Discovering the Universe Within
Kevin Harrington uses his Buddhist practice to fuel his dreams of becoming a peace-oriented astrophysicist.
by Kevin Harrington
CAPE COD, MASSACHUSETTS
As a child, I had an interest in Buddhism. What most fascinated me was the idea of some sort of oneness with the universe. When I was in ninth grade, my mom heard about my interest, and she began chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo out of the blue. I know now that when I was very young, she had heard about Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and chanted at times as we moved from motel to motel in California after leaving Massachusetts.
It was only a few months later that my mom passed away due to complications from her drug and alcohol use, and a bout with cancer. I was placed in the custody of the Department of Children and Families, and went to live with my godparents, whom I had only just met a year before. I was on my own.
I was disengaged from my school life, severely depressed and suicidal. To combat those thoughts, I summoned up my inner courage and earnestly hoped to find a bold alternative to the turmoil that had been my life up until my mother’s death. Strangely enough, a lawyer assigned to my case, who was not a Buddhist, gave me a book on SGI Nichiren Buddhism. As a high school junior, I read the entire book, engraving the profound concepts of Buddhism in my heart, and started chanting to create the most value out of my raw potential.
I was able to find a sense of assurance about my mother’s death through reading about the Buddhist perspective of the eternity of life. I appreciated the Buddhist point of view that life repeats cycles of birth and death supported by the compassionate functions of the universe.
After chanting consistently for a few months, I visited my older sister in Providence, Rhode Island. Apparently she had been in a bookstore and for no particular reason picked up a book on addiction. She opened it only to find a two-page article written by our mom, about her struggles with heroin. Firsthand, she told the story of how she sold drugs to feed her addiction, but also to have the money to give her son anything he wanted. In spite of her own daily battles, she had put her children first.
It became my life mission to use my Buddhist practice to transform my family’s karma.
Neither my sister nor I had known anything about this book, but reading this gave us both a profound sense of peace. It became my life mission thereafter to use my Buddhist practice to transform my family’s karma and change poison into medicine.
The Buddhist concept that we are microcosmic expressions of the macrocosmic universe had resonated deeply with me and my growing interest in astronomy. Luckily, I had an excellent teacher, who advised me to follow my passion.
Looking through large telescopes can be humbling. To look very, very far into space, into the far distant past, fills me with awe. This is a real-life manifestation that our universe has eternity in it, right in the present moment. There’s a 14-billion-year history in this present moment, and there’s an infinite future, also right in the present moment. The Buddhist concept of “three thousand realms in a single moment of life” reverberates throughout our universe.
I became the first person in my family to graduate high school, and I declared myself an astronomy major going into the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. It was there that I finally got connected to the SGI-USA. I received the Gohonzon as a freshman on Nov. 6, 2011, the day before my actual birthday. I finally had a solid base from which to launch my dreams.
As I chanted and studied the SGI-USA publications and SGI President Ikeda’s guidance, I learned about the spirit to constantly seek out one’s own development. With that determination, I sought out the advice of my professors as often as possible, which led to many life-changing opportunities. Early on as an undergraduate, I was able to engage in groundbreaking astronomical research. I was the lead author on a paper in the astronomy journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society about discovering the brightest galaxies ever observed in the universe to date—making international headlines.
In March, I was featured on the front page of the Boston Globe for my scientific discoveries and my life’s journey. I was overjoyed that my high school teacher, who had fostered my love of astronomy, and my grandmother, who had lost many of her children to drug abuse, were able to read about my victories.
My grandmother also attended my college graduation, where I was one of 10 out of 5,500 students awarded the 21st Century Leader Award for exemplary leadership across the spectrum of community involvement, overcoming personal obstacles and academic achievement.
I have gotten into hand drums instead of hard drugs. And I love to encourage others to be one with the one rhythm they have: their pattern-filled, rhythmic life! It is through chanting that I am able to harmonize with the rhythm of the universe and base my actions on faith in the eternity of life.
The starburst galaxies I study can produce many stars in a single day! Inspired by the immense star formations in these galaxies, I strive in my Buddhist practice to create the utmost value through making the necessary causes at each moment.
It brings me joy to infuse all this momentum into the next level of my Ph.D. studies at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy at the University of Bonn, Germany, and to develop my contribution to kosen-rufu—as a shining example of a world peace-oriented astrophysicist.