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Just As I Am

As I work to safeguard the dignity of human life, I awaken to the dignity of my own. I’m Garrett Welch from Denver.

Photo by Alex Segall.

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

Garrett Welch: During the fall of 2017, I was at the lowest point in my life. I was experiencing severe mental health challenges, including crippling anxiety and depression, and none of my treatments or therapy were helping me get better. I suffered a rather devastating heartbreak in high school that had a significant impact on my self-esteem. Coupled with deep-seated perfectionist tendencies, I became consumed with self-hatred over my perceived inadequacies. These challenges were so overwhelming that I had to drop out of college. I felt trapped in a vicious downward spiral of self-destruction; I ended up cutting myself off from my friends and loved ones and abusing substances to escape my reality.

That sounds intense. How did Buddhism come in?

Garrett: Around this time, I encountered a YouTube video titled “Buddhism and Creativity,” a lecture delivered by legendary jazz pianist Herbie Hancock at Harvard University in 2014. I’m a pianist myself, and I’ve always been a huge fan of Herbie’s music, so I was intrigued enough to click on it. This video blew my mind, and I instantly connected with the ideas that he shared. I especially liked the idea that Buddhism is an empowering philosophy based on the law of cause and effect and that the individual has the capacity to shape their destiny. 

Even though I was virtually unreachable, his words struck a chord in my heart, and I deeply sensed that he was sharing the profound truth. But even more than his words, I was struck by his character, which shined with genuine humility and profound compassion. I couldn’t fathom how a person could embody all these characteristics simultaneously. I decided to try this practice of Buddhism for myself. 

I called the SGI Buddhist Center in Denver and asked to get connected to a local meeting in Fort Collins, Colorado. I attended my first SGI meeting on my own and received the Gohonzon shortly after in December 2017.

Supporting a kosen-rufu gongyo meeting with other members at the SGI Buddhist center in Vienna, November 2023. Photo courtesy of Garrett Welch.

What happened after you started practicing?

Garrett: My life didn’t magically transform all at once. However, encountering Buddhism amid such suffering strongly motivated me to begin chanting every day and study Buddhist principles that could address the root of my suffering. I also started participating in SGI activities in my wonderful home district.

The district men’s and women’s leaders lived next door to each other and chanted together every morning. They extended an open invitation for me to join them whenever I was available. I felt that they truly cared for me and believed in the value of my life, even when I didn’t. To this day, I think of them as my “SGI mom and dad.” I also became good friends with my local young men’s leader. We would spend many late evenings engaged in exhilarating conversation as he patiently fielded my endless stream of questions about various Buddhist concepts.

I can’t overstate the impact these seniors in faith had on the development of my Buddhist practice. Through their consistent encouragement, I slowly started to understand the meaning of faith and that my life is an entity of the Mystic Law and infinitely worthy of respect. As a result, I made significant strides toward developing the compassion for myself that had previously been missing. I also awakened to a deep inner drive to use my life to contribute to a greater purpose.

Garrett and member, Ryoko on a home visit in Denver, April 2024.

You were very fortunate to encounter such great seniors in faith. We understand that you have developed a passion for working toward the abolition of nuclear weapons. How did you get involved with this work?

Garrett: In 2019, I began reading Ikeda Sensei’s epic, 30-volume series The New Human Revolution, which chronicles the worldwide spread of kosen-rufu. At this time, I determined to read all 30 volumes by the end of 2024, which would mark the completion of my first seven years of Buddhist practice. I wanted to construct a solid foundation for my practice during my youth that could sustain me for the rest of my life.

It was The New Human Revolution that stimulated my interest in the issue of nuclear weapons disarmament and abolition. Reading Sensei’s penetrating perspectives on events like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War and the normalization of Sino-Soviet relations during the Cold War drove home to me the profundity of one of my favorite quotes from Nichiren Daishonin’s writings: “When the skies are clear, the ground is illuminated. Similarly, when one knows the Lotus Sutra, one understands the meaning of all worldly affairs” (“The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 376).

I decided to reenroll in school at Colorado State University, changing my major to political science with a focus on global politics and policy. In December 2021, I saw a post on Instagram that was calling for young people to submit applications to attend the First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), set to be held the following summer in Vienna, Austria. The TPNW is the first legally binding treaty to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons. I applied and ended up being accepted.

Incredible. What did you gain from this experience?

Garrett: Attending this meeting at the United Nations Headquarters in Vienna was a life-changing experience. I got to connect with other young people from all over the world who are passionate about this cause. I also had the immense privilege of meeting hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and hearing their stories firsthand. This experience solidified my determination to work for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Throughout it all, I continued to chant, support SGI activities and experience actual proof in my daily life. After graduating with my bachelor’s degree in May 2022, I was accepted into the master’s program in International Human Rights at the University of Denver. Later, in Spring 2023, I was accepted into the competitive study abroad program in Vienna, Austria, and I had the incredible opportunity to work as an intern for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).

Garrett at the headquarters for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in Geneva, Switzerland, November 10, 2023. Photos courtesy of Garrett Welch.

Despite experiencing these victories, I still struggled with my self-worth. A journal entry from that time reads:

I feel like all of my victories are a giant fluke. I don’t fundamentally deserve any of these successes, and it’s an accident that I keep stumbling upon victories. 

Impostor syndrome. 

Garrett: Textbook. This tendency has always been a major obstacle in my life, and it followed me to Europe.

Leading up to my fall semester in Vienna, I traveled around Europe for seven weeks, visiting 22 cities in 16 countries. It was a truly incredible experience, but I also faced significant challenges.

I was staying in hostels the entire time, which meant that I rarely had a private space to carry out my daily practice of gongyo, and it forced me to find random outdoor locations to chant quietly. Thankfully, throughout my travels, I visited SGI Buddhist centers all over Europe and met the local members. This helped me sustain a consistent Buddhist practice and greatly broadened my perspective on the vast scope of kosen-rufu.

Once I arrived in Vienna for school, I began dating again, which brought up my deep-seated insecurities and tendency to seek validation outside of myself. When she broke it off, I was excluded from our group of friends. Yet I lived at the school and continued to see them, which made me feel suffocated and unbearably lonely.

One night, I had a mental breakdown, so I reached out to two of my SGI friends from the local area. We chanted together, and they warmly listened to my struggles and encouraged me. When I returned to school, I was amazed by how radically different my life condition was from before and after our visit. I can think of many other occasions in Europe when my SGI community completely revived my spirit and reminded me that I mattered. 

During this time, I also avidly studied Sensei’s writings. In particular, this passage deeply encouraged me at a crucial moment:

In the course of our practice … various things arise on account of the negative causes and tendencies in our own lives. There may be times when we think, “What did I do to deserve this?” But we should not be swayed every time such phenomena arise, for it is already certain that we will become happy in the end. We should regard everything that happens to us in our practice as our training. If we do so, then later we will see the profound meaning and intention underlying each of these phenomena. (The Heart of the Lotus Sutra, p. 55)

It became clear to me that I was still struggling to truly grasp one of the most foundational principles in Buddhism: that my life itself is Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and infinitely worthy of respect. I realized that, without understanding this truth in the depths of my life, a true sense of belonging and wholeness would forever elude me regardless of my external accomplishments.

In a sense, even my pursuit of nuclear disarmament was partially a means for me to feel worthy through working on an issue of such monumental importance. However, practicing Buddhism is about establishing a deeper, absolute happiness that is not dependent on external circumstances.

At the same time, I am always reminding myself of the unfathomable debt of gratitude that I owe to Ikeda Sensei and my seniors in faith who have nurtured me over the years. Without them, I would not be on the path that I have taken in life. Through chanting abundant daimoku to transform my root tendencies, I have learned that centering on my debt of gratitude enables me to shift my core motivations from “being good enough” into an expression of my appreciation. I am still working on internalizing these lessons, but they helped carry me through to successfully completing my classes in Vienna.

Garrett with SGI members from around the world participating in the First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) with Youth For TPNW in Vienna, Austria, June 21, 2022. Photos courtesy of Garrett Welch.

What an amazing experience you had in Europe! What does the future hold?

Garrett: I am on track to graduate from my master’s program this summer, and I secured a remote summer internship with another organization that works on nuclear policy issues. Since returning to Denver, I have realized that I want to put down my roots here after graduation even though most work in the nuclear disarmament field exists elsewhere. Advocating for nuclear disarmament is a part of my mission, and I will always be involved in this work in one way or another. Now I don’t seek external validation through my nuclear disarmament work. One of my long-standing dreams is to encounter my life partner, and I will continue chanting to develop a joyful and healthy relationship here in Denver.

In The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings, Nichiren Daishonin states, “Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is what is meant by entering the palace of oneself” (OTT, 209). Referencing this passage, Sensei explains: “The indestructible life state of Buddhahood exists within us all. It could be described as an everlasting palace of happiness, adorned with countless glittering treasures. By embracing faith in the Mystic Law and chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, we can enter this palace within our lives. In other words, the Daishonin teaches that we have the capacity to make the ‘palace of oneself’ shine with supreme brilliance” (The Wisdom for Creating Happiness and Peace, part 1, revised edition, p. 12).

These days, my life is full to the brim with commitments. Among my greatest joys, however, is meeting with the young men in my region to study and chant with them on a consistent basis. Some are leaders and others are new to the practice. As I dive head-first into the unknown, I am determined to continue building my “palace of oneself,” the home that I bring with me everywhere and in every moment. Moreover, I want to help others experience this for themselves. I look forward to continually fostering a genuine sense of fulfillment in every aspect of my life based on the belief that “fundamentally, I am a Buddha, just as I am.”

Garrett visits a member in Denver, March 2024.

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