about the best way to raise my children and decided to quit school to make them my priority. Interestingly, every job I worked after that was what I needed at the time. For example, as a social worker helping abused and neglected children, I had the sobering realization that without my Buddhist practice my own children could be like the children I was helping. And so I chanted to be a better mom.
My younger son had what is known today as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. And both sons were high-energy and active. I had to chant for the wisdom to keep everything going, because I had to do it all, no matter what.
In 1980, I traveled to Japan to attend a training course, and I determined to receive encouragement about how to be victorious in my struggle as a single mother. At one meeting, I remember SGI President Ikeda saying: “I fear nothing. I am just filled with courage.” I felt as though he were speaking directly to me.
I was also inspired by encouragement to raise our children to become excellent citizens—fine adults who can make positive contributions to society. I chanted for years with this prayer in mind.
What were some of your greatest struggles?
Marionette: I had always lived in the inner city areas of Boston. As my sons grew older, they struggled with many unanswered questions—why their father didn’t live with us, why they couldn’t have expensive sneakers like the other kids, why I insisted they go to young men’s Brass Band activities on Sundays, and why they chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo when their friends didn’t.
I worried about drugs and gang violence. I noticed my teenage sons taking on inappropriate mannerisms and became concerned how they were being impacted by the questionable activities in our neighborhood.
As I chanted, I’d tell myself: You think the answer is outside yourself, but it’s not. You have Buddhahood within!
The younger one was coming home with money that couldn’t be accounted for, and he started acting like a little tough guy. I later learned that he had been recruited to be a lookout for drug dealers. The older one got robbed on the way to the store.
Despite everything, we maintained a close relationship with lots of dialogue, but it was still quite a challenge. For years, I struggled to believe that I could raise my children by myself. I doubted whether I’d ever have the financial strength to support us. I had to chant for confidence and trust that the causes I was making were impacting my life. In the darkest times, studying Buddhism was my great source of hope.
I remember crying and studying Nichiren Daishonin’s letter “On Attaining Buddhahood in This Lifetime” in front of the Gohonzon. As I chanted, I’d tell myself: You think the answer is outside yourself, but it’s not. You have Buddhahood within! (see The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, pp. 3–4). And I would start to feel a shift. Through studying and applying Nichiren’s writings and Sensei’s guidance to my life, I found the resolve to never give up, to have hope and to be confident.
When did things start to change for you?
Marionette: I had been struggling with whether to move and sought guidance from a senior in faith, who said: “I cannot tell you what to do. If you feel your children are unsafe, chant to make the best decision for their safety.” So after chanting intensely about this, I decided to move.
Surprisingly, despite my financial situation, I was able to buy a house. I knew that this was due to all those times I had contributed to the SGI regardless of my tight finances and all the causes I had made to improve the lives of my family.
In 1989, we moved into our new home in a newly established neighborhood. We were one of the first families in that neighborhood. Hazim made new friends. And Sharif started going to a school that had a wonderful program. My sons’ attitudes changed—they became more responsible and even started to dress more respectfully.
How did you learn the spirit of making financial contributions in the SGI?
Marionette: From the early days of my practice, I was always encouraged to contribute as a cause to transform not only my life but to advance kosen-rufu. Even when I only had a few dollars to give, I would see very positive changes. So, I kept giving, at first because of the benefits I experienced from contributing. Over my many decades of practice, the depth of appreciation for the Gohonzon, my fellow SGI members and for President Ikeda has grown. Now I contribute every month through the sustaining contribution program because, more than anything, I want to support the advancement and the expansion of kosen-rufu in any way I can.
That’s wonderful! What is your life like today?
Marionette: My life has totally changed from 41 years ago. Today I am a woman of great confidence and fortune. I began working as an elementary school teacher in 1989. And in 1992, I received a master’s degree in education. Since retiring from teaching in 2005, I continue working as an independent education consultant.
The joy of helping others, sharing this Buddhism and contributing to kosen-rufu have helped me overcome my weaknesses and limitations, and given me such courage and compassion. To date, I’ve introduced more than 100 people to this practice! And I’m so happy to say that I’ve developed my life to the point where I no longer worry about money. Because of my deep faith in the Mystic Law and my practice in the SGI-USA, my family and I are living happy, fulfilled lives.
That’s very encouraging! How are your sons doing today?
Marionette: I’m so proud of both my sons and their families!
My younger son, Hazim, has a 4-year-old son named Asher and is the best dad I know. He is a hard-working property manager in a residential complex, and he is fun-loving, charismatic and kind.
My older son, Sharif, and his wife, Amanda, have three children. He is now a board-certified neurosurgeon. In January 2011, when U.S. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot at an event in Tucson, Arizona, he was the neurosurgery resident on duty when she was brought into the hospital, and he helped save her life. He was also able to encourage her husband to never give up.
What message would you give to those going through challenging times?
Marionette: Nichiren Daishonin writes, “Those who believe in the Lotus Sutra are as if in winter, but winter always turns into spring” (WND-1, 536). And President Ikeda says: “The joy of spring is made real by the winter that precedes it. Only by overcoming the trials of winter with the power of faith can we come to savor a springtime of victory” (The Hope-filled Teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 106).
If you don’t give up, you will one day appreciate all the “winters” in your life. As a zone Many Treasures Group leader, I always keep in mind Sensei’s guidance that there is no retirement age in faith. I’m determined to practice and share this Buddhism with others for the rest of my life.