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Wherever I Go

Striving to lead a contributive life, I reveal day by day a determined, poetic heart.

Earnest resolve—Flora Rubenhold in San Fernando, Calif., April 2024. Photo by Yvonne Ng.

by Flora Rubenhold
San Fernando, Calif.

When my father died young in a New York hospital, he left my mother very few possessions—no car, no TV, but a Baldwin piano, some Caruso records and 1-year-old me.  

Though she hardly laid a finger on the Baldwin—she didn’t have the time—she held onto it for dear life, lugging it wherever we moved. Why? For the memory of my father, for one, but also, I think, in honor of her poetic soul—for the artist in her. A working widow, she still made use of the weekends to take me into the Hudson Valley to take in the free, breathtaking beauty of the Earth, where I forgot we were poor. As I grew older, however, she was quick to remind me. “Get a steady job,” was her maxim. “Something with the county.”

It’s unreasonable, but from an early age, I felt abandoned by my father’s early death. A fear of unworthiness and poverty followed me into adulthood. But so, too, did a love of the arts. 

Two years after I graduated with an arts degree in 1966, a friend invited me to move with her to Los Angeles. I went thinking that a new life waited for me on the West Coast. Instead, I found myself out of necessity abiding by my mother’s maxim. I rented an unheated room on the second story of a factory and found social work. I was functional, working, but deeply depressed.

I was introduced to Nichiren Buddhism at 25 by my landlord’s wife. I began chanting daily and put to the Gohonzon a weighty question: What is my purpose? Why am I here?

Within a week of chanting, I was waking with a hopeful kind of feeling—the kind of anticipation one feels ahead of the holidays. This was all new and rather strange. Outwardly, nothing had even begun to change, but inwardly, everything had.

Six weeks into my practice, I was appointed a group leader and given a short list of names to call for upcoming meetings. This, I was informed by my young women’s leader, was a practice for self and others and a true exercise in compassion. I didn’t have a landline and so made use of the phone booth beside my apartment. I remember that evening, sincerely, foolishly, spending my last dime in that booth without getting one answer. I hung up, deflated, wondering what value I’d created. At that moment, the machine made an odd sound and some part of it burst, spilling a tide of loose change onto the floor. Up to my ankles in change, I had a lightbulb moment. The universe, I felt, was leaving a message: You are practicing correctly, for yourself and others. This moment remains my personal treasure; I recall it every time the May Commemorative Contribution activity comes around. I remember the feeling of surety: I’m on the right road.

Chanting one day above the factory, I began to think about my father, of whom I had only secondhand stories. I began to chant for his happiness and lost track of time. At some point, I was jolted awake by an almost physical sensation of collision. I don’t know how to describe it, but I understood the colliding force to be my father’s life. I continued chanting, shocked by the impact and its accompanying realization: My father had not abandoned me. He always had been and always would be a part of my life.

I received many benefits of faith over the years—a heated apartment, a wonderful home, a partner, a successful career. But most significant was the means to free my life from fear. I have found that sharing Buddhism with others is the fastest way to bring forth confidence from my life. And I discovered in encouraging others a way of life that feels deeply meaningful, poetic in the deepest sense, which keeps me spirited and in touch with the dreams of my youth.

In 2005, at 62, I retired from social work with no regrets, having striven to bring the life condition of the Buddha to work each day. Right away, I began trying out for musicals, acting gigs, commercials, you name it. The performing arts is a wonderful sphere to meet young people in search of firm spiritual footing. 

It’s with my younger self in mind that I engage them. I had the great fortune while young to embrace Ikeda Sensei as my mentor, setting my life on a course of great value. Each May, I contribute with the youth in mind who will inherit the organization we leave them; who need, as I did, a compass to point them true north. 

In 2022, I got a call from a friend I’d made on set, with whom I’d discussed Buddhism over the years. He told me that he’d seen a commercial airing with me in it, one that had been shot in 2017. If it was still airing, he said, then I should still be getting paid. “No, no, I’m small potatoes,” I said. But he persisted. I relented and went to my union to pursue payment, but they couldn’t help. I forgot about it.

It wasn’t long before I heard again from my friend. He’d come across the same commercial again and had filmed the entire thing. “Go get ‘em, girl!” he said. This time, I earnestly resolved to show proof of the power of this practice. I chanted daimoku and called my ex-agent. Soon the company offered a surprising settlement. Chanting one day with appreciation, I received word that they’d quadrupled their offer. As I chanted with deep appreciation for this, I got word that this second offer had also been almost quadrupled. At the drop of a hat, two decades of acting expenses were more than paid for. 

It’s kind of Buddhist when you think about it. It wasn’t like I’d gotten money that I hadn’t already earned. The royalties were, in fact, rightfully mine all along. It just took earnest resolve to reveal what I already had. 

My focus today is on encouraging youth. From having no active youth in our chapter, we gathered 16 this past March for our youth festival.

I’m praying that everywhere I go, I bring my Buddha nature and attract youth seeking to reveal their own. It takes determined daimoku and a poetic heart, but striving to keep in rhythm with my mentor, I bring these wherever I go. 

 May 3, 2024, World Tribune, p. 5

Glorious May 3 

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