Discovering the Jewel Within
Through a series of monumental challenges, I realized that I’m worthy of unshakable happiness. I’m Ann Biddle from Williamsburg, Massachusetts.
Living Buddhism: Thank you for speaking with us, Ann. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted many aspects of life for all of us. How were you affected?
Ann Biddle: In 2020, the economic toll from COVID-19 hit me hard. I had been working as a freelance dance educator for many years, and overnight, two of the cultural organizations I worked for closed. I lost my income and was unable to get unemployment benefits. I turned to my Buddhist practice and was encouraged by a senior in faith that now was the time to show actual proof and prove the power of my practice.
These were not normal times, and I knew that my routine practice was not going to get me to a breakthrough. I took the guidance to heart. I strengthened the basics of my daily practice by increasing my daimoku to several hours a day and studying Ikeda Sensei’s guidance daily. I also introduced several friends to the practice during this time.
It’s inspiring that you took immediate action to strengthen your practice.
Ann: Well, I simply tapped into the reserve of behind-the-scenes training from my days in the young women’s division, which boiled down to this lesson: When problems arise, step up with a stand alone spirit and be the solution. I also took action in my district, becoming the Zoom expert for our discussion meetings. The members were facing huge challenges, so I determined to unify with the other district leaders and create meetings that were welcoming and joyful, leaving everyone uplifted and ready to fight for their goals.
That’s wonderful. And how did things unfold professionally?
Ann: The pandemic caught the entire dance world flat-footed. Miraculously, the organization I worked for was given the opportunity to apply for a large emergency grant to write an online dance curriculum for New York City public schools. A meeting was convened with some high-profile dance educators. As I listened, I realized that, while many were speaking up, no one was really stepping up to blaze the trail. Having led the online transition for my district, I had seen that online spaces could provide a strong sense of belonging for everyone involved. Though I wasn’t in a position of authority, nor was I among those paid to be at that meeting, I stepped up to be the solution, spearheading the design of the online curriculum. As I have learned through my 31 years of Buddhist practice with the SGI, where leadership is needed, we lead.
Hearing how you’ve applied your training in the SGI to contribute to society is truly inspiring. We understand you also had some personal challenges around the same time.
Ann: Certainly. So, early in 2020, I got engaged to my boyfriend. While there were a number of red flags throughout the relationship, I ignored them all. He and I were different, even opposite in some respects. When my friends expressed their concern, I would just respond with: “No one is perfect.” But secretly I felt I didn’t deserve better.
Then, in December 2020, my fiance and I pooled our savings to purchase a beautiful, sprawling farmhouse in Williamsburg, a quiet town outside of Northampton, Massachusetts, where I became the district women’s leader. We, along with my two children, Nell and Yoshi, moved in at the end of the same month.
It sounds picturesque.
Ann: Doesn’t it? A rolling dirt road takes you to the house on 6-and-a-half acres of farmland and birdsong. Very scenic and calm. As it was a long-held dream of mine to live in this kind of home, I worried someone would pinch me and wake me up. In fact, this did happen sooner than expected.
Ann: Two weeks after moving in, I received an email from my boyfriend conveying his abrupt change of heart. He wanted out of the relationship and all of his money back from the house.
I was in a waking nightmare. As though responding to the chaos of my inner life, the house erupted. Serious problems came crawling, literally, out of the woodwork. First it was mice, carpenter ants and bees. Then, issues with the roof, plumbing and electricity.
Now alone, I had to deal with these unending home issues while in a state of shock from my breakup. I was so embarrassed and ashamed. How could I let this happen? I chided myself.
What did you do?
Ann: When the stress began to take a toll on my mental health, I realized I needed to speak with someone, so I met with a senior in faith. She compassionately listened as I poured my heart out, then she encouraged me to recognize that my ex-fiance had appeared in my life for a reason and to create value from the situation. I could not afford to be intimidated by the hardships facing me. Now was the time to take my faith to the next level and accomplish a lifetime’s worth of personal growth in one year.
After receiving guidance, I turned to the Gohonzon. I chanted fervently to face the fear that had gripped me, and over time, began to transform it into a sense of deep appreciation that this obstacle emerged in my life.
Over the next several months, I summoned every ounce of willpower and discipline to chant to the Gohonzon and summon up the courage to take on my struggles. On top of everything already mentioned, I was enrolled in a doctoral program at Columbia University’s Teachers College, taking three courses per semester. I chanted to expand my capacity so I could manage everything.
I had to win. My two children were watching me, and I owed it to them and the members in my district to be victorious. I also chanted for my ex’s happiness and for him to find peace. My Buddhist wisdom helped me to realize I needed to accept the end of this relationship and move forward with an amicable conclusion.
What a noble approach to this situation. How did things unfold?
Ann: Not well at first. All my savings had been spent on the down payment, and all my earnings since had gone to home repairs.
My chances of becoming the sole owner of this home was uncertain. As I continued chanting and making efforts for kosen-rufu, however, I summoned up the conviction to take responsibility for the house, even though it still was not officially mine. I addressed the problems within the house, one after another. I decided this was my kosen-rufu home, and I would treasure it! Caring for my home in this way filled me with joy, as though I were caring for a fellow member.
How did this attitude reflect in your environment?
Ann: The impact of my approach to the home rippled out to my career as well. As I took over the home repairs with great conviction and joy, those for whom I was freelancing must have sensed a change in me. In 2021, I began receiving an abundance of well-paying contracts to export and build on my original online dance curriculum. It wasn’t long until I had secured a mortgage and gathered the funds for the buyout. Buoyed by this actual proof, I redoubled my efforts to foster the faith of more members in my district, which resulted in our district creating four groups, each headed by a dedicated team of group leaders. I also increased my financial contribution to the SGI-USA from the year before as my gratitude for this practice continued to deepen.
That’s incredible! Where do things stand now?
Ann: My Buddhist practice gave me the courage to advocate for a full-time position at the organization for which I’d freelanced for years. I’d always felt that the significance of my work there was not fully recognized but simply accepted the reality. However, in my newly empowered mindset, any lingering resentments were as fuel to a fire—I used them to rise to new heights. Through my experience, I developed conviction that I deserved the best.
I decided to be the leader in my organization, regardless of title or salary. I designed a five-year strategic action plan and pitched a new online teacher-training institute that would expand the reach of our program nationally and globally. Even then, however, the odds were against my being hired full time; the organization had furloughed employees, cut salaries for all staff and effected an indefinite hiring freeze. Plus, this organization was based in New York City, and I lived in Massachusetts. I kept chanting with the never-give-up spirit.
On June 5, 2021, I finally closed on my kosen-rufu home in Williamsburg. The same morning, I was offered a full-time position with benefits as the director of the new Dance Education Laboratory Institute for Professional Learning and Advancement. It was the first and only remote position ever created by this New York City-based institution, so I could work remotely from my beautiful home in Massachusetts.
Extraordinary! How would you distill the inner change you’ve undergone?
Ann: I remember Nell coming home one afternoon to the farmhouse when I was barely out of the eye of the storm. She found me joyfully stacking the last of a thousand pieces of wood for the winter and whistling. “Mom,” she said, “you have really expiated your karma!”
As a 60-year-old, this experience taught me how to cultivate a Bodhisatva mindset in the face of great suffering. By dedicating myself to my Buddhist practice, I was able to transform my karma, manifest my Buddha nature and build a life of indestructible happiness.
In the last few months, I have been able to replace my roof, paint the house, replace old windows, tame the invasive plant species and create my beautiful kosen-rufu home!
I wake up every day with deep gratitude for my practice and the SGI community. I look forward to the day when I can welcome members to my home!