Forging a Stronger Foundation by Jonathan Cheong (QLD)
As I write and prepare for sharing this experience, I realised that, growing up, I didn’t have a lot of experience with facing challenges. And just to be clear, when I write challenge, I mean a real big challenge, one that completely overruns your capacity, threatens your survival, and demands for a change to happen from within you to move forward.
Someone once said to me, “when your capacity ends, your faith begins.” If this is the case, then my practice of faith truly began two years ago when I first received news of my mum’s diagnosis with early onset dementia. It’s a different kind of affliction to Alzheimer’s. The doctors called it FTD – Frontotemporal Dementia – and it mainly impairs a person’s speech, language, behaviour, and personality. Dementia is progressive in nature. Usually, you would have some time to prepare, from the onset, before any symptoms of decline became obvious. But in our case, because mum had a head injury from an accident, it accelerated her condition with dementia. Mum went from talking, driving, and socialising with friends to not talking overnight. It happened too abruptly, and that was really hard to accept.
It was a difficult time for my siblings and I. We were completely overwhelmed and unprepared for a sudden challenge of this magnitude. As young people who had just graduated from university and were just starting out, we lacked all kinds of stability. We decided to divide and conquer. My sister went into full time work, and me being the youngest, I stayed home to care for mum and decided to take things slow. I’m sure it’s different for each family. But in my case, being the primary caregiver often means that you are the main line of defence and are also the last line of defence. I was obviously unaware of what a challenge it would be.
Staying home and getting to spend time with mum was great of course, but that also meant that I had to face the changes that were unfolding before me. And it was truly heartbreaking. In response, I resisted my mum’s condition a lot. To avoid facing reality, I tried my best to maintain a façade of “normalcy” with mum. I would frantically offset any signs of impairment with obsessive care. I was determined to not let any symptoms of decline to slip through the cracks. Because when they do, I would suffer greatly. The illusion that everything was okay would disappear, and I would once again be overpowered by reality. I would have an emotional outburst, and everyone around me would fall victim to my expectations of them to do better the next time. This pattern of behaviour continued for a bit. And it became less effective each time, as the demands of life continued to grow, with part-time work and studies.
At that time, I was doing my master’s program in architecture. And I just wasn’t coping well, being completely overwhelmed by all that was happening at home. My grades took a hit. I slowly retracted myself from friends. There was disunity among my siblings. I felt unsupported and isolated. Overall, I was just tired of doing my best all the time in what seemed to be a never-ending battle. There just wasn’t enough time to do everything. And I forgot how to pace myself. I could feel that my capacity to care for mum was drying out. I lacked patience and tolerance, and whenever my outbursts affected mum, I would feel like the worst person in the world. In that same semester, when I failed my first course in university, I felt completely defeated. My mental health became very vulnerable, and I would believe every negative thought that came to mind. Soon afterwards, I started having suicidal thoughts. On the first instance of having those thoughts, I broke down in tears. I was just hysterical and in complete disbelief at myself that I’ve come to this stage. “This is such a low point”, I remember thinking to myself.
It was truly a scary moment because I didn’t know what to do with these feelings. But what I knew was that I didn’t want to burden my family. So I immediately grabbed my phone and I googled, and I watched the first video that popped up from the search. It was a motivational video, and within a minute the guy in the video said: “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” And although it was difficult to listen to, this phrase gave me the perspective I needed to recompose myself mentally. I then immediately reached out to my sister and asked for a dialogue.
The next morning, I just carried on with life. But what changed was that I began to seek different avenues for wisdom and guidance. I started to listen to motivational podcasts on a daily basis to keep myself mentally grounded. For the first week, I sprinted in my practice. It’s funny how when your survival is threatened, you automatically turn to prayer even if you don’t understand it. I set a target for myself to chant an hour a day. Some days I hit the one-hour mark, and other days I missed. At that time, it was also getting harder for mum to focus on gongyo. So, I decided to do morning and evening gongyo with her. Needless to say, my daily practice became more consistent because of this. I also started to respond to Soka members who invited me to join the weekly and monthly study sessions. I attended my first meeting, and never stopped since.
Looking back now, I can see how absolutely crucial that phase of my life was. It was a shifting point where the effects accumulated from my challenges taught me the significance of developing continuing faith.
“One should become the master of one’s mind rather than let one’s mind master oneself ” (WND 1-502)
When I first encountered this quote by Nichiren Daishonin, I thought that it embodied the reason for my ongoing persistence so well that I wouldn’t have put it any other way, since, after all, a large part of my struggle was against the mind. For me, to master the mind means to not lose sight of hope within myself. Previously, I had exhausted all hope for the future. And because of that, I became vulnerable. To become truly resilient, I realised that we need to actively create hope for ourselves, as hope is the energy for life. As President Ikeda stated:
“Hope is confidence. Hope is determination. Hope is courage. And faith is the ultimate expression of hope.” (daisakuikeda.org)
Over the last two years, my capacity for living has matured and grown. Nevertheless, I know that I must continue to strengthen my faith so that I can continue to sustain my resolve to change. Becoming aware of this has allowed me to have a deep appreciation for my struggles, and to honour the value they bring to my life.
Along the way, I have learned many valuable lessons that have reinforced the hope within myself. Amongst the many noted favourites, this quote by Nichiren Daishonin is very dear to my heart:
“Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy. Regard both suffering and joy as facts of life and continue to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, no matter what happens.” (WND 1-86)
From this, I have learnt that suffering in itself is a fact of life that we have to accept. We must practice courage to accept and face our realities, no matter how difficult. This fierce conviction to accept will liberate us. Clearly distinguish between what you can and can’t control. Be peaceful with circumstances that you can’t control, as you can’t change them, and take massive action towards the things you can control instead. Our happiness is our responsibility.
In one S&J meeting, Greg Johns, our former general director, said to a group of us that “enlightenment is having a willingness to engage with life.” In order to uphold our vitality to joyfully engage with life, we must never retreat our efforts. We must courageously expand our capacities for life and continue to nurture the hope we have for ourselves and others. The real battle is in maintaining the consistency of our faith and daily practice. As Nichiren Daishonin writes:
“To accept is easy; to continue is difficult. But Buddhahood lies in continuing faith.” (WND 1-471)
With challenges now, I shall no longer avoid, nor resist. Rather, I shall ground the steps I take forward with my determinations for life. And I shall armour myself with faith, practice, and study to uphold my vitality for life. The actions we take each day are proof that we have the innate ability to win over our fundamental darkness. So, make it count, let’s not waste even a single moment!