Learning to Respect the Dignity of Life
How I decided that the cycle of racism stops with me.
by Bob Bell
We—indeed, all people—are brothers and sisters from the infinite past who share a mission to bring peace and happiness to the world we live in. What we decide to base ourselves on has a drastic influence on the meaning of our own individual lives. (Ikeda Sensei, The New Human Revolution, vol. 1, p. 165)
As a child growing up in the ’60s and ’70s in Jacksonville, Florida, my father taught me to hate and fear anyone who was not white.
I remember riding the bus to high school football games and, when we passed through Black neighborhoods, we were told to put on our helmets and lock the windows. The cheerleaders kneeled in the aisle while the football players shielded them. This is but one memory. I think you could imagine the rest.
I started my long journey of changing the way I viewed others when I joined the U.S. Marine Corps. During boot camp, we were broken down mentally and physically, and learned to rely on one another for survival. There was simply no time to think about another person’s skin color or ethnicity.
When I was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, I met my wife, Keiko, who changed my life. She had two wonderful sons, Jeffery and Michael, from a previous marriage to another American. While we were living in Okinawa, Michael came home one day in tears. He told me that the Okinawan boys would not allow him to play ball with them because he was “half and half.” For the first time, I saw racism from the minority point of view.
By this time, I disagreed with racist actions, but I would still occasionally have racist thoughts. The seed that had been planted early in my life was deeply rooted.
Several years later, Keiko and I had two more beautiful sons, William and Brian. While I made sure not to poison my children as I had been, I can’t say that my views had changed completely.
My life came to a standstill in 1997, when my stepson Jeffery died in a car accident. The following year, still distraught from his brother’s death, my son William took his own life. I vividly remember thinking: This is what hell is like. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep living, but I knew I had to keep trying for my family.
One day, in April 2002, Keiko grabbed my wrist and led me to a chair in front of the Gohonzon. She put her prayer beads on my hands. When we began chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, I started feeling great, even though I didn’t want to. At first, I laughed, Keiko laughed, too. Then we cried and held hands in front of the Gohonzon as we chanted. Then I went and got Brian. I put beads around his fingers, and he chanted. The Bell family was chanting together, and I felt free.
I let go of so much of the anger and pain that I had clung to. When we stopped chanting, I looked at my wife and said hesitantly, “All these years, you were right, and I was wrong.” That day would have been William’s 19th birthday.
Keiko and I have now been together for 38 years, and I have learned never to underestimate the power of a 5-foot Okinawan woman with the Gohonzon! Without her patience, persistence and love, I would not have encountered this profound philosophy of respect for the dignity of life.
After I began actively practicing Buddhism, my walls of prejudice came down with each SGI activity. I became exposed to people from all walks of life, those I would not have otherwise met. I also learned to catch myself when I had a racist thought, thinking: This person has a Buddha nature! I must not disrespect them!
Recalling my upbringing, I never would have imagined that I would now have Black friends I regard as family. I can say with confidence that the cycle of racism taught generationally in my family has stopped with me.
I was deeply angered by the murder of George Floyd, and it made me reflect more deeply on the racism that still exists in America. While I didn’t agree with some of the actions taken in the name of equality, my Buddhist practice has taught me that, when I don’t understand something, I need to be better at listening and embracing another point of view. It has also fueled in me a strong desire to spread Nichiren Daishonin’s great teaching of fundamental equality.
The events of this year have forced me to take a closer look at myself and how my thoughts, words and actions impact others. I am also thinking more than ever, How would Ikeda Sensei respond to this situation? If I can start here, the answer is the same: The person in front of me is irreplaceable, with a unique mission that they alone can fulfill. We are all, at the root, family.