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Perceiving the Truth of My Life

With the members of the young women’s division, I impress a great truth in the depths of my life and become a trusted teacher, director and friend. I’m Apoorvee Sawhney from Denver.

Photo by Alex Segall.

Living Buddhism: Apoorvee, thank you for speaking with us today. We understand you were the first in your family to begin practicing Buddhism. Can you tell us about beginning your practice in high school?

Apoorvee Sawhney: That’s right. It was in Delhi, at 17, that I attended my first discussion meeting. I arrived heartbroken, something it seems to me that was noticed quickly by a shrewd women’s division member. She began talking warmly with me and, after a while, put to me a sudden, forthright question:

“Apoorvee, are you happy?” 

And I thought, No! No one had ever asked me this before, so directly. The answer must have been written on my face. “Why don’t you give this a shot?” she said.

I began chanting morning and evening, doing a very clunky gongyo, something that alarmed my older brother, who’d peek his head into my room and question, “What is this?” “No rhythm!” he’d say, and he was right! I didn’t really know what to tell him! I just knew it felt good! 

From the start, I understood Buddhism as a practice for self and others. In Delhi at the time, our study meetings centered on the major propagation campaigns of Ikeda Sensei that laid the foundation for kosen-rufu in post-war Japan. We didn’t just study them but strove to put their spirit into action.

Tagging along with the women’s division, I began to visit young women in our area and host chanting sessions at my home. Quickly, I discovered that I was not the only one in Delhi suffering from heartbreak. As we chanted and studied Buddhism with one young woman after another, I came to recognize the tendency that I and so many young women were struggling to transform: a tendency to put my own life—my health, studies and dreams—on the back burner for the sake of another person. In my case, ultimately, it came down to a lack of respect for my own life. 

Apoorvee Sawhney with her family in San Diego, 2022. Photo courtesy of Apoorvee Sawhney.

Studying and chanting with these young women became the engine of my growth, refocusing me on a personal dream I’d nearly let fall to the wayside: to pursue my master’s and doctorate in counseling psychology in the United States. Moreover, I wanted to do this without placing a financial burden on my family. The next three years, I focused on completing my undergrad and applying to master’s programs in the U.S. In 2016, I was accepted to the University of Missouri. There, my advisor offered me research work to which I applied myself wholeheartedly, chanting strongly to support her in every way I could. Seeing me tackle the work with such vigor, she offered me a full tuition waiver and stipend to cover both my master’s and my Ph.D., a true rarity for international students.

Amazing! Missouri is a long way from Delhi, though. What was your impression?

Apoorvee: Honestly, the change came as a shock. I remember landing in a single-room airport in Missouri, whose only baggage claim sounded the arrival of the bags with the most jarring jingle I’d ever heard. And then driving to the university, passing field after field of grass, I wondered if I weren’t the only person in the state. Of course, as
I got into town, I relaxed a bit. But it was a new and foreign place, thousands of miles from home. Suddenly and unexpectedly, I was struck by an intense feeling of loneliness and anxiety.

What did you do?

Apoorvee: It might sound counterintuitive, but I found that it was, again, practice for self and others that gave me the strength I needed to advance. Amid inner turmoil, I never hesitated to talk with others about Buddhism. The university’s students were from all over the country and the world, and many were struggling with similar feelings of loneliness and issues with their mental health, self-esteem and sense of identity. Planting seeds of the Mystic Law through dialogue, using each propagation campaign in the SGI to break through,  always gave me a surge of joy and purpose. I also started a campus club where we could discuss the hope-filled life philosophy of Nichiren Buddhism. 

However, in 2020, my mental health hit new lows. There were no particular triggers—I would simply cry at the drop of a hat. Often, I felt totally incapable, wondering: How can I support another life as a therapist and a friend in faith when I feel so unstable myself? 

In school, there wasn’t much of a choice. As a requisite of completing my doctoral program, I was providing supervised counseling for the university’s student body. Ironically, I and the other students providing this service were ourselves unqualified to receive it. 

In faith, support was always an option, but I didn’t take advantage of it often enough. Supporting others had always come instinctively to me. But reaching out to receive guidance and support for myself was a battle. Why, I wondered, would I burden another person with my problems when their time and energy could be spent supporting someone else? Without realizing it, I was disrespecting my life, actively putting my happiness on the back burner once again. Things came to a head in 2020, when my mental health deteriorated significantly.

This must have been such a difficult time for you. How did you break through?

Apoorvee: At that time, I was visited by two young women’s leaders. I don’t remember all that was said. All I really remember is them stressing that I engrain The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin into my life. In particular, “On Attaining Buddhahood in This Lifetime.” I could hardly bring myself to read a word of it, though, so every morning for the next month and a half, my young women’s leader called to read it with me. A portion of it goes:

If you wish to free yourself from the sufferings of birth and death you have endured since time without beginning and to attain without fail unsurpassed enlightenment in this lifetime, you must perceive the mystic truth that is originally inherent in all living beings. This truth is Myoho-renge-kyo. Chanting Myoho-renge-kyo will therefore enable you to grasp the mystic truth innate in all life. (“On Attaining Buddhahood,” WND-1, 3)

After about six weeks, we eased off the morning calls; I was able to get up, chant and read this letter on my own. The care of my young women’s leader, though, left a deep impression on me. For another month and a half, I continued to impress the message of this letter into the depths of my life: that I am, and have been from the very beginning, a Buddha. Centering on this guidance and my daily practice, I came to understand the truth that my happiness itself is kosen-rufu, that it is not dispensable and that my victory is key to the victory of those around me. 

In 2022, I left for Southern California to complete my residency at the University of California, Irvine and soon after graduated with my Ph.D. I left feeling absolutely victorious. Ten of my peers had received the Gohonzon during my time in Missouri and had transformed their lives. I feel it was toward the end of my time in Missouri that the effect of all my actions there solidified.  From feeling hopeless and swayed by my environment, I’d become a deeply secure, joyful person who could confidently say: “Place me anywhere in the world, and I will win!” I was now embarking on the next chapter of my own human revolution.

What an incredible transformation. What came after your residency?

Apoorvee: That summer, in August, I moved to Oakland, California, where I’d landed a one-year contract counseling the students at the University of California, Berkeley. The contract would expire in July of 2023, by which point I’d need to find an employer who would sponsor my work visa, or else I’d need to move back to India. And this was not the only fork in the road.

Even if I did find work, the question was, what kind of work did I want to do? I saw two paths forward: pass the licensing exam to become a counseling psychologist or pursue faculty positions at universities. I initially dismissed the latter path, knowing the extensive effort required, but after chanting about it in earnest, decided to pursue both paths at once, advancing with this passage of the Daishonin’s in my heart: “Let all persecutions assail me. Still I will give my life for the sake of the Law” (“The Opening of the Eyes,” WND-1, 280). I had ample opportunity to fight with such resolve—
my July deadline was also the month of the SGI-USA’s “Friendship Gatherings,” held by the young women’s division across the country.

Ahead of these, I visited one young woman after another, getting to know them, what they were going through, what their dreams were. My determination was to create a space where everyone could “enjoy themselves at ease,” feel rejuvenated and experience hope. I remember one young woman in particular, who reminded me of me when I was struggling with my mental health in Missouri. Like me, she had no family in the area; unlike me, she had no family whatsoever she could call on, even to talk. As I met with her and the other young women, I studied for my licensing exam in counseling psychology, taking it not once, not twice, but three times—and failing all three! This would have devastated the Apoorvee who arrived in the U.S. in 2016, but I was no longer so easily swayed.

In April, I’d begun doing job interviews and “job talks”—immersive, daylong interviews and dialogues with both students and staff of hiring universities. With each student and staff member I met, I discussed the principles of Soka education and the life-affirming philosophy of my mentor, Ikeda Sensei. Wherever I went, with whomever I spoke, I lent my hope and confidence for the future. 

The young woman I mentioned earlier was initially reluctant to open up about what she was going through. But every time we met, she grew a little brighter, a little more open. Eventually, the idea of coming out to a gathering of young people didn’t seem so scary to her. She came to the meeting and I remember her laughing, enjoying herself with all of us—a wonderful sight and victory. 

As is said, when we fight for kosen-rufu, everything unfolds in accord with the Mystic Law. I wrote a detailed account of my victory before it happened and sent it to Sensei. It was my declaration to my mentor that I would be victorious without fail. By July, I’d received job offers from every university that had interviewed me. One, the University of Denver, offered me a position as both the clinical assistant professor and the director of their master’s program in counseling and mental health.

Apoorvee with fellow members in Denver, October 2023. Photo courtesy of Apoorvee Sawhney.

Amazing! What type of environment do you strive to create in the classroom?

Apoorvee: Much the same as the environment for the Friendship Gatherings. My goal is for my classroom to be a space where everyone can be themselves, where they can ask questions without fear of judgment. Many young people, it seems to me, feel they are always walking on eggshells, worried they will say or do something that exposes some unforgivable shortcoming and invites criticism. Once they see that they can think and speak freely, without fear of judgment, they begin to open up to one another and to grow by leaps and bounds.

How have you been bonding with the students?

Apoorvee: Well, I’ve only been here a short while, but apparently, my students miss me when I’m gone. I took a short trip home to Delhi, and when I got back they said so!

“Really, though?” I asked. “It’s nothing special I do.” 

“No,” said one, “nothing flashy. But you create a space that feels comfortable, where we feel we can be ourselves.”

Whether it’s with my students, a barista, an Uber driver or a young women’s division member, this is my goal. Wherever I go, I want people to feel at ease, empowered and hopeful about their futures. 

From the March 2024 Living Buddhism

Eternally Walking the Path of Kosen-rufu

The Noble Spirit of the Happiness Group