Growing Up Buddhist: Interview with Shani Jones

(Photo above courtesy of Shani Jones)

Hi Shani, thank you for taking time to talk with us! Can you share about how you started practicing Buddhism?

Yes! I was born and raised Buddhist with my parents and sisters in the SGI community in Los Angeles. But the reason I decided to practice was because of how my parents genuinely respected and treated people. Even though my parents had their own challenges, they always showed up for people.

My parents had a small business, and life wasn’t easy raising five children. However, if any of us were struggling, they would come to support us in that moment. From a young age I witnessed how to have care and compassion for another person despite your own struggles.

Shani Jones with her family at a Buddhist meeting. Photo courtesy of Shani Jones.

Shani Jones with her family at a Buddhist meeting. Photo courtesy of Shani Jones.

Growing up in this type of Buddhist community that values people always steered me in a positive direction. That’s why I always practiced.

Wow, that’s so wonderful to hear. Do you recall a moment when you realized that chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo could impact your life on a personal level?

Oh yes, I was 13 years old. My friend and I got into a disagreement, and they were so upset by how I treated them. At the time I had a pretty bad attitude but this was a friend who I cared about. I didn’t know how to take responsibility for my attitude without beating myself up over it.

My mom encouraged me to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and really think about what was making me feel so bad that I couldn’t stop crying. Everyone was asleep in the house, and I just kept chanting, not completely sure what to expect. As I was chanting, I started to reflect on how my severely bad attitude often hurt the people I care about.

Even at that young age, I knew deep down that my bad attitude came from feeling like everyone around me had to change and not me. I knew that I had to address it and take responsibility for my actions but why was I so upset?

Even at that young age, I knew deep down that my bad attitude came from feeling like everyone around me had to change and not me.

Through this experience, I learned a profound Buddhist lesson: that life is about what you do from this moment forward. The mistakes that I made didn’t have to define what my future would be or the type of person I would be. If I regretted something, then it’s okay and based on my actions now, my past experience could be something I grow from.

And that’s what I learned at 13 years old. That if anything that comes up that causes me to suffer, I can immediately chant to reflect on the cause of it and then decide to face and transform it. That’s the earliest memory that I have.

That is so deep. You mentioned taking responsibility and that didn’t mean beating yourself up over your mistake. I think many people struggle with this. Can you share how you learned that taking responsibility was more about how to grow as a person?

That’s a great question. In discovering your Buddhability and living in this world, there’s also accountability. The question is how do you overcome those weak moments? That’s where the growth starts, by first overcoming your weaknesses. I always was moved by this line from the 13th-century Buddhist reformer Nichiren Daishonin:

The purpose of the appearance in this world of Shakyamuni Buddha, the lord of teachings, lies in his behavior as a human being.

“The Three Kinds of Treasure,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, pp. 851–52

I always strive to adopt this in my life. And today this practice has given me the courage to pursue my dream as a performer, which was not an easy journey. Now I have the benefit to perform in different venues and create my own work.

Thank you for sharing. We understand you were recently featured in Voyage LA’s “Rising Stars.” How did you get to where you are today?

It definitely hasn’t been easy. I changed my major four to five times in college and you may wonder, Why didn’t you pursue dance from the beginning? I’ve always loved to dance but the pressure from people around me and society in general to make money and live a financially stable life felt like the priority.

When I graduated, I started working a corporate job to pay the bills but didn’t feel fulfilled. In 2017, I was struggling with depression and worried that I would harm myself. At one point, I took myself to the emergency room. This was a moment when I decided to take full responsibility for my happiness. I think there’s an idea in society that happiness comes from another person or your circumstances.

I decided to stop working at my corporate job and pursue my dream, even if I didn’t feel talented or have enough skills or experience. I started chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo every day, and I was hired at a nonprofit in the arts. Each year since I was hired, I’ve received raises and promotions. During 2020 when many people were being laid off, I was able to work from home and still pursue my passion for the arts.

I noticed through taking full responsibility for my happiness I have been more clear and joyful about my future. To me, that’s really the benefit of practicing and studying Buddhism. If I didn’t experience these results, I wouldn’t be practicing. I have appreciation for everything I’ve experienced until now. I’m 34 now and have many dreams that I still want to pursue in the next 10 years.

I noticed through taking full responsibility for my happiness I have been more clear and joyful about my future. To me, that’s really the benefit of practicing and studying Buddhism.

That is a powerful story. Would you like to share any closing thoughts?

Thank you so much for talking with me today. I’m happy that I’m even able to share my story. Throughout everything, it was my Buddhist community that supported me and, without them and family, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Also, it was because of my mentor Daisaku Ikeda’s guidance and encouragement that I learned that I am truly a Buddha.

Every day is an opportunity for me to remind myself of that fact. Ultimately, it was learning to have appreciation for myself but also my situations that opened up possibilities for my life to move in the direction I desired. I hope that many people can experience this for themselves too.

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