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Standing as a Proud Disciple

Photo by Martha Manzanares.

by Victoria Smith
New Orleans

Living Buddhism: Thank you, Victoria, for sharing your experience with us! As a mother, physician and women’s leader of South Central Zone, you have tremendous responsibilities. How do you manage everything?

Victoria Smith: There is no such thing as balance; it’s about chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to the Gohonzon and manifesting the wisdom to do the right thing at the right time. I consider everything in my life kosen-rufu, so I do my best to give 100 percent to the task right in front of me. As I enter my 30th year of practicing Nichiren Buddhism this year, I feel I’ve grown to better understand what it means to “exhaust the pains and trials of millions of kalpas” (The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings, p. 214) and bring forth the life state of Buddhahood amid life’s struggles.

Have you always had this immense fighting spirit?

Victoria: In my senior year of high school, I began suffering with depression. For days, I would just cry until I couldn’t cry anymore. Mental illness has been something karmic in my family, and there weren’t any specific triggers for my depression. I had great parents, I got into Yale University, I didn’t struggle financially, and I traveled the world. But those great circumstances didn’t address the darkness within me. I struggled to value my own life and contemplated suicide as a way to cope with the pain.

When did you encounter Buddhism?

Victoria: I was a senior in college when a friend invited me to my first SGI discussion meeting. I was immediately drawn to chanting, the experiences of members and the genuine joy I saw in such a diverse group of people. I felt I had found my home. But when a member asked me if I wanted to receive the Gohonzon, I became furious and walked out.

Eventually, I found myself in the pits of despair and the first thing I thought to do was to call that friend. I couldn’t deny the change I’d seen in her life. She had hope, and I didn’t. I received the Gohonzon on December 10, 1989.

What was your first experience of actual proof in practicing Buddhism?

Victoria: Well, having hope was major actual proof. I had other benefits, too—a new relationship, a new car and guidance from a senior in faith that helped me see things for what they were. More importantly, though, without knowing it then, I was getting on the right path for my life.

My dream had been to become a diplomat in the Middle East. At the same time, I began thinking about becoming a humanistic physician who could provide better care to my mother and others who struggled with mental and physical illness. While I contemplated pursuing medical school (which would be another 10 years of schooling), I taught elementary school for two years with the Teach for America program. Could you tell us more about your experience as a teacher?

Victoria: I had always been successful academically, but learning to manage a class and motivate students was difficult. This brought out my old friends of depression and low self-esteem, and I spent many days crying out of frustration and feeling like a failure. I chanted and chanted, thinking, I should give up after my first year. When I shared this with a senior in faith, she responded, “Didn’t you sign up for a two-year commitment?” and encouraged me to stand and win where I was.

I desperately sought out SGI President Ikeda’s encouragement on education and read the SGI-USA publications every day. I felt Sensei was saying to me that, as a young woman, I deserved to be happy and that I should never give up on my dreams. He writes: “When we possess the treasure of hope, it gives rise to other treasures, too. Hope draws forth our inner potential and strength. Hope is a magic weapon that enables us to make our dreams come true” (August 13, 1999, World Tribune, p. 1).

I did exactly what Sensei told me would lead to my victory—I chanted for each student’s life, home visited each of them and fought in SGI activities as a young women’s leader. Through this shift in my determination, I developed a genuine understanding of each student’s circumstances and gained their trust. This two-year struggle truly deepened my understanding of the oneness of mentor and disciple.

How have these experiences contributed to your career as a physician?

Victoria: Although it felt like I didn’t know what I wanted to be—a diplomat, teacher, doctor—those various experiences truly enriched my life. As I hoped to be a diplomat, I learned to speak multiple languages; as a teacher, I learned to never give up; and as a mother, my two sons taught me that everyone has a unique mission. Most of all, my Buddhist practice taught me how to win over my own hopelessness and to respect the dignity of each person’s life.

Because I have hope and believe in the potential of each patient, I never give up on any of them. My patients are not at the whims of their disease—they’re on “Team Smith,” a team that wins over illnesses by understanding what’s going on with them so they can be empowered to take charge. And as a physician, I always ask myself, What can I do to help you, always reminding my patients that they can win. I try to better understand them and their habits as individuals, and treasure each relationship. In this way, I communicate the heart of Buddhism through my behavior.

Would you say that your SGI responsibilities have contributed to this as well?

Victoria: Yes. Fighting hard within the SGI-USA has strengthened my commitment to be a catalyst for kosen-rufu in my environment.

SGI activities have taught me how to pray deeply for each person’s happiness while taking any action necessary to make that prayer a reality. This has directly translated to how I strive to serve my patients and staff at work. My determination is that, as long as I am there, the culture of warmth is going to be so pervasive in the hospital that there will be no place for negativity.

SGI activities have also given me the courage to continuously expand my life. I have taken on various roles as a physician leader and governing board member in a large health system in Louisiana, and I even owned a solo private practice. Each step of the way, as the familiar depression returned, I went back to the Gohonzon and reminded myself of my determination to shine as Sensei’s disciple. As a result, I was recently named a New Orleans CityBusiness 2018 “Woman of the Year” for my professional and community achievements.

Congratulations! What are your determinations moving forward?

Victoria: The beauty of the SGI is that there’s always something to look forward to—the 50,000 Lions of Justice Festival (held last September) and the recent November district general meetings. Now, toward the Soka Gakkai’s 90th anniversary in 2020, there’s no time for me to sit back.

At home, my two sons, Ajani and Akil, challenge and encourage me to deeply reflect and chant ferociously to be an exceptional mother. They both need different things, so I chant for the wisdom to support them in the best way. I make sure to support their interests and extracurricular activities no matter how busy I am. My prayer is for them to awaken to their unique mission and become leaders for the world.

Through the 50K campaign, I realized the importance of raising successors. Of course, I will continue to show actual proof to empower other women, especially young women. But it’s just not enough that any individual is great themselves. I want to develop myself to become someone who can raise others. This is a whole new challenge, but I want to be victorious because someone I supported has stood up. I spent so much of my youth not believing in my own potential, but so many amazing women supported me steadily. Doing the same for the next generation, this is the next step in my life.

Thank you again for sharing your experience with us. Lastly, this year’s theme is the Year of Soka Victory. What does this mean to you?

Victoria: It is my vow to stand up as a mother, physician and a proud disciple of SGI President Ikeda, demonstrating the victory of Soka throughout South Central Zone and the world. To me, this means seeing every member in our zone win in their lives. I want each person to be able to proclaim, “I am so happy to be a Soka Gakkai member and a disciple of Sensei.” I want to pass along this spirit to future generations.

Establishing the Foundation of My Happiness

Praying Each Day to Abolish the Hatred in People’s Hearts