Living My "Right Life"

By James Lecesne
[Excerpted from Living Buddhism, June, 2001]

When I became a Buddhist in 1984, I desperately wanted to improve the circumstances of my life. For almost ten years I had struggled as an actor and writer, while holding onto a vague notion that I would someday make a significant contribution to the world through my work.

At thirty-four, time was running out.

Within a year of beginning my Buddhist practice, many of my dreams were in the process of being realized, and I felt that I was on my way to living the life I had always imagined for myself. I had just completed my first professional writing assignment for Radio City Music Hall; I was about to star in my own one-person show off-Broadway; and I was in a relationship that I considered stable and nurturing. It was an exciting time, one that seemed full of promise.

That's when I decided to stop chanting. The decision was purely practical. I told myself that the physical strain of doing eight shows a week was too much, and I felt chanting would have to wait. I convinced myself that Buddhism wasn't really responsible for my improved conditions, and reasoned that things would have turned out the same way whether I had chanted or not. Perseverance, fate, hard work these were the elements that caused my life to happen, not Buddhism.

Two months after I stopped chanting, my show unexpectedly closed, my relationship ended and I was out on the streets looking for a job and a place to live.

Then, seven years passed.

One afternoon, I was complaining about my life with my friend Eve, and she suggested that we go back to her apartment and chant Nam Myoho-renge-kyo.

I explained why I didn't see much sense to the practice. In my mind, it was simply proof that you had to be careful what you prayed for because it only led to disappointment. Eve pointed out that when I was chanting my life seemed to improve and when I stopped chanting my life became more difficult. She suggested that I might want to try chanting again, as an experiment, just to see if things improved. This way I could see the law of cause and effect using chanting and my own life.

It was as if someone had diagrammed the most basic mathematical equation that had always been within my life and has always been true. But because I lacked the wisdom to add it up, the simple law of cause and effect remained hidden.

I went home that afternoon and immediately re-enshrined the Gohonzon. It was a matter of days (three, to be exact) before my life began to respond. Opportunities presented themselves with miraculous speed, and those little mystical connections began to happen. Opportunities to write and perform started to come my way.

But that was just the beginning.

One morning I heard a report about teenage suicide on the radio. I was astounded to learn that more than thirty-three percent of reported suicides in this country are related to homosexuality. My first thought was, "Why isn't anyone doing anything to convince these young people that their lives are valuable?" Then I remembered my own difficult adolescence, the pain of feeling ashamed and different, the awareness that I lived slightly on the outside of everything, just because of my sexual orientation.

The day that I heard that radio report, I sat down and wrote a theater piece. It was about a thirteen-year-old boy named Trevor, who begins to recognize his sexuality and feel his difference in the world. Despite rejection by his friends, misunderstanding by his parents, and an unsuccessful suicide, Trevor triumphs and choose to live another day.

This humorous and moving account of one gay boy's coming of age and his determination to live became a one-person show and was a big success and won many awards.

"Trevor" went on to inspire a short film, which won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short, as well as awards at the Berlin, the Hamptons, and the Sundance Film Festivals.

When HBO broadcast the film in 1998, I worked with the filmmakers to create a non-profit organization to begin operation of the first (and only) national 24-hour toll-free suicide prevention hotline (800-850-8070) for gay, lesbian, transgender, and questioning youth. Named "The Trevor Helpline," the hotline received more than 1,500 calls from teens around the country in the first two weeks. The website (http://www.thetrevorproject.org/) averages 5,000 hits a month.

Although the story of Trevor sprang from the depths of my own life, it has reached out to span both time and space, touching others, and in some cases saving lives.

I have learned that I don't ever have to change or deny who I am to make my dreams a reality. I have everything I need to become a Buddha in this world in my present form.