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Today, Again

Casting aside ego and self-pity, I connect with my mentor’s heart and blaze a trail to victory. I’m Kenichi Hackman from Torrance, California.

Kenichi Hackman in Redondo Beach, California, November 2023. Photo by Yvonne Ng.

Living Buddhism: Thank you for sharing your experience with us. What prompted you to seek out Buddhism?

Kenichi Hackman: I’ll always remember my college graduation in 2018: hearing my name called from the podium, walking the stage and receiving my diploma. I did so to the applause of friends and family, and thought to myself, What have I been doing the last five years?

And the answer was: smoke, drink and party. Generally, every endeavor I tried my hand at, I gave up on halfway through. I did the bare minimum and maintained mediocre grades. I sought happiness outside myself and felt, in certain moments, something like satisfaction, but soon I was sober again, alone with myself again, an experience I found almost unbearable.

I took an extra year at the University of Oregon and watched many of my friends graduate before me, “on time.” I saw them enter into fulfilling relationships, secure jobs in fields of their choice, pursue master’s degrees at their chosen schools. And I found I wasn’t happy for any of them. The day of my graduation, there were joyful moments, but after the celebrations died down, I found I was full of regret, jealousy and complaint. Especially, complaint.

What was your turning point?

Kenichi: A few weeks later, at my mother’s for a big dinner, someone mentioned something about the government, and I was quick to get on my soapbox to rail against it and who knows what else—the economy, the country, its leaders and their failings: all the wrongness of the world. I don’t know how long I went on, but at some point, I was interrupted midsentence by my mother’s laugh.

“You sound like a grumpy old man,” she said. Somehow, that cut to the bone—not just her words but the way she’d said them. It struck me as a comment free of judgment, made out of compassion. Others in the room chuckled, shrugged, and then the conversation grew light again. And I was left turning her laughing comment over in my head. I didn’t consider it at the time, but my mom had been chanting a lot for my happiness. Her comment no doubt came from that prayer. As painful as it was, I couldn’t help but hear the truth in her words.

This prompted you to try chanting?

Kenichi: Yes, I began chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo regularly after this and getting more involved in SGI activities. Moving in with my dad in my hometown of Torrance, California, I joined the SGI-USA Young Men’s Division Academy. I began supporting activities behind the scenes and developed an understanding of what it means to practice Buddhism for others. I took on leadership and by May 2019, began visiting the young men in the area. Frankly, I felt I had little to show from my own life to inspire others to transform theirs. I still felt I’d wasted precious, irretrievable time at college and was defined by the mistakes I’d made.

I began visiting one very quiet young man weekly in June 2020. Mostly, I did all the talking. Whatever he was willing to share, though, I’d listen carefully, trying to find something relevant we could study from the World Tribune. At one point, I realized that I was benefiting from this as much as he was: In trying to encourage him, I was studying Ikeda Sensei’s writings more deeply than I would have on my own. And yet, three months in, I hardly knew him. I just about concluded that we had nothing in common. And then, suddenly, he proved me utterly wrong. Talking with him in September, I could feel something was up. There was something he wanted to say, but he was having difficulty saying it.

“You look like you have something on your mind,” I said. And at that moment, he broke down in tears. He told me his many regrets: mistakes he’d made, people he’d mistreated, opportunities he’d missed. Listening to him, I realized that his regrets were the same as my own. I told him as much, and then told him about a concept I’d studied once but had not truly grasped. The concept was honnin-myo, which in simple terms means “from this moment forward”—that our actions in the present moment create the future and can even transform the past. In fact, I felt in that very moment that I was transforming my own past. This is why I graduated college with so many regrets. I realized then the power of Buddhism: When we practice in earnest, everything—everything—reveals its meaning if we don’t give up. I felt my regrets evaporating in that moment. Because of what I’d experienced, I could relate to this young man, so that he could relate to me, so that I could encourage him to join me in doing our human revolution.

That’s quite a shift. Where did it lead you?

Kenichi: Forward. At the start of 2022, I had a stable job that I loved and a wonderful girlfriend. I was on track to move out of my dad’s by the end of the year, but sometime that May, with visible effort, he told me he was financially in hot water. In that instant, I knew my life would change dramatically.

What was your day-to-day life like?

Kenichi: The majority of my meals became protein bars and ramen packs. I needed to work but had developed stress-induced migraines that kept me home at least twice a month. Most days I ate, but every morning, my first thought upon waking was: I’m hungry.

I saved up gas money to visit the members, many of whom were highly successful, experiencing all kinds of benefits in their careers. I didn’t tell any of them about my troubles—not the migraines, the money, the rent. It was my secret pride that we never once had to close our region centers for lack of Soka Group, but I mistakenly believed that inspiring the guys to fight alongside me required me to be a certain kind of leader—a certain ideal of a leader who had everything together, who wasn’t fazed by anything.

What changed your perspective?

Kenichi: I reached my breaking point that summer on a Saturday afternoon. By then my dad and I were behind on rent, my savings at zero and my last line of credit maxed out. With a growling stomach, I turned north onto the I-405 freeway, on my way to visit a bright, ambitious young man from a well-to-do family. When I got there, they welcomed me warmly into their beautiful home and, maybe noticing how meek I seemed, offered food—food I wanted to politely turn down but ended up inhaling.

I drove back home in silence, in crawling L.A. traffic. I turned the visit over in my mind and thought of the many other young men in the region who worked high-paying jobs, who’d already put down payments on homes, who were up-and-coming leaders in their fields, who seemed to me vastly more qualified to inspire the young man whose family had just fed me my first real meal of the day. For over three months, stress and self-doubt had been building within. That night, on the I-405, I broke down in tears.

I might have cried the rest of the way had I not remembered something, an image that halted my tears in their tracks: a damp, white-collared shirt, hung out by the window to dry. It wasn’t something I’d ever seen but rather had read about: Sensei’s shirt—his only shirt—in the winter months of 1950.

At the end of World War II, second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda emerged from prison to discover his once thriving business ventures in ruins. With a demon’s ferocity, a 22-year-old Daisaku Ikeda fought to protect his mentor and support the rebuilding of the Soka Gakkai. For three months, he didn’t get paid, during which time he could not afford a second shirt, let alone a coat. At the end of the day, he’d hand wash his only shirt and hang it to dry. Being winter, it would often still be damp when he put it on in the morning. His tuberculosis was acute, and his doctor predicted he wouldn’t live past 30.

All my self-pity, and with it, all my self-doubt, vanished in an instant. Sensei struggled intensely fighting alongside his mentor but never once backed down from his Buddhist practice or his responsibilities. I realized I could always share without reservation how great Sensei is and how wonderful our practice and community is, regardless of what I was going through. It sounds cartoonish, maybe, but at that moment, it felt as though my tears went into reverse.

This was your “prime point” with Sensei.

Kenichi: My prime point in the making, yes. Since taking on young men’s leadership, I’d struggled with leveling with the guys about what I was going through. Again, to me, a leader was someone who didn’t have problems or, if they did, was unfazed by them. As a result, I rarely shared what I was really going through with them. I assumed that by opening up to them, I would lose their respect. But that all changed in August 2022.

My girlfriend struggles on and off with depression. That summer, she was battling out a particularly long and deep episode. She was struggling to see a bright future and said as much, just ahead of a young men’s meeting. The young men circled up and we went around sharing some life updates. I went last, deciding it was my turn to share openly, not holding anything back for fear of losing respect. As I spoke, the words caught in my throat, and I found myself talking through tears. They weren’t tears of self-pity, though, and I found, to my surprise, that I didn’t mind that the guys were seeing me cry. Pained as I was, I felt certain I was walking the path to victory. Even through tears, maybe especially through them, I wanted to convey this conviction.

How’d they respond?

Kenichi: By opening up right back. As it turns out, they all had things weighing on their hearts that, like me, they weren’t sharing. And I discovered that they weren’t sharing these things precisely because I seemed like someone who had everything together, who wouldn’t be able to relate.

Kenichi his family (clockwise), dad, stepfather, Jeff, and mom, in Redondo Beach, California, November 2023. Photo by Yvonne Ng.

When did things start turning around, financially and otherwise?

Kenichi: In September 2022, my father was interviewing for a job that, if clinched, would yield immediate funds, that day, up front. It was a wonderful feeling, at the end of a long day fighting alongside the young men at activities, to share that my father had gotten the job, and the money had landed in his account.

My girlfriend and I are happier now than ever. My migraines have vanished. My dad has found a new job that’s flexible and allows him to pursue his dreams. We’re on great terms, and I’ve developed genuine camaraderie with the young men in Los Angeles Pan-Pacific Zone. Crucially, though, I’m on great terms with myself.

These days, I’m less caught up in what I think a leader should or shouldn’t look like. I begin each day by chanting. And each day, at some point in my daimoku, I return to my prime point, to the prayer with which I know I can tackle any problem. That prayer is: Today, again—I’m going to fight together with Sensei.

Leading with this prayer, with my heart aligned with my mentor, I know there’s no obstacle I can’t overcome.

From the January 2024 Living Buddhism

On the Passing of Ikeda Sensei

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