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Pioneering With Heart

How the humanity of SGI members upended my worldview and remade me as a revolutionary.

Alex Boling and his mother, Roxanne, at the SGI-USA New Orleans Buddhist Center, June 2022. Photo by Geneva Lewis.

by Alex Boling
SGI-USA Courageous Freedom (LGBTQ+) Group Advisor 

When my classmate finished her presentation on American composer Benjamin Britten, I blinked, astonished. Had she really failed to mention his gay lover?

 “You conveniently just forgot to mention his muse, Peter Pears?” I barked. I upbraided her for the oversight so harshly that she broke down in tears. 

This was me in 1992, freshly returned from study abroad in France, where the European nation had been rocked by revelations of its government knowingly distributing HIV-infected blood to at-risk populations. I had returned to the States a militant gay rights activist to complete my graduate studies in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and condemn ignorance wherever I found it. I saw myself as a morally superior but ineffectual rebel—a would-be hero pitted against humanity’s overwhelming cluelessness. I felt I was fighting for the sake of “the people,” but really, I was fighting for an idea of “the people”—most of the people I knew I didn’t like. 

My fiery crusades betrayed a lack of self-confidence. I spent so much time denouncing the world for its shortcomings because I resented my own. Just as I had an idea of “the people” worth fighting for, I had an idea of the proper “hero” worthy of championing the cause. Inwardly, this person was morally impeccable; outwardly, he bore a striking resemblance to Brad Pitt. For all my fiery words and superstar ambition (I am an actor after all), I suspected I was not this person. When obstacles arose, I reacted out of fear, worry and anger. After making some grand gesture or scathing remark, I’d fall into resignation or despair. Fortunately, in 2005, a friend introduced me to Nichiren Buddhism, which would revolutionize my ideas of activism, humanity and social change.

To me, effective activism happened in the limelight. Center stage was where you stumped for change. As an actor, I was sure that center stage was where
I belonged. So I was gobsmacked when, having been invited to support a large SGI meeting a year into my practice, I found myself in the parking lot. Me. Surely there’d been a mistake? I was relieved to see a men’s leader approach, to put my talents to better use inside, no doubt, probably as emcee. Instead, he thanked me profusely, gave me a few safety pointers and, wishing me luck, left to the far end of the lot where he began waving in cars.

Despite myself, I felt my anger dissipate over the course of the shift. I did my best to greet people cheerfully and got sincere responses in return. Inwardly, I even forgave the men’s leader who had somehow overlooked my obvious value as a central-stage figure. Afterward, I learned that he was a soap opera superstar. Double-gobsmacked. What was a superstar doing in the parking lot? I began questioning my own motives—for seeking the limelight, for condemning others’ ignorance. I began to suspect I might be ignorant myself, an uncomfortable realization prompted by nothing more than the simple sincerity of SGI members. No condemnations, no fireworks. This was my first visceral experience with human revolution, the internal pioneering that makes way for new perspectives and new responses.

I did lots of this kind of pioneering the more I spoke with members. I found that I could be deeply encouraged by someone with whom, outwardly, I had nothing in common. I discovered, too, that I could encourage people I thought would dismiss me out of hand. The most profound and lasting changes are born of one-to-one dialogue. 

I discovered, too, that I could encourage people I thought would dismiss me out of hand. The most profound and lasting changes are born of one-to-one dialogue.

Take my relationship with my father. A small-town Southern gentleman, he had this belief handed down to him that gay people could not become happy. This made it difficult for me to feel close to him. This and his love of stocks and sports. He would call weekly to tell me about “the big game,” though I’d told him a hundred times I don’t watch sports. His jokes, his sports talk, his hair—all seemed completely unrelated to my life. When an SGI leader suggested, a year into my practice, that I chant to find one thing to appreciate my father for, it was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. Still, I gave it a go. 

As I chanted, I racked my brain for something to appreciate. Suddenly, it came to me: his hairdo. It made me laugh, and I was thankful for that. It made me laugh a lot. And then the floodgates opened, one realization following the next: for instance, every time he had called me with a joke or to talk about the big game, he was telling me, in his way, “I love you.” He’d been saying so all along; I just hadn’t known how to hear it. I broke down in tears. 

The next time he called, I answered with joy. 

“You see the big game?”

“No, Dad. Tell me about it.” Delighted, he did, and all I heard was, “I love you.” The sports, the stocks, the lame jokes—it was absolutely related to my life; I had everything to do with it. 

Consider how futile it would have been to challenge his belief about gay people by shouting and condemning. But as I began to see him as a human being doing his best, that belief of his just fell away. He could see that I was happy, and that was that. 

Alex with Roxanne as she receives the Gohonzon, June 2022. Photo by Geneva Lewis.

My mother, Roxanne, also noticed my happiness. After her husband died in December 2021, I realized how I could best repay my debt of gratitude to her. She has battled social anxiety for many years, but as I began to speak to her with the understanding that I was supporting not just my mom but a Buddha with an eternal mission, she began to grow more confident. She has consistently felt comfortable meeting SGI members and, as she’s started chanting, has become more open and joyful by the day. Just this month, at 81, she received the Gohonzon. 

I still consider myself a rebel but no longer the ineffectual kind. Now, every obstacle that comes my way, I tackle with the radical response of human revolution, chanting my butt off to see the world through another’s eyes and believing in each of us to do the work of Buddhas, just as we are.

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