Finding the Buddha through My Grandmothers’ Practice

Hawaii Dharma Center

by Mrs. Joanna Keiko Tanaka-Clark

This testimony was given at the Hawaii Dharma Center in September 2016.

Mrs. Joanna Keiko Tanaka-Clark.

Good morning.

Thank you, everyone, for allowing me to go on this continuing journey with Rissho Kosei-kai and to share my testimony with you today.

My name is Joanna Keiko Tanaka-Clark. I’ve been married for thirty years to my husband, who is very supportive, and I am also very fortunate to have a daughter who is now twenty-four years old.

I worked for the same company for twenty-eight years until I retired in 2014 due to my health issues. I was diagnosed with a connective tissue disease that affects the eyes and major blood vessels. My father passed away at the age of thirty-four as did my brother when he was twenty-four. They both died of aortic valve dissections. My daughter has also been diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, but has been symptom-free so far.

In 1993, a year after my daughter was born, I had surgery to replace an enlarged aorta valve to prevent a dissection. The doctors were so amazed at how quickly I recovered and returned to work.

However, recently in the last five years I’ve had to spend time in ICU three times for dissections and bleeding in the brain. I am no longer able to work because I need to keep my stress level down and manage my blood pressure. I sometimes feel lightheaded, tired, dizzy, and weak due to the various medications that I take. All I can do to feel better is to lie down and rest and wait it through till I feel better.

Recently, it seems that I have become very emotional. I cry about everything remotely sad. I believe it is connected to how I feel physically. It’s very difficult to explain but when my physical being is not feeling well, my mental state is also affected.

My grandmother was a Buddhist and a very devoted member of Soka Gakkai International in Hawaii. When I was young, I spent a lot of time with her and she often told me the reason she prayed was so that good things would happen for her family and that all of our hardships or sufferings would go away. I never really understood the practice of “religion.” Hardship and suffering happens whether or not you are a devotee. Good things also happen to everybody. Nothing of about religion made any sense to me—the rituals, the praying, the worship, etc.

When I was about seven or eight years old, I had surgery on my foot to remove a tumor and was hospitalized. For three months, every day, I prayed hard to go home because I was so afraid of being in the hospital room together with other children who came from Vietnam after the war.

They had burn scars over their entire bodies; or missing legs and arms. It was traumatizing and so frightening to hear them scream at night in the dark for weeks and weeks. I endured this and every night I prayed so I could go home. But to no avail. I was unable to go home. From that time, I’ve realized that prayers do not help. I stopped believing in prayer. These were my early beliefs and thoughts about religion.

In late 1990s I was introduced to Rissho Kosei-kai by Karen Fujii. We became friends in the seventh grade, she has been my best friend for over forty years. Although we both had different groups of friends before we met, something drew us together and we’ve stayed the best of friends ever since. She once told me that we must have known each other in our past lives and the Buddha brought us back together. She would always invite me to visit the Dharma center and attend its activities. She is an inspiration to me; she is always cheerful and always knows how to make me laugh and to enjoy living!

Last year I had the opportunity to participate in the Advanced Lotus Sutra Seminar. After reading, studying, and attending the seminar, I’ve learned that part of enduring “suffering,” or what we believe are “hardships,” is based on our own outlook.

Are we realizing the gratitude and thankfulness for the “goodness” in the situation or are we using our mind to focus on what we view as “badness” or “suffering” or the negative aspect. My experience in the hospital as a child could have been different if I had looked at my situation differently. A “suffering” or “hardship” can become nonexistent if I find something that is enjoyable or of interest or to learn from it.

Also I learned that “faith and discernment must go together” as discussed in chapter 4, p. 63 in the book Buddhism for Today. It says, “This kind of faith [blind belief] is not a firm faith in the true sense of the term but merely a narrow faith. A true religion can always be understood through reason; this kind of understanding is called discernment.” In order to have true power, we need to listen to the preaching and read the Sutra in order to understand the Buddha’s teaching.

For example, this might sound trivial or unnoticeable in our everyday, fast-paced life, but when I spent time in the hospital recently, I found joy each time when nurses came to take my blood and I could barely feel the needle. I was so happy and grateful for the blood-draw technician’s careful, steady hand. Or looking outside the window and seeing the beautiful sky and trees. Strong appreciation of the simple things.

As a human being I make choices every day. What I choose to do and how I choose to react to others or situations is a choice. The Lotus Sutra teaches us to use our mind with a compassionate heart, especially when challenged by circumstances and anger is triggered.

“Do not return hatred for hatred.” It will only put you in a vicious cycle. I’ve learned to look at other options as to why I perceived someone did something negative or dismissive to me or others. Because it may not be about me, it could be something about what’s bothering them or the fact of their ignorance. So now I can address them with a compassionate heart.

Recently I notice something about myself and other people around me. I noticed that I am usually quick to make judgments about others or point out the negative; it’s almost a natural human reaction. No one is perfect, and we all have our own disorderly characters and beliefs. I learned that there is no benefit to anyone in harboring anger or discomfort toward others. I should not act purposely to cause problems for others and instead seek to understand their differences. I have been given this opportunity to use tactful means and share the teaching that creates self-awareness; especially with the people close to me.

Last September, JoAnn Ozaki and I attended the Advanced Dharma Teacher Class in San Francisco. I am usually a solitary person. I don’t talk to strangers too much and mind my own business, especially when I fly on an airplane.

On our way back from the seminar, we had very short layover in Los Angeles. As we boarded the plane, and got closer to our seats, I noticed that there were Muslim-looking young men sitting all around. A man sitting in front of JoAnn and another Muslim-looking person sitting behind her was constantly hitting her chair. I was scared thinking of the worse things that could happen. Then to make things even more suspicious, after takeoff, the man in the back went to the bathroom, followed by a woman wearing a headscarf who stood in line to go to the bathroom.

Then after her, another man stood up to go to the bathroom. My paranoid mind was thinking that there was a bomb in the bathroom. Also I thought that the young man next to me was going to hurt me with something; climb over the seats and attack everyone. I was very scared but decided to offer him a cookie but he refused it. When I went to the bathroom and opened the door to return to my seat, that guy next to me was standing right in front of my face, which really startled me.

With courage I decided to converse with him and asked the person next to me whether I could offer him some water. His voice was so sweet. I began a conversation and decided to open up my buddha-nature. He was the sweetest young man and he even told me he loves the Aloha sign on the tower and loved living in Hawaii. He thought it was the best place in the world.

He shared his experience with me that when he was in San Diego, people made funny faces at him when he said thank you. He was a graduate of Farrington High School and currently attending the University of Hawaii working on a political science degree. As a student at UH, he was involved in legislature that gave pay raises for teachers of extracurricular activities. He enjoyed helping people and someday he would like to become governor of this State of Hawaii.

Of all the people, I had been afraid of him because he looked a certain way. I felt very shameful that I might have treated him badly based on what he looked like. I’m glad that I was able to use my buddha-nature to truly see him and sincerely hope the best for him. I hope he will be able to become whoever he would like to be someday.

In chapter 12, “Devadatta,” of the Lotus Sutra, I have learned a striking lesson that everything happens for a reason. In “Devadatta” in the second paragraph, p. 156, it states: “If a man endures all persecution and adversity and continues to practice religious disciplines, his hardships will become an indirect cause of his becoming a buddha.” I am thankful that if it wasn’t for my devastating illness, I would not have had the opportunity to go the classes held at the Dharma center and learn about what it is to become a buddha.

I am thankful to Rev. Meya, Karen Fujii, and JoAnn Ozaki for believing in me as being worthy to attend the classes, and Janice Tom for being my patient mentor at the Dharma center. I have truly enjoyed the experience and look forward to continuing my journey with Rissho Kosei-kai.

In perspective, our paths in life are usually not predicted by ourselves. Most of us cannot predict what our lives will end up being. Not even those who are fortunate enough to have had a direct vision or goal in life. There are many aspects that can happen or journeys that cannot be possibly foreseen.

My aspiration is to continue to be aware of the limitation of life and to embrace being grateful for everything I have and for the people in my life. Appreciate and enjoy the simple things more and choose how to live better every day. It’s our choice that we make now that will predict our future. So let us choose wisely and say yes more often than not.

Thank you very much.

Mrs.Tanaka-Clark (right) offering flowers at the altar of the Dharma Center during the ceremony for Founder Niwano’s entrance into nir- vana.