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Developing a Passion for Life

How I awoke to my deeper identity as a Bodhisattva of the Earth. I’m Shota Okajima from Madison, New Jersey.

Living Buddhism: Hi Shota, you’ve recently taken on greater responsibility at work and in the SGI. Can you trace your journey for us?

Shota (center) with his hockey team in South Orange, New Jersey, September 2008. Photo courtesy of Shota Okajima.

Shota Okajima: Sure thing. From childhood through college, I had one passion: ice hockey. I played seriously for my high school and travel teams. I worked hard every day to perfect my craft, and this filled me with great satisfaction. After high school, I played for a year in Canada, then continued in college.

Before I knew it, my college graduation came in May 2015. I wasn’t playing at a level that qualified me to become professional, so this marked the end of my hockey career. Even though I knew this was coming, when the time arrived to shut the door on hockey, I was unprepared. My self-worth was wrapped up almost entirely in my identity as a hockey player.

How did you process this?

In action playing for his college hockey team, October 2011. Photo courtesy of Shota Okajima.

Shota: I mostly boxed myself in my room and watched TV, feeling defeated. I was a recent college graduate, living with my parents and watching my friends secure careers. I pushed myself, here and there, to look for work, but my heart wasn’t in it. Every time I pursued employment, I felt as if I were letting go of a vital piece of me—the hockey player. But holding on to my former self was like hanging on to a heavy weight.

How did things change?

Shota: Eventually, I took a part-time tutoring job to take the financial burden off of my parents. I would go to work but without purpose or passion.

My family had joined the SGI in 2002 when I was 10 years old, but I never really participated in meetings. I wasn’t opposed to it; I had just always put hockey first.

Shota’s family joins the SGI in Tokyo, February 2002. Photo courtesy of Shota Okajima.

Eventually, my district men’s leader began inviting me to SGI activities. I had no interest at first, so I ignored his calls. At some point, I answered the phone, and he invited me to a discussion meeting. While part of me regretted picking up, deep down I knew that this would pull me out of my rut.

When I got to the meeting, I felt warmth and compassion. I found myself opening up about my struggles to find my path in life. My district men’s leader shared how he had encountered Buddhism in his youth when facing similar stuggles. Ultimately, he found a deep sense of self and meaning in life, and a successful career.

He mentioned that his greatest joy was not his work success but opening his home for SGI meetings. Here was this self-made man, well-established in his career, attributing his success to something beyond a personal motto or work ethic.

He had something that I couldn’t put my finger on, but I knew I wanted a piece of it. He told me that he had built his foundation by exerting himself in SGI activities during his youth, introducing many people to Buddhism and supporting activities in the Soka Group and Gajokai, young men’s behind-the-scenes training groups.

This encouraged me to join the Young Men’s Division Academy, a one-year training program, as well as support SGI activities behind the scenes. I was still reluctant to jump in with both feet, but I didn’t see any better options so I gave it a try.

How was your experience in the academy?

Shota with other young men following a Soka Group shift, Teaneck, New Jersey, May 2018. Photo courtesy of Shota Okajima.

Shota: I felt uncomfortable at first. My whole life I had just focused on either hockey or schoolwork and never really opened myself up emotionally to others. While I felt I was a decent person, I hadn’t made any effort to uplift others. But as I began doing Gajokai shifts at the New Jersey Buddhist Center, I found myself greeting so many members and having to coordinate with others that I had to break through my barriers.

What kept you going?

Shota: At one point, I wanted to quit, but my mother said that I couldn’t put this practice to the test if I didn’t put my back into it. I decided to start giving 100% to my SGI activities.

I was also inspired by my Gajokai leader. He would start each shift by asking us what challenge we would tackle in our personal lives. This weekly briefing pushed me to come up with concrete goals and be accountable for them.

I also learned, through the academy meetings, that practice for oneself and others is the most direct path to happiness. While chanting for my personal goals, I began chanting to show up for my shifts with a high life condition. I found myself warmly greeting the members and bonding with the other young men. I viewed each shift as a cause toward combatting my selfishness and tendency to withdraw from others.

I felt myself changing. Greeting the members and supporting meetings behind the scenes gave me a joy I had never experienced before. Supporting others in their Buddhist practice fulfilled me beyond anything I had felt since playing hockey. I started to develop confidence in my life, realizing that I had something worthwhile to offer beyond my athletic or academic abilities. I was also inspired by reading the following from Ikeda Sensei:

Awakening to your mission as a Bodhisattva of the Earth means coming face to face with the innermost essence of your own life. It is knowing the ultimate meaning of why you were born, why you are alive. There is no greater joy, fulfillment or pride than that which comes from awakening to your eternal mission.[1]

Greeting the members and supporting meetings behind-the-scenes gave me a joy I had never experienced.

How did awakening to your mission affect your career search?

Working from home in Madison, New Jersey, January 2022.

Shota: Rather than waiting for the perfect job to come to me, I decided to win at the part-time job I had, creating value right where I was. I initiated discussions with my manager on how to improve the tutoring program. With that shift in attitude, I began to enjoy my work, feeling more connected with the students and taking real interest in their success. I also began to deepen relationships with my co-workers, determined to share Buddhism with them through my behavior as a human being.

As I continued to chant and actively research different careers, I stumbled upon the actuarial profession, a field that deals with anticipating and managing financial risks in business ventures.

In 2017, I was accepted into the actuarial science program at Temple University. Encouraged by my Gajokai leader to challenge my dreams, I put together a team of fellow students to compete in an actuarial competition, where we proposed risk-management techniques. Despite my lack of experience, our team took fourth place overall! The determination and attention to detail I learned through Gajokai gave me both the will and capacity to accomplish this. For this first time, I began to feel confidence that I could achieve great things outside of hockey.

How did you build on this momentum?

Shota: I began to take my leadership responsibility within the SGI seriously, chanting, studying and supporting other young men in faith. I became active in my district, then took on more leadership. In 2019, I became the New Jersey Zone young men’s leader and, this year, I took on the same responsibility for East Territory. During this time, I also became a licensed actuary for a great company in an environment I truly enjoy.

Your experience will encourage many new graduates facing uncertainty about their future. You mentioned that polishing yourself through SGI activities has been the key. What have you enjoyed most about SGI activities?

Visiting members, New York, January 2022.

Shota: Without a doubt, it’s been supporting other young men and seeing them break through obstacles. It has been such a privilege and also mind-blowing to watch them apply this practice to their lives and achieve explosive development. Even during the pandemic, I have seen guys defeat all odds to have major breakthroughs in their careers, relationships and health. One young man achieved his dream of working in a Michelin-starred restaurant. Another received a promotion due to his heroic work on the frontlines of the pandemic.

Supporting these young men has enabled me to open my heart to the point that I sometimes don’t recognize the strong person I’ve become. The pandemic could have fueled my tendency to turn inward, but my SGI activities and leadership responsibilities have taught me that I have the power within to advance in all areas of my life and, in turn, inspire others. I can see that my life has value that no one can take away. And I can say with absolute confidence that I now have the tools to win right here, right now.

Now, my life is filled with a new kind of passion—for supporting Sensei’s kosen-rufu movement in America so that we can give youth the hope and capacity to move our country in the direction of peace. My determination for 2022 is to raise many capable young men who stand up with a burning passion to support Sensei’s dream; it is to help them awaken to their potential to achieve victory under any circumstance.

Supporting these young men has enabled me to open my heart to the point where I sometimes don’t recognize the strong person I’ve become.


  1. Youth and the Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 12. ↩︎

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