Changing Poison Into Medicine for All Humanity
Living Buddhism: Thank you, Sherman, for sharing your experience with us. To start, can you tell us about your early years?
Sherman Edmiston III: Given the current challenges we face in society, this opportunity to share my experience and support our SGI members is one of the most important things for me. Thank you.
I grew up in Harlem, N.Y., in the 1960s and ’70s, during a time of racial conflict and poverty. In my community, there was a strong drug influence because of the lack of opportunities and hopelessness. Violence was an everyday occurrence, and many people close to me were murdered.
Often, when my friends and I went to track practice in a largely Italian immigrant neighborhood, we had racial slurs and bottles thrown at us. My parents wanted the best for me, so they sent me to a private school, but I felt alienated from the other students and struggled. My teacher even said once that I was remarkably uninformed about the world around me when much of that “world” was hostile and unavailable to me.
In high school and as a young adult, these experiences of indignity because of my race started to involve the police. Whenever there was racial strife at school, the police and school always sought me out. In college, my roommate and I were held at gunpoint just because we were in a predominantly white neighborhood and someone had called the police on us. I was hit by a car while riding my bike, and I was arrested for confronting the driver. Back in Harlem, I witnessed an unarmed black man beaten and killed by the police. And when I spoke up, the police showed up at my house in an intimidating fashion. I was afraid and decided not to testify about what I had witnessed.
These were just the highlights, but it was daily life.
Thank you for being so open about such bitter experiences. How did your life unfold from there?
Sherman: I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and went on to get my Master of Business Administration at the University of Michigan. Even with these credentials, I was accused of cheating on an entrance exam for an internship program. I got into the program, but then I found out that my colleague and I, both young black men, were excluded from the mentorship activities with senior executives.
Still, I landed a full-time job at a major bank on Wall Street and worked my way up. I thought that, now, as a financially successful member of society, I’d gain some respect and dignity. But that wasn’t the case. On a cab ride home after work, my best friend and I were pulled over by police, and we were held at gunpoint. Even at work, my senior executives sent over an African American man to persuade me into taking a position significantly lower than my level of accomplishment. I was deeply insulted and left the company.
Despite these obstacles, I never gave up on my dream and continued to move up in my career. But the pain and heartbreak that we, as Black Americans and all people of color, experience is real. I had to navigate the world differently, and anger and resentment built up inside.
What led you to start practicing Buddhism?
Sherman: My father introduced me to SGI Nichiren Buddhism when I was in middle school. I begrudgingly attended SGI activities at his and my stepmom’s insistence, but I rarely chanted on my own. Even in college, I attended meetings sparingly.
With the support of a district men’s leader, I started attending SGI activities. I also started participating in Gajokai and Soka Group, the young men’s behind-the-scenes training groups, and shortly after, I had the opportunity to support Ikeda Sensei’s visit to New York in June 1996.
After our movement, Sensei asked us all to gather. We were all standing there rigid, but when he came over, he asked us to sit down and relax. He then made and served each of us tea. In just this simple act, his humanity and his genuine care for each of us broke through the walls of mistrust in my life. For the first time, a glimmer of confidence and hope emerged, and I decided that he was my mentor in life, and that I would be the best disciple I could be.
But, I had difficulty balancing work, family and faith, and despite my positive experience with the SGI and meeting Sensei, my practice fell off. The accumulation of bitter experiences and a childhood trauma took their toll; they were eating me alive. I resorted to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate and used work to escape having to deal with the reality of my own life. On Thanksgiving Day in 2000, it all came to a head. I was at work and had a breakdown.
I called my father, and he rushed over to pick me up. In the car, he urged me to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, sharing that it was the only way I was going to overcome my suffering. That day, I retrieved the Gohonzon from my closet, enshrined it and started chanting. I didn’t know if I’d ever be whole again, but I just knew I had to keep on chanting.
What changed from there?
Sherman: Well, I started a family and my own firm, and we faced numerous challenges—business failures, financial struggles and my daughter’s health. But at each crucial moment, I recalled a passage from Nichiren Daishonin’s writings: “A sword is useless in the hands of a coward. The mighty sword of the Lotus Sutra must be wielded by one courageous in faith” (“Reply to Kyo’o,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 412).
I won over each obstacle based on faith—by supporting my district members, contributing to the SGI and challenging my human revolution. With the courage derived from my Buddhist practice and Sensei’s guidance, I’ve worked my way up to the upper echelons in my profession. And in December 2015, I resigned from my firm, where I was a partner, to donate a kidney to my father and support my daughter and family. I have built a different career, one that I could never have dreamed of, and now sit on the Board of Directors of four publicly traded corporations. I am also on the SGI-USA Board of Directors and serve on its Endowment Committee, which is one of my greatest honors.
How does your current role in society connect to your mission for kosen-rufu?
Sherman: Many times, I am the only person of color in the room, and my colleagues have very different beliefs and life experiences. But I stand proud to be who I am—a black man and disciple of Sensei—and I am not afraid to speak up.
Despite our differences, my colleagues and I have formed close friendships and have worked on youth programs devoted to erasing inequities that prevent students of color from gaining entrance into New York’s public high schools. Through coaching my son’s little league baseball team, I have developed close friendships with many members of the police department. Together, we have worked on many community empowerment initiatives for youth and families, and on building trust between officers and the communities they support.
In 2017, I woke up to a commotion in my neighborhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Apparently there had a been a shooting nearby. A young black man was on the ground in handcuffs surrounded by police, and tensions were high.
I knew the young man’s grandmother, so two other neighbors and I went down to the precinct together to ensure his safety. Later, I was able to have a heart-to-heart dialogue with the lead detective. He explained everything, and he thanked me for not pre-judging and for respecting him as a human being. The next day, the charges against that young man were dropped.
These experiences have solidified in me that, if I am to be a positive and transformative agent of change for kosen-rufu, I have to fight with every cell in my body to not allow the anger and resentment within my life to overcome me. I realized that I had no choice but to transcend my family’s and my own bitter history to connect with the humanity and Buddha nature of the person right in front of me, no matter who they are, and build bridges with those around me. This is the only way I can change poison into medicine to start the healing of all people.
Your experiences are so profound. But how do you remain hopeful amid the disrespect toward life that continues to be so prevalent?
Sherman: To be very honest, I have to challenge my life condition to channel anger and resentment into something of value every day. My children, nieces and nephews, and young people of color are all dealing with craziness every day, and I’m concerned for all.
That’s why I’m devoted to SGI Nichiren Buddhism and sharing it with others. That’s why I chant a lot. And through studying the writings of Nichiren Daishonin and Sensei’s guidance, I’m reminded that true freedom is found within—in our ability to transcend our conditions and circumstances, and transform them. Sensei writes:
We can manifest the brilliance of the world of Buddhahood anywhere. This is the teaching of Nichiren Buddhism. Our first two presidents, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi and Josei Toda, united by the bonds of mentor and disciple, demonstrated this with their own lives. In a prison cell that he described as “cold to the extreme,” Mr. Makiguchi wrote, “Depending on one’s frame of mind, even hell can be enjoyable.” And Mr. Toda, who accompanied him to prison, remarked: “Even if I should fall into hell, it wouldn’t matter to me in the least. I would simply share the correct teaching with the inhabitants there and turn it into the Land of Tranquil Light.” This spirit is the very quintessence of faith in Nichiren Buddhism. (Learning From Nichiren’s Writings: The Teachings for Victory, vol. 1, p. 193)
For most of my life, I harbored resentment and waited for the other person to feel my suffering. But Buddhism teaches that waiting for something outside of us to relieve our suffering is to seek the Law outside ourselves. It all comes down to my own human revolution—if I change something deep inside my heart, the world can’t help but change. I can harp on the unfairness and be deadlocked, or I can take full responsibility for my circumstances, manifest the power of the Gohonzon and give myself freedom.
Also, compared to the times I grew up in, there is progress. You see a rainbow of people all over the world, uniting in the recent protests for justice. I just joined an SGI district meeting over Zoom in a neighborhood that was racially charged and hostile to African Americans in my youth, and members of different backgrounds shed tears together about what’s happening.
I want to be clear, we are making progress on many levels, but there is still a lot of work to do around race, gender, class and LGBTQIA+ inequality. But to me, the fact that young people everywhere are boldly standing up against these indignities is itself progress. That gives me hope.
This year has become truly significant for many reasons. What are your determinations now?
Sherman: If I want my kids to have a better life, I have to be vigilant and determined about doing my human revolution. I still see shootings in my neighborhood, and I still have corporate decisions to make. I have colleagues who want to discuss what’s going on and SGI members who are struggling. I have no choice but to elevate my life condition, so that every interaction I have is truly value-creative.
Every day, I ask myself: How am I fighting to create a better world? How do I bring the teachings of Nichiren to life through my own behavior? Some days are better than others since I’m human after all. But I challenge myself to make the guiding philosophy of my life that of the oneness of mentor and disciple. And it is this foundation that gives me the strength, courage and wisdom to keep going.
I’m still trying to figure out what I can do as an individual and as an SGI leader. I don’t think there are easy solutions. But I do know that I can’t expect the SGI or Sensei to solve these issues for us; otherwise, we’re just passing the responsibility on to someone else. It should always be, What am I going to do?
Thank you again, Sherman. To conclude, what would you like to share with the youth?
Sherman: Political and legislative reforms are important but it’s not possible to legislate human nature. The systemic racism and the institutions built on it are a reflection of the hearts and life conditions of the people who make up those institutions. People’s hearts need to change; our hearts need to change.
So, keep on fighting. Keep on standing up. Keep taking action. But have kosen-rufu and the teachings of Nichiren and Sensei as your foundation. Then, based on that, keep fighting for the world that you want to create. This approach will create lasting, fundamental change.