The Courage to Grow Beyond My Expectations

Azzurra Rinaldi, Italy
A smiling woman standing against a white wall
Anna Catalano

Azzurra Rinaldi was content in her dream job as a university lecturer. Then, after being introduced to Buddhism, she decided to use her Buddhist practice to open a career path in highlighting gender inequality, which she had been told was not an option.

I started practicing Buddhism in 2013 after losing my first daughter to cancer when she was only three years old. Until then, I had been fortunate in life. I was thirty-two years old, had two beautiful daughters and the job I had always wanted. After the loss of my daughter, however, everything seemed meaningless. Starting to practice Buddhism was like being reborn. I gave birth again, to another daughter, and then another.

My Buddhist practice rekindled this dream . . . And so, at the age of forty, I decided I would try and pursue that path.

I was moving full speed ahead in my profession. I was teaching at a university, which was a dream I had had from a young age. But I had another dream tucked away, which was to become an expert in gender economics and highlight the disparities women face every day in society and in the workplace. When I started working, my professor had been very clear: gender economics was not an option in my country, I wouldn’t be able to publish or advance in my career. And so, I shelved that.

My Buddhist practice rekindled this dream, however. And so, at the age of forty, I decided I would try and pursue that path. Then the Coronavirus pandemic broke out and a lockdown was imposed. I found myself at a sudden stop. The temptation of an old tendency arose—to put other people’s needs first and neglect myself. There was a sense of having to choose, that it was not possible to do everything I wanted to do along with what I needed to do.

This time, however, I mustered my resolve and decided to give myself 100 percent to my goal, despite the feeling of it all being too much to take on. Nichiren writes that “winter always turns to spring,” and I was determined that I was going to experience that springtime. Taking inspiration from President Daisaku Ikeda’s example and writings, I promised myself I would have an experience that would encourage others; an experience clearly showing the incredible mechanisms that are activated in life when one practices Buddhism with a strong and clear goal that is rooted in the desire to contribute to good in the world.

What happened was beyond all expectations.

A Springtime of Life

In 2020, I had the opportunity to be part of a working group in the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of the Italian parliament), which deals with women’s empowerment. For me, this was clearly a benefit of my Buddhist practice. In chats with my colleagues there following the lockdown, we began to discover that we women were all feeling frustrated and undervalued.

Out of this, came our campaign, DateciVoce (“give us voice”), demanding a 50 percent representation of women on task forces and in places where important decisions are made for our country. We moved heaven and earth, with our message reaching nearly forty-eight million people, including the Italian prime minister.

What had seemed impossible suddenly started to happen. Nine new experts were called to join the task forces dealing with the pandemic, and I was interviewed by a national TV news program as an expert on gender economics as well as a promoter of DateciVoce.

Immediately after that, I was invited to talk about the economy, women and the job market on prime-time TV. And following that, I began to get requests from media companies both in Italy and abroad.

Reaching Further

I was sure all this was happening in response to my prayer and determination, and so I decided to double down and set a new goal. I wanted this become the focus of my profession and to receive payment for work in this field.

Perhaps for the first time, I began to truly believe that I was in fact inherently a Buddha.

Buddhism teaches that we only become happy together with others. I find this to be deeply true. I was determined to have a great experience to share with other women and my fellow Soka Gakkai members, demonstrating that we have the ability to fulfil our dreams. I began each morning by studying President Ikeda’s writings, and perhaps for the first time, I began to truly believe that I was in fact inherently a Buddha.

Shortly after this, I received an unexpected email from a company that hosts a major annual national event in which they highlight three themes that are fundamental to Italy’s growth. They had chosen me as a speaker on gender economics. And this time I would be paid!

A few days later, I received another phone call, this time from a German member of the European Parliament. She asked if I would accept an important assignment from the European Commission, evaluating how post-COVID recovery funds allocated by the EU would affect men and women differently. The work would bring to light inequalities and propose ways to use these funds to achieve equality.

This gave me the opportunity to corroborate with concrete data the message of fairness that I am trying to convey and to make the case more clearly and credibly. In addition, it has given me a lot of visibility.

I founded a new pressure group to lobby to ensure that EU funds benefit women. We launched a petition that in a few days collected more than 45,000 signatures, parliamentarians received us and began to support us, and we met with ministers. In addition, I received an invitation from a famous Italian TV show host to talk about the gender imbalance and propose solutions.

In the last year, I have been interviewed by many Italian and international journals and newspapers. I began working with companies to help them improve their gender balance, and finally, I founded my own company, Equonomics, promoting initiatives and strategies to improve gender equality.

My aim, and the focus of my Buddhist practice, is to contribute to the realization of a vision of women as the cornerstone of a new, more humane society. All of this would never have happened without the courage I have brought out of my life through Buddhist practice. I am often asked how I am able to carry out everything I do in my life. I always answer that it is due to my Buddhist practice. I feel happy and grateful, and I’m determined to show more and more actual proof that Buddhist practice works and spread courage and hope in society.

Adapted from issue 686, December 15, 2020, of Il Nuovo Rinascimento, SGI-Italy.