My Song of Human Revolution
Written in 1995 by Don Ross
Hello. My name is Don Ross and I would like to share with you the story of my human revolution. I was most probably infected with HIV when I was 18 or 19 from sharing needles, drinking alcohol and having unprotected sex.
Shooting speed had a profound affect on me. It ripped open the curtain to that which is not physical and I thus began my journey through the mental health system, diagnosed with a temporary form of schitzophrenia. Most of my time was spent journeying through the inner dimensions of my mind with little attention paid to the outside. My search for meaning led me to question and explore the world's holy books and various psychic practices.
On April 4, 1984, a few days from my 21st birthday and still in the heart of my "psychosis," I had an epileptic seizure and went into a coma for three days. As I was told later, my doctor could not determine the cause of my coma. I had a 50/50% chance of living and if I lived I would probably have brain damage. Fortunately, I was surrounded by the intense and loving prayers of my Mother.
My doctor had just begun to practice Buddhism six weeks earlier. Since he could do nothing else for me, he decided to try an experiment: he chanted Nam Myoho Renge Kyo and recited the Lotus Sutra at my bedside. He chanted that if I lived I would have no brain damage and that if I did have brain damage that I should die. I came out of the coma the next day. I woke up thinking I was 17 years old and still in high school. No brain damage could be detected and my memory came back in full when I too began to chant 4 months later.
Those were my darkest months and by August I knew that I had lost all shreds of control over my mind. The negative psychic forces in myself and my environment flowed through me as I dabbled in the dark forces. Certain things happened which literally scared the hell out of me. I sought out a friend who encouraged me to seek out buddhism. She said that I had reached the point where only buddhism is powerful enough to pull me out. In 2 weeks time, I first went to the local Jodo Shinshu temple and then attended a Tibetan Buddhist Fire Ceremony. Neither seemed too crazy with the idea of having someone as crazy as I around. On August 16, I was hanging out in downtown Santa Rosa and was introduced to this practice by a pioneer member, Keiko Malfatti. I remember walking into my first meeting and hearing the sound of chanting. I knew I had found what I was looking for. On August 25, 1984, I received my own Gohonzon. SGI members truly open their homes to anyone.
For 1 year I continued to practice a variety of psychic meditations along with this buddhism. During the August '85 Shakubuku Campaign, I remember walking with Tom Danchuk, who has always been a good friend and mentor to me. I remember talking about my psychic experiences and he reached the point where he had to speak out. He strongly told me that I didn't need all those other practices. He really upset me and I set out to prove him wrong. I remember chanting some really intense daimoku with my partner, Wes Goetzel, and I proceeded to "turn off" all my psychic awarenesses as an experiment. This event is where I mark the end of my 2-1/2 year journey through mental illness. For the first time in several years I was firmly grounded in this physical reality, all the while vigorously campaigning for kosen rufu. I have never had a need to go back. Honestly discarding the provisional teachings and practicing only the True Law, I have been able to develop a keen intuition, grounded in this world and based on the human condition.
Six months later, on Feb 12, 1986, my partner Wes and I both tested HIV+. The next day I had 3 people receive their Gohonzon. I immediately sought guidance from my senior leader. I was strongly encouraged to pull back from activities to chant a million daimoku at 7 hours a day. This I successfully completed in 36 days and then returned to SGI activities. I was again told to not go to buddhist meetings, but rather to use that time I would be at a meeting to chant more daimoku. In 1986 I averaged 5 hours of daimoku a day. For over 4 years, chanting daimoku, planting seeds (geshu) and supporting my leaders by communicating information via telephone to the members was my training ground to become self-motivated.
American society, in general during the 1980's, had much fear of HIV and a distrust of the medical establishment's assessment that HIV is not casually transmitted. In the SGI-USA, it was no different. My simple presence caused fear in some members. Instead of education, the San Francisco leadership followed a reactionary policy toward people with HIV "to protect the members." Again and again we will be banished. I feel very fortunate and protected that even though I disagreed with the guidance, I was able to follow it and as a result have gained tremendous good fortune.
My experience chanting 7 hours a day was an incredible experience which changed my life forever. The causes I made while following this guidance, have become my solid foundation. I have no doubt that this experience enabled me to eradicate some very strange and heavy karma from the past and was exactly the training I needed for what was to come.
I believe that the single greatest benefit I gained during this time was the ability to overcome any illness as it was beginning to manifest. For 3-1/2 years no cold or flu could get a hold of me. I believed that I would be one of the few who would not progress into AIDS. One of my most powerful motivaters was Ikeda Sensei's ichinen and vision toward the twenty-first century. V.P Tsuji's and Pres. Ikeda's guidance to members with illness helped me to crystalize my own determination to live to see May 3, 2001, no matter what happens. Thus, even though my situation in our organization was severe, my life was filled with abundant hope for the future. To this day, I have remained remarkably free of illness with a strong recuperative ability.
After Pres. Ikeda's visit to America in Feb. 1990, I made the decision to return to Gakkai activities. I remember when my HQ leader came to home visit me to see why I was going to meetings again. I remember feeling like the shakles which had bound my actions were broken as I took my destiny back into my own hands. I had changed my karma and I was welcomed back with open arms.
Around Dec. of 1990, when Pres. Ikeda was dismissed by the head temple as chairperson of all lay organizations, I began to experience my first symptoms of HIV disease: fatigue, headaches and rashes. Yet I still refused to acknowledge that it could be HIV-related. The following June Wes became ill with AIDS-related pneumonia (PCP) and almost died. After he was released from the hospital on July 3, I decided it was time to get myself checked out. I hadn't been to a doctor in years. I was diagnosed as HIV Symptomatic with a declining immune system. My health continued to decline and by New Year's 1992 I was on disability.
It was also in 1991 that I needed to process through my anger at certain leaders and my wariness of our organization. At this time, the mud slinging between the priesthood and the Gakkai was at its height. I could not sit by and idly accept either side. So I read everything that came out in the World Tribune, as well as a thick packet of arguements from Nichiren Shoshu. It was clearly a case of the pot calling the kettle black. I chose to support Ikeda Sensei and to dedicate myself to reforming the Gakkai from within to create a truly humanistic organization embracing all people and to fight forever against all forms of authoritarianism, both inside and outside of the SGI.
During the first 6 months of 1992, my health was poor. Even though I had no major opportunistic infections, my energy level was very low. My attitude had shifted from believing that HIV would not affect me to believing that I was dying. That belief was speeding up the process. In June, I began to volunteer at Face to Face, the Sonoma County AIDS Network. I joined their Board of Directors as the client representative and received training to begin doing AIDS education in the schools and community. This action enabled me to start contributing in a more direct manner than ever before and helped me to gain a more positive light in my attitude toward living with HIV.
1992 also brought major challenges in my district. At that time, our district was comprised of two small groups in Santa Rosa and one large group in Clearlake (about 60 miles northeast of Santa Rosa in the mountains), with most of our active members in Clearlake. Within about a year's time 1/2 of the Clearlake members were either siding with the priesthood or claiming independence of all lay organizations. Needless to say, this got our attention.
From 1991 to 1996 I traveled to Clearlake regularly to attend meetings and encourage members. I remember home visiting the independent members with senior leaders which invariably went no where as we tried to talk them back into the Soka Gakkai. Sometimes strictness is necessary. Other times it is counter-productive. I decided that my best course of action was to create bridges of the heart, rather than tearing them down. This I fought for with dialogue with my leaders and it has proven to be helpful.
The tendencies to oppress and divide have been present in the world's religions and politics for a long time. It is human nature. In many ways I see HIV as similiar: insidious, it is the virus in the lion's body which causes disharmony and, ultimately, a weakening of the core. It has been my determination to overcome HIV by overcoming these influences, both in myself and in my environment. By continually building bridges of trust and friendship, those members who have left will be able to return to the SGI family as they are ready and as we become able to fully embrace all kinds of people.
In 1993 the Independant Movement in Clearlake was stronger and had greater unity than the SGI group. Friends pitted against friends as each tried to do what they believed to be right. This year too brought further decline to my immune system leading to my AIDS diagnosis in Nov. 1993.
After the initial shock of receiving my AIDS diagnosis, my first reaction was "Good! Now it's time to turn my immune system around and show the greatest actual proof." Since that time, my immune system has either stayed steady or slowly built back up. So far, so good.
1994 was a pivotal year in many regards. In Clearlake, the SGI group began to get stronger and established unity again. Bridges of friendship began being formed, old friendships renewed and dialogue began to happen. The two groups were and are still separate as this saga continues, but the walls are being taken down and the friendships have become strong and true.
By early 1994, Wes' health was declining rapidly. He had been a member of the SGI since 1969 and had chanted for most of that time. His practice had been especially strong since 1984. We had lived together on and off for about 9 years and even though we were no longer partners, I was very concerned for him. I knew that when the time came, he wanted to die at home. I really wanted to be there for him, so I set up my life to be there when he needed me.
I went through a lot of grief at this time over his failing health. So much so that when I took a few days vacation in the Sierras for the solstice, I deeply contemplated life and death while chanting to the stars. Ideas like energy never dissipates began to click for me. This was the final key I needed to come to grips with Wes' death. Within 24 hours of returning home, I received a phone call from his mother. It was time. I moved back in and took care of him during his last 3 weeks.
He soon got to the point where he couldn't chant for long, but I could see that he was doing something, digging deep into his life, because his life condition was strong. I had just read some of V.P. Tsuji's guidance which clicked for me, "When you can transfer this awareness that you are buddha to a feeling, that is Ichinen Sanzen." I felt this was where he was in his practice.
Wes was one of a group of teenagers who went to high school together. They joined the SGI in the Summer of '69 and are among the pioneers of the kosen rufu movement in Sonoma County. His greatest desire was to have this group of friends chanting together once again. His dream became reality in the last few days of his life.
We began to have tosos in his home every few days. We increased the pace of the tosos as Wes got weaker. It was truly amazing to see the effectiveness of the sound of daimoku in alleviating pain and inducing restfulness, whether it was my voice alone or a large group. Every day I read to him the gosho, "Heritage of the Ultimate Law of Life." When his death became imminent, we called a five hour toso.
When the toso began, Wes slipped into unconsciousness. There were well over 50 people there chanting daimoku for him, including his mother and sister. The house was pulsating and he was very peaceful. When the toso ended at midnight, his lungs began to fill with fluid. At 1 a.m., the house emptied with only 6 of us remaining, including his mother glued to his bedside. It looked like it was going to be a long night. By 1:45, several people had bedded down, but I couldn't even think of sleeping and began chanting to his Gohonzon. About three minutes later, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, "We think he's about ready to die."
I grabbed two other members there and we chanted. We started blasting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo and in less than a minute, the Gohonzon began to rock. I thought it was an earthquake and then it sounded like BOOM!: the sound of the earth shaking in six directions. In the same moment I realized the experience was internal. While Wes peacefully slipped out of his body in the other room, I experienced the blast of his life-force fusing back into the enlightened aspect of the universe. It was so intense, I thought the others had felt it too. But they hadn't.
It was the most incredible experience of my entire life. Wes left me with the greatest of actual proofs. At the moment of his death I understood and shared ichinen sanzen with him. It was like riding the tail of a comet. For this I have the greatest appreciation.
Wes died at the age of 44 on July 16, the day Nichiren submitted his Rissho Ankoku Ron in 1260. This treatise talks in length about the fundamental cause of epidemics in society. I have struggled deeply with this. Nichiren Daishonin points out that the poison of stupidity is the cause. But what does this mean? It means ignorance of the workings of cause and effect. But what does this mean to me? And that was when I awakened to my confidence in my ability to create the causes for whatever future I desired. The web of darkness clouding my wisdom was the slander of doubt in myself.
From 1992 to 1996, I was extremely involved in the AIDS community. After my initial stepping forward to volunteer, everything began to snowball. By late '92, I was coordinating Face to Face's HIV Speakers Bureau, which subsequesntly became one of the most successful AIDS education programs in California. Beginning in the Fall of '93, I helped found the AIDS Interfaith Network of Sonoma County, a small organization dedicated to holding monthly interfaith healing services for those affected by HIV. I considered this my practice of shoju, planting seeds by creating bridges of friendship and understanding between people of different faiths.
For 4 years I was consumed by HIV. Living with it, encouraging others with it, educating the community and developing interfaith resources became my prime focus. With death all around me, I began to accept again the fact that odds were I would eventually die of AIDS. The significance of May 3, 2001 began to change in my mind from not only to live to see the 21st century, no matter what happens, to also be free of HIV by 2001. Whether in this body or my next I don't care.
For whatever reasons, I am extremely fortunate to have been able to sustain my good health. In hindsight I would not change any period in my life. I have always chosen the path less trodden and I have learned compassion for all people as a result. Birth, old age, sickness and death: life goes round and round each day.
In 1996, I moved to San Diego with my lover and partner, Micahel. Letting go of my many commitments in Sonoma County was needed to free my mind of constant HIV & AIDS. I took one year away from AIDS education and began working again in the epidemic as a volunteer. I know in my heart that my original determination to live and take action has brought me this far free of any major opportunistic infections.
As a mighty phoenix of San Francisco, the city of my birth, it is time to open wide the door to the 21st Century to create what will come after this age of AIDS and disharmony to continue to live to create ever more value in this Era of Great Change.
As SGI President Daisaku Ikeda so beautifully expresses my determination, "A great human revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation, and further, will enable a change in the destiny of all mankind."
Copyright by Don Ross. Written for SGI-USA's weekly newspaper, The World Tribune, but never printed by them. However, it's been online since 1997.
Don's Early Adventures in Consciousness,