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Key Ways to View and Overcome the Suffering of Illness

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Masks. Quarantine. Social distancing. These words were not in our collective conscience before 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic altered our awareness in surprising and unforeseen ways.

Shakyamuni Buddha realized that all people, no matter their circumstances, at some time in their lives face the suffering of illness, as well as the other universal sufferings of aging and death. This realization is what sparked the Buddha’s quest for enlightenment.

Buddhism teaches that we all inevitably face illness. Of course, it also encourages us to protect ourselves from it to the extent we can, and to maintain our health by living wisely. We can take precautions such as dressing according to the weather, not overindulging in food or drink, and getting adequate sleep and exercise. Nevertheless, we may still get sick, and, in the long course of our lives, definitely will experience illness. When we do become ill, then, how should we view it?

Buddhist practice enables us to surmount the suffering associated with it and transform the experience into a valuable asset.

Here, we explore four key ways to view and win over illness.

1) Falling Ill Is Not a Form of Defeat

When diagnosed with an illness, we might find ourselves asking, “Why me?” If we consider our karma, we might wonder if it isn’t the effect of a bad cause we made in the past. Ikeda Sensei, however, tells us: “Falling ill is not a form of failure or defeat. It doesn’t happen because our faith is weak.”[1]

In fact, illness is an important and integral part of our experience of being alive—an indispensable part of our journey to becoming happy and attaining Buddhahood in this lifetime.

Nichiren Daishonin assures his disciple, a woman taking care of her gravely ill husband: “Illness gives rise to the resolve to attain the way.”[2]

From the perspective of the Buddhist teachings, encountering sickness can be seen as an opportunity to strengthen our faith and our desire to live with greater meaning and purpose. Many have used it to make a fresh resolve to overcome their self-doubt, show actual proof of Buddhist practice and demonstrate how to create the greatest value in such instances.

In this sense, illness itself is not the cause of suffering. One can be perfectly healthy, but spiritually ailing. Many SGI members have proven that, even while struggling with illness, they can live with genuine happiness and fulfillment, and help others become happy as well.

Sensei thus clarifies the difference between illness and the devil of illness:

Illness is a universal suffering; none of us is a stranger to it. But it can cause us to sink into despair, to give up on life and to lose the strength to go on living. This aspect of illness that drains people of their vitality, acting as a “robber of life,” is why Buddhism views illness as a “devil,” or a devilish function.

We need to see this devilish aspect of illness for what it is and courageously combat it through the power of our Buddhist faith and practice. We must resolve not to be defeated by it. Through battling and triumphing over the devil of illness, we can reveal our Buddhahood.[3]

2) 60 Trillion Cells to Action

When he was young, Ikeda Sensei suffered from tuberculosis and a weak constitution. The doctors didn’t expect him to live to the age of 30. “I was bitterly frustrated, wishing I could be healthy and strong,”[4] he recalls.

At that time, he was making efforts to support second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda’s business challenges and working tirelessly on the front lines of the kosen-rufu movement.

One day, President Toda scolded Sensei, saying: “Daisaku! You haven’t got an ounce of life force! If your life force is weak, you’ll be defeated.”[5] President Toda then sat Sensei in front of the Gohonzon and “chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with a force that literally seemed to batter the devil of illness into submission. His chanting truly was a lion’s roar.”[6] Learning how to pray from his mentor, Sensei summoned the life force of a charging lion and was able to defeat the devil of illness.

Countless SGI members have also overcome health issues based on Nichiren’s conviction that “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is like the roar of a lion. What sickness can therefore be an obstacle?”[7]

And Sensei asserts, “No matter what the sickness, the speed with which we recover depends upon our life force.”[8]

Life force is something we can summon from within through resolute prayer, chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo already having decided that we will be victorious.

Sensei offers concrete tips on how to pray to overcome health challenges:

We need to pray with determination as to cause all the cells in our bodies to renew themselves; we need to spur all sixty trillion of them into action.[9]

• • •

Please continue chanting, sending Nam-myoho-renge-kyo directly to the affected area. It is also important for you to resolve to dedicate your life to kosen-rufu. Then pray that you will be restored to a state of health that will allow you to do so to your heart’s content. … When we live for that noble cause, the incredible life force of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth fills our beings. That dynamic life force will triumph over illness.[10]

3) Faith and Medicine

Buddhism is reason. We should seek medical help for an illness, and our Buddhist practice provides us with the wisdom and life force to do so effectively.

Nichiren confidently tells his disciple that the “five characters of Myoho-renge-kyo … are good medicine for the ills of the people of Jambudvipa [the entire world].”[11]

Our prayer based on firm resolve summons forth our life force and natural healing ability to recover from illness. In Buddhist texts, Bodhisattva Medicine King represents the life force of Buddhahood that functions to cure life’s sufferings.

Josei Toda once said, “When you go to a doctor, even if he is incompetent, because Medicine King is functioning in your own life, the doctor naturally cannot help but provide a cure.”[12]

Expanding on this explanation of the role our bodies and modern-day medicine can play in our lives, Sensei clarifies:

Knowledge and wisdom are not the same. … Speaking very generally, we can say that medical science combats illness through knowledge. Buddhism, on the other hand, develops human wisdom so that we may balance our lives and strengthen our life force. By doing so, we can use medical knowledge as an aid in the process of healing ourselves.

It is therefore foolish to ignore or reject medical science. To do so on religious grounds would amount to fanaticism. We need to make intelligent use of medical knowledge to conquer illness, and Buddhism can help us bring forth the wisdom to do that effectively.[13]

There is no contradiction between medical science and Buddhism. We can most effectively take on illness by using our Buddhist faith and practice coupled with modern day medicine and treatment.

4) Never Be Defeated

But what if we don’t recover our full health or are diagnosed with an incurable condition? In such cases, we must not give in to resignation. When we deepen our faith and strengthen our resolve, we can live our lives with hope, supreme fulfillment and happiness. Ultimately, we practice Buddhism to experience all of life’s challenges as great opportunities.

President Toda used to say:

If your condition improves even a little, you should feel appreciation from the depths of your heart. If, on the other hand, instead of feeling appreciation, you are disappointed because you have not improved more and treat the Gohonzon as though it owes you a debt—that will not do. If you take action, yet forget your debt of gratitude, then even those areas that have improved will get worse. You must practice faith with abundant gratitude, deeply appreciative of even the slightest improvement![14]

So, what is true health? We could say that it’s living with a sense of gratitude while maintaining the spirit to work for the happiness of others. It’s living a life of joy and never giving up on the goal to establish an unbeatable self.

Sensei states: “What matters in the end is never to be defeated by anything—to keep fighting and not lose hope. Life is a struggle against our inner tendencies to give up when things are tough, to compromise and accept less. Please win in the struggle with yourself, vowing not to give up, not to be defeated.”[15]

Living My Bodhisattva Vow

Jenny Ohrstrom, of Minneapolis, learns what happiness is through fighting for her health.

Shadow Grey

My father started practicing Buddhism when I was 3 years old, and I began chanting on my own when I was 14. Since we lived in Florida, I had the opportunity to attend many conferences at the Florida Nature and Culture Center (the SGI-USA’s Buddhist retreat center), and the people who shared their experiences onstage always radiated with hope and happiness. I wanted to be like them. And though I didn’t feel particularly connected to Ikeda Sensei, I studied his guidance assiduously, learning how he often encouraged the youth to seek out hardships and challenges in order to forge their lives.

So I chanted for my great obstacle: the thing that would allow me to become like those shining stars at the FNCC. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was actually renewing my vow from the distant past as a Bodhisattva of the Earth!

In 2013, when I was 28 years old, I was diagnosed with Lyme disease after suffering strange symptoms for years. The bacteria infested my brain and central nervous system, demolishing my faculties, and I lost everything: my ability to walk, talk, read, write and think. I lost all memory of my life before, forgetting my family members, best friends, lovers and my own personality. I felt like my dreams of starting a family and becoming a writer had been obliterated.

For the first few years, the magnitude of my symptoms was so severe and the dementia so extreme that I felt lost and helpless. I would crawl in front of the Gohonzon, sobbing and stuttering my way through gongyo, chanting to bring forth the treasure tower in my life.

Despite this, I chanted many hours a day, participated in SGI activities and, at the encouragement of my wonderful SGI family, shared my experience. Though I did not feel like a victor in any sense, they assured me that I was encouraging people just by smiling. Slowly, I stopped thinking only of myself and instead, began to think of encouraging others. And though it was so difficult at first, I began to smile during my seizures and when I was paralyzed; I fought through every symptom with all my might to create joy and hope so that I could show others the power of Buddhism.

Sensei writes: “Each of us … has a noble mission that only we can fulfill. When we deeply recognize this, everything changes. We have been born in this world, at this time, to accomplish the great vow we made in the remote past. Our karma is our mission; it is the stage upon which we play out our magnificent drama of transforming adversity into triumph. No matter how difficult or challenging the reality of our lives may be, there is no other separate place where we can achieve happiness” (The Wisdom for Creating Happiness and Peace, part 2, p. 97).

I began chanting to connect to Sensei’s heart—a prayer that changed everything. Though my symptoms worsened, my daily battle became more joyful. I began to awaken to my mission and see that this illness was the answer to my bodhisattva vow and my greatest opportunity to transform my life. I determined not to waste it and to do my human revolution to become a person of such sincerity and hope that I could encourage everyone I met. In 2019, I vowed to respond to Sensei, dedicate my life to kosen-rufu and give my life for the members. As a result, even though my symptoms persisted, these two years have been the happiest of my life.

I have confronted and overturned every obstacle with a fighting spirit, strengthening my life force and accumulating treasures of the heart. Through this inner transformation, my symptoms have been steadily improving every month.

The benefits of this obstacle were beyond anything I imagined. By learning how to live joyfully amid the greatest challenges and connect to my bodhisattva vow, I feel that I know now the meaning of my existence and how to live the most radiant, fulfilling and joyful life possible—a life dedicated to kosen-rufu, just as Sensei teaches. In the process, I have learned to create value from each loss: learning compassion, sincerity and humility from my disabilities; and discovering my mission as a writer of children’s books.

Though delaying my dream of starting a family was a source of grief, I’m now better prepared to be a loving wife and mother. As long as I live, I will continue striving as a disciple of Sensei and help every person I meet become happy!

Discovering the Treasure Inside

Gary Murie, of Los Angeles, battles cancer with a fierce resolve to win.

Yvonne Ng

I first heard about Buddhism from a young woman in a park. I eventually found myself surrounded by Buddhists in college and, in January 1968, started my Buddhist practice. Since Day One of joining, I’ve never stopped.

I’ve been practicing for 53 years now and have had many unbelievable experiences in faith. One of my greatest experiences was transforming my relationship with my father, who became a heavy drinker after my mother passed away at the age of 36. I held on to deep resentment toward him for years of abuse, but after transforming my life and building tremendous fortune through SGI activities, I decided to take full responsibility for our relationship. It took five years, but our relationship transformed before he passed away from cancer.

In 2017, I started having internal bleeding. After preliminary tests and a biopsy, the doctor told me that the prognosis was quite grim. I had an aggressive type of bladder cancer, and my bladder and prostate would be removed.

I went home in total shock. I was directly confronted with my family’s karma: Both my parents died early of cancer. At first, I sat in front of the Gohonzon and just broke down. For hours, I sobbed, unable to chant. Finally, I pulled myself together and began chanting. Because of many years of practice and activities, this fierce determination came from my life. I decided: I’m going to have victory no matter what. It was an immovable resolve. My constant thought: I can’t let the members down. I reported to Sensei right away. Immediately, I began chemotherapy treatments and a fierce chanting campaign for victory.

For the next couple of years, I was in the hospital all the time, but it was so bizarre: My life condition was always so strong, and I felt fine inside. I continued going to work and doing activities to support the members as a vice region men’s leader. If I didn’t have the energy to attend a meeting, I would sit in front of the Gohonzon and chant for its success, determined that the members left every meeting encouraged.

About 15 years ago, I received a poem from Ikeda Sensei that reads: “Treasure Mountain / Soka Family.”

I never quite understood what that meant. But through this experience, I realized the Soka family is the treasure mountain. I received unmatched support and care from my Soka family. And the strength that came from my life was linked to my vow to encourage the members.

I beat the bladder cancer, but during a routine screening in 2019, the doctor found cancer in my lung. This time, I knew how to fight and determined again to be victorious. Today, you would never know that I don’t have a full lung and no bladder or prostate! I still go in every four months to get a CT scan, but I am currently free of cancer.

If there is one thing I learned, it is the importance of appreciation. It is hard to maintain the fighting spirit for kosen-rufu with all of the vicissitudes of life. But the SGI provides a roadmap to victory. I have so much appreciation for Sensei, the Gohonzon and my SGI family. All of my efforts to support others, share Buddhism and be an example of transforming my life have manifested as great fortune.

Life throws at us severe health battles and disappointments. Rather than hanging out with the pain and confusion, just determine to bring out your Buddha nature. It’s in there! It just takes courage to sit in front of the Gohonzon and bring it out. There were many times in the midst of my health challenges that I faced more obstacles, but through faith, I transformed everything and was protected every step of the way. If I would have just succumbed to the difficulties without fighting, I wouldn’t have savored the victory that I do now.

Even if you don’t feel like fighting, if you sit in front of the Gohonzon, eventually you will want to fight. I don’t know how long I have left to live. The only thing I can control is my determination and resolve. The real treasure is inside. To be afforded the opportunity to tap into the real potential of your life is the greatest treasure.

My advice to the youth is to chant abundantly and work hard for kosen-rufu while you are young. You need the most fortune when you get older!

This is my body. The essence of my cancer is Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Toward 2030, there is a lot to do for kosen-rufu, and I’m going to be there for it! I want to give hope to people and show them that cancer is not a death sentence. And when I do pass, I am determined to have the most beautiful death that can leave everyone filled with hope and courage.


  1. The Wisdom for Creating Happiness and Peace, part 2, p. 105. ↩︎
  2. “The Good Medicine for All Ills,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 937. ↩︎
  3. June 2020 Living Buddhism, p. 56. ↩︎
  4. Ibid. ↩︎
  5. Ibid. ↩︎
  6. Ibid. ↩︎
  7. “Reply to Kyo’o,” WND-1, 412. ↩︎
  8. The New Human Revolution, vol. 10, p. 248. ↩︎
  9. The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, vol. 6, p. 21. ↩︎
  10. NHR-10, 233–34. ↩︎
  11. “The Good Medicine for All Ills,” WND-1, 937. ↩︎
  12. WLS-6, 21. ↩︎
  13. The Wisdom for Creating Happiness and Peace, part 2, p. 103. ↩︎
  14. WLS-6, 21. ↩︎
  15. The Wisdom for Creating Happiness and Peace, part 2, pp. 123–24. ↩︎

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