Tatiana Lee uses her Buddhist practice to pave new roads for people with disabilities in Hollywood.
by Tatiana Lee
I was born with spina bifida, which left me paralyzed from the waist down. A list of other medical complications, including hydrocephalus (a buildup of fluid in the brain), meant I spent a lot of time in and out of the hospital.
As someone who grew up in a family that practices Nichiren Buddhism, I remember my mother always stressing that I had a great mission that I alone could fulfill. For that reason, I always held fast to my dream of becoming a model and actress, who could represent the beauty of people with disabilities.
At age 27, I left Philadelphia and moved back to my hometown of Los Angeles with my mother and sister, determined to make my dreams a reality. In actuality, every day I battled my insecurities and fears as I went to open castings for modeling and acting jobs. Many times, I was ready to give up.
Still, I attended SGI meetings, met with other young women and chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo every day to the Gohonzon, praying to be a woman of unlimited self-esteem.
In 2015, I contracted meningitis, a deadly inflammation near the brain or spinal chord, for the fourth time. The infections were being caused by a shunt placed in my brain as an infant to treat my hydrocephalus. The doctors said I didn’t need the shunt any longer. I had massive brain surgery to remove it and haven’t been hospitalized since!
After the surgery, however, I developed neuropathy, which causes severe pain. To cope, I began to abuse my pain medication, which put a brake on my Buddhist practice. I fell into a depression, lost as to why I had to deal with so much pain in my life and began contemplating suicide.
During this time, fellow SGI members came to my side and gave me the courage to continue living. I sought a therapist who diagnosed me with bipolar depression.
Nichiren Daishonin writes: “One day of life is more valuable than all the treasures of the major world system, so first you must muster sincere faith . . . If you live even one day longer, you can accumulate that much more benefit. How truly precious your life is! (“On Prolonging One’s Life Span,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 955).
Determined to polish my life, I focused on developing my faith, practice and study. I also started my own business and blog to share my journey as an actress and model in Hollywood, and provide tips for the industry to accommodate people with disabilities. Little did I know how popular this blog would become!
Soon after, I booked my first major modeling project with Apple, and a month later, I acted in an Apple commercial. After the Apple Accessibility campaign aired, my popularity increased dramatically on social media. This opened even more opportunities for me to promote inclusion of people with disabilities in the media.
I worked on a major studio film, acted in viral videos, was featured in online magazines and signed with the best agent in town representing people with disabilities. I also accepted responsibility in the SGI as the Wilshire Park Chapter young women’s leader and have helped two friends receive the Gohonzon.
This past May, I was invited to the Apple Headquarters as an influencer of the wheelchair community to speak for Global Accessibility Awareness Day.
While I was there, I had coffee with Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook, who admired that I had never allowed obstacles to come in the way of my goals. When I expressed my appreciation to the Apple team for inviting me to speak, they told me, “There is a light that shines in all of your content.” I told them that they were seeing my Buddha nature and that they, too, possess it! They even provided me with the most recent technology to grow my business.
In the Lotus Sutra, the dragon girl was laughed at and shunned by people in society who doubted her ability to attain enlightenment—by everyone, that is, except her mentor, Shakyamuni Buddha. Declaring, “Watch me!” she attained enlightenment just as she was. We are all her.
Thanks to my mentor, SGI President Ikeda, the Gohonzon and all the fellow members who’ve supported me, I have been able to see my vast potential and inspire others.
Imagine 50,000 young people dedicated to their own inner transformation bringing about a spiritual revolution in humanity. I am committed wholeheartedly to fighting with Wilshire Park Chapter to realize the vision of 50,000 “Lions of Justice” emerging next year— determined and unstoppable.