16.0 “Say the Magic Word”

by Elizabeth Stephens


I was 16 years old at this time when I heard about something called Buddhism. A fellow student at University High School, named Mary, gave a report in a health class. She had just been to a convention as a Buddhist in Hawaii. She said all you have to do is to say these magic words and you will get everything you want. I thought, “Okay, I’ll try it” since I could do it in my room and didn’t have to go anywhere. Mary became my friend after I took the plunge, and started practicing Buddhism following in her footsteps. I became her shadow and little disciple.

I began to chant for small things, such as money. One of my half sisters threw some coins at me. Wow it works! I then started to chant for larger things like my situation to change. How I wanted a normal life.  Mary wanted me to come to a meeting. I shuddered. She didn’t know about my situation, that I had no friends and never was allowed to go anywhere, especially at night. Selma always had Adrian and I on such a very short leash, however because Selma was in Europe, I told Mary I would go. This independent act demonstrating my defiance of Selma as much as it exhibited my desire to have friends.

Mary picked me up and we drove to a nearby house to my first Buddhist meeting. It was a cozy setting and the house rocked! It was full of energy and chanting. I joined right in and from then on I was sold. I was going to do this thing. When I got home and I was flying high.

I Runaway to My Three Aunts

Then reality struck me.  How in the world was this going to be accomplished? Selma and David were on their way home. The walls started closing in on me. I felt I could not breathe. I could not go backwards; I had to go forward. I decided I would run away and leave this whole thing behind me. The three aunts had continued to be in touch with one of my teachers and a classmate, so I was able to locate their address. One day after school I took the bus in the opposite direction and arrived at their house. I then came face to face with the three older ladies that had taken care of my sister and I so many years before. They did not know how to be around a young person of 16 years old as we were in such different worlds. For some unknown reason a call came in from Selma. How did she know I was there? Adrian got on the phone and said that Selma was crying that I had run away. Really?  Did I say I was very naïve? I bought it, hook, line and sinker. I so wanted to be loved. I left my three aunts and went back to Selma. She was nice to me on the phone and said I could even go to more Buddhist meetings if I came back. I was in total shock. When I got home Selma told me David was so mad at her that he beat her with a frying pan.  She then made me get the pan lying on the back yard grass. This was yet another example of how she played with my mind, while half of me understood it and the other half wanted to keep moving down the road.

Okay, I could now go to Buddhist meetings, wonderful. I saw Mary and I was so happy, “Hey,” I said, “I chanted for the situation to change and now I get to go to meetings, hurray!”  From then on I was rarely at home at night. I would even use the telephone to call for rides. Up to that point I had never used the phone before. What a trip! Now I was always out until about 10 pm or so. I would come in as quietly as I could and would walk down that long hallway. Adrian would always tell me what I missed on TV and I would try to listen politely, yet now I so was excited, living life and having real experiences and not just watching others.

From Selma’s Prison to Street Shakubuku and a Buddhist Fife and Drum Corps

The experiences I started having as a sixteen year old were life changing. These included going up to people on the street, sometimes 50-100 people asking them to attend a similar meeting as I had attended. And remember I stuttered, at these meetings I would stand in front of many people and get practice in public speaking. Of course since I was so new it really didn’t matter what I said, people were happy that I was trying and that I was excited.  I was meeting so many different kinds of people and my horizons were opened. Also there were activities such as being in a drill team with performances in front of government officials and celebrities. There were periodical conventions that large groups gathered together as well as monthly meetings where there were always things to do and new tasks to perform. While the mental abuse at home continued with the mind games, I was now coming into my own and would not let Selma distress me much anymore.

The Only Photo

One evening as I left for a meeting I was aware that something was happening, as there was unusual level of activity in the house, but I was occupied with my Buddhist practice so off I went. When I returned late that night Adrian said, “Everyone is mad at you.” “Why,” I asked? Nancy, my step sister got married in the living room by a Rabbi. Why would this be my fault? I knew the cards were stacked against me. Selma probably told everyone I turned my nose up at the event, when in actuality I knew nothing about the wedding. And yet, Selma made it appear that it was my fault. I did not even get to decide if I wanted to be at Nancy’s wedding or not.


This picture was probably taken by David. Since we were the invisible children we were kept out of sight as much as possible, this was the only picture that shows a least one of us was in the same house. If Selma could have figured out away that she didn’t have to take it she would have. I have no idea of how Adrian got this photo or how it survived.

This photo was taken in 1969 and Adrian was almost 18 years old and was wearing the “first” ugliest dress ever made. I remember it well; it was white on the top, pink on the bottom topped with an obnoxious orange bow. See how ‘happy’ Adrian looked, Selma probably coached her. It looked like she was the adopted child from a poor home and had just dropped in for a visit. But strangely enough, no one said anything to me, not even David about not being in attendance at this event.

A Buddhist Altar in a Jewish Home

My next hurdle was setting up a Buddhist altar in my room. I explained my family situation to my leaders, but they still did not understand as few people ever did. They told me to chant and a way would be made. I had been a Buddhist now for a few months and the leadership was impatient to get along with the program. Finally a date was set. The day I picked was May 3rd as it had significance in the Buddhist context as Master-Disciple Day. I told Selma that some friends were going to come over and put up a black box or in other words, my altar. The time came and Selma was in the house, but was no where to be found. The box, a black sprayed box top was put up and the chanting started and the scroll, (the Gohonzon) was unrolled and put up inside the box top or as it was called enshrined. This group of people chanted so loudly I thought for sure Selma would come in and throw them out of the house, but that never happened. They finished and then they left.

When David came home, boy was he mad. He gave me the ‘you are Jewish and as long as you are in this house you will remain Jewish’ speech and then he walked out of the room and he never said another word about the scroll. Since when was I Jewish? I had never been to a temple or instructed it what this meant. We did celebrate Hanukah instead of Christmas. Was that it? In our living room among the prized possessions were two statues, one of the fat bellied Buddha and one of Confucius, so that was acceptable?

My First Job at General Telephone

The next two years flew by and shortly after I turned 18 in May,  I graduated from University High School. No sooner had I  graduated from high school, than Selma’s plan to get me out on my own unfolded. She told me where to apply for jobs and I took buses and would follow her instructions. On one interview, I applied at the General Telephone Office located  at 525 Wilshire Blvd (a building later purchased by Nichiren Shoshu for it’s North American Headquarters, the Buddhist sect I had joined). I did not get the job and Selma seemed very agitated. She went in and yelled at them and somehow I was reconsidered and hired.

My sister had been moved out a year before when she turned 18, but I hardly noticed as I was so busy with activities. I was a leader now and had many members to take care of, to call and to teach.

Selma once told me that I would be a good Buddhist missionary and I should consider going to a different country. I was shocked at the time, but wondered where this was coming from. As I look back I know now it was only to butter me up and to get me as far away from her and the family as she could.

About James and Elizabeth Stephenshttp://www.worldviews101.comJames and Elizabeth Stephens presently live in Southern California and have been married since 1978. In 1999, James completed a MA in Intercultural Studies specializing in Leadership Development and in 2010 Elizabeth completed an Associate in Science in Business Information Technology.

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