Claiming My Life

By awakening to her mission to serve others, Dorrence Benta gained control over her own happiness and destiny.

True freedom—Dorrence Benta says that the key to liberating her life from suffering is through challenging her human revolution. Photo: Marc Giannavola.

by Dorrence Benta

Shortly after I got married in 1972, my husband shared his expectations for me to join the family business. I eventually conceded and became a licensed funeral director just like his siblings, his parents and himself.

Over time, I felt as if my life were not my own, when I realized that my focus was more toward living up to the expectations of others rather than cultivating my own dreams. It wasn’t long before I felt weighed down by my marriage, motherhood and work. As the years passed, I even contemplated suicide.

I joined the SGI in June 1985 out of desperation, and almost immediately, I experienced great relief and exhilaration. It was as if my hope were reborn. The changes in me were evident enough to those around me that two of my co-workers began to practice within a year’s time.

My own turning point came when I saw SGI President Ikeda on a live telecast. I was awestruck by the depth of his compassion, care and concern for others, and I realized that I could embody these same traits in my life.

I had harbored such deep resentment toward my husband for pressuring me into his profession, and it reflected in how disconnected I felt from my clients. But as I came to see my situation and my job—my place in the world—through the eyes of the Buddha, I found myself changing. At work, I became impassioned to care for and serve our clients in a way I’d never experienced before. I treated them with warmth and sincerity, and these exchanges enabled me to claim my profession as my own.

Soon after I joined the SGI, my husband stopped supporting my Buddhist practice, which added to the deep tension in our marriage. Although I could no longer chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo at home, I continued to practice and support other women in faith.

When my husband and I eventually divorced, I was fired from the family business. Based on Nichiren Daishonin’s writings, however, I knew obstacles would arise if I practiced correctly, and that I should not fear them. As a single mother of two, I immediately went to the Gohonzon with a confident prayer that I would be able to support my children. An hour later, a colleague called and asked me to work at the funeral firm she managed. True to my prayer, I worked at two funeral companies for the next eight years that were not connected to my relatives, and I was able to support my children.

In my absence, my father-in-law rebuilt his business, which included hiring new management. He tapped my son, Jason, fresh from his master’s program in organizational psychology at Columbia University, to succeed his business enterprises. In 2002, I was also asked to return and manage their funeral home in Harlem.

President Ikeda’s words encourage me to become better today than I was yesterday.

I had to chant with unwavering determination to dispel all of my negativity toward my husband’s family, to overcome my own natural arrogance and to see this as a wonderful, joyful opportunity to forge ahead in business with my children, and even their children after them.

I recalled President Ikeda’s words not to be impatient, as I steadily made causes to transform the situation. I determined to take control of my life, with the Mystic Law at the very center. This meant challenging my own tendency to be cerebral and overanalyze everything. In the process, I learned the same lesson from Sensei in more powerful and deeper ways: It is the heart that is important.

As a funeral home director, I come face to face with many mothers and fathers who are in deep anguish over the loss of loved ones, especially those who have died at the hands of senseless violence. This has ignited my determination all the more to support them in their time of need.

A former employer once told me that she noticed that whenever I met with a family for a consultation, though at first, they were filled with sadness, after meeting with me for 15 or so minutes, they would be laughing in my office. Somehow, I naturally remind families of their joys, and not their losses.

This is all due to studying the guidance of Nichiren Daishonin and President Ikeda, and taking on responsibility in my local SGI organization, where I learned to follow my mentor’s example to help the person in front of me and treat everyone as an equal. Sometimes people come in to bury their loved ones amid family rifts or other complications that add to their grief. I think it helps them to feel heard and validated. And when offering prayers for the deceased who have been entrusted into my care, I pray for their peaceful repose and for them to encounter and embrace the Gohonzon in their next lives.

I once wondered why I had to endure such hardships in my marriage, and I came to realize it was so I could encourage other women who have similar experiences. I now understand with my life what a senior in faith once told me: that the word “salvation” from the Buddhist perspective means that you liberate your own life from suffering.

I have immense appreciation for the three founding presidents of the Soka Gakkai for enabling me to encounter this practice, the Gohonzon and the SGI, and I have taken their determination as my own: “I vowed to summon up a powerful and unconquerable desire for the salvation of all beings and never to falter in my efforts” (“The Opening of the Eyes,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 240).

President Ikeda’s words encourage me to become better today than I was yesterday, and better tomorrow than I am today. For me, this means starting every day in front of the Gohonzon with the fighting spirit to transform my life state so that I can put into action my passion to help others. Staying on track by focusing on my own human revolution is serious business. It is important that I do this as an example for the successors yet to come.

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