Encouragement Through Example: Theresa Coleman

By Ken Johnson

“A coward cannot become a Buddha. We cannot attain Buddhahood unless we possess the heart of a lion. The harsher the situation, the bolder the stand we must take. This is the essence of the Soka Gakkai spirit.” –President Ikeda
Encouragement: in between the en and the ment, there is that word, courage. As I see it, it means to give courage, the ability to fight on against all odds. The mighty lion’s roar!!! How do we get courage? How can we be couraged and be encouraging? .

As a young teenager, I lost hope in my life. I had tried overdosing on pills when I was drafted in the army. After I was discharged from basic training, I went to Georgetown University, and lasted four years before the darkness overtook me. I felt life was not worth living, but fortunately (although I became more depressed), I recognized that death was no answer. So I chose to exist but not much more than that. I gave up on life.

While living with my mother, I cared for my nephews. I watched and learned as they grew, crawled, cried, smiled, and found humanity. I realized that I was not as evil as the drug dealers and users who had occupied my block. I organized a block club, a neighborhood watch group, and enrolled in a job training program in1994. It was there that I was introduced to this Buddhism by a tall, attractive woman who, like me, was undergoing her own struggles in life. In March 1996, I received the Gohonzon. To be honest, I did so primarily to impress this lady. Through this woman, I met Theresa Coleman who has been practicing this Buddhism for 20 years. I have learned much about courage from this amazing person. 

Theresa battled through strokes, comas, reduced vision, and reduced hearing. She was short, overweight; had a facial stroke and burn marks; and she was wheelchair bound. But she had a strong determination and a winning smile. I was new to this practice of Buddhism and wondered what Buddhism really meant. I went often to her apartment to chant and do gongyo. I’d look at her physical condition and feel sorry for her, but I also felt “well, I got to go, to show compassion.” Often when we did gongyo together, she would stop me and say: “You did not say that right! Let’s do it again, the right way.” In my mind, I would say: “Not again! No, not again ...” Sometimes, because of this strict practice of doing gongyo, it would take us hours to finish our prayers. I now realize this was Theresa’s great true compassion.

I felt my life slowly changing as I chanted. For the first time in 18 years, I had a steady job. Ronnie Avent and I made sure Theresa got to district meetings and kosen-rufu gongyos. Instead of skipping morning gongyo and doing an ultra fast evening gongyo, I learned to take care to do a precise, crisp, rhythmic gongyo, and I increased my time for chanting Nam Myoho-renge-kyo to an hour.

One day, I called Theresa and she was not feeling well. Somehow I said, “Get ready; I am coming to take you to the hospital in my gray ghost Olds. No ‘ifs’ or ‘buts,’ I will be there.” I never told Theresa that I had no idea where those words came from. I now know that it was the fulfillment of our first morning prayer. We got to that hospital and, according to the doctors, if she had waited for her regular appointment, she would have never kept it. She often reminded me of this experience. 

I realized later that this was the essence of caring for and encouraging our members. It was as President Ikeda wrote: “Our fellow members are all family with whom we are linked by deep bonds. If we support and protect this family, they will act as protective forces in our environment, supporting and keeping us from harm in lifetime after lifetime. This is a profound principle of Buddhism.” 

In the last few years, Theresa’s physical condition took a turn for the worst and it was hard for her to be the Buddha…. Her kidneys failed and she needed a kidney transplant. But she fought on.

In 2001, her doctors had run out of veins to place dialysis catheters. In the hospital, the doctors gathered and cried, as they told Theresa there was nothing they could do and they instructed her to “Please prepare yourself to die.”

Theresa's response was "Do you think I should die because you think so? I have the Gohonzon and I am not going." And she didn't.

From the Gosho: “Believe in this mandala with all your heart. Nam Myoho-renge-kyo is like the roar of a lion. What sickness can therefore be an obstacle?”

Another team of doctors found a way to dialysis Theresa. So she got better, and left the hospital after a year’s stay, and returned to her apartment in 2002. That same day, she became ill and passed out. When she awoke, she again found herself in the hospital. When I saw her on Saturday, she was so upset with the hospital and with being in the hospital again. She cried and moaned until her tears mixed with the blood from her nose. I left, not knowing what to do.

Later that night, her boyfriend brought her some guidance from Mr. Yokota, which stated that we should not allow other people to determine our self worth because we are the Buddha. He also explained that we suffer because we become attached to our suffering.

Theresa happily shared that guidance with anyone who visited her. She told us that she even shared it with her non-practicing sister, who said it was the most profound statement she had ever heard. Theresa’s mood was brighter, but I knew that soon she would start to focus on the hospital and how they were not treating her right. So we did a great gongyo, amid the whir of the dialysis machine.

Then I pulled out A Chocolate Taste,* a book of erotic poems by Saphron, an SGI-USA member, whom I had met at FNCC, and who had also come to DC to promote her book. In her foreword, Saphron wrote, “Writing and reading erotica means that we accept ourselves. Our life, lust, and longing are all powerful declarations that we are human. So let go. Relax.”

While the nurse was tending to Theresa, I started to read from the foreword and a couple of the poems. Now, Theresa had been bedridden for awhile, but she sat up on her haunches and howled with pleasure. I looked at the nurse and wondered what she thought about this juxtaposition of prayer and erotica. Did she find the poems offensive?

Nancy, the nurse, sensed our unease, and said, “Don’t worry — the patient is happy and I am enjoying myself. And don’t worry about the other patients in the hall: Nurse’s orders.”

So, I continued reading and Theresa continued laughing very deeply. She was happy! For over two hours, we just laughed. By now Theresa was sitting up in bed… her eyes full of life. Her mother came in during this time and we read a couple of the rawest poems to her. She smiled too. Apparently, the only problem was my delivery of the poems. The women wanted more passion, more…, well you get the idea. We left the hospital with bright smiles. Janice, who has known Theresa longer than me, said “Kenny, you did not know it, but that book was the jewel in the robe.” 

Theresa fought on, creating value by sharing this Buddhism with anyone she met: hospital staff, her neighbors, or her family. In fact, her mother felt the power of our faith and chanted with her daughter.

Theresa had her periods of doubt and always had pain, but she displayed great courage. Her Buddhist family rallied around to support her. Before I gave this experience and a song at our world peace gongyo, I read and sang to Theresa and her mother in her hospital room. They started crying after I was through. Theresa said I'm crying because I’m so happy. 

One of Theresa’s doctors wrote a note saying how honored he was to have Theresa as a patient.

Theresa's Buddhist family, Ronnie Avent, Janice Bennett, Mollene Fowlkes, Matt Brown, and others followed her from hospital to nursing home to hospital. I don't think we missed a hospital in the Baltimore-Washington area, as her condition worsened. She went into comas a few times, but always came back to us. 

On Sept. 14, 2003, Janice and I were at Theresa’s bedside chanting Nam Myoho-renge-kyo when she went into cardiac arrest. The doctors rushed us out as they went to work. A nurse said, “We’ll call you back when she is stable.” We sat in a side room and chanted. I suddenly realized that this time was different. I send Janice to locate Theresa's mom. 

The doctor emerged and said the situation was grave and would Theresa's mother give permission to let Theresa go. Mom said, as she had many times before, “Do not stop!” I chanted with all my heart and with the understanding that if this was the end, it was okay. The doctors came back and said, “we did all we could, but she’s gone.” I chanted for a while longer. Then Janice told me I had to go and help Theresa’s mom. She was sitting in the room where her daughter had passed, saying, “Please baby, wake up!” How I got through the next two hours with Theresa lying there and her mother fighting the cold reality of death, I don’t know.

Theresa's memorial service was a wonderful joyous ceremony. Her fellow chorus members performed songs she loved to hear and sing. I brought the erotic book, A Taste of Chocolate, and showed it to Theresa’s mom. She laughed when I said, “Maybe I’ll read from this book.” I just talked about my time with Theresa.

And I read the song I wrote for Theresa and later sang to her:

“In Buddhism, we either win or lose
And I refuse to lose
Ain’t no way
I refuse to lose

I’m not singing them
Poor me me blues
I refuse to lose
Victory is what I chose”

Then Angela Baden explained what our Buddhism is about. You see, Theresa had been busy spreading Buddhism to her friends and family.

Theresa fought to the end. She is actual proof that Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism and the primary practice of chanting Nam Myoho-renge-kyo can create victory even in the face of death.

And I fight on... encouraged by Theresa’s strength and by my own growth in finding the courage to embrace all of my life and all of the people and circumstances in it. And encouraged by the true beauty of people like Theresa. It been nearly a year since her moving on to the next stage, I smile and cry as I finish ...

*There is a website for “A Chocolate Taste” at: http://www.conchshellpress.com/


Copyright 2004 Gakkai Experiences Online