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Inviting Others Into the Room of Compassion

Building connections—(L-r) Joshua Thomas, Leandro Silva and Clark Harrell after their dialogue, Seattle, February 2024.

Joshua Thomas: That weekend, we had a series of visits scheduled with young men in Seattle. On Sunday morning, before our kosen-rufu gongyo meeting, Leandro, who we were supposed to meet, overslept. Because of our tight schedule, we had to move on.

Clark Harrell: He had just become a member last fall. I started to sense a bit of distance between us with the new year, so I had been chanting for him. When he didn’t respond that morning, I was really bummed.

Joshua: After our kosen-rufu gongyo meeting, I quickly ran out to drop off a friend at the Seattle airport—about 45 minutes out from the Seattle Buddhist center. The airport was on my way home to Portland, but I still didn’t want to give up on Leandro. I reached out to a men’s division member who knew him. And well, he was able to reach him! I let Clark know about this exciting news and turned my car back around.

Clark: I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to meet with him, but since I didn’t yet have my driver’s license, I had no way there. Fortunately, another member who just finished his Soka Group shift offered me a ride. I was so appreciative.

Clark: I shared my doubts with Joshua. When I sense that someone is being distant I tend to think it’s because they’re not interested, and I close myself off.

He brought me back to the Buddhist concept of the “robe, seat and room” that we had been studying in the Ikeda Wisdom Academy as youth leaders. Ikeda Sensei writes: “We invite a friend into a compassionate life-space and warmly embrace them; we sit down in the same room and discuss life as equals. We discuss things and learn from one another as fellow human beings and together we strive to improve our lives” (The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, vol. 2, p. 196).

I was reminded that we were going there to create a space where he felt comfortable opening up and we could listen to him as genuine friends.

Joshua: We met at a pizza parlor and slowly warmed up to one another. Naturally, as the conversation went on, it turned to our personal lives.

One thing we connected over was our struggle with identity—something I deeply understand. After hearing Leandro open up, I shared about my own struggles of being a young, gay Black man and how, in the SGI, I discovered a practice and community that embraced me and empowered me to overcome my suffering. As a sense of relief showed in his face and he started tearing up, I felt we were reaching his heart.

Clark: This moment completely changed the tone of our dialogue. I felt it became a safe space for everyone to open up and be vulnerable.

Still, in that moment, I was struggling internally—not believing that I could share anything worthwhile, but at the same time, reminding myself that the SGI’s philosophy is that all our diverse experiences have value—no one is less than anyone else.

While I was quietly listening, Joshua pulled me into the conversation by asking me about my life. I knew this was my opportunity, whether encouraging or not, to just open up. I wasn’t there to give a solution; I was there to take part in this life-to-life connection.

Photo courtesy of Joshua Thomas.

Joshua: It truly was. To our surprise, when we were wrapping up, the restaurant staff shared that our meal was paid for. A lady who was seated next to us had overheard our conversation and, moved by it, had paid for our meal. She wrote on the receipt: “You are amazing young men. I wish you well on your life journey.”

It was such a kind gesture, and it created another opportunity! We shared with the restaurant staff that as Buddhists we chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and come together to encourage one another.

The phrase “Seattle Freeze” is real. It is said that people here don’t really engage with one another in the community beyond their friend group and, if they do, it can be superficial. Sensei talks about pouring our hearts into the person in front of us, and this experience showed us the power of doing so.

Clark: I shared this experience with the young men’s division leaders in my region, and we reaffirmed the joy of meeting others. Even if that person hadn’t paid for our meal, it was still a wonderful dialogue.

This experience has since become a beacon for my life. It spurred me on to have the courage to write down names of people I want to chant for, based on our motto to “Advance With 10 Friends” toward the March Youth Peace Festivals. One of them was a co-worker. I didn’t know how to build on our relationship. Nonetheless, I started to chant about him.

One day, I fell sick and had to leave work early. I reached out to this co-worker to see if he could cover me. Long story short, it became an opportunity to connect, and I was able to naturally share about my Buddhist practice! Even getting sick had value. With this momentum, I reached out to another friend I hadn’t seen in three years, and I’m continuing these efforts toward March.

Joshua: Sensei is absolutely right—one person’s human revolution can create a change in the community and the world.

On my drive back to Portland that day, I was filled with immense gratitude—for my hardships, this practice, Sensei and the SGI community. It was a long weekend, but my heart was full.

On Mondays at work, my colleagues and I often share about our weekends. I talked about how fulfilling and energizing my weekend was, engaging in life-to-life dialogue. They were moved to hear that I would make such efforts on my days off. Later that week, seven of my colleagues were laid off. Upon hearing the news, we all reached out to one another. Each of these connections are precious, and I’m determined to build on every one. To be able to live in this way, I can’t help but feel, wow, this Buddhism is so profound.

March 1, 2024, World Tribune, p. 8

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