(Photo above by Martha Manzanares)
Thank you, Victoria, for sharing your story with us! As a mother, physician and longtime Buddhist, you have tremendous responsibilities. How do you manage everything?
Victoria Smith: There is no such thing as balance; it’s about chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and manifesting the wisdom to do the right thing at the right time. I consider everything in my life a contribution to world peace, so I give 100 percent to the task in front of me.
As I enter my 30th year of practicing Nichiren Buddhism this year, I feel like I’ve grown to better understand what it means to give it your all and bring forth the life state of Buddhahood amid my struggles.
Have you always had this immense fighting spirit?
Victoria: In my senior year of high school, I began suffering with depression. For days, I would just cry until I couldn’t cry anymore. Mental illness has been a pattern in my family, and there weren’t any specific triggers for my depression. I had great parents, I got into Yale University, I didn’t struggle financially, and I traveled the world. But those great circumstances didn’t address the darkness within me. I struggled to value my own life and contemplated suicide as a way to cope with the pain.
When did you encounter Buddhism?
Victoria: I was a senior in college when a friend invited me to my first SGI meeting. I was immediately drawn to chanting, the experiences of members and the genuine joy I saw in such a diverse group of people. I felt I had found my home. But when someone asked me if I wanted to try it, I became furious and walked out.
Eventually, I found myself in the same pit of despair. The first thing I thought to do was call that SGI friend. I couldn’t deny the change I’d seen in her life. She had hope, and I didn’t. I started truly practicing Buddhism on Dec. 10, 1989.
Eventually, I found myself in the same pit of despair. The first thing I thought to do was call that SGI friend. I couldn’t deny the change I’d seen in her life. She had hope, and I didn’t.
What was your first experience of actual proof in practicing Buddhism?
Victoria: Well, having hope was already major change. I had other benefits, too—a new relationship, a new car and guidance that helped me see things for what they were. Most importantly, I was getting on the right path for my life.
My dream had been to become a diplomat in the Middle East. At the same time, I began thinking about becoming a humanistic physician who could provide better care to my mother and others who struggled with mental and physical illness. While I contemplated pursuing medical school (which would be another 10 years of schooling), I taught elementary school for two years with Teach for America.
What was teaching like?
Victoria: I had always been successful academically, but learning to manage a class and motivate students was difficult. This brought back my depression and low self-esteem. I spent many days crying out of frustration and feeling like a failure. I chanted and chanted, thinking, I should give up after my first year. When I shared this with my friend in faith, she responded, “Didn’t you sign up for a two-year commitment?” and encouraged me to continue.
I studied Daisaku Ikeda’s writings on education. I felt he was saying to me that, as a young woman, I deserved to be happy and that I should never give up on my dreams. He writes: “When we possess the treasure of hope, it gives rise to other treasures, too. Hope draws forth our inner potential and strength. Hope is a magic weapon that enables us to make our dreams come true” (Aug. 13, 1999, World Tribune, p. 1).
I put my mentor’s words into practice. I chanted for each student’s life, home visited each of them and stayed active in my SGI community. Through this shift in my determination, I developed a genuine understanding of each student’s circumstances and gained their trust.
How did these experiences contribute to your career as a physician?
Victoria: Although it felt like I didn’t know what I wanted to be—a diplomat, teacher, doctor—those various experiences truly enriched my life. My work as a diplomat taught me to speak multiple languages. As a teacher, I learned to never give up and as a mother, my two sons taught me that everyone has a unique mission. Most of all, my Buddhist practice taught me how to win over my own hopelessness and to respect the dignity of each person’s life.
As a doctor, I have hope and believe in the potential of each patient and so I never give up on any of them. My patients are not at the whims of their disease—they’re on “Team Smith.” Team Smith empowers them to take charge and fight for their health. I try to better understand them and their habits as individuals and treasure each relationship. In this way, I communicate the heart of Buddhism through my behavior.
What have you learned from the SGI as a Buddhist community?
Victoria: It has taught me how to pray deeply for each person’s happiness and take action to make that prayer a reality. This has directly translated to how I strive to serve my patients and staff at work. My determination is that, as long as I am there, the culture of warmth is going to be so pervasive in the hospital that there will be no place for negativity.
SGI activities have also given me the courage to continuously expand my life. I have taken on various roles as a physician leader and governing board member in a large health system in Louisiana, and I even owned a solo private practice. Each step of the way, as the familiar depression returned, I went back to chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and reminded myself of my determination to shine. As a result, I was named a New Orleans City Business 2018 “Woman of the Year” for my professional and community achievements.
Congratulations! What are your goals moving forward?
Victoria: At home, my two sons, Ajani and Akil, challenge and encourage me to deeply reflect and chant ferociously to be an exceptional mother. My prayer is for them to awaken to their unique mission and become leaders for the world.
I spent so much of my youth not believing in my own potential, but so many amazing women supported me steadily. I want to do the same for the next generation.
I have also realized the importance of mentorship. I want to become someone who empowers other women. I spent so much of my youth not believing in my own potential, but so many amazing women supported me steadily. I want to do the same for the next generation.