Transforming Endless Struggles Into Limitless Hope
How Buddhism taught me to transform every single struggle into a source of rich benefit and value.
Living Buddhism: Thank you, Gina, for sharing your story with us. Can you tell us about your childhood?
Gina Aguirre: I was born in the late ’60s in Oakland, California, to a single mother who struggled with mental illness. When I was 8 months old, my mother took her own life. I was told that I was left alone with her body for several days, crying and hungry. I was adopted by a woman who also turned out to have mental health challenges. As a result of her instability, I spent my childhood walking on eggshells, searching for love, acceptance and safety.
It must have been so difficult for you. What struggles did you face in your new home?
Gina: My adoptive mother worked long hours and would often leave me home alone—the drastic consequence being that I was sexually abused by one of her boyfriends. My world felt anything but safe.
I have a distinct memory from age 11 of finding a book about Buddhism and being drawn to it. I remember thinking to myself, There has to be something better than this life I’m living. At age 12, I ran away from home in search of that elusive “something.” I hitchhiked around the country and jumped from place to place, experiencing hunger, vulnerability and sexual assault.
How did you survive these unspeakable times?
Gina: When I was 15, something amazing happened: I ran into Janet, my best friend from the fourth grade, and she invited me to an SGI meeting. When I attended, I remember thinking that all the smiling faces I saw were too good to be true. But soon after, I experienced another deeply traumatic event that convinced me that I needed to change my life. I decided to receive the Gohonzon right away at 15 years old. This “something” that I was looking for found me.
What was it like for you to practice Buddhism?
Gina: Naturally, I had many internal demons to battle. In those early years, I struggled with loneliness, depression, suicidal thoughts and self-destructive behavior. I longed for love but had no idea how to develop healthy relationships. However, it was my good fortune that I started practicing at such a young age. I infused my life with the values of the SGI, just as a child does with their family. I learned everything from my seniors in faith. I always had someone who I could trust and do activities with. I changed dramatically by immersing myself in the rhythm of joy and value-creation that SGI activities afforded.
It took me a long time to believe in my own Buddha nature and see the value of my life. But year after year, as I have changed, grown and evolved, I have experienced one great breakthrough after another.
Can you share a turning point in your faith?
Gina: At 19, I moved to Riverside and got involved in a relationship with a much older man. He was violent and manipulative, often hurting me physically and frequently trying to convince me that I was crazy. But, he said he loved me. At that time, I couldn’t tell the difference between love and abuse. We married, had three children and spent the next 12 years together. I felt like I was re-experiencing the instability I tried to leave behind in my childhood.
But this is when I deepened my Buddhist practice and began to fully understand the concept of changing my karma into mission. During my third pregnancy, I chanted many hours a day to change my circumstances and create a safe and healthy environment for my children. During the delivery, my uterus ruptured, I hemorrhaged and my heart stopped beating. I was clinically dead for a brief period until doctors resuscitated me. I was on life support for 10 days.
I came out of this situation realizing the preciousness of my life and refreshed my determination to change my relationship with fighting prayer. I chanted every spare moment I had to change things for my children and myself. To be honest, I was terrified at the thought of living the rest of my life trapped in this relationship. The many details of my transformation could fill a book. So I will just say that, ultimately, my children and I were able to begin a new life, free of violence and abuse.
I decided to win. Even if I did not see a path to victory, I decided I would not be swayed. I realized that it was up to me to find hope.
How did you persevere as a single mother?
Gina: No matter what happened, I always relied on my prayer to make the impossible possible. I was raising my three children on my own when I took on legal guardianship of my ex-husband’s twin nieces, who were removed from their home by the state.
While raising five children, I obtained a bachelor’s in sociology in 2007, followed by a master’s in social work in 2009. With an advanced degree, I began working for a foster family agency. Four years ago, I was promoted to director of the agency. In this job, I help children who have suffered abuse and neglect find healing environments with new foster and adoptive families. It feels as though I have truly changed my karma into my mission.
Every bit of abuse, fear and trauma that I experienced in my young life enables me to do my job that much better and connect with youth who have lived through similar experiences.
What a victory! How did your health fare in the process?
Gina: In 2010, shortly after obtaining my master’s degree and beginning a new job, I experienced kidney failure due to a hereditary kidney disease. The doctors told me I needed a kidney transplant but said my chance of finding a kidney match was about 1 percent.
I continued working while receiving home dialysis, a treatment that I did every night while sleeping. This was a very difficult time for me. I feared leaving my children and fought doubts about whether I was worthy of receiving a new kidney.
I went through seven long years of being on dialysis while working, raising my family and opening my home for Buddhist activities. Many days, I felt sick and weak. In my darkest moments, I would say No! to the fear and then find the will to fight another day using my Buddhist practice.
What was your turning point?
Gina: In early 2017, I remembered this quote from SGI President Ikeda: “When your determination changes, everything will begin to move in the direction you desire. The moment you resolve to be victorious, every nerve and fiber in your being will immediately orient itself toward your success. On the other hand, if you think, ‘This is never going to work out,’ then at that instant, every cell in your being will be deflated and give up the fight. Then everything really will move in the direction of failure” (Faith Into Action, p. 108).
I decided to win. Even if I did not see a path to victory, I decided I would not be swayed. I realized that it was up to me to find hope. I was no longer afraid. I chanted with a fierce determination to live and accomplish my mission as a Bodhisattva of the Earth. I made every cause I could conceive of to improve my health, drastically changing my lifestyle to take better care of myself. On May 1, 2017, I got a call that my new kidney was waiting, and I underwent a successful kidney transplant!
Looking back on the process of being sick, I now see clearly that my illness taught me how to nurture and care for myself. Until then, my history made me nearly incapable of this. I care deeply for my life now.
What has been the key to never giving up amid your most pressing challenges?
Gina: I understood my mission as a Bodhisattva of the Earth—that I’m here to show actual proof of the power of the Gohonzon through my life. Because of my Buddhist practice, every single thing I have been through has become a source of rich benefit, fueling my sense of mission. I always heard that, in Buddhism, nothing is wasted, and I have found that to be absolutely true as I reflect on my life.
As we advance toward the 50,000 Lions of Justice Festival in September, why do you think it is important for youth to practice this Buddhism?
Gina: In these difficult times, it’s not easy to live with hope. You can feel run over by the world. But when you start chanting and embrace the SGI’s movement for peace as part of your own personal mission, then you can infuse your life with limitless hope. That is why the SGI is so vital. It keeps hope alive in the hearts of the people.
What is your determination toward the 50K Festival?
Gina: I am determined that all five of my children will attend the festival. All my children chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Two of my daughters hold SGI leadership positions, and two more have received the Gohonzon in the past year and are introducing their friends. Three are college graduates, including one with a master’s degree. The other two are pursuing college degrees. I am incredibly proud of them all.
As a district women’s leader, I want to embody hope and show how we can always win with the Gohonzon, Sensei and the SGI. I am determined to send as many youth as possible to the festival next year! I know that as long as I don’t give up, I will win.