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Dauntless and Unbowed

Mary with her children (l–r) Bernard and Elita. Photo by Vanessa Paige.

Mary Marvin
Ashburn, Virginia

Living Buddhism: Thank you very much for discussing your experience regarding your family.

Mary Marvin: Of course, thank you for this forum to present my experience. My family has struggled with various forms of mental illness generation after generation. A big part of that was when my grandmother tried to kill my infant mother. After that, my mother was put into foster care. My siblings and I as well as our children have also dealt with depression, bipolar disorder and other mental health challenges.

All of these struggles came to a head on December 27, 2012, when I was awakened at midnight to be informed that my eldest son, JoVaughn, had been shot and killed. In an instant, our lives were changed forever. I never thought I would be happy again.

We’re so sorry to hear this. Can you tell us about JoVaughn?

Mary with her children (inset, l–r): daughter, Elita, and sons, JoVaughn and Bernard. Photo by Steve Mourning.

Mary: JoVaughn was 30 when he passed. He was the heart of our family with his humor and care. He had been in and out of jail for several years for drug dealing. He wasn’t able to recover from being illegally incarcerated as a minor for protecting his friend. However, he was determined to change his life and received the Gohonzon in 2007. In 2009, JoVaughn was arrested again. Being jailed doesn’t seem like a benefit, but it protected him from the individual who was threatening to kill him. While he was incarcerated, he chanted consistently for hours every day and shared Buddhism with the other inmates. He was released and shortly after, the individual who threatened him went to jail. As a result, I truly feel that JoVaughn extended his life by several years.

How did you cope with his loss?

Mary: It was devastating. I felt like I was the “walking wounded,” breathless with a huge hole in my heart. I struggled for years to overcome my grief. But through consistent chanting, I began to heal. I also knew that Ikeda Sensei and second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda had both lost children and transformed their grief. In a letter I sent to Sensei and Mrs. Ikeda, I thanked them for continuing to fight despite the loss of their son, and they sent me a heartfelt message in response. This is when my relationship with my mentor significantly deepened. I felt as if I were fighting for the happiness of myself and my family while working for kosen-rufu side by side with my mentor.

We held a memorial service for JoVaughn at the SGI-USA Washington, D.C., Culture Center, with over 300 people in attendance, and more than 200 of them were his friends. I knew I had to give these young people hope, and felt as if JoVaughn were introducing all of them to Buddhism that day.

In 2018, I became a the women’s leader for Ashburn-Leesburg District. I threw myself into the 50,000 Lions of Justice campaign to transform my suffering. I invited JoVaughn’s broad network of friends to attend the festival in September 2018, and 49 of his friends and family agreed to go! Since then, two of his friends have received Gohonzon.

What a profound example of changing poison into medicine. How has your family been since 2018?

Mary: Well, the day before Thanksgiving last year, I had an overwhelming feeling that something was wrong with my son, Bernard. I chanted for his protection until I felt better. Then, on Thanksgiving morning, my neighbor pounded on my door. When I answered, she told me that she thought my son Bernard had shot a bullet into her kitchen in the middle of the night.

While my neighbor called the police, Bernard barricaded himself in the bedroom. I had never seen him so distraught! I immediately got in front of the Gohonzon and chanted for his protection and the wisdom to handle this situation with the police. Bernard has struggled with depression and alcohol abuse for several years and had mentioned to me that he thought he would die young. I chanted intensely for his protection.

The SWAT team came with their bullet-proof truck and sniper rifles, along with a team of police officers. They evacuated my block and had us shelter in a nearby elementary school. I was deeply worried that Bernard would die so I asked the police officer to let me chant in one of the rooms. Remembering how Nichiren reprimanded the universal forces when he was about to be beheaded, I chanted with the same conviction for my son’s protection. I had been fighting my hardest so I was confident that he would be protected.

A series of events unfolded that saved Bernard’s life. Several of the officers who came to our house that day were a part of JoVaughn’s murder investigation and understanding Bernard’s background, they realized that he was behaving out of fear and grief. They calmed down the neighbors, protected me and treated Bernard with compassion. He was still, however, threatening to kill himself.

The negotiator strongly encouraged him saying, “Please don’t do this to your mother!” Bernard eventually agreed to surrender if he could hug me first. I was able to hug him with tears of joy and said, “I am so grateful you’re alive!” He repeatedly said in my ear, “It is only because of you, Mom.” At that moment, I knew we changed profound karma, and I felt the power of my prayer.

While Bernard had to serve some time in jail, I knew it was so that he wouldn’t hurt himself or others. I was just so happy that he was alive! Since then, out of appreciation for my practice, I share Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and have a heart-to-heart dialogue with at least one person per day.

Your children have a truly profound mission. What did you learn from these experiences?

Mary: In early December 2019, while I was chanting, images of all of my past anger came flooding through my mind—anger toward myself, my children, ex-husbands and traumatic childhood. I realized that deep down I was placing blame for my misery on these individuals. I hadn’t taken 100 percent responsibility for my own happiness and family harmony. My body shifted in my chair, and I broke down crying because it took me 43 years of Buddhist practice to truly understand that it really was up to me to transform everything! I remembered the following guidance from Sensei, and it became a new prime point for my life. He writes:

When we develop dauntless fortitude, like mighty trees, we will be untroubled by even the most powerful gales. In fact, we can even find them exhilarating. The aim of our Buddhist practice is to carry out our human revolution so that we can lead such lives and develop such inner strength. (The Wisdom for Creating Happiness and Peace, part 2, p. 92)

My pain turned into an exciting sense of mission. Following this shift in perspective, things changed dramatically. Bernard was facing many years in prison due to mandatory statutes. Through a collaborative approach between the prosecution, the police and Bernard’s lawyer, it was agreed that this case should go to a drug court so that he could get psychological help and alcohol abuse treatment. A month later, the police changed their mind and were pushing him to do two years. This would trigger a probation violation and four more years. His lawyer and I tried several times to get him out on bond while awaiting his court date, all to no avail. Once I chanted in front of the Gohonzon with the conviction that I must transform whatever I needed to transform in my life so that he could fulfill his mission, I broke through. Bernard is now living in a sober living house, and I am able to freely visit him. Bernard and his sister, Elita, are also mending their relationship, which has been my fervent prayer.

What a victory! What are your future goals?

Mary: When I lost JoVaughn, I didn’t know anyone who had experienced the heartbreak of losing a child. Since his death, I have met many moms who have lost their sons, and I am confident that it is my mission to encourage them. So, I continue to study the meaning of death and its significance.

My ultimate goal is to reply to my mentor by fulfilling my own unique mission and developing an unshakable state of life. No matter what happens, I want to immediately recognize challenges as an opportunity to create value and help many others do the same!

I live every day with great joy, asking myself, Am I Ikeda Sensei’s disciple or not? This spirit makes me want to fight to turn the impossible into possible! I feel like I am just getting started in achieving unbelievable victories toward the centennial of the Soka Gakkai in 2030!

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