Experience

Rebuilding My Life Based on My Vow

Jennifer Ohrstrom with her brother Barnaby, Minneapolis, March 29. Through her battle with illness, Jennifer learned that “when we base ourselves on the vow for kosen-rufu, we can transform even the deepest hell into our greatest benefit.” Photo by TOMOKO GELBAUM.


How I transformed my illness by dedicating my life to kosen-rufu.

by Jennifer Ohrstrom
Minneapolis

When I was young, I read SGI President Ikeda’s guidance to youth to actively seek out hardships and become individuals of outstanding character. My life was privileged, with everything I wanted within reach.

But inspired by the SGI members who shared their struggles, yet shined like stars, I chanted to develop my life so that I could be as joyful and bright as they were.

Then, in 2013, when I was 28, I was diagnosed with Lyme disease after suffering strange symptoms for years. The Lyme bacteria infested my central nervous system and brain, and because of this, I lost everything: my ability to walk, talk and think. I also lost my memory, forgetting even my closest friends and family members. Though I had just received my Master of Fine Arts from Columbia University, preceded by a graduate degree from Oxford University, I couldn’t even read children’s books, and had to begin everything in my life from scratch.

For six years, I struggled against debilitating symptoms every day, ranging from seizures to muteness, all with a constant amnesia that made me confused and angry. I would crawl in front of the Gohonzon, sobbing and stuttering my way through gongyo, chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to bring forth the treasure tower in my life. In my hardest times, I read the following words from President Ikeda: “When the shadows of death, destiny, persecution, adversity, illness, failure or destruction loom, people tend to succumb to fear, trepidation, cowardice, anguish, anxiety, doubt and anger. It is the power of inner-generated hope that dispels such darkness” (The World of Nichiren Daishonin’s Writings, vol. 1, p. 158). I had no choice but to rely on the promise of Nichiren Buddhism that my fundamental identity was that of a Buddha.

I could clearly see that when I dedicated myself to kosen-rufu with the spirit to help others transform their suffering, I could make the impossible possible.

My fellow SGI members in Brooklyn and Florida poured their lives into supporting me, as did my brother, Barnaby, who was my primary caregiver for the past six years and the greatest fortune of my life.

The 50,000 Lions of Justice Festival was a turning point for me. Months before the festival, my stepmother and I determined to bring 10 youth from Gulf Gate District in Sarasota, Florida. Since Sarasota is a retirement city, this felt like an impossible goal, but we were determined.

Shortly after we made this goal, I experienced five days of total paralysis and life-threatening seizures that sent me to the emergency room. But my stepmother and I fought harder to support the festival and its message to usher in an era of hope and respect for the dignity of life. We continued chanting, and in the end, we achieved our goal, and we each brought one guest! Though I was in a wheelchair at the festival, I was much healthier than when I had made the determination months before, and I could clearly see that when I dedicated myself to kosen-rufu with the spirit to help others transform their suffering, I could make the impossible possible.

When I moved to Minneapolis in November 2018, I determined to continue showing actual proof by basing my recovery on my vow for kosen-rufu. I have regained the ability to walk and talk, and I am pursuing my studies of Japanese with the goal to move to Japan next year. Whereas before, one SGI activity a week seemed impossible, I now attend multiple meetings each day and chant abundant, fighting daimoku to support other young women.

My family and friends are astonished at my transformation—and this is before I finish my last year of treatments!

Because of this struggle, I’m finally becoming the person I always wanted to be. I can empathize with many different types of people and learned compassion from the care I received from SGI members and Soka University alumni. I have also discovered my mission as a writer, which is to write children’s fantasy books. I would have never discovered this dream if I hadn’t been humbled by my obstacles and forced to learn reading and writing again! Most important, this illness taught me that when we base ourselves on the vow for kosen-rufu, we can transform even the deepest hell into our greatest benefit.

I’m determined that by Nov. 18, Soka Gakkai Founding Day, I’ll be completely cured of Lyme disease. With this newfound conviction, and as the Minneapolis Chapter young women’s leader, I’m determined to repay my debt of gratitude to Sensei, the SGI, my friends and family, and spread this Buddhism for the rest of my life so that every person can awaken to their vow and tap into their invincible Buddhahood! WT