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Becoming Human

Working with people, I learn to trust them and myself.

Connection—Jean Rosenberg in Washington, D.C., April 2024. Photo by Philip Rosenberg.

by Jean Rosenberg
Washington, D.C.

I must have been 19 the last time I spoke with my one true childhood friend, in the summer of 1964. He listened, patient as ever, as I praised him for never betraying our trust, for keeping all our many secrets.

Among them was my father—a lawyer-turned-professional gambler. I’d be woken some nights and told to pack my things in the car idling on the curb, crammed with our belongings, furniture strapped to its roof. Always on the move, my father kept his friends at arm’s length, and then died on a losing streak when I was 10. Privately, I intuited that people were not to be trusted, because people tend to talk. 

All this I reminded my old friend at his home in the National Zoo. When I was done, he chuffed and, pawing the earth, lowered his great noble head in sympathy. By now, the water buffalo had grown old—this would be our last conversation. He died soon after, leaving me alone, friendless, adrift in the many currents of the ’60s. 

That decade made a hippy of me without making me peaceful. I was bent on ending war by toppling “The Government.” Ironically, ridding society of “those people”—the politicians, soldiers and tax-paying squares—seemed to me the only path to peace. Then again, even the friendships I made among “my people” had grown cold by the decade’s end. I’d become known for hustling and sponging, for crashing couches and ransacking pantries; doors once open to me were slammed shut.

I encountered Nichiren Buddhism in May of 1968 while panhandling around D.C.’s Dupont Circle. Soon after, I had occasion to go to Japan to attend a meeting where Ikeda Sensei was to speak. I remember feeling uncomfortable in such a large group of Japanese people, all primly starched. Honestly, I was about to make a break for it when Sensei took the stage. As he spoke, I sensed in him something I’d long felt missing from my own life. He’s a human being, I thought. I wanted to be a human being, too.

Coming home, I began to attend more discussion meetings, where I found myself among the very people I wanted to overthrow—military men, the husbands of the Japanese women they’d married overseas. I liked chanting and the philosophy. What I almost couldn’t stand were people

“Jean,” a senior leader said, “the Gohonzon doesn’t talk. You need to speak with other people.” To which I covered my face and shook my head.

It was clear to me that I’d stumbled upon the path to peace, but it was such a difficult path to walk. Toppling governments was such an easier path than this one, which involved speaking with, working with and trusting in people.

Celebrating her retirement with her co-workers, Rockville, Md., April 2023. Photo courtesy of Jean Rosenberg.

The summer of 1969 found me sobbing backstage at a D.C. convention, where I waited to be called onstage and announced as a chapter young women’s leader. My life, I knew, would change forever. I’d not only have to talk with the young women in my chapter, I’d have to encourage them, too. 

Part of becoming an upstanding member of society involved getting sober and employed, notions I’d held in contempt before joining the SGI. But soon I was known for my work ethic; I worked hard to get off the clock at 5 sharp for Buddhist activities. 

Even as I won professional renown, I struggled to connect with others. Whether nature or nurture, I’d inherited something more than caution from my father—a penchant for hustling. The real downside was that, because I was always trying to “play” somebody, I could never shake the suspicion that someone else was trying to play me. Behind every word of kindness, thanks or praise, I suspected a hidden motive. It was a reflection of my own life, my own karma, and so was all the harder to shake. My motto since the start of my practice: When in doubt, shakubuku. Whatever my nature, whatever my suspicions, I knew that human revolution was my mentor’s only motive. Walking this path with others was a not a game to be played but a struggle to be shared, and it lent a seriousness to all my relationships. At work, in marriage, in my family, I became known as someone who brought and kept people together. 

In May 2020, at age 75, I pledged to rid myself once and for all of any lingering suspicions lodged in my life. As Nichiren Daishonin says, “[W]hen one resolves to break free from the sufferings of birth and death and attain Buddhahood, one will inevitably encounter … the three obstacles and four devils, just as surely as a shadow follows the body and clouds accompany rain” (“Letter to Misawa,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 894). Aware of this, I actually laughed when the doctors informed me that year that I had breast cancer. “Something suspicious,” was their initial caution. To me, the diagnosis was a message from my Buddha nature: It was time to eliminate suspicion from my life, time to become a person who, like Sensei, has unbridled faith in the potential goodness in all people. 

I’d made another pledge five years earlier while on a training course in Japan. There, I met a senior leader with whom I’d spent a lot of time in my youth. “Well, you’ve really grown,” she told me. And then, “Please don’t let any pioneer die unhappy.” She meant the SGI members of my generation. I determined to beat my cancer, make good on this promise and plant seeds of trust wherever I went.

Emerging from illness (presenting cancer-free in 2021), I returned to a rhythm of home visiting the Many Treasures Group members who went through so much building our kosen-rufu movement in America. 

I’m fortunate to have such friends—especially my wonderful husband of 48 years—with whom to walk the difficult, rewarding path to peace, along which we become stronger, wiser, more trusting—most fully human together.

Q: What advice would you give the youth?

Jean Rosenberg: To the youth, I say, don’t quit the Soka Gakkai. There are as many reasons to leave this organization as there are people in it. People are difficult. But they can also be astonishingly beautiful if you give them the time of day. We can only do our human revolution with others. And to the Many Treasures Group members, I’d just like to say: Let’s learn from the youth!

April 12, 2024, World Tribune, p. 5

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