by Pascual Olivera, SGI-USA Arts Division Director
In the past year, when I’ve had the opportunity to speak with many SGI artists, I’ve noticed that a subject that comes up a lot is concern about self-doubt. Many of us in the arts are confident and optimistic, but all of us have had to deal with self-esteem questions at one time or another. I, like many artists, have had to struggle with self-doubt in my own life, so I’ve chosen to make it the theme of my guidance to the Arts Division this year.
Even before I entered the first grade, I already knew that I wanted to become an artist. I was interested in all forms of art: visual arts, the theater and, of course, Spanish dance, which is now my career. I was lucky that my first grade teacher saw that I had an artistic nature. She was the first person to nurture, support and encourage my interests in the arts at an early age. My parents did not take my interest in the arts seriously until much later when I decided to do this for a living. In fact, they tried very hard to discourage my creativity. My response was to shut down — and I flunked the fifth grade. After that, they realized that I was serious about pursuing my artistic interests and they consented to let me go to dance school and acting classes.
Still, my parents thought the whole idea was silly. This is what I heard, “You’ll never amount to anything.” “Going into the arts is dumb. You’re dumb.” “Give it up, be practical.” “You will suffer and starve in the arts.” “You’re not good enough.”
Then my classmates found out that I was going to dancing school and theater classes instead of playing football, basketball or baseball. I was derided by them, too: “Only girls go to dance classes.” “You’re a sissy.” “Don’t come near me.”
Ideas like that became ingrained in my life at a very early age, so they had a lot to do with how I thought of myself. These discouraging forces — many years of negative thinking about myself and being brought up in an environment of negativity — were the foundation of my becoming a skillful self-slanderer.
“What if our early nurturing seemed very positive but we still find ourselves, in anxious moments, fighting against an inner negativism or fear? If this is the case, we must consider that the negative imprint comes from an earlier time in our existence – difficulty at birth, for instance or even in a past life.” – James Redfield, The Celestine Vision, 1997, Warner Books
I met Jose Greco, the famous Spanish dancer, many times when he performed near my family home in Cleveland, Ohio. Eventually he took an interest in me and advised my parents to send me to Spain for training. If I made it through that, he would allow me to audition for his company. My dream of working for him kept me going through four years of studies in Spanish Dance in Spain.
When I returned from Spain I went to my audition with the Jose Greco Spanish Ballet only to be told, even before he saw me dance, that I had grown too tall for his company.
I was devastated, but I was used to accepting rejection. After all, “I was never going to amount to anything. I was stupid. They were right; this is not practical. Anyway, I haven’t suffered enough — I haven’t starved yet. Of course I was rejected!” I was perfecting the art of self-slander along with a career full of rejections.
When l was eighteen years old, I went to New York to seek my fortune in the arts. I needed an agent. I had heard about the famous William Morris Agency, so I looked them up. The receptionist must have taken a liking to me and my raw enthusiasm because I got an interview with an agent. He really liked me and wanted to sign me to a seven-year exclusive contract. It so happened that the William Morris Agency was the casting office for the musical “The Sound of Music,” starring Mary Martin. The agent wanted to place me in the musical so I could make enough money to live in New York and continue my studies in acting, singing and dancing. He was going to help direct my career. I left the William Morris office on cloud nine. My feet hardly touched the ground.
Then I started to think, “But I not ready for this, it’s too fast. Where is the suffering, the starving for my art? What if they find out I’m not really good enough? I’m stupid. I will never amount to anything anyway.” Overwhelmed with self-doubt, I never went back to the William Morris Agency and never returned their calls.
I had many opportunities like this in my career and I always managed to sabotage them. I finally ended up in a traveling musical revue that performed in supper clubs. The owners were alcoholics and very abusive. I felt right at home and stayed for almost two years. (Note: I did later get into the Jose Greco Company and became his lead dancer. It was while I was in his company that I was introduced to Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism.)
In 1968, I started to practice Buddhism. I learned immediately that you should never slander the Gohonzon, the members, the leaders or the practice — or you will see the bad effects in your life and will be miserable. For some reason, I got that down real fast and since l desperately wanted to succeed in my life, I did my best to abide by those basic ideas. At the time, however, there was not much talk of self-slander. I practiced very hard and made my dreams come true in spite of what I was thinking about myself: “I’m not a very good member.” “Wait until they find out that I am not a very good person.” “I’m a terrible leader. It’s only a matter of time until they discover that I’m stupid.”
In spite of my negative thinking, I still made the Gohonzon work for me in many ways — that’s how powerful Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo is — but, fundamentally, I was not happy. I was not free. I had the career of my dreams, the marriage of my dreams, the home of my dreams — all my dreams had come true — but I was still imprisoned by my negative thinking. I had become so adept at slandering myself that I couldn’t see that there was something basically wrong with my practice.
“It is a matter of sweat and tears. The creative life, in short, is achieved by a constant effort to improve one’s thoughts and actions, or perhaps we could say it is the dynamism involved in the effort.” – Daisaku Ikeda, The Creative Life, 1974
In twenty-five years as a Buddhist, I had overcome many obstacles and had many turning points. I had overcome an incurable disease. I had married the woman of my dreams against all odds. I had even become a successful leader — all in spite of myself. Then I had another turning point. It came in the form of an obstacle so gigantic that this time I thought even the Gohonzon could not save me.
“You will pass through storms and heavy rains, and at times you may suffer defeat. The essence of the creative life, however, is not to give up in the face of defeat, but to follow the rainbow that exists within your heart. Indulgence and indolence are not creative. Complaints and evasions are cowardly, and they corrupt life’s natural tendency toward creation. The person who gives up the fight for creativeness is headed ultimately for the hell that destroys all life.” – Daisaku Ikeda, The Creative Life, 1974
I contemplated suicide. I considered not chanting anymore. I never understood how people could go taitan [stop practicing], but now, at this impasse in my life, I had the very same thoughts. Fortunately, I was — and still am — a fanatic about Gongyo, so even during this horrific time, I never stopped doing Gongyo. Sometimes I felt like I was chanting in a coma. I was numb, but I did not stop.
“You must not for one instant give up your effort to build for yourselves new lives. Creativeness means to push open the heavy, groaning doorway to Iife. This is not an easy struggle. Indeed, it may be the most difficult task in the world. “
“For opening the door to your own life is in the end more difficult than opening the door to the mysteries of the universe. But to do so is to vindicate your existence as human beings. At the same time it makes life worth living for you. I say to you that there is no one lonelier or more unhappy than a person who does not know the pure joy of creating a life for himself.” – Daisaku Ikeda, The Creative Life, 1974
Then I picked up something from President Ikeda:
“Each of us has ‘one fundamental evil’ — one basic fault — that stands in the way of our personal growth. If we can overcome our fundamental fault, everything will open up dramatically.” – Daisaku Ikeda, “One Basic Fault” by Jeff Farr, World Tribune
I decided to try again and, this time, I would challenge myself to find my fundamental evil.
“When your determination changes, everything else begins to move in the direction you desire. The moment you resolve to be victorious, every nerve and fiber in your being immediately orient themselves towards your success. On the other hand, if you think, “This is never going to work out,” at that instant, every cell in your being will be defeated, giving up the fight. Everything then will move in the direction of failure.” – Daisaku lkeda, July 11, 1997, World Tribune, p. 14
After much daimoku, I realized that my one fundamental evil and the destructive roots of my life were self-slander and self-doubt. I was determined to conquer my negative thinking about myself. For three weeks I would not let one negative thought enter my mind. Then something negative happened and I attacked myself with a vengeance. After two days of beating up on myself, I felt I was in my element. I had my true identity back. I had found my way back to my “comfort zone” and the struggle was over, or so I thought.
“The moment we decide ‘It’s no good, I can’t do it,’ this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. From that instant, we negate any chance of succeeding. The moment you assume the attitude, ‘There’s no need to continue making effort. I can just relax. I don’t need to expand my activities or challenge myself any further’ — from that instant, your downhill decline starts.” – Daisaku lkeda, October 10, 1997, World Tribune, p. 15; December 19, 1997, WT, p. 13
It was at that moment that I realized that if self-doubt was at the core of my life and this was where I could find comfort, then I was in deep trouble. That obstacle and that realization were the turning point for me and I made a big step in my life-long quest for inner human revolution.
“Living the new spiritual awareness is a matter of passing through a series of steps or revelations. Each step broadens our perspective. But each step also presents its own set of challenges. It is not enough to merely glimpse each level of expanded awareness. We must intend to live it, to integrate each increased degree of awareness into our daily routine. It only takes one negative interpretation to stop everything.” – James Redfield, The Celestine Vision, 1997, Warner Books
I started the process with the most difficult task: learning to like myself. I could never say to myself, “I like you, I love you.” That seemed awkward for me, so I pictured myself as a little boy hiding in the corner — crying and bruised and filled with pain. I had to picture myself embracing this little child (myself) and saying things to him like, “I will never hurt you again (by slandering you). I will never abuse you again or let anyone else abuse you again. I will make you the happiest person in the world. I will never let you cry or make you sad.” I did this once a week for two hours at a time. Each time I had negative thoughts about myself, the image of this little boy would appear and I would not break my promise to this now happy child.
When people tried to abuse me, I would not allow it. I also kept a journal during this time and wrote out all my most negative and secret feelings about myself and others. For a year I wrote three pages a day, no matter what. I wrote until I had no more negativity to write. I had worked through it, let it go, and now my inner child was happy and at peace. I had cleansed myself by purging my negativity in writing — and by chanting.
“When we think negatively about our personal abilities, our looks, or our prospects in the future, these thoughts influence how we feel and what happens to us in a very real way. When we think positively, uplifting ourselves and others in the process, incredible events begin to unfold.” – James Redfield, The Celestine Vision, 1997, Warner Books
Sometimes I would watch myself in different negative situations just to see how I would react, but nothing could bring out self-slander anymore because it was done. I was healed.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m perfect. Inner revolution is an on-going thing. I can still be negative and complain with the best of them. The difference now is that I always go back to the Gohonzon and change problems. I don’t let bad things linger anymore.
Not long ago, I was greatly disappointed with some changes in the organization. I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. I moaned and groaned for a short time. Then I dragged myself to the Gohonzon and chanted and chanted through my pain, discovering that I had a lesson to learn, that this was no coincidence. This was my opportunity to grow and develop my faith. My prayer was heart-felt and a few weeks later the circumstances changed and became the best situation I’ve ever had.
I had been suffering for 15 years with this issue and it all came down to changing my own attitude. For me the best solution to everything has been just to get in front of the Gohonzon and chant and chant. The answer is always there and nowhere else.
Today I can sincerely say I have a life of true freedom and happiness. I have no regrets in my life about anything. I only want to help the many artists who are still trapped in their own self-doubt and who have made this their “comfort zone” without realizing it.
Everyone has a different experience of how they became self-doubters. In a creative life, it’s easy to do. As artists we live in a world of rejection: “You’re too tall.” “You’re not tall enough.” “You’re too good looking.” “You’re not good looking enough.” “You’re too young.” “You’re too old.” “Your work is too modern — too abstract. We can’t sell that stuff here.” “Your work is too realistic — not modern or abstract enough. Go somewhere else.” “Who ever told you you could write?” “Don’t give up your day job.” “Just put it on the pile marked Z and don’t call me.” “What symphonies have you played with? “Sorry, you’re over-qualified.” “Sorry, you’re not qualified enough.” “Sorry, you’re just not good enough.” “Sorry, you’re just too good for us.” “YOU GOT THE JOB!!” “Why me? I’m not good enough. I’m not ready. I haven’t suffered enough. I have to wait tables just a little longer. They deserve the job more. They are much more talented then I will ever be!”
I was once asked this question at an Artist Division meeting: “I have two actresses in my artist group at home. They are both the same age, the same type and go out for the same parts. One is much more talented the other, but the less talented one always gets the jobs. The more talented one has not had a acting job in a year and waits tables for a living. How can that be?”
My guess would be that the one who is always working in her profession has this thought process: “I got up late. I just started my period. I feel terrible, but I will put this aside and go forward and win. I am the best person for this part. This part was made for me. I should have this part and I will prove that in my audition. I am grateful to be able to play this role. I will sign a contract and this film will be a success because of my talent and contribution. This is my lucky year and my lucky day. I’m not in great shape but they will love me anyway.”
The other actress thinks: “I got up late, why bother even going now? I just started my period and I feel terrible, I may just stay in bed. I probably won’t get the part anyway. There will be a lot of talented actresses auditioning and I don’t have the talent to measure up. I can’t handle being rejected. I have not had a part in over a year. What if I get the part? I have not worked in over a year. I’m out of shape. I hope I don’t have to wait another year. This is just not my year. This is not my lucky day!” Who do you think will get the part?
“No matter what happens, it’s essential that we keep advancing joyfully and courageously, never succumbing to fear. We must live with vibrant hope. Nothing is stronger than hope. The Mystic Law is itself eternal hope. Happiness belongs to those who never despair, no matter what happens. We need to cultivate a life where we thoroughly enjoy ourselves at all times. We should have such joy that, even at the time of death, we can declare with a happy smile: ‘That was wonderful. Where shall I go next?’ This is the mind of a person with strong faith. Such individuals will be reborn without delay, and in a form and place exactly according with their desires.” – Daisaku lkeda, “All We Need To Do To Attain Enlightenment,” World Tribune, September 5, 1997, p. 8
As an artist, you must overcome the fear of failure — and the fear of success. You must develop the courage to remember that there is no such thing as failure in Buddhism, only turning points. With the sword of Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo you, can battle your greatest fears, your most negative thoughts, and you can replenish your life with hope and optimism.
“In other words, don’t make excuses. Take responsibility for your life — resolve to be victorious. If you allow yourself to be defeated, all the excuses in the world will get you nowhere. Defeat is defeat no matter how eloquently you try to justify yourself. The important thing is to win where you are right now, to achieve victory without fail. No matter what obstacles we face, it is crucial that we transform the situation and realize victory right where we are. This is the way of the Lotus Sutra.” – Daisaku lkeda, “Take Responsibility for Your Life,” World Tribune, April 18, 1897, p. 9-11
The most rewarding part about talking about this topic is that once someone realizes that they have a tendency toward self-doubt, they can then go through the process of healing. It really is a process of healing. Until you completely heal you will continue to bleed. The benefits are wonderful. I get letters and post cards from artists telling me that through working and chanting to rid themselves of negative thoughts, they have become successful beyond their wildest dreams. We must clear the way for our, creativity to be able to flow in a manner that will influence, inspire and touch the human heart — stemming from a happy and positive state of life. With this spirit …
“Spirit means inner state of life, or one’s heart. It decides what we devote our lives to. It is the fundamental prayer on which we devote our lives to. It is the fundamental prayer on which we base our existence. A person’s spirit is invisible but becomes manifest at a crucial moment. Not only that, it also controls everything about a person, each moment of every day — it is the fundamental determinant of one’s life.”
“The Kegan Sutra says, ‘The heart is like a skilled painter.’ Like a great painter, the heart freely creates representations of all things. One’s heart is the designer, the painter, the sculptor and the architect of his or her being.”
“It is our spirit, our life moment, that counts: Our spirit is our hope, our prayer. And it can also be identified with the subconscious.”
“‘What kind of future do I envision?’, we may ask ourselves. ‘What kind of self am I trying to develop? What do I want to accomplish in my life?’ We should paint this vision of our lives in our hearts as specifically as possible. This ‘painting’ becomes the design for our future. The power of the heart enables us to actually execute a wonderful masterpiece in accordance with that design. This is the doctrine of a life-moment possessing three thousands realms.”
“The more specific and detailed the blueprint we have in our hearts, the better. The point is to continue vividly painting the target we have and to advance toward that goal single-mindedly. Then, at each instant, the reality of our lives will gradually approach the painting that is our aspiration.”
“Everything depends on what is in our hearts. Heartfelt prayers will definitely be answered. If we decide that something is impossible, then consistent with our minds in thinking so, even things possible will become impossible. On the other hand, if we have the confidence that we can definitely do something, we are already one step closer to achieving it.”
“In accordance with the principle of a life-moment possessing three thousand realms, pessimistic thoughts or feelings take form, just as they are, in reality, producing negative results. People who have negative thoughts create effects for themselves that perfectly match their thinking.” – Daisaku Ikeda, Learning From the Gosho, p. 128, 129
Complete freedom in your life is possible. In the past, I seemed to attract negative people to me. Now they shy away. I am now very much aware of people who try to slander, abuse, take advantage, use, disrespect or dishonor me, and I do not permit it. I realize that I was a slave to my own negativity. Now I can truly feel more compassion and appreciation for other people because I appreciate and have compassion for myself. Unhappiness, misery and depression used to be my “comfort zone.” True indestructible happiness was alien to me. I didn’t think it was really attainable. Now, with my new happy state of life, I can never go back to the other again. I feel like I no longer practice Buddhism in my head, but in my heart. I’ve learned that a change of destiny doesn’t just happen, you have to work at it.
“The fight to create a new life is a truly wonderful thing. In it you find for the first time: (1) a wisdom that causes your intelligence to shine, (2) the light of intuition that leads to an understanding of the universe, (3) the strong will and determination that challenges all attacking evils, (4) the compassion that enables you to take upon yourself the sorrows of others, and (5) the sense of fusion with that energy of compassion that gushes forth from the cosmic source of life and creates an ecstatic rhythm in the lives of all men.” – Daisaku Ikeda, The Creative Life, 1974
Some of the quotes I have used here are not from Buddhist writings. There are many sources of encouragement and help that are good for helping to build the ship, but remember, only Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo can make the ship sail, stay above the water and cross over the sea of suffering. We’ve all seen people who go through different kinds of programs and books, improve a little, then end up back where they started –– looking for another program or book. We are so fortunate to have Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism as the root of our lives and a mentor like President Ikeda.
Please be kind to your fellow artist. We all get so little of that from society in general. As artists we sometimes live in an isolated world, a world where we can feel completely alone. That’s why extraordinary acts of human kindness bring about extraordinary benefit in your life and are a great source of propagating this Buddhism.
Please always remember that you are unique, a one of a kind. All of us are. No two performances, works of art, poems or books are ever alike. Every waking moment of every human being is influenced by an artist. The coffee cup you drink from, the clothes you wear, your car, your house, television, movies, radio, theater, music, even your shoes and socks, all come from the creative imagination of an artist just like you.
I love what Tommy Tune says about life:
“It’s all so completely simplistic, so frustratingly complex. This is not a dress rehearsal. THIS IS THE SHOW!” – Tommy Tune, Footnotes, 1997 Simon & Schuster
I hope as artists you can create great fortune for yourself and become happy, successful and wealthy so that you can do even more for Kosen Rufu. The world will not survive without you. You have the power to reach out and bring human life to the Gohonzon through your art. Your talent is your gift, use it in a positive way. Be it from the written word, the spoken word, from a gallery or museum wall, from the stage, from the television, radio or a movie theater, art has the power to touch and move the human heart like nothing else in the world. That’s how powerful your life is.
“President lkeda once said that he could do Kosen Rufu with the artist division alone. So let’s do Kosen Rufu!” – from “Stand Up”, Chicago Artist Division Meeting Slogan 1998