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It’s Never Too Late

My Buddhist practice has taught me that no matter what happens, I can always choose to begin again.

Ray Figueroa and his wife, Eileen, in Brooklyn, N.Y., March 2021.
Ray Figueroa and his wife, Eileen, in Brooklyn, N.Y., March 2021. Photo by Anjelica Jardiel.

by Ray Figueroa
Brooklyn, N.Y.

One day in the late 1960s, I woke up to paramedics reviving me after my second heroin overdose. I was strung out and selling drugs and stolen merchandise to support my three children. I was sent to Rikers Island, where I was jailed for a few months. I had hit rock bottom and thought my life was over.

My low point was a long time coming. I had grown up angry and distrustful of everyone. When I was a little boy in Puerto Rico, my parents divorced, and my mother left for the United States. When I was around 6 years old, I saw my father for the last time when he was ill. He told me to be a good boy. Before I knew it, my sister and I were aboard a plane to go live with my mother in New York.

My mother had remarried and though she loved us unconditionally, my stepfather didn’t treat me well. At 15, because of problems at home with him, I moved in with my friend’s family. We began drinking and smoking marijuana together for fun. One day, we decided to try heroin—just once. This led to an addiction that lasted more than 10 years.

After my second overdose, I made efforts to heal, which included taking art classes at Carnegie Hall. One day in 1969, I decided not to go to class when two Japanese women approached me, speaking passionately in broken English. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but they showed me the World Tribune and told me that I could become happy. They pointed to a building where a Buddhist meeting was taking place, and I went in. When the elevator doors opened, I heard people chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. I was shocked at the diverse and joyful faces. I thought, Ray, your life is a mess; what’ve you got to lose? That night, I joined the SGI.

My leaders brought me along to visit other young men and asked me to share encouragement with them. I didn’t know much about Buddhism yet, but these activities built my confidence.

I stopped using drugs and focused on a career that enabled me to support my family. Though I encountered many painful challenges, such as my first wife leaving me in 1972, each time I was able to bounce back thanks to all the guidance I read from Ikeda Sensei and the strong support of my SGI family.

But one day in the early 1990s, something happened that brought me to my knees. My mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease for years, disappeared. We searched everywhere. Every night, I had nightmares about her living in a cardboard box on the street. I thought, Ray, you’re telling people they can become happy, but look at you.

I felt like a hypocrite and was ashamed. This caused me to retreat, and I eventually stopped attending SGI activities altogether. On the surface, my life was good; I had a nice apartment, a secure job, had remarried, and we had two beautiful daughters. But inside, though I continued chanting alone, I felt empty.

Fifteen years passed. One day, in 2010, my sister, who is also a member, asked me to take her to the SGI-USA New York Culture Center. I waited in the car but soon heard a knock on the window. It was a longtime SGI friend, and he gave me a tour of the center. I had helped with the remodeling in the early ’90s but never visited after it opened in 1996. I broke down in tears from shame, but this friend said: “Ray, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Welcome home.” I began attending activities and encouraging others again.

A few years ago, my daughters tracked down my mother. She had passed away five years earlier but had spent her final years in a beautiful nursing home and was happy.

That young man who trusted no one and looked to drugs to numb his pain now empathizes with suffering people and constantly thinks about how to encourage them. I’ve even helped about 15 family members start practicing Buddhism. These words from Sensei have kept me going through trying times: “The earth upon which we fall is the same ground which enables us to push ourselves up again. … It is up to us to decide to live a life free from self-doubt and despair in spite of our failures” (Buddhism Day by Day, p. 34).

No matter how much I may feel like a failure, thanks to my Buddhist practice, I can always pull myself up and start again.

Q: What advice would you give to newer practitioners?

Ray Figueroa: You’re going to reach a point in your life when certain struggles will strike you hard. Those are the crucial moments to lift yourself back up and redetermine to practice. There’s no shame in having tears in your eyes. Just continue moving forward with your SGI family.

The Meaning of My Struggles

Reclaiming My Self-Worth