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My Journey to Repay My Debt of Gratitude

Kwan Choi chanted Nam-myoho-rengekyo to find his mother, Soon Ja Lee, after being separated for 36 years. Photo by CHUCK GOMEZ.

How my search for my mother led to genuine happiness.

by Kwan Choi
New York

My parents divorced when I was just 1, and I had almost no contact with my mother after that. The last time I saw her was when I was 9. It was 1983, and she came to see me off at the airport. I was leaving South Korea to live with my father in New York.

Over the years, my resentment toward my mother only deepened. I had a hard time connecting with SGI President Ikeda’s encouragement about the importance of repaying debts of gratitude to one’s parents, especially one’s mother. Because of the resistance in my heart, I would often skip over such guidance.

My first turning point came in June 1996, while I was supporting President Ikeda’s visit in New York. During that time, I dreamed that Sensei asked me whether I missed my mother. He proceeded to introduce me to her, as she stood by his side. Shocked, my tears flowed in my dream.

I know that without President Ikeda’s guidance, I wouldn’t have broken through.

After chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and seeking guidance, I realized this happened because Sensei’s prayer for the happiness of all the members is so genuine that my life was reacting to it, and I determined to see clearly what I needed to address to become truly happy. Until then, I would suppress my feelings every time my negativity welled up.

For the first time, I chanted squarely and honestly about my feelings toward my mother. I realized that without her, I wouldn’t be alive or be experiencing the incredible life that I have with my own family, Sensei and
the SGI. Through this process, my resentment and judgment transformed into a deep prayer for her happiness. I determined that she would be protected and well, and that one day I would find her to simply say, “Thank you.”

But after this internal shift, I moved on with my life. In 2019, I reflected about my inaction for many years and vowed to the Gohonzon that, no matter what, I would find her that year.

By July, however, my determination had weakened until these words from President Ikeda woke me up:

He [second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda] wrote, “My cherished wish is that you fight courageously against the three powerful enemies, vanquish the three obstacles and four devils,[1] and experience the true great benefit of faith, the essence of human revolution.” (Aug. 9, 2019, World Tribune, p. 3)

Kwan and his mother reunite for the first time in Philadelphia, November 2019.

This guidance hit me hard. I had been chanting about many things but lacked the faith to defeat my own negativity and vanquish all forms of devilish functions. My inaction was proof that my own fundamental darkness had owned me in this regard.

When I saw this tendency clearly, I finally smashed it into pieces. I determined to find my mother by October 2019, and without a moment’s hesitation, I began to take concrete action, finding potential leads, contacting relatives and booking a flight to South Korea for that same month.

While there, I received incredible support from my wife’s family and even strangers, who all functioned as powerful protective forces. Though it was a painful process going through various government agencies to find information about my mother, I discovered that she was a U.S. citizen! Another big breakthrough came on Day 5 of my trip, during a door-to-door search for my mother in her old neighborhood.

An elderly woman was walking by and asked us whether we needed help. When we explained the situation and showed her my mother’s photo, she said she knew my grandmother and encouraged us to go to the local barber for a lead.

Through the barber, I got in touch with my uncle and aunt. My aunt, who lives with my mother in Philadelphia, just happened to be in South Korea at the time, and we met in person. During that meeting, I spoke to my mother over the phone for the first time in 36 years, and she couldn’t stop crying. Words can’t describe the joy and emotion both of us felt.

A month later, on Nov. 24, I saw my mom face to face. The hours we spoke just flew by. My wife, children and I started 2020 together with her in Philadelphia, and I feel we are on our way to creating the most beautiful, harmonious family.

My journey to repaying my debt of gratitude to my mother has just begun. I know that without President Ikeda’s guidance, I wouldn’t have broken through. I truly believe his guidance saved my life, helping me discover what genuine happiness means.


  1. Three obstacles and four devils: various obstacles and hindrances to the practice of Buddhism. The three obstacles are 1) the obstacle of earthly desires ↩︎

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