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Learning to Trust Myself and Others

Over my 56 years of Buddhist practice, I’ve overcome family discord, troubles at work and illness, based on my vow to strive for kosen-rufu in America with my mentor, Ikeda Sensei. I’m Rod Burke from San Luis Obispo, California.

Rod Burke and his wife, Joy, and dog, Lady, in San Luis Obispo, California, August 2023. Photo by Walter Rachel.

Living Buddhism: Thank you for speaking with us, Rod. How did you begin your Buddhist practice?

Rod Burke: In 1967, in my 20s, and in trouble. A friend of mine had asked me to house his brother for a while. A week into his stay, my friend mentioned that this brother of his was a fugitive.

I found myself headed to trial as an accomplice, something I confided to a co-worker over lunch. I half-expected him to distance himself, to wash his hands of me, a likely jailbird. But as I talked, he just listened and, once I’d said it all, fished a piece of paper from his pocket and began to write something down. “If you chant this simple phrase, you can obtain everything you need to become happy.” He showed me what he’d written and we said it together several times: Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.

On the half-hour drive home, I chanted. All that was on my mind was to somehow not go to jail. But as I chanted, I felt something stir within, and as I kept chanting, that feeling grew. By the time I pulled into the driveway, I felt… well, I don’t know how to describe it other than awesome.

How would you describe that feeling of chanting for the first time?

Rod: I’d never felt anything like it. Never had it occurred to me that my life might be deeply significant. I sat in the driveway with a feeling of profound happiness. Then, after a while, I got out, almost gingerly, from the car. Everything I did that night I seem to have done this way—carefully. Opening the door to my house, taking off my shoes, getting ready for bed, I was attentive the whole time to the new, possibly fragile feeling I carried inside. Could I trust it? Would it vanish? The next day, I woke up with the feeling still within me. I took it to work, to my friend, asking, “What is this?”

“You’ve woken your Buddha nature,” he said. An added benefit was that I avoided incarceration entirely, receiving a very light sentence of 1 year’s probation.

Where did this feeling lead you?

Rod: First off, I wanted to know more. I began to get involved in the Soka community, where many of the members I met, like my co-worker, struck me as kind and sincere. I began to open up to them, to a kind of friendship that was foreign to me—friendship based on a vow to become happy and help others do the same.

I took on leadership, which put me on the fast track of my human revolution. Others depended on me and I on others. This second part, depending on others, proved extremely difficult. As a child I’d been enrolled in private schools—first a military, then a Catholic school—which were intensely regimented. I saw my parents only on weekends. At an age when most children learn to rely on their parents, I learned to rely on myself. I carried around an emptiness in me, a feeling of abandonment and a deep mistrust of others. I carried these feelings into my friendships, jobs, marriages and leadership. It was in leadership that I expiated these negative tendencies from my life. Challenged constantly to support, open up to and trust others, I became able to do so in all areas of my life. But this has been a long, gradual journey for me.

In 1972, I entered my second marriage. It lasted about two years. I’ll never forget the day she left me. I came from a trip and the apartment was empty. She’d taken the furniture along with our eight-month-old son. The room was bare but for the Gohonzon. I curled up on the floor and wept.

I woke up on the floor of my bare apartment in a state that hovered somewhere between a stupor and a rage. Hell was where I was. I sat before the Gohonzon and said, out loud, “If this doesn’t work, I quit.” I began chanting to alleviate what felt like bottomless suffering.

What followed?

Rod: Within the first two weeks of chanting toward this goal, I had a realization. It was obvious, or should have been, but I’d been unable to see it. I’m suffering, not her. This is my problem, not hers.

Over the course of the next two months, my prayer shifted. After almost three months, I experienced something extraordinary. It was again a sense of elation, of complete fulfillment, of total forgiveness. I was enough, just as I was—fulfilled, married or not. As with my first time chanting, I went about the next few weeks somewhat mistrustful of the feeling, wondering if it were real. As I continued chanting, I had yet another realization: I was grateful. I did what would have been unthinkable three months earlier to the person who’d collapsed on the floor of his emptied apartment: expressed to my ex-wife, truthfully, that I appreciated every moment we’d spent together.

What were you thankful for, exactly?

Rod: For the opportunity to grow. The boarding schools where I grew up fostered in me discipline and independence but not forgiveness and connection. Until I began my practice, I had no true friends, only acquaintances—people with whom I partied, drank or played baseball. It never occurred to me to even go so far as invite a friend over for dinner. Without knowing it, however, I craved connection. In relationships—particularly in married life—I found I could open myself more to another person, and they to me, and that while in such a relationship, the emptiness I otherwise carried within me would vanish. As soon as that relationship came to an end, however, that sense of emptiness returned. Her leaving me might have devastated me for years. But because I had my Buddhist practice, because I had a great mentor in life, I transformed that bitter experience into something of great value. I won’t say that this was the end of my tendency to seek happiness in relationships, but it was the beginning.

What else came of this experience?

Rod: I took on leadership in the SGI early on in my practice, understanding this as an expedient means to do my human revolution. Indeed, in leadership, I found myself confronting my most ingrained tendencies: to open myself to no one, to rely on no one. But this tendency was pointed out to me time and again by my own leaders, who I came to consider good friends in faith. They challenged me to collaborate with others, to be open to them and trust them. As I continued to confront and win over my tendencies, it opened my life.

For instance, in 1981, I landed a job working for a top auto dealership, a job I’d hold for 27 years, until my retirement in 2008. In my sixth year there, however, the company’s owner was made aware that I practiced Buddhism, something I’d shared with a fellow co-worker. One day in 1986, he called me to his office. Knowing only that I was Buddhist, he likely feared I was involved in one of the fanatical religious movements sweeping the nation at that time. A devout Christian, he was almost at a loss for words. “Rod, how could you?” he asked.

In the same conversation, he expressed, for the first time, his dissatisfaction with my work. This began three years in which I no longer received raises or bonuses, as I had every year until then. Also, nearly impossible demands were made of me, and, though I always managed to meet those demands, I received no recognition. I felt very much like Shijo Kingo, a samurai and disciple of Nichiren Daishonin: Kingo’s lord, upon discovering that he was a believer in the Lotus Sutra, confiscated his land and held him in disfavor. At this point, I had married and divorced three times; I had five children, was paying child support for each and was a leader in the SGI. There were days I felt outraged, others I felt like giving up. But at such times I returned to Nichiren’s admonition to be courageous in faith, especially where he writes: “Your faith alone will determine all these things. A sword is useless in the hands of a coward” (“Reply to Kyo’o,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 412).

It was in the midst of this challenge that I pondered deeply the heart of my mentor, Ikeda Sensei.

How did you develop your relationship with Sensei?

Rod: It began in 1968 when I and a group of 13 members went to Japan and, while there, decided to visit the Soka Gakkai Headquarters. “Who knows, maybe we can meet Sensei!” one of us had said. When he heard that we were there, we were guided to a conference room in the headquarters. Sensei was there, and the 13 others in my group rushed in while I held the door. Only problem was, there were one too many of us—when I stepped in, there were no seats left! Noticing right away, Sensei motioned for another chair to be brought in beside him. That’s where I sat for the next three hours as we spoke.

“Please, ask anything on your mind. I’ll do my best to answer everything,” he said. As we sat and spoke, I had a feeling about Sensei that I’ve kept with me ever since: I’m sitting next to the most humanistic person in the world.

Years later, experiencing persecution at work, this strong feeling, this desire to respond to my mentor, returned to me. What I was experiencing was small in comparison to the persecutions my mentor had weathered to bring this Buddhism to the United States. Still, viewing it as a shared struggle between mentor and disciple gave rise to a powerful feeling in me, a strong desire to renew my vow with my mentor. I determined to prove at my place of work the practicality and profundity of this Buddhism. As one impossible task was laid on another, I summoned strength I did not know I had. Sharing in my mentor’s struggle to change my karma and advance kosen-rufu, I put my head down and worked.

What happened?

Rod: In 1990, I was called again into the office of the company’s owner. He told me he was inviting his top salespeople on a trip to Lake Tahoe, California. “You’re doing incredible work,” he said, “and I’d like you to come.” He’d reserved an entire restaurant just for us. I was seated next to his wife, and she turned to me and said, “I hear you’re a Buddhist, Rod. Tell me about that, would you?” I told her I was, indeed, a Buddhist, and for the next 45 minutes, I did my best to convey the life-affirming principles of this teaching. My owner came around and said: “You two are certainly having fun! Tell me what it is.”

“Buddhism” his wife said brightly. “Rod’s telling me about it.”

After that day, my owner’s attitude toward me changed dramatically. Things transformed so much that, by 2000, he recognized me as employee of the month, out of a pool of over 1,000.

What about marriage?

Rod: In 1986, I met my current wife, but we were in no rush to marry. I must say, of all my marriages, I embarked on this one from the greatest state of fulfillment, without really looking for anything at all. I wasn’t seeking happiness outside myself but was happy with myself, just as I was. In 2008, we decided to marry. We support each other through thick and thin.

What would you share with the youth?

Rod: Many things I couldn’t share here for lack of space. I’ve suffered my share of loss and hardship. Recently, I was diagnosed with a blood disorder for which there’s no known cure. But having overcome cancer in 2011, I’m embracing this diagnosis as a challenge to deepen my faith and once again show actual proof of the power of this practice. I keep in mind four qualities I’ve gleaned from the writings of my mentor that I hold as my personal credo: prayer, patience, perseverance and persistence. If you can do these, you can do anything.

From the October 2023 Living Buddhism

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