(Photo above courtesy of Angelina Saenz)
Thank you, Angelina, for sharing your story with us. How did you start your Buddhist practice?
Angelina Sáenz: I had a rough upbringing stained by gang violence, financial strain and family discord. In 1988, when I was 16, my family found a rundown place to live in Hollywood after being homeless for a year. While it was a roof over our heads, it seemed to be an extension of our miserable lives.
I would often hear my neighbors chanting something, and I was surprised one day to find them in my living room chanting that same phrase with my mother. I attended my first SGI meeting with her at a home in Hollywood and felt like I had walked into a bright light. It was the cleanest and purest place I had been to in years. I began practicing Buddhism with my mother, but lost touch after I left home a year later at 17.
How did you reconnect?
Angelina: I was traveling in Israel right around 9/11, during a period of intensified Israeli–Palestinian violence. As I sat on a beach in Tel Aviv with helicopters roaring above me, I decided I needed a spiritual practice. After a year of travel, I returned to Los Angeles in 2002 and immediately called a former co-worker who practiced Buddhism with the SGI. I got reconnected and received the Gohonzon within a month.
I have since overcome many obstacles through my Buddhist practice, but a few years ago was a real turning point for me.
Tell us more!
Angelina: So, in 2017, I decided to challenge four goals:
- I would support my son’s dream of starting college at age 13;
- I resolved to be the first woman in my family to not live paycheck to paycheck;
- I would have a breakthrough in my pursuit of becoming a published poet connected to the Los Angeles literary community; and
- I would ensure that the place where I practiced Buddhism in Los Angeles would have the happiest fellow Buddhists.
When I made these goals, huge difficulties hit. My 13-year-old son had a breakdown and dropped out of a prestigious academic program that would have given him early entry into college. I had accrued so much debt that I could no longer pay my living expenses and monthly credit card payments. And the professors in my master of fine arts program began to suggest that they did not have confidence in me as a poet, and constantly gave me discouraging feedback.
I was working full time as a public school teacher, while being a mom, going to school three nights a week and remaining active in my local SGI community. Soon, self-doubt consumed me. I felt overwhelmed, exhausted and incapable.
What did you do?
Angelina: I sought guidance and determined two things: 1. to pray to know what it means to fulfill my mission for peace; and 2. to succeed in all areas of my life, with the belief that, no matter how bad things seemed, I was capable of changing the situation.
I began to chant this way and every time I felt like my life was falling apart, I’d tell myself: You are changing this, Angelina! You are changing this! As I continued to study and chant, I reconnected with the meaning of my life. I no longer cared for recognition or success for its own sake, but rather to show to others who were suffering that it was possible to transform the worst circumstances into total victory through chanting with resolve to the Gohonzon.
What happened after your internal shift?
Angelina: It was during the summer when I felt strong, but the people around me seemed to be falling apart. Family, members and friends were feeling despondent and thoroughly defeated by problems that had plagued them their entire lives. Around this time, I read the following guidance from Daisaku Ikeda: “When you as an individual exert yourself in faith, you can also lead others in your environment toward the path to attaining Buddhahood. The lives of your family members, relatives, friends and loved ones, too, even if they are suffering in such lower states as hell or hunger, will move in the direction of hope and happiness. Such is the tremendous power of the Mystic Law” (June 2015 Living Buddhism, p. 31).
I had to focus on inner-directed change, which meant believing that I could impact the people around me with my own prayer, by tapping my Buddhability. I especially realized the power of prayer through my son.
Angelina: My son’s dream is to be the youngest person to receive an Academy Award. He has always excelled academically beyond his years, reading chapter books and watching documentaries at age 5. Last year, at 13, he was accepted into an early entrance program at California State University, Los Angeles, which prepares people as young as 11 to enter college.
As a result of his accelerated learning, my son placed a lot of pressure on himself to do well and dropped out of the program. When he was readmitted last year, he started to experience anxiety, paralyzed by the possibility of not getting the thing he wanted the most—to get into Cal State LA.
One day, my son called me from his summer program devastated that he had received a C on his midterm. He was sure that he had jeopardized his chances of being admitted into college.
I encouraged him to talk with his professor, but he quickly became upset. I could sense his hopelessness. Then he hung up on me. Fear struck me to the core, and I wanted to jump in my car to go find him and bring him home. Instead, I ran to the Gohonzon and chanted for my son. More than anything, I wanted him to be grounded in his own worth as a human being and never be defeated.
I chanted for my son’s dreams as though they were my own. While I was still chanting, he called me back. He had spoken with his professor who realized that he had mis-graded my son’s exam. The professor gave my son a B-plus on his midterm, at which point my son collapsed in the chair and began to cry in the professor’s office. The professor, so moved by my son’s sincerity, promised to help him for the last three weeks of the program. My son was so encouraged. It was the last push he needed to stay and finish the summer!
I hung up the phone stunned. It was the first time I felt like my chanting actually changed the trajectory of someone’s life, and I decided to chant this way for the SGI members I was supporting.
So much changed! Many of the members in our local SGI community experienced amazing transformations.
What an incredible victory! How did things change after that?
Angelina: So much changed! Many of the members in our local SGI community experienced amazing transformations. My son was admitted to Cal State LA, where he is double majoring in film and business. He is scheduled to graduate with his bachelor’s degree at 18.
I also had great advancements in my pursuit as a writer and poet who highlights experiences of people of color and immigrants. I started working with some of the most influential Chicano writers in Los Angeles and was invited to speak on a panel of the Latina Writers Conference and spent time networking with the most important Latina writers in the country.
I also received a teaching award. Financially, for the first time, I have been able to save money. And I continue to advance, and help others advance, through my conviction in the unlimited possibilities of our practice.