A Lesson in Changing Society (From Someone Who’s Doing It)

Sherman and his daughters (l-r), Amina and Nina. Photo above by Jeremy Joffee.

Wondering if your Buddhability can change the world? Sherman Edmiston III uses dialogue to be an agent of change in corporate America and his community.

Buddhability: Thank you, Sherman, for sharing your experience with us. To start, can you tell us about your early years?

Sherman Edmiston III: Given the current challenges we face in society, this opportunity to share my experience is one of the most important things for me. Thank you.

I grew up in Harlem, N.Y., in the 1960s and ’70s, during a time of racial conflict and poverty. In my community, there was a strong drug influence because of the lack of opportunities and hopelessness. Violence was an everyday occurrence, and many people close to me were murdered.

Often, when my friends and I went to track practice in a largely Italian immigrant neighborhood, we had racial slurs and bottles thrown at us. My parents wanted the best for me, so they sent me to a private school, but I felt alienated from the other students and struggled. My teacher even said once that I was remarkably uninformed about the world around me when much of that “world” was hostile and unavailable to me.

In high school and as a young person, these experiences of indignity because of my race started to involve the police. Whenever there was racial strife at school, the police and school always sought me out. In college, my roommate and I were held at gunpoint just because we were in a predominantly white neighborhood and someone had called the police on us. I was hit by a car while riding my bike, and I was arrested for confronting the driver. Back in Harlem, I witnessed an unarmed black man beaten and killed by the police. And when I spoke up, the police showed up at my house in an intimidating fashion. I was afraid and decided not to testify about what I had witnessed.

These were just the highlights, but it was daily life.

Thank you for being so open and sharing honestly about such painful experiences. How did your life unfold from there?

Sherman: I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and went on to get my Master of Business Administration at the University of Michigan. Even with these credentials, I was accused of cheating on an entrance exam for an internship program. I got into the program, but then I found out that my colleague and I, both young black men, were excluded from the mentorship activities with senior executives.

But the pain and heartbreak that we, as Black Americans and all people of color, experience is real. I had to navigate the world differently, and anger and resentment built up inside.

Still, I landed a full-time job at a major bank on Wall Street and worked my way up. I thought that, now, as a financially successful member of society, I’d gain some respect and dignity. But that wasn’t the case. On a cab ride home after work, my best friend and I were pulled over by police, and we were held at gunpoint. Even at work, my senior executives sent over an African American man to persuade me into taking a position significantly lower than my level of accomplishment. I was deeply insulted and left the company.

Despite these obstacles, I never gave up on my dream and continued to move up in my career. But the pain and heartbreak that we, as Black Americans and all people of color, experience is real. I had to navigate the world differently, and anger and resentment built up inside.

What led you to start practicing Buddhism?

Sherman: My father introduced me to SGI Nichiren Buddhism when I was in middle school. I begrudgingly attended SGI activities at his and my stepmom’s insistence, but I rarely chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo on my own. Even in college, I attended meetings sparingly.

With the support of a local member, I started attending SGI activities. I also started supporting activities behind-the-scenes. In June 1996, I supported my Buddhist teacher Daisaku Ikeda’s visit to New York.

After our movement, Ikeda asked us all to gather. We were all standing there rigid, but when he came over, he asked us to sit down and relax. He then made and served each of us tea. In just this simple act, his humanity and his genuine care for each of us broke through the walls of mistrust in my life. For the first time, a glimmer of confidence and hope emerged, and I decided that he was my mentor in life, and that I would be the best person I could be.

But, I had difficulty balancing work, family and faith, and despite my positive experience with the SGI, my practice fell off. The accumulation of bitter experiences and a childhood trauma took their toll; they were eating me alive. I resorted to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate and used work to escape having to deal with the reality of my own life. On Thanksgiving Day in 2000, it all came to a head. I was at work and had a breakdown.

I called my father, and he rushed over to pick me up. In the car, he urged me to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, sharing that it was the only way I was going to overcome my suffering. That day, I started chanting again. I didn’t know if I’d ever be whole again, but I just knew I had to keep on chanting.

What changed from there?

Sherman: Well, I started a family and my own firm, and we faced numerous challenges—business failures, financial struggles and my daughter’s health. But at each crucial moment, I recalled a passage from Nichiren Daishonin’s writings:

A sword is useless in the hands of a coward. The mighty sword of the Lotus Sutra must be wielded by one courageous in faith.

Nichiren Daishonin

I won over each obstacle based on bringing out my Buddhability, supporting others and contributing to the SGI. With the courage from my Buddhist practice and Ikeda’s guidance, I’ve worked my way up to the upper echelons in my profession. And in December 2015, I resigned from my firm, where I was a partner, to donate a kidney to my father and support my daughter and family. I have built a different career, one that I could never have dreamed of, and now sit on the Board of Directors of four publicly traded corporations. I am also on the SGI-USA Board of Directors and serve on its Endowment Committee, which is one of my greatest honors.

How does your current role in society connect contribute to world peace and what advice do you have for young people today?

Sherman: Many times, I am the only person of color in the room, and my colleagues have very different beliefs and life experiences. But I stand proud to be who I am—a Black man and a Buddhist—and I am not afraid to speak up.

Despite our differences, my colleagues and I have formed close friendships and have worked on youth programs devoted to erasing inequities that prevent students of color from gaining entrance into New York’s public high schools. Through coaching my son’s little league baseball team, I have developed close friendships with many members of the police department. Together, we have worked on many community empowerment initiatives for youth and families, and on building trust between officers and the communities they support.

I realized that I had no choice but to transcend my family’s and my own bitter history to connect with the humanity of the person right in front of me, no matter who they are, and build bridges with those around me. This is the only way I can start the healing of all people.

In 2017, I woke up to a commotion in my neighborhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Apparently there had a been a shooting nearby. A young black man was on the ground in handcuffs surrounded by police, and tensions were high.

I knew the young man’s grandmother, so two other neighbors and I went down to the precinct together to ensure his safety. Later, I was able to have a heart-to-heart dialogue with the lead detective. He explained everything, and he thanked me for not pre-judging and for respecting him as a human being. The next day, the charges against that young man were dropped.

These experiences have solidified in me that, if I am to be a positive and transformative agent of change, I have to fight with every cell in my body to not allow the anger and resentment within my life to overcome me. I realized that I had no choice but to transcend my family’s and my own bitter history to connect with the humanity of the person right in front of me, no matter who they are, and build bridges with those around me. This is the only way I can start the healing of all people.

We are making progress on many levels, but there is still a lot of work to do around race, gender, class and LGBTQ+ inequality. But to me, the fact that young people everywhere are boldly standing up against these indignities is itself progress. That gives me hope.

Political and legislative reforms are important but it’s not possible to legislate human nature. The systemic racism and the institutions built on it are a reflection of the hearts and life conditions of the people who make up those institutions. People’s hearts need to change; our hearts need to change.

So, keep on fighting. Keep on standing up. Keep taking action. Keep fighting for the world that you want to create.

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