A Bodhisattva Life
How I’ve increased my good fortune through a life dedicated to kosen-rufu.
by Spence Ford
I have had a remarkable career as a professional dancer—on Broadway, at a royal command performance for Queen Elizabeth II and even performing at a presidential inauguration gala.
But when I came to New York City in 1973, all I had was a dream and $500 in my pocket. I struggled financially, as everyone does in show business, but from my very first gig, it seemed there was always someone in the cast who chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Finally, when my tall Texan dance partner in my fourth Broadway show received the Gohonzon, I decided to attend a meeting. I joined the SGI in 1981.
I was working steadily, but still wasn’t dancing like I knew I was meant to. Then, at the end of my first summer of chanting regularly, I got a call from the casting director of Bob Fosse’s Dancin’. I had auditioned for that show seven times before and had not been hired. Getting this job out of the blue—a job where I could dance my heart out—was the actual proof that made me vow to devote my life to this wonderful Buddhist practice.
Through chanting, I felt real hope surging through my life for the first time, and I began to face my darkest secrets. Even though I hid it well, I was filled with self-hatred, was crippled socially and harbored suicidal fantasies. All of this motivated me to make every cause I could to change my life for the better. I chanted, engaged in SGI activities, took on leadership, subscribed and read our publications cover to cover, and even when I was unemployed, I contributed financially to the organization. I also opened my home for district meetings, and little by little I discovered that I enjoyed being with people.
I understood that if I wanted to expand my life, I would need to support the effort to spread this teaching that affirms the dignity of all life.
My contributions grew steadily over the years as my work and income increased. I married a man whom I introduced to the practice. After years of attempting to have a baby, we were on the verge of adoption when I found out I was pregnant. When our beautiful son came into our lives, we made a crucial decision to leave New York City and embark on a career in education. My husband was hired by Penn State University in 1991, and three years later, they hired me to head the dance program for their new bachelor of fine arts in musical theatre—and I didn’t even have a college degree!
Working in academia had different challenges than Broadway. I struggled to develop positive relationships with colleagues, but I developed my skills and grew as a teacher and choreographer. And I learned how to build a district in the SGI. There was only one member in State College, Pennsylvania, when I moved there. I introduced Buddhism to as many people as I could, and then SGI youth from other countries began to show up as students. We established a student Buddhist club, and I was the advisor.
It took me about a year to grasp the depth of my fortune—that I am teaching what I love.
My pension and bank account were growing, and I was thrilled to increase my May Contribution each year. There were tough times, of course, like the year my marriage ended. My paycheck wasn’t great those first couple of years, but my fortune was that the dean of my college rewarded me with merit raises every year for my creative work. Meanwhile, my son insisted on going to Penn State for his bioengineering degree. Between a reduced faculty cost and scholarships, his tuition was covered fully. He graduated in 2013 and went to Los Angeles to seek success in the video game industry. It was then that the college decided not to renew my contract.
I had been working there for 20 years, and suddenly I was both alone and unemployed. After the initial shock, I chanted and sought guidance. I determined to return to New York. I chanted for more courage. I sold my lovely Pennsylvania home for more than double what I had paid, and was able to buy an apartment in upper Manhattan.
After 18 months of relentless auditioning, I had accumulated two days of work as an extra. I was not discouraged though. I had jumped back into the SGI rhythm and was appointed Inwood Chapter leader. Through an old friendship, I unexpectedly received a job offer to teach dance for musical theatre at Molloy College. The pay was substantially more than what I had earned previously, and I only needed to work two days a week.
It took me about a year to grasp the depth of my fortune—that I am teaching what I love. This is what a life dedicated to the SGI, the Gohonzon and kosen-rufu can do. Now, I have enough income to support myself, and because of my schedule, I can do home visits and meet with members at the SGI-USA New York Culture Center.
I recently had a dialogue with the chair of my department about the Florida Nature and Culture Center. I described it as an opportunity for members to expand their abilities to communicate clearly, create unity, develop capable people and manifest courage. I pointed out that the Buddhist ideals echo the four pillars of the school’s tradition of study, service, community and spirituality. He submitted his recommendation to the dean that the college pay for my trip there. And the dean agreed. This Catholic college paid for my trip and airfare to the FNCC! This is the power of the ideals set forth by President Ikeda. They cross all boundaries to unite everyone.
I am determined to fight harder than ever, so that all the members of Inwood Chapter have the opportunity to participate in this year’s May Contribution activity. And through these efforts, we will win in our determination to send 100 committed disciples of Sensei to the celebration of 50,000 determined youth gathering for world peace in 2018.
Sensei’s encouragement from his 2017 New Year’s message rings true: “For us, each passing year brings greater joy and fulfillment as we strive with a youthful spirit to vibrantly expand our state of life, heighten our efforts to connect others to Buddhism and increase our good fortune” (Jan. 1 World Tribune, p. 2).
Today, I love my life. I know I am a valuable person, and I am determined to help as many others as I can have this same benefit. I have a sincere, deep appreciation for the members of the SGI who have supported and encouraged me for so many years, but most especially to Sensei, who has helped me open the heavy, groaning door of my own life so that I can relish the immense joy of living as a Bodhisattva of the Earth.