Good morning, everyone, and Happy 110th Birthday to the Founder. Though I never met the Founder, he has shaped my life in many ways. I joined Rissho Kosei-kai just around this time twenty years ago, so I haven’t always had this faith. As a child growing up in San Antonio, Texas, I went to Sunday school at a Baptist Church. However, as my parents could not be accused of being devout followers, it was only a matter of time before I lost interest in it altogether and became non-religious. At twelve, I was already becoming a skeptic of faith, finding it all outrageous and superstitious. I relied on the facts, on scientific and empirical evidence. I believed in textbooks.
As a result, I was not spiritually prepared that one August afternoon when my brother revealed that he had been living a lie, and that he was really a female beneath the shell of his male body. Needless to say, this was a shock that resounded throughout the household. He wanted to change his appearance, his name, and everything else about him that resembled masculinity. My father was a very manly man. He couldn’t believe or accept the fact that his first son would turn out this way and was utterly disgusted at even looking at him. The only talking they ever did involved yelling.
My mother, on the other hand, was very concerned about my brother’s well-being. She was also in denial, blaming herself for this transformation. No one could accept what was happening, including me. I was incredibly embarrassed to be around him and didn’t want any association with him at all. I would always keep a good distance from him while at school, so people wouldn’t think I knew him. By this time he had long hair, would wear feminine/ androgynous clothing, and had an affinity for dolls and makeup. He tried so hard to gain acceptance, but all we could think was that he had some kind of mental problem. My mother thought she might be able to change him back to his old self and took him to see a psychiatrist. There was not much they could do for him mainly because my brother did not believe there was anything wrong with his lifestyle and had no desire to change himself, so things persisted.
The harmony which once existed in the family was in shambles. Arguing and conflict were an everyday occurrence and it had begun to take its toll on all of us. My mother started to look elsewhere, particularly towards Eastern philosophy to find a way to rekindle this harmony, but everything she found seemed superficial to her and did not make any lasting changes.At this time I was going through my own questioning of why my brother was the way he was and hoping that the fighting in the family would just stop.
Ultimately, I found the answer I sought in what I could truly believe in—a textbook. It was for a class on world history, in a brief section on Eastern Religions and Buddhism, where a short outline, only a few sentences, denoted “the Four Noble Truths.” It taught that “life is suffering, there is a cause of this suffering, and there is a way out of the suffering by following a path.” Upon reading it, I was moved by its undeniable simplicity and profundity. These were called “Truths” after all, and they made sense rationally. They stayed in my consciousness as I thought about the various forms of suffering in the world, as well as that which was pervading my family. I was compelled to find out more about Buddhism.
Subsequently, I read a few books about Buddhist thought which highlighted the themes of transforming suffering into learning experiences, and ultimately happiness. As wonderful as the study on Buddhism was, there still existed a void, which was my desire to practice in a Buddhist community. I convinced my mother, who was still in a spiritual-seeking stage, to come along with me to a small Japanese Buddhist center nearby called Rissho Kosei-kai. At that time, almost all the members were Japanese and there were absolutely no other youths at the church. The service was in English though, so I could follow along, however, I still really couldn’t understand anything. It didn’t matter though, because I felt a great sense of peace in the atmosphere, as well as the warmth and compassion from the community who welcomed us in and guided us so kindly. I was only fifteen years old, and had been there but just a couple of hours, but I knew I had found what I had been seeking.
One of the first things I remember the minister of the church, Rev. Nakamura, say was “being able to accept things as they are will surely lead to happiness.” He then went on to explain that we are all interconnected, and therefore equal in the eyes of the Buddha, since we all have buddha-nature. I took this as a message directly to me as a means to reflect upon my relationship with my brother. This was a big revelation for me. Even though I could not understand the teachings but superficially, I was amazed at how rationally sound faith could be. I realized that belief in reason alone can only take one so far spiritually and from there, if one really seeks to transform themselves, faith must take over.
In retrospect, I always find it so mysterious that as a Mexican-American boy I would end up at this small Japanese Buddhist center, but I now firmly believe that I was called there by the Buddha because I was ready to receive his teachings. Rev. Nakamura would always say that “there is no such thing as coincidence.” Everything is based upon the law of cause and effect, and all things are exactly as they should be. From this I came to know that my brother’s situation and the friction in the household had meaning. It was also necessary that I came to read the section in the world history textbook on “The Four Noble Truths” as well as to find an ad in the newspaper for Rissho Kosei-kai. These were not coincidences; rather I was being constantly guided to the Buddha-wisdom unbeknownst to me.
My mother was the first to show a big spiritual change through her practice. One day as I went to talk to her in her room, I happened to notice that she was there with my brother. I peeked in through the open door silently and noticed her standing behind him at a mirror. She had bought him a new dress and shoes for his orchestra recital that evening and was combing his long hair as they both smiled in the mirror. I was absolutely speechless as I looked on at my mother’s inspirational act of genuine acceptance. She had taken to heart the teaching of accepting things as they are and had seen my brother’s buddha-nature. She had let go of her attachment to what she thought was socially correct and had taken a step to listen to and understand my brother’s feelings. I could tell that he was truly at peace in that moment. I know that she did this not only for my brother’s sake or for her own sanity, rather for creating harmony in the family as a whole. This selfless act brought me to tears and I felt so ashamed for the way I had been treating my brother. I resolved that day to change my view towards him and accept him as he was.
The transformation of my father’s ego took a much longer time to become realized. But, even he was able to eventually be guided to the teaching of compassion through observing my mother’s selfless actions. He came to embrace my brother with compassion, even if he didn’t condone his lifestyle. This spirit was nothing other than the product of the practice of the Buddha’s teachings. Once we could show my brother unconditional love, and not seek to change him, he didn’t feel he needed to hide anymore and he was happy with who he was. What’s more, one day out of the blue he decided to accept his original body, thereby reverting back to his masculine self and reclaiming his name and characteristics, all on his own accord.
Had he never changed back, it would have been of no concern. For us, the real change would have remained within us, within our hearts. The transformation in the whole family was utterly amazing, and I became aware of the power of the Dharma. The Dharma was not just words written within sutras. If practiced diligently, the teachings could genuinely change people’s lives and create harmony here and now. This was something I could believe in, because I saw its effects first hand.
In 1999, just two months before the passing of the Founder, I visited Japan for the first time in a program called Global Youth Gathering. It was only a two-week visit, but it was incredibly rich in content and I came to witness true Buddhist living through the many Rissho Kosei-kai members and staff I met along the way. I wanted to visit the Founder and share my appreciation as well as receive his guidance, but we were not allowed to see him as he was sick at the Kosei Hospital. The hospital was only a couple of blocks from where I was staying, so I just walked to the front entrance and put my palms together. As I stood there, and reflected on the many stories I had heard about the Founder, I resolved that the Founder was the kind of person that I wanted to be.
The following four years as I went to University, I served as a leader of Rissho Kosei-kai of San Antonio, taking on many roles and sharing the Dharma with whomever I met. I firmly believed, as taught in chapter 10 of the Lotus Sutra, that I was born into this world to serve as an emissary of the Buddha for the purpose of guiding others to awaken to their buddha-nature. It was my life mission. I had been studying zoology at the University of Texas and working in the veterinary field. However, it had always been clear to me that I was going to ultimately enter Rissho Kosei-kai’s Gakurin seminary in Tokyo in hopes of becoming a Buddhist minister.
Just a few months after graduating from University, I entered Gakurin. I went on to study in Japan for four years, truly immersing myself in the heart and soul of the Lotus Sutra. As the first American to join the seminary’s graduate course, I met many challenges from language, culture, and the demanding lifestyle. However, through the Buddha’s teachings as well as the guidance of my many teachers, I came to understand that creating a new path always requires great effort. By engaging in this effort, I could begin to see a bigger picture unfold before me. I could see that everything was the compassion of the Buddha.
After I had completed the four-year intensive training, I was given a two-part assignment. I was to serve as an intern minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Clearwater, Florida, and in its campus, I was to create a new Rissho Kosei-kai Dharma Center and serve as its minister. Working with the Unitarians was an enriching experience, as I learned how to “do church” from an American perspective, something I couldn’t really learn just within Rissho Kosei-kai. It was the first of this kind of relationship between Rissho Kosei-kai and the Unitarian Universalists and proved to be highly rewarding as I learned more about what Americans were seeking in religion.
With the newly formed Tampa Bay sangha, we were small as we started with just one member, myself, but we grew in many ways, especially by trying a new model of English-speaking services, somewhat adapted from the Unitarian Universalists. We grew quickly, but it wasn’t quick enough for me. During my second year, one day following a service, I had a panic attack that arose from my frustration of not reaching the high membership goal I had set for myself and also from losing two of our strongest leaders who moved away. I knew I had to be patient, but some part of me needed results to let me know I was progressing.
The anxiety stayed with me, though I concealed it well. Then I remembered my practice of Sutra Recitation. I had always encouraged people to practice, but I myself only did sporadically. I knew this had to change and I decided to recite the Kyoten very slowly and intentionally each day. After weeks of this regular practice, I noticed my anxiety gradually dissipate. One evening while reciting I also came to the realization that the members didn’t really have to come at all. The fact that even those ten or so members came meant that I needed to really appreciate each one of them more and commit myself to helping them along their spiritual path. Each step of the way in trying to develop a sangha over my four years in Florida was an immeasurable learning experience of trial and error. By the time I felt I finally got the hang of things, I was sent to Rissho Kosei-kai International of North America here in Los Angeles.
I didn’t really know my role here at first, but I knew I wanted to support the budding English sangha. My wife and I were quickly befriended and accepted into the sangha as if we had been here for years. I felt renewed with energy as I watched the sangha grow and try new things and I was inspired to see the activity of the youth group, something I had never been a part of before. My wife, Chika, endured many struggles while in Florida and transitioning to life in Los Angeles, but she never complained and she was always my greatest teacher when I was trying to find my way. She always inspires me by her joy in the Dharma. I think it’s because of her great effort behind the scenes and her acceptance of things as they are that she has had enormous opportunities to live her dream of being a Japanese pop singer in the U.S.
As much joy as I have had spiritually practicing the Dharma with you in Los Angeles, physically I have had a number of hardships. From early last year, I had a roller coaster of ailments and disorders plague me. The worst was a condition that made it difficult for me to swallow, and therefore I couldn’t eat well. My stomach was very sensitive as well and I had to limit many things from my diet.
It was about that time that Chika and I decided to follow in the footsteps of Chika’s mother, and conduct monthly memorial services at our home. Chika’s mother had been doing this practice every month for twenty years and during that time she has been in good health and happiness. It has been challenging at times to continue as we find ourselves often busy, but through this practice I have deepened my faith in the unseen world. By having difficulty swallowing, I realized I wasn’t metaphorically chewing my experiences well enough, that is, fully appreciating each encounter and the many people that were supporting me. Around the time I came to that realization, I became able to eat normally again. The first tacos I ate were amazing!
Mysteriously, some of the symptoms I went through would equate with symptoms my ancestors suffered in their lives. I believe that by going through them, I was able to feel a stronger sense of connection and appreciation for them. Then my symptoms would simply vanish. Such symptoms would come and go over the last couple of years as we have been doing this practice, but I feel they were all important for me to experience so that I may be more compassionate to others who are going through similar sufferings. I know I couldn’t have this kind of perspective if it wasn’t for Rissho Kosei-kai.
I truly feel blessed to be a part of this sangha. Starting with Ms. Fukushima, an area leader, I am especially grateful to the members of South Bay who have always offered so much support and attended our memorial services diligently, sharing their wise guidance. This Los Angeles sangha is my family and it’s no coincidence that I was led here. I know there are many great things to come. Thank you very much!
Rev. Ozuna (second from left) is with the youth members of Los Angeles Dharma Center.