Living Buddhism: Thank you, Swapna, for sharing your experience with us. Where did you grow up?
Swapna Bhide: Thank you for the opportunity. I was raised in Pune, India, in a conservative family. I spent the majority of my time with my grandparents, who were quite religious, and I was taught to pray to the gods about my problems. Although my family was open to talk about many things, we rarely talked about sexuality or mental health.
I realized at an early age that I liked women, but there was a lack of positive LGBTQ representation in society and being gay was treated in my community as a mental health issue that could be overcome. I felt confused, and no matter how much I prayed to the gods, I couldn’t come to a resolution.
What led you to Buddhism?
Swapna: I moved to America in 2012 to attend Northeastern University in Boston, which was a great opportunity for me. But I struggled daily with my roommates and couldn’t land an internship. I was also grappling with my family’s faith, my sexuality and the fact that I couldn’t be open with my parents. I felt hopeless and believed that I would never become happy.
Around that time, my friend shared about chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with me. I’m analytical, so I had many questions. But the SGI members patiently answered each one, and this moved me to at least try chanting. Shortly after, my friend and I both secured internships. I saw it as a coincidence. Then, my roommates received internships too, and our relations improved. After one month of chanting, two of my issues had been resolved. I received the Gohonzon on September 29, 2013.
Did the way you approach problems change after that?
Swapna: In early 2014, I had not gotten paid for one month due to logistical reasons, and I didn’t have money for rent or food. I shared my struggles with my friend who had introduced me to the practice. She encouraged me to see this challenge as an opportunity to change my karma by participating in Sustaining Contribution.
Did you understand at the time why making financial offerings is an essential part of Buddhist practice?
Swapna: Not at all, but I trusted my friend. I started chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo sincerely to be paid so that I could contribute financially to the SGI and its mission for world peace. Within a week, I received a check from an internship. It wasn’t a lot, but it enabled me to participate. It was also my first experience in faith that I couldn’t justify away.
It’s difficult to find an employer who will sponsor your visa, but after some struggle I found work as a software engineer after graduate school. This job proved to be perfect for my life for the time being. I know this was the result of the fortune I had accumulated through contributing to kosen-rufu.
How did your life change in the process?
Swapna: By 2015, I had a master’s degree and a career. But there was one challenge that I had yet to confront. My parents began pushing me to get married, and it created a lot of tension between us.
We stopped talking for a month, and, during this time, I chanted for the best way to come out to them. When we finally spoke again, the topic of marriage came up, as well as the truth. Their initial reaction was to help me find a therapist who could “correct” my sexuality. As I chanted for them to understand and accept who I was fundamentally, they met a therapist who was a strong proponent of LGBTQ rights in India. Through their dialogue, my family became very supportive, even attending a Pride parade in India on their own!
What inner breakthrough do you believe led to this change?
Swapna: Looking back, I see that all my suffering stemmed from my deep-seated fear and insecurity that I would never be loved for who I am. This caused me to seek validation from others. And, underlying everything, was a fear that things would eventually fall apart.
But, as my Buddhist practice deepened, I gradually stopped seeking validation from others, and my fear of losing others diminished. I became more open about how I truly felt and could speak up.
Still, I think my real human revolution started later, after our 50,000 Lions of Justice Festival
Could you share more about this time?
Swapna: Although I shared Buddhism with many people, it didn’t result in anyone starting their
practice. And as a young women’s leader, I couldn’t connect with the members I supported, and I began feeling that my care for them didn’t matter.
At the same time, I was stuck in a job with low pay and little advancement. I thought my life would dramatically change after making all-out causes toward the 50K Festival, but it didn’t.
I started regretting the time and money I had contributed to the SGI. I just felt like an overall failure, and I started isolating myself from everyone. I felt my life had no value.
How did you persevere?
Swapna: Fortunately, I had a friend in faith whom I trusted and felt I could be completely open
with. She started visiting me every week with a senior in faith, and we chanted and studied SGI President Ikeda’s encouragement together. One particular passage really struck me:
Our true worth is determined by how we proceed with our lives in the most painful of times. Moreover, the presence of people filled with courage and hope will cheer and hearten everyone around them. As Soka Gakkai members, all of you have a mission to encourage and inspire hope and confidence in your families and fellow members, as well as in your friends and local communities.
(The New Human Revolution, vol. 2. pp. 141–42)
I had completely lost sight of the fact that struggles are an unavoidable part of life, and that taking them on is necessary to fulfilling my mission.
I realized I was just practicing Buddhism for small benefits here and there. That’s when I came across the letters I had written to President Ikeda since I began my practice. As I read them, I saw how far I had come. I didn’t want to have any
regrets by quitting halfway.
I set a goal to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo abundantly for my happiness and visit other young women with my seniors in faith. I took proactive measures for my mental health and increased my financial contributions to the SGI. Gradually, through the support of the SGI community, I saw that my life had value and that I have a unique mission for kosen-rufu that only I can fulfill.
What a profound realization. What did you learn about yourself through this struggle?
Swapna: As I chanted deeply to the Gohonzon, I began to see the scope of my own fundamental darkness. I realized I lacked conviction in my efforts. Deep down, I didn’t believe in the power of my life. And while I was doing SGI activities, I wasn’t using them to challenge my own human revolution. I thought that just because I was doing activities and contributing to the SGI, I would magically become happy.
Seeing this reality of my life, SGI activities took on a whole new meaning for me. With each young woman I visited, I felt I was challenging my lifelong sense of inferiority. I even discovered the courage to dream again.
I wrote to Sensei that I would never compromise again—that I would give my all toward my own dreams and helping the young women in my environment.
I dedicated two evenings each week to prepare for job interviews, and on those nights, I chanted abundantly for the members. I also decided to make SGI one of the beneficiaries in my will with the determination to build tremendous financial
fortune toward it.
Many companies were reluctant to hire an immigrant, but I kept returning to the determination I had written to Sensei when my doubts resurfaced. A month later, I received a job offer that checked off everything I had been chanting for.
Congratulations! May is our annual commemorative contribution activity. How do you view it today?
Swapna: Before, contributing had always been a practical decision—I should give back for all the resources I use. But this year, I’m contributing
based on faith and a vow.
Of course, kosen-rufu must continue for many more generations to come so that we can bring peace to the world. Without financial support, it’s not possible, both practically and realistically, to reach and support many more people. So, I’m
determined to contribute to kosen-rufu in every aspect of my life.
But also, when I encourage other young women to challenge contribution by sharing my
own experiences, I feel tremendous joy. It proves to me that my own growth and victories directly impact the growth of my environment. This ties in with the “One Youth. Infinite Hope.” movement this year. I want to overcome my fears and grow my own financial capacity and fortune to prove the power of my life and this practice.
Thank you, Swapna, for sharing so openly. What is the key takeaway for you from this experience?
Swapna: Having appreciation and giving hope to others were the key elements in overcoming my feelings of worthlessness. At the same time, the more I recognized the value and purpose of my own life, the more I was willing to contribute to others. I still have my struggles, but I know who I am now. I feel so much more joy.
1. On September 23, 2018, SGI-USA hosted festivals across nine cities
in America, gathering 50,000 young people to stand for the respect and
dignity of life.