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This is Your Moment

Overcoming profound self-doubt and the loss of my mother prepares me for a journey of 10,000 miles. I’m Yoko Ambulo from Chicago.

Yoko Ambulo in Chicago, December 2023. Photo by Bob Nardi.

Living Buddhism: Thank you for speaking with us today, Yoko. You credit your mother and grandmother as two of your greatest role models. Tell us about them.

Yoko Ambulo: Thank you. Yes, two of the strongest people I’ve ever known—the type to point to the heavens and declare of whatever’s up there—hailstorms, hurricanes, buckets of rain: “Mira, Yoko, esta es su responsibilidad.” This is your responsibility. This is the word they always used—responsibility. Never, this is your fault or your problem. What they meant was that if I was experiencing something, then who else but Yoko could take ownership of that experience? It was up to me, they believed, to respond in a way that would create value.

And you?

Yoko: I’d say I believed that too, yes, but with the caveat that I believed it with their help.

How many times I’ve come up against challenges that felt beyond my abilities to tackle. And how many times they spurred me on, saying: “Don’t give up now! Go to the Gohonzon! Chant daimoku!”

Can you give an example?

Yoko: I never thought I had any issues with confidence—ask anyone who knew me growing up. But just because something is not apparent doesn’t mean it isn’t dormant in your life, waiting to be activated by external conditions.

In 2011, at 27, I took on young women’s leadership for Chicago Zone, and this responsibility stirred up an enormous amount of self-doubt. Suddenly, the question Can I lead? was at the forefront of my mind. And the answer that came roaring from the depths of my life, hidden from me until then, was a resounding No!

At work, as on my Byakuren shifts, I began to feel that everything was beyond me. And my environment reflected my total lack of confidence. Overnight, the training courses I led at work became battle zones: trainees bursting out in disruptive laughter, snide remarks or flat-out confrontations. I began bringing multiple changes of clothes wherever I went, brushing my teeth and hair throughout the day, pestering my mom and grandma for assurances that I looked and sounded all right. “Si, Yoko!” they’d say together, exasperated, surprised, I think, that such profound disbelief had been residing in my life.

The turning point was a dinner in 2012 with peers. I remember hearing laughter from a nearby table and, without evidence, concluded it was directed at me. Stepping outside, I pulled out my phone and dialed my mother, ready to tell her yet again that I was giving up—on leadership, on my job, on everything; I wasn’t up to the task. The phone rang once, twice… on the third, a scene flashed in my mind from The New Human Revolution, which I’d been studying with the young women of Chicago Zone. In it, Ikeda Sensei gives guidance to a newly appointed women’s leader who suspects she’s being disparaged by other, more seasoned leaders.

Now is the time for you to greatly expand your state of life and begin your real struggle for kosen-rufu. Please challenge every difficulty earnestly and try to embrace everyone around you warmly. Laugh off any unpleasantness you encounter and forge ahead boldly, with confidence, joy and optimism. …

All your painstaking efforts for kosen-rufu will become your precious treasures. Therefore, try to work as hard as you can in the organization. When you feel it’s too much—that you can’t go any further—it’s important to press on joyfully, with the conviction that “because of this, I could change another part of my karma” or “I’ve just expiated the negative effects of one more past cause.” (The New Human Revolution, vol. 2, revised edition, pp. 172–73)

Something like outrage came over me then. What would my mentor say of my brittle spirit? I wondered. When my mother answered, she was hit by a flood of Spanglish. 

“No puedo seguir asi!” I burst out. “I have no confidence! It’s ridiculous! I have to change!”

 “Yoko,” she said, and I could hear her smile on the other end of the line. “I’m so happy for you. Este es tu momento.” This is your moment.

How did things change from that moment on?

Yoko: I’ll be honest, it took time for this guidance to make its way from my head to my heart. It seemed 10,000 miles lay between the two. From that day on, though, whenever someone laughed at me at work, I’d remind myself of Sensei’s guidance, determine to do my best and be second to none in responding with respect. It took over a year, but with much daimoku, Sensei’s “laugh-it-off guidance” made its way to my heart and, eventually, into my workplace. It was no “fake-it-till-you-make-it” strategy. My smile, my laugh, when they came, were real and, being so, had real power to transform my environment.

By the time I moved on from that job in 2015, colleagues I’d once seen as adversaries had become fierce allies. I’d become capable, yes, but most importantly, I’d solidified faith in my ability to, as Sensei says, “change any suffering or hardship into a source of joy, regarding it as a means for forging and developing our lives” (The Wisdom for Creating Happiness and Peace, part 2, revised edition, p. 44).

Sounds like a rock-solid foundation.

Yoko: I certainly thought so. And yet it was shaken to the core in October 2019, when my mother, Kathy, died of a heart attack. I was in the midst of planning SGI activities when I got the call.

I remember vowing, immediately after her passing, to live my life in such a way that would make her happy. And I remember sharing with others my determination to transform even this suffering into a source of benefit for myself and those around me.

In the days and months following her transition, however, I felt the earth opening beneath my feet, and I feared I might be swallowed up by hopelessness. At times I felt fine, and at others, not at all. It even crossed my mind to give up, to follow my mother—that life wasn’t worth living without her.

The thing was, though, because I was so involved in the SGI, I always had something to do, some responsibility to act on—someone to encourage, a meeting to support, a study presentation to bring together. More deeply than ever, I sensed the profundity of SGI activities—that each presents a precious opportunity to do human revolution. In my case, activities became the battleground to confront and transform the despair that had come roaring up from the depths of my life.

Yoko with her mother, Kathy, and grandmother, Doralina, in Chicago, 2018.

What did this process look like?

Yoko: The grief came in waves. Six months after my mother’s passing, I was working from home, alone in pandemic isolation. My grandma had traveled to Panama to visit family, just before the coronavirus pandemic, and was effectively stuck there, thousands of miles away.

I remember a stretch of afternoons spent wallowing in my apartment, memories of my mother rolling over me in waves as I paced the room, slumped on the sofa, thumbed through the pages of the same book, set it down and cried. One afternoon, mid-cry, I thought to myself suddenly: How is my mother doing right now? How can I connect with her life?

I bolted upright on the sofa and cried: “All right, Nichiren Daishonin! What do you have to say about death!” and made a beeline for my copy of The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin and ran a searching finger down the table of contents for the words “death” and “deceased.”

I came across one, titled “On Offerings for Deceased Ancestors.” In it, the Daishonin discusses the attempts of the sage Maudgalyayana to relieve the sufferings of his deceased mother. He tries everything under the sun before banking on the Lotus Sutra. As soon as he does, though, he quickly attains Buddhahood, and because of the profound karmic bond shared between parent and child, his mother does, too (see The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, pp. 817–22).

Pacing, wallowing, skimming through books… this was all fine and natural, but I can’t say it was doing me any good, and, according to Nichiren, it wasn’t helping my mother, either. The Daishonin was clear: If I wanted to ensure my mother’s happiness, I had to win over my despair; I had to become happy myself.

Since her passing, I’d sought with growing intensity the Buddhist view of life and death. Yet, for all that, an understanding hadn’t made its way from my head to my heart. After reading this letter, I realized, Wherever she is, however near or far, I can reach her with my daimoku. I sat myself in front of the Gohonzon and chanted to do just that.

As I did so, I remembered her indomitable spirit, undefeated by anything. I remembered my grandma’s words after her passing: “Your mother fulfilled her mission, Yoko. No one can escape death; it’s a natural part of life. The important thing is to carry on her spirit, to keep sharing Nam-myoho-renge-kyo no matter what.”

Chanting in my apartment, I decided that I would live my life to the fullest, take great care of myself and share this Buddhism as naturally as inhaling and exhaling, never letting an opportunity pass. In the following years, I lost nearly 100 pounds, moved into my own place, established myself in an entirely new and exciting career in the field of education, traveled the world with my family (determining to come together yearly no matter what, in honor of my mother and her love of travel), and shared the practice more freely than ever, with widows, with mothers who’d lost their sons, with sons who’d lost their mothers. With all of them I expressed my confidence that Nam-myoho-renge-kyo can reach the lives of the people we’ve lost—that in fact, we haven’t lost them but are living together with them, traveling side by side.

Beautiful. How did you respond to Sensei’s passing?

I was shocked but not for long; this time around, there was no wallowing. Immediately, I asked myself: What are the promises I’ve made to my mentor? I felt a sense of intense determination and acceleration—an urgency to respond as a disciple like never before.

Now when I see someone suffering, I hear my mother urging me, This is your moment. And encouraging someone, chanting with someone, fighting alongside someone to do our human revolution together, I know in my heart, My mentor is happy.

From the February 2024 Living Buddhism

Putting ‘an End to People’s Suffering’

‘I am Myoho-renge-kyo!’