Believing in My Mission as a Scientist
Through his Buddhist practice, neuroscientist Daniel Sun overcame his self-doubt to advance his career.
by Daniel Sun
“Although I and my disciples may encounter various difficulties, if we do not harbor doubts in our hearts, we will as a matter of course attain Buddhahood. Do not have doubts simply because heaven does not lend you protection. Do not be discouraged because you do not enjoy an easy and secure existence in this life. This is what I have taught my disciples morning and evening, and yet they begin to harbor doubts and abandon their faith. Foolish men are likely to forget the promises they have made when the crucial moment comes.” (Nichiren Daishonin, “The Opening of the Eyes,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 283)
When I moved to the United States from Australia in 2007 to pursue neuroscience research, I found myself in for a rude awakening. The scientific community was challenging, and I felt a lot of pressure to generate significant results in my field. It didn’t help that I had received my doctorate in New Zealand and constantly felt I wasn’t good enough to be doing science in Boston’s competitive academic environment.
Amid the intense competition, I began to doubt myself, constantly thinking: This person is younger than me, but they have been able to publish more papers than I have, and in more prestigious journals. This cycle of thought became unbearable. Though I grew up in the practice, I decided to give Buddhism a serious try for the first time.
Knowing that I tended to compare myself to others, I searched the index of all of Ikeda Sensei’s books on my shelf, looking for the topic of self-doubt. I came across his lecture series On Attaining Buddhahood in This Lifetime and his essay “A Sense of Purpose” (see A Piece of Mirror and Other Essays, pp. 39–43).
These writings had a dramatic impact on me. Sensei writes about believing in our own Buddha nature, and that each of us has our own unique mission in life. We can’t try to fulfill someone else’s mission or try to be them. I read and chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo again and again about these writings, and I gradually grew more confident.
I became more involved in SGI activities and eventually found myself helping other young men develop their Buddhist practice. In 2010, I had a turning point in my career when a paper of mine was published in a prestigious journal, and soon, I was invited to write a review paper for another. I began to realize that if I worked hard, chanted about my sufferings in front of the Gohonzon and studied Sensei’s writings, I could overcome anything. It was my own delusion that was holding me back.
In hindsight, those challenges seemed endless at the time, but they were in fact an opportunity to deepen my faith and learn to win over my self-doubt.
In October 2017, I submitted a grant application to the largest and most important government agency funding neuroscience in the U.S. The highly competitive grant is worth several million dollars and receiving it would be a key stepping stone toward becoming an independent scientist and running my own lab.
It can take two to three tries before being successful, but even then most don’t get it. I chanted intensely for many months after submitting my application, grappling with the belief that I wasn’t good enough.
At this point, the SGI-USA was approaching its 50,000 Lions of Justice Festival in 2018. One day, I heard encouragement from a senior in faith that the purpose of the movement for the festival was to create a prime point in faith with Sensei. Recalling how my days in the young men’s division became a prime point, I decided I would once again create an amazing turning point in my life by going all out for kosen-rufu.
As my attitude shifted, I chanted with more confidence. Several months later, I was awarded the grant with the full amount of funding and maximum number of years, and I was not required to make any corrections to my proposal. My co-workers were amazed.
Today, I am a research scientist at a Harvard University teaching hospital dedicated to eye, ear, nose, throat, head and neck care and research. I now have my own lab, where I work on an eye condition called glaucoma, overseeing three scientists.
Through my Buddhist practice, I transformed my self-doubt into the deep conviction that my success in science is my mission with Sensei to contribute to a better world. I also realized that we need repetitive victories in our lives to change our most painful karma into our most profound mission. I am determined to build a successful lab and give hope to many others based on my mentor’s teachings.