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Vital Message

Seeking my mission, I discover the way of life of a person of courage.

Heroism—Juan Ramos in Sante Fe, N.M., June 2024. Photo by Francisco Garcia.

by Juan Ramos
Santa Fe, N.M.

Birthdays were never a big deal at my house, but my mother went all-out for my 13th, baking a big cake, decorating the house and inviting most—but not all—of my friends. When I bent to blow the candles, she stopped me.

“Debes tener una gran mision en la vida.” You must have a great mission in life. I closed my eyes, prayed to discover what it was and blew.

Every night, the same nightmare. I woke with the screams of my friends ringing in my ears, the vision of my school swaying, collapsing, trapping them in a mountain of rubble. Most of my classmates had gathered on the school’s patio outside, under the flag.

“Flag of Mexico,” we pledged, “legacy of our heroes, symbol of the unity of our parents and our brothers…”

It was in the quiet after the pledge that the tremors began.

The 8.0 magnitude earthquake of Sept. 19, 1985, left a message: Life is fragile; there are forces that will destroy what you value in a moment without a reason. One memory of that day stood apart from its horrors: the military who leaped into buildings on the verge of collapse and threw themselves into freeing my friends from the rubble.

When at 16 I told my father that I wanted to join the Heroic Military Academy—Mexico’s Westpoint—he took me aside and asked, sternly, if I was sure. “Es dura,” he said. “Dura.” 

I won’t go into details, only that it was as my father warned, tough. While I became physically strong and capable of protecting the weak, that was not all I learned. In the academy, weakness was punished. If one person in a squad ran an unacceptably slow lap, the entire squad was punished, for which the slow runner received a second punishment by their angry comrades. 

I cannot describe the self-loathing I felt when, in my third year, I injured myself in a parachuting drill. Enraged by my own fragility, I quit the academy and came home, where I was, if possible, even more miserable, swinging between violent rages and depression.

One thing I can say of my military training—it succeeded in ridding me of a certain kind of fear. Kill-or-be-killed was the doctrine, and I had learned to not fear taking a life or losing my own. We kept guns in the house, with which I was left alone whenever my parents left for work. Twice I put a loaded barrel to my head. Both times the ringing of the telephone saved me. Each time, I thought to myself, Maybe it’s not time for me to go. Maybe there’s a mission I’ve yet to fulfill. 

My cousin visited from the States a week after my second attempt and perceived immediately the depths of my suffering. She asked me if I’d come with her to a Buddhist meeting. Dimly, I remembered her mentioning Buddhism when seeing me off to academy three years earlier. Now, willing to try anything, I said yes.

At the meeting, she asked me to chant with her and her fellow Buddhists, and I did. It was quite, how would you say… exotic for me, a Christian born and raised in Mexico. But it felt familiar, too—actually, the atmosphere thrummed with a sense of unity and warmth. 

As I joined my voice to theirs, to my surprise, I felt an enormous shift within my life. I did not have language for what was happening, but I began to feel lighter, my anger evaporating. Afterward, I spoke with my cousin’s friends, one of whom, an elderly Japanese woman, looked me in the eye warmly, yet sternly, and told me that to practice Buddhism correctly meant to value my life. I felt she had seen the depths of my heart. I was left shaken to the core. 

I left my parents’ house soon after for the city of San Miguel de Allende, where I sought new work, with a completely different outlook on life. I found a job in a hotel, first as a bell boy, then a waiter, then a concierge. Having no background in the field, I stumbled, quite happily, into every area of the hospitality industry, work that would send me, eventually, to Canada, Thailand and the U.S. 

Everywhere I went, I connected with the local SGI community and found the same sense of unity, strength and familial warmth as at my first meeting in Mexico. And everywhere I worked, I strove to bring that sense of care and unity of mission to my employees.

We have a saying in the hospitality industry: The greatest of gifts are the ones we’re given at birth—a hug, a smile and a meal. A beautiful saying, it draws attention to what is universally deserved: compassion. I make sure that our most vulnerable receive the simple, vital message that their lives are valuable just as they are. 

Wherever I’ve traveled, I’ve shared my experience with youth—a search for a life of heroism that nearly brought me to suicide. There is no question that this philosophy, this community, saved my life.

Since March, I’ve been managing the housekeeping department of a hotel here in Santa Fe. Many of my employees hail from Mexico or Guatemala and are here on their own, far from their families and hometowns. Through my words and behavior, I remind them that they are valuable and have an important mission to fulfill.

“Why,” a colleague recently asked, “are you so positive, even when things go wrong?” 

He was the second to ask in the span of a month. To both, I said, “Because problems are opportunities to build trust, camaraderie and lasting good fortune.” I explain to them this way of life as a Buddhist—that we can all turn poison into medicine, karma into mission. By demonstrating that ourselves and believing that others can do the same, we set in motion a growing tide of confidence, warmth and value. This, I see now, is heroism.

July 5, 2024, World Tribune, p. 5

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