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Uncovering the “Infinite Power” of the Gohonzon

Hope-filled—Dr. Sharif Fennell brings his mentor’s heart to his work as a neurosurgeon, caring for each person as if they are a Buddha. Photo by Christy Harris.

by Vernard Sharif Fennell
New Orleans

“As long as we look at our situation with only ordinary reason, there won’t be the slightest chance for us to win. But [Nichiren] Daishonin tells us plainly that the Gohonzon has infinite power. The only question is whether or not we believe him. If we think that we are really disciples of the Daishonin, we first have to pray powerfully to carry out the kind of courageous practice that can make the impossible possible.” (Daisaku Ikeda, The Human Revolution, p. 1321)

My lifelong dream was to be a physician to help people through their most difficult times, but I lacked the courage to act on it during college. After graduation, I began preparing for the Medical College Admission Test. Since I was fighting as a young men’s leader in SGI activities, I mistakenly believed I’d be OK without studying really hard. I ended up underperforming twice on the MCAT, and in my arrogance, I applied to several schools but didn’t get in. I felt like a fraud; I’d encourage other youth that anything was possible, while in my own heart feeling, except this.

I sought guidance from seniors in faith, who helped me see I had not truly bet my life on accomplishing this dream. At that time, in 2003, I wrote to Sensei vowing that within one year, I would be accepted into the best medical school for my life and become foremost in my field for the sake of kosen-rufu.

Studying the above guidance from Sensei, I realized I needed to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with this kind of deep determination and retake the test. With my new vow to “go all out,” I chanted as much as I could, home visited young men from Maine to Connecticut, worked multiple jobs and studied every spare moment for the MCAT.

I dramatically increased my score the third time, and although I continued to receive rejections, I knew I had sowed the seeds for victory.

Just as I was about to hit the one year mark, I got a call from the dean at Georgetown Medical School, telling me I was accepted! Despite a grueling academic schedule, I continued SGI activities. The opportunity to support other members was even more rejuvenating than before.

I also did my best each day to bring Sensei’s heart with me to work, remembering that each person has a Buddha nature, regardless of their current condition. Upon graduating, I received recognition for humanism in medicine from not only the school but also the hospital. In the previous 25 years, the hospital had only recognized one other medical student.

One day, when I was a second-year resident, a deeply disturbed young man opened fire outside a supermarket in Arizona, killing six people and injuring 13, including a U.S. congresswoman, who had been shot in the head. As the only neurosurgery resident at the hospital, I was paged to the emergency room.

After examining the congresswoman’s injuries, I knew we could help her, so we rushed her to the operating room. We helped save her life but had to work daily to keep her stable. I had several late-night dialogues with her husband and tried to share the heart of Buddhism with him by imparting hope.

A year later, the congresswoman shook my hand, hugged me and said a very sincere “Thank you.” The most impactful thing for me was seeing her walk and talk again, and hearing from both her and her husband their truly heartfelt appreciation.

I completed my neurosurgery residency after seven years of 100-plus hour weeks. I have since received other fellowships and posts, each time doing my best to treat every patient with great care and compassion.

No words can express the gratitude I have for Sensei and our SGI community, without which none of this would have been possible.

I grew up in a family that struggled financially. I still recall the times when we couldn’t afford to heat our home. Yet any time we went to an SGI-USA center, my mother made a financial contribution, always out of profound joy and appreciation—appreciation for our Buddhist practice and down to the most minute ways of how we lived our lives. From my teenage years on, I contributed with this same spirit.

I know, from the bottom of my heart, that these consistent and sincere contributions have enabled my family to enjoy the lives we lead today. I’m an assistant professor at a neurological institute in New Orleans, and my wife, Amanda, is an executive at a technology company. We have three beautiful children, Leo, Maxwell and Ella. Most profoundly, I’m full of hope and appreciation.

In the field of medicine, it’s easy to become cynical and lose hope, especially when faced with a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. But I have renewed my vow to become a highly capable medical professional for the sake of kosen-rufu and do my best to “carry out the kind of courageous practice that can make the impossible possible.”

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