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A Climber Awakens on Kilimanjaro

February 12, 2018

By Spencer West, Toronto

Spencer West with Wilson Meikuaya, a Maasai warrior in Kenya, 2010Spencer West with Wilson Meikuaya, a Maasai warrior in Kenya, 2010

In my 36 years I have experienced many challenges. The first was 15 years ago when I told my friends and family I was gay. I feel very fortunate that everyone in my life was very accepting and showed nothing but love and support. 

However, the religion I had been raised to believe in did not support who I was, and at 21 I was left in what felt like a spiritual wasteland and I was not sure where to turn next. Over the next 10 years, I studied other religions, looking for something that fit my ideals and morals with little to no luck. During that time I had left my home in the United States and immigrated to Toronto for my job and became a motivational speaker for a social enterprise called Me to We. 

This organization had staff housing at that time for those of us moving to Toronto, which is where I met Alex Meers, who I didn’t know then and who would become my best friend and bring me to the practice of Nichiren Buddhism and to so many other life adventure   

We both work at an incredible place that can also be highly stressful, not to mention I travel almost 200 days out of the year, which is much less glamorous than it sounds. Alex and I quickly became best friends, and I started to notice that in times of stress or hardship he always seemed calm, collected, and able to face anything. Basically I would become annoyed while under stress and wanted to know how Alex did it. That’s when Alex introduced me to SGI and chanting and began what I consider to be my first human revolution.

When I was in town I would attend introduction to Buddhism classes at the SGI Canada Culture Centre in Toronto and began chanting on my own. This went on for about a year. During the time, Alex, David, our other buddy, and I launched a campaign called Redefine Possible with a goal of climbing 5,895-metre Mount Kilimanjaro and raising half a million dollars for clean water for East Africa. 

In June 2012, we set out to climb this highest mountain in Africa, which you might think is not that overly ambitious because lots of people climb mountains, including Kilimanjaro. At this point in the story I think it’s important to tell you I don’t have any legs. Surprise! I was born with legs but with a genetic disease that caused the muscles not to work. As a kid they were removed just below my pelvis so I could get around better. 

So I was attempting to climb Kilimanjaro on my hands and in my wheelchair, which is no small feat! Turns out when we got there summiting this epic mountain would be much harder than we ever expected. This was because I was going to have to walk most of it on my hands and allow my friends to physically help me when I couldn’t keep going. 

Spencer and Alex (walking behind Spencer) climbing toward the summit of Mt. KilimanjaroSpencer and Alex (walking behind Spencer) climbing toward the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro

I remember really struggling the first few days and feeling disconnected and not myself. As we continued to climb I realized that we hadn’t chanted since we arrived on the mountain. This was day three of eight and a half days. When we got to camp I told Alex I was struggling and realized I needed to chant. We invited David to join us and we walked away from camp and found this rock that literally overlooked the world. We were so high up on the mountain that the world had disappeared and in front of us was just a sea of clouds. We chanted for a good 15 minutes, and during that time I realized this practice was what I had been looking for and I decided to become a full-fledged SGI member. 

We eventually made it to the top, despite Alex and David getting massive altitude sickness. By then we had reached well over our goal to provide funding for clean water to 12,500 people for life in East Africa.

Spencer (centre) with Alex (left) and David at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. They were able to raise well over their goal of half a million dollars and provide funding for clean water to 12,500 people for life in East Africa.Spencer (centre) with Alex (left) and David at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. They were able to raise well over their goal of half a million dollars and provide funding for clean water to 12,500 people for life in East Africa.

A few months after we came home I received my Gohonzon and became an SGI member. Not only was I enamoured by the teachings and the basic principles, but for the first time as a gay man I felt like I had found a spiritual practice that accepted me for who I was. The other thing that was so helpful as I started to study is that I was able to put words to the work that I had been doing for the last nine years. I work for an organization that empowers people to change the world, but more importantly I was and continue to use my story and platform to spread kosen-rufu[1]. I knew the work I was doing was important, but it wasn’t until I could put a name to it––which was “World peace through empowering others,” I really started to have a greater impact and feel more connected to what I was doing.

I started chanting either out loud or in my head before every speech to help empower folks to find their own inner strength and recognize how they could spread kosen-rufu as well. I began to deepen my faith and in 2016 I attended my first Young Men’s Conference at the SGI Canada Caledon Centre for Culture and Education, which truly installed a new sense of excitement and confidence in my practice. At the conference I made a determination to come back to the Young Men’s Conference, which I did this past June, and also to continue to spread kosen-rufu through my professional life. 

The past year turned out to be one of my hardest years yet, due to constant travel, an election in my home country, the United States, which did not turn out the way I had hoped. Also, lots of changes in my job left me feeling alone again, without much of a support system and unsure where to turn. I begin chanting even harder trying to be thankful that this time I had a way to focus my frustration and sadness into daimoku[2]

However, after a few months nothing was happening and it felt as if things were getting worse. But I continued to chant, nonetheless, and this past spring all of the things I had been chanting for slowly came into view. I’ve now realized I was going through yet another large human revolution just like I had on Kilimanjaro and that I needed to recognize, as important support is, it’s also crucial to recognize how strong we are as individuals by tapping into that inner Buddha nature we all have and keep that light burning bright. 

Spencer with his family in Stanley Park, Vancouver. From left: Annie (sister), Spencer, Tonette (mother), and Kenny (father)Spencer with his family in Stanley Park, Vancouver. From left: Annie (sister), Spencer, Tonette (mother), and Kenny (father)

I’m not sure what my next mountain will be, but I feel confident and find comfort in the fact that my faith and practice will be there when I’m on that next climb. As President Ikeda encouraged us in his message to the Caledon Young Men’s Conference this year: 

“A lantern can light up a place that has been dark for a hundred, a thousand, or ten thousand years” (WND-1, 923). Just as a single flame always illuminates the darkness, the Mystic Law enables each person to transform a life of unending problems and suffering. This great Law allows us to shine our brightest, and lead the most meaningful and valuable life possible, together with our friends. 

Spencer West lives in Toronto and is a motivational speaker for Me to We, a social enterprise founded in 2008 by Canadian brothers Craig Kielburger and Marc Kielburger.

Watch Spencer West in "Treasure the Connection" Click Here


[1] Kosen-rufu: Literally, it means “to widely declare and spread [the Lotus Sutra]”; to secure lasting peace and happiness for all humankind through the propagation of Nichiren Buddhism. More broadly, kosen-rufu refers to the process of establishing the humanistic ideals of Nichiren Buddhism in society.

[2] Daimoku: Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo in Nichiren Daishonin’s teachings.