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Come on, Courage!

Tackling my doubts with daimoku, I take the stage with a light heart.

Action—Ava Puccio in New York, April 2024. Photo by Anjelica Jardiel.

by Ava Puccio
New York

Worries pounced the summer of my junior year—a year known to scar otherwise healthy high schoolers. I’d seen it happen to friends wracked by the stress and uncertainty of college applications.

My own worries sounded like the many warning, catastrophizing voices I’d heard over the years whenever I’d voiced a certain dream.

Vicious competition”; “Tough industry”; “Risky decision!” I wanted to pursue a career in theater.

My mom had been practicing Buddhism for years and had managed to bribe me with mini quiches to a couple discussion meetings, or the opportunity during gongyo to light the incense and ring the bell. But it was her offhanded mention of Buddhability, a podcast by SGI-USA, that set me down the path of self-motivated practice.

That summer, I tuned in, and then… kept listening. Among the many empowering concepts discussed, one leaped out in particular: the notion that each person possesses limitless potential. For me, it was a tremendously motivating idea. Whenever I felt stuck, I took this idea to the Gohonzon, chanting daily for the first time with my mom. 

I went into my junior year in 2023 on the lookout for opportunities in theater. They presented themselves as a school play and a summer conservatory. I auditioned for both, thinking how excited I’d be to do either, and chanted for the most challenging acting experiences, for whatever would help me grow the most.

My high school theater department announces casting the old fashioned way—on a sheet of paper posted in a hallway. We know where and also when it will be posted—during second period outside the theater room. That period begins with a forest of hands—“bathroom requests” from the theater kids. Of course, not a one needs the bathroom—you’ll find them in a huge crush around that casting sheet. 

As it happens, I did land a role—a curmudgeon named Dunn with whom I agreed on nothing. Wincing through my lines of the script, I thought, Just what I was chanting for!

After school that very day, I opened my emails and cried out in surprise—
I’d been accepted to the summer conservatory. “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo!” my mother said when I told her. And I thought, Yeah, what a benefit…

At the beginning of senior year, I began shooting prescreens for submission to universities, a process that stirred up a whole host of worries.

Which schools are best? Will they take me? And what about scholarships?

It was while filming my prescreens that my young women’s leader reached out and asked if I’d like to be part of a Kayo core, a study and training group for young women. “Totally!” I said.

One day, I expressed my fears. My young women’s leader suggested that instead of worrying so much about which college is “the best,” why not chant to get into the college that would best serve my happiness? 

Every year, my school puts on a student-led play—written, directed, produced and cast by the students. I knew that involving myself in this 150-person play would be grueling—the final rehearsals would fall on the last weekend of January, the same time as any in-person university auditions I managed to get invited to. I kept in mind a Buddhist concept that had come up repeatedly in Kayo core: Challenges are opportunities to grow. I applied to be the play’s director and was given the role. 

Come January, my days grew long—beginning at 6 a.m. and ending at around 8 p.m. I saw my mom only in passing, doing gongyo with her in the evening and then rushing upstairs to bed. The evening had been spent answering the questions of flustered peers, actors seeking reassurance and clear direction.

My prayer had to expand beyond my personal worries. I chanted to relieve my own stress as well as that of my peers. 

That December, I received replies to my prescreened submissions—all four of the schools I’d applied to invited me to in-person auditions the last weekend of January. I felt a thrill and also the same fears I’d felt at the start of junior year. 

Auditions are held at localized venues—usually Chicago, New York and Los Angeles—on behalf of theater programs around the country. It’s more effective to audition this way, as opposed to going school-to-school. 

I knew that my venue—New York—would be massive, crowded with my highly trained competition. I felt a nervous chill run down my spine at the thought of the stage moms flying in from L.A. with shiny portfolios tucked underarm, the resumes of their spotless children in glossy jazz shoes. 

I began waking earlier than usual to read the experiences in the Living Buddhism and World Tribune. Then I’d join my mom for morning gongyo, thinking of the qualities I wanted to draw out from my own life, thinking: Come on, courage! Come on, gratitude! Come on, creative freedom! I began to chant, not to put on “the best play” or have “the best auditions,” but to give it my all and have fun. 

The day of the auditions came. The first waiting room I walked into was full of people and silent as a grave. There were the stage moms, the portfolios, the children in jazz shoes. Scanning the room for a free seat, I found among the fierce and rigid faces a warm, familiar one—a friend of mine from school. I plopped down in the empty seat beside her, and we started talking, quietly, between ourselves, then laughing, quietly, a little. At the sound of laughter, the stage moms turned together to glare daggers. Once, this might have shaken my confidence, but I wasn’t bothered. Privately, I chided them. We’re children, for crying out loud!

After two months of directing, of chanting and supporting others, I found that my personal concerns—the very ones that felt crushing at the start of my junior year—felt weightless now. Audition after audition, I connected heart to heart with each person, with the spirit to uplift them.

Arriving back home, I dove right back into directing toward opening night. When it came, there was one girl in particular who brought the house down. Earlier that month, she’d come to me, saying, “I don’t know how to sing this song,” and the way she said it, I could tell she wasn’t sure she was the one to sing it. A rather reserved person, she’d been cast as a big personality.

“It’s a powerful song,” I told her. “You’ve got to bring that power into the song, into the acting and into the auditorium. You’ve got to be big.” Listening to her on opening night, I understood something: When I expand my life, I can help others expand theirs. And when I help others expand, my life expands, too. 

Long story short, I’m in college now, at the very program I wanted to attend. But the real victory is knowing the power of my life and the joy that brings.

Happiness That Can’t Be Destroyed

April 28—The Dawn of a Religion for All Humanity