Surmounting Obstacles With Appreciation
Brian Nakamura challenges himself to make financial contributions during difficult times and discovers his mission as a Bodhisattva of the Earth.
Woodbridge, New Jersey
Living Buddhism: Thank you, Brian, for sharing your experience with us. How did you start your Buddhist practice?
Brian Nakamura: I grew up attending SGI activities with my parents, but when I became a teenager, I felt the practice was not for me.
In 1999, my mother signed me up for an SGI culture festival, which I attended begrudgingly. I don’t remember much about the festival, but I do remember opening up to a senior in faith about the internal struggles I had kept to myself. This person listened patiently to me, and in their care, I felt accepted for the first time. Experiencing the warmth of the SGI was a turning point for me, and when I returned home, I began chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with the support of my local young men’s leaders.
What changes did you notice?
Brian: I saw tangible changes in my life, but I struggled to keep a consistent daily practice. I was still cynical toward the notion that I could change my life through chanting and making causes in my Buddhist practice. It seemed more so a nice practice to help me feel better about things.
I had a casual attitude toward SGI activities as well. I participated in the May Commemorative Contribution activity because I felt I was donating to a good cause. I took on leadership as a young men’s leader because I liked volunteer work. I can’t say it was based on faith.
What helped you deepen your faith?
Brian: Despite my doubts, when I took on leadership and did my best to help other young men develop their faith, I began to understand what this practice was all about.
By the end of college, I saw actual proof of my Buddhist practice in finances, work and school, which helped me to develop conviction in the Gohonzon. But I still struggled to understand what it meant to do my human revolution, and I especially felt hesitant toward pursuing the mentor-disciple relationship.
Brian: I moved to New Jersey in 2007 to pursue a Ph.D. in mathematics at Rutgers University. I had always done well academically, but for the first time, I couldn’t excel despite the immense effort I was putting into my studies. I was surrounded by such capable peers that I was forced to face my own arrogance and self-doubt.
In a deadlock, I often went to my seniors in faith for guidance. They consistently encouraged me to discover my deeper identity as a Bodhisattva of the Earth, whose mission it is to overcome these obstacles and become a beacon for others. I struggled to understand what this meant, but I found myself chanting about this as well as the mentor-disciple relationship and what it meant to me.
It was around this time that I began participating in the May Commemorative Contribution activity for the first time with a sense of responsibility to safeguard the kosen-rufu movement financially. Previously, I only contributed what I felt I could do comfortably at the moment. This time, I asked myself: How much do I really want to support the SGI and kosen-rufu? Although my finances were tight as a graduate student, I decided to set a contribution goal that would challenge my life.
That’s a bold decision. What happened next?
Brian: While I desperately chanted and searched for work, I met a new associate director at a nearby research center. They created a new part-time summer role specifically for me with a stipend that was the exact amount of my contribution goal.
This associate director also provided me with many valuable professional opportunities throughout the rest of graduate school, and became a close friend and colleague of mine. I saw firsthand that contributing with appreciation and a heart for kosen-rufu manifested into opportunities and experiences that money could not buy.
How were your studies in the midst of everything?
Brian: I was earnestly studying and participating in SGI activities, but I was struggling with my research. In fact, I felt as though every aspect of my life was crashing down halfway into my graduate program.
In September 2010, my grandmother with whom I was very close, passed away. I struggled immensely with her loss. My grandmother and I often spoke about her coming to my graduation, and this was one of my main motivations for finishing my Ph.D. After her passing, I was consumed by apathy toward the program. Then, a couple months later, my engagement ended. I was embarrassed by my failed relationship, and I felt nothing but misery.
How did you break through during this difficult time?
Brian: Every day was a battle against wanting to give up. I sought guidance frequently, read Sensei’s encouragement and pushed myself to go to SGI activities. And when the following year’s May Contribution activity neared, I knew I needed to use this opportunity to make a fresh determination for my life.
Immediately afterward, the air conditioning stopped functioning in my apartment and car! This was at the height of summer, but without any hesitation, I made a contribution with deep appreciation for my Buddhist practice.
Around this time, I was also asked to become the New Jersey Zone Gajokai leader. Sensei encouraged the Gajokai, a young men’s behind-the-scenes training group, to summon the heart of the lion king and resolutely fight for kosen-rufu. I resolved in my heart to advance regardless of how miserable I felt. Those summer days of driving to Gajokai shifts in my hot car, together with my comrades, are now my golden memories.
What shifted in your heart?
Brian: Challenging myself to contribute in spite of my struggles, ignited a fighting spirt in my heart to win without fail. Internally, it was as though the dark clouds hanging over me from my grandmother’s passing and my broken engagement, had finally parted. I realized that I wasn’t a victim, but rather, these struggles existed precisely so that I could do my human revolution and deepen my conviction in the dignity of my own life. From this point, I brought all my challenges to the Gohonzon.
Shortly after, I had a major breakthrough in my Ph.D. research and the majority of my thesis research was generated in a few months. And just one month before my thesis draft was due, I met my amazing and incredibly supportive wife, Shoko, in the most unexpected way.
In retrospect, I see that everything, even the failed engagement, turned out to be the greatest benefit. I had to confront the feeling that I wasn’t worthy of any relationship. And if my research had gone smoothly from the beginning, I wouldn’t have deepened my faith, expanded my life and established a prime point with my mentor, President Ikeda, by achieving victory based on his guidance.
Congratulations! How have things blossomed since then?
Brian: In 2015, I transitioned from academic research to a data science career for a company that makes games, despite having very little experience in the field. And, although the company has had several layoffs, I not only survived the cuts, but also was promoted one year into the job. I’m confident that this is due to the tremendous fortune that I have built from continuing to support Sustaining Contribution and May Contribution every year. I’m now in a place where I’m ready to open new doors and seek new challenges in my career.
Shoko and I have also been together for over six years now and happily married for over three years. Together, we created a family lifetime goal for how much we’d like to financially contribute to kosen-rufu. We’re determined to continue repaying our debt of gratitude to the SGI and Sensei, and create a harmonious family. We are determined to surmount every challenge with a sense of appreciation, together with our mentor.
As a new men’s division member, what is your determination toward 2020, the Soka Gakkai’s 90th annivesary?
Brian: It was an honor to support New Jersey Zone, which was one of the nine locations where our 50,000 Lions of Justice Festival took place in September 2018, as the young men’s leader in my last year in the youth division. The greatest benefit of my time as a youth division member was challenging my human revolution and discovering a greater mission in life as a Bodhisattava of the Earth.
Now, as a men’s district and vice region leader, I want each member in my district to achieve great benefit and deepen their personal connection to Sensei. And in this precious time together with Sensei, I’m determined to raise many youthful successors. I will support them 100 percent in the same way that I received support from my men’s division leaders as a youth. I love the SGI! Sensei, I will be the foundation for kosen-rufu here in America!