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hendoku-iyaku (変毒為薬): changing poison into medicine

There I was, arriving at Literary Arts, “a community-based nonprofit with a mission to engage readers, support writers, and inspire the next generation with great literature” in Portland, Oregon, ready to do my presentation about Timeless Feminist Wisdom, when a staff person gestured outside to the police tape and police cars blocking the intersection, and told me the event had been suddenly postponed, due to a shooting in the area.

My partner and I, and our beloved 89-year-old friend who’d just shown up, having ridden the bus across town and across the river, embraced, piled into our pickup, and drove to a favorite woman-owned pizza place for dinner.

This part of my story illustrates an example of transforming poison into medicine—a scary police action and postponed feminist presentation transformed into a spontaneous evening of good food and conversation with beloved friends.

But this story has more to it.

When I read the local news online, I learned the details of the shooting that had killed one man and injured another. Road rage, the headline said. As I read on, I realized I had once been in a similar situation, but mine had a very different outcome.

The article said a financier in a Mercedes Benz was parked, partially blocking a lane of traffic, when a guy driving around him yelled and gave him the finger. The Mercedes driver returned the salute. The guy then stopped his car, got out, and angrily walked up to the Mercedes driver’s window. The Mercedes driver had a gun and shot the guy in the chest, killing him instantly. Meanwhile, an out-of-town conventioneer, who had just exited the nearby hotel, saw the body in the street and started filming with his phone. The Mercedes driver then pointed the gun at the conventioneer and shot him in the leg. Then the Mercedes driver drove away. After a few blocks he stopped, called 911 and turned himself in.

The article had quotes. The last words of the guy shot in the chest were something like, “Hey man! Sorry! I was just having a bad day!” And the article detailed the recent downward spiral of the financial fortunes of the financier driving the Mercedes. He was having a bad day, too.

A shocking, intense story with gratuitous violence. But what struck me about it was, that long ago, I’d been in almost the exact situation, but I didn’t shoot anyone. Here’s what happened, way back in the 1980s, a few years after I’d started practicing Nichiren Buddhism.

I was driving a charter bus in Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. When I pulled out into a narrow crowded 25 mph street, I invaded the personal space of another driver. Okay, I cut him off. I’m not perfect. When he zoomed to the wrong side of the street to pass me, I suspected he was planning to cut me off, slam on his brakes and force me to rear end him. So, I took my foot off the accelerator and covered the brake. Sure enough, he cut in and slammed on his brakes, while I safely braked to a stop. He jumped out of his car shaking his fist and cussing me as he charged up to my bus window.

My window was closed. I kept both my hands on the wheel in view, avoided eye contact, sat perfectly still and silently chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with the intention to transform poison into medicine.

My bus was filled with drunk New York prison wardens (it’s a long story) who leapt out of their seats screaming and yelling for me to open the door so they could get off the bus and beat up this jerk in the road.

I kept the door closed, continued my silent chanting as I sat motionless, avoiding eye contact.

Eventually, the guy in the road got tired of jumping up and down yelling. He got in his car and drove away. The drunk New York prison wardens got back in their seats. And I drove them safely to our destination for dinner on Pier 39.

Poison into medicine!

It’s not just entitled white guys in America whose road rage can be calmed with daimoku. It affects Indigenous guys in Peru, too.

Here’s the before picture: I was playing panpipes at a ceremony with my dear panpipe associates. Another group was playing, too. At the end of the ceremony, as the other group played music while they filed off the site and down the mountain, one of them – on purpose – bumped into one of the musicians in our group. Next thing I knew, it was a drunken brawl.

I walked away to where the women dancers were waiting for the fighting to end. In frustration, one woman told me, “They always do this.” Really? With panpipes?

So, with permission from the group leader, I taught the panpipe group guys to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, explaining how the energy unites us and brings out our highest selves.

Sometime later, after a government-sponsored contest, the winners and our group held an informal contest. When I saw a man from our group react with anger when he got pushed by a panpipe player from the other group, I tapped his shoulder and whispered in his ear, “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.” He redirected his rage into his musical performance.

Our two groups were physically pressed together, each group playing a different song as loud as possible to see which group would falter first. Eventually the president of the other group held out his hand to congratulate the president of our group. They gave up. And we won.

The power of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to transform poison into medicine.

When I and my poet colleague return to Literary Arts to finally present Timeless Feminist Wisdom: A Poetic Conversation Between Adela Zamudio and Adrienne Rich, we’ll have had more time to further polish our presentation, and I’m confident it will be even more wonderful than if we had presented it as originally planned, before all the sudden obstacles that led to poison turning into medicine.


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I have been practicing Nichiren Buddhism for 40+ years and making beaded jewelry for 25 years, specializing in Buddhist chanting beads, also known as JUZU.

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