Though it’s not often talked about in secular circles, Seattle is a city of some historical import in the world of Buddhism, which, as a city on the Pacific Rim, isn’t too surprising. It is particularly important in establishing the spread of Nichiren Buddhism (NB) in the United States. In 1960, Seattle was the third city in the US (after Honolulu and San Francisco) to be visited by Daisaku Ikeda, the third president of the Soka Gakkai, an organization of lay Nichiren Buddhist followers. Seattle was also the location of an incident that later widened a chasm between the NB priesthood and the members of the Soka Gakkai.
Though your correspondent has been a practitioner of Nichiren Buddhism, and a member of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI-USA), for over 18 years, the act of summarizing this form of Buddhism is exceedingly difficult, but here goes: The practice is based on the writings of Nichiren Daishonin, a 13th Century Buddhist priest in Japan who based his teachings on Siddartha’s Lotus Sutra, wherein it is expounded that all people are Buddhas in their own right, though they are blinded to this fact in varying degrees. The Lotus Sutra also teaches that we can become enlightened to this fact in the here and now. Nichiren Daishonin taught that this can be achieved by chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo (literally, “I adhere to the Mystic Law of Cause and Effect as Expounded in the Lotus Sutra”). NB differs from the majority of schools of Buddhist thought known in the West in various of ways. For example, it is taught that earthly desires lead to enlightenment–something that tends to drive Zen Buddhists crazy. Also, the concept of faith in NB is not the same as blind faith as taught in other religions, NB teaches that faith should be proof-based. For further information, the curious are encouraged to visit the SGI USA’s website.
From the 60s through to the early 90s, the NB organization in the US was called Nichiren Shoshu of America, or NSA (NSA later changed to SGI USA when the lay members were excommunicated). The organization showed its Japanese origins in ways both good and bad. Good: They truly embraced everyone, with members from all walks of life, from drug dealers and prostitutes to lawyers. Bad: They relied on an overly rigid hierarchy and the occasional adherence to the social mores of its pioneer members. The leader of the NSA’s Northwest region was Brad Nixon, by all accounts a very charismatic man who greatly encouraged the members under his leadership–his advice, or “guidance” was regularly sought after.
Brad Nixon’s son, David Nixon, is well-known in Seattle. A member of the bands “Awesome” and The Half Brothers, Nixon also possesses a Ph.D. in Philosophy, which he now teaches at the UW-Bothell campus. On top of these activities, Nixon has recently begun making films. The Shelf explored the differences in fortune between Nixon and his brother. Now comes Bladfold, due out in November 2012, an animated memoir/documentary that tells the story of his father, delves into both the less than savory aspects of Brad Nixon’s life and more inspiring and aspirations aspects of it. Nixon collaborated with Daniel Spils on both films.
Nixon is conducting a Kickstarter campaign for his latest project; at the moment of this writing, the campaign has reached 70% of its goal with eight days to go.
The Seattle Star interviewed Nixon and talked about what drives him to stay as busy as he does, the world of possibilities that open up to those who behave as if they were destined for great things, and the unusual origins of his film’s title.
Seattle Star: Has filmmaking always been something you’ve worked on, or is it a more recent development?
David Nixon: I guess I would say it’s been intermittent. I loved making videos when I was a kid. Then some in college. Then, I dropped off a little while I was finishing my dissertation. In high school it was a lot of music videos.
For a long time, I was in a weird theater/art/music duo with my best friend I had since kindergarten, Sadiq. When we were kids the group was just called Deke and Dony, then it became Sadiq & David. We made a lot of abstract videos. The story of how I met the guys that eventually became “Awesome” started with me screening a set of home made death scenes at 911 Media Arts. I should put those on Facebook, they’re pretty funny. There’s one where I get impaled on a traffic cone.
SStar: So, where did the impulse to do The Shelf come from?
DN: It started as a prompt from the Hugo House. It was a part of their Lit Series, where they ask a bunch of artists to make new work based on a theme. This time the theme was “The Haves and the Have Nots.” At first I assumed I was going to do something about politics or growing up poor, etc. But then I remembered the old story of The Shelf, something I hadn’t thought consciously of in years. And I realized I’d never even told anyone about it.
SStar: In the video, you’re the Have to your brother is the Have Not?
SStar: Who was your collaborator on The Shelf?
DN: Daniel Spils. He’s been in a number of bands. Maktub is maybe the most famous one. He’s a very skilled keyboard player.
SStar: How’d you guys meet?
DN: Through his girlfriend (now wife), Brangien Davis, I think. She’s the Arts and Culture editor for Seattle Magazine; she used to do Arts writing for The Seattle Times, I think. I first met her when she interviewed “Awesome” for noSignal at On the Boards, and later found out that she was really good friends with my wife, Jen. So she knew both of us before Jen and I knew each other. Brangien and Daniel are pretty close friends of ours.
SStar: How long before you guys decided to collaborate with each other, was it a fairly quick thing, or had it been a while?
DN: Yeah. My good friend Sadiq and I made up the word kunjabunja when we were little kids to describe our particular process of making and recording improvised songs. I have around 1,500 of them now. One of the core concepts of the kunjabunja is “quantity is more important than quality.” “Awesome” got into it, and we’d make a set of kunjabunjas and sometimes they were good enough to turn into a real song. Daniel and I did some kunjabunjas through the internet using Dropbox.
I’d make something real quick, throw it in the box, he’d open it the next day, do something to it, put it back in the box, and it would go back and forth like that. It was fun and we were making good stuff. That became the working model for The Shelf. We almost never talk about the stuff we make. We just send it back and forth until I like it.
(Demo for “Hooked”, a kunjabunja between Nixon and Spils.)
SStar: Had you guys been doing that for a while before The Shelf?
DN: Maybe half a year?
SStar: Have all of your film/video projects been animated?
DN: I started experimenting with animation, lots of different kinds of animation, about five years ago. But I’ve never done anything that was sustained for an extended period of time, that was mostly animation, until The Shelf.
SStar: How long did The Shelf take to make?
DN: About 7 months, last year.
SStar: How was it received?
DN: People really liked it! Some people were crying–which is a pretty new thing for me. People don’t really cry at “Awesome” shows. A bunch of people stayed after to talk to me and tell me how they were really moved by it, or tell me stories of their own siblings.
SStar: Did you feel like you’d achieved everything you wanted to with it?
DN: I don’t know what I wanted to achieve with it. Once I started making it, then I was just trying to get out of the way and let it out. It was a cathartic and powerful journey for me. Sometimes I’d have a particular song I made on a loop for hours, listening to it on headphones and bawling while I was working on the animation.
SStar: Did the project give you any revelations while you were in the process of creating it?
DN: Of course! I always have to be working on something. I always have to be improving. It wasn’t until I was making The Shelf that it became clear that it’s because there’s this feeling that if I don’t live my life to its fullest I’ll be wasting this incredible sacrifice he made for me. I had to say this myth out loud and confront it in order to be able to see that.
Even when I hadn’t consciously thought about the myth in years, it was still there driving me.
SStar: Did any of this mutate into the drive to talking about your father for Bladfold?
DN: That’s a good question. Not directly. I’ll have to think about that.
SStar: Where did the name for the movie come from?
DN: When my father, Brad, received his joju gohonzon, the name of the recipient would be handwritten on the label, denoting who would be receiving it. “Bladfold” is how the name appeared on the label. It was an error made in earnest, and how it happened is a mystery. The best I can figure is that someone was reading off the name back at the head temple in Japan, and because of the usual difficulty in that language to differentiate between the L and the R… This is apocryphal, but I do believe it’s an error made in earnest.
SStar: Had Bladfold already begun when you found out your wife was pregnant, or was it the other way around?
DN: We found out about the pregnancy first. Though we had been trying for a couple of months.
Oddly, I don’t know how connected the two things are, except maybe subconsciously. Daniel wanted to do another film, I said, “How about a film about my dad?” and it seemed like we had gotten under way and then it occurred to me, “Hey! I’m making a show about my dad just as I’m about to become a dad!” I’m always the last to know about these things. My subconscious is all, “well, duh!”
SStar: So the impulse behind Bladfold was just that, a subconscious impulse to tell your dad’s story?
DN: Yeah, I guess so. But like The Shelf, as soon as I started, it began to have a life of its own. My subconscious is all, “Will you just move over and let me drive?”
SStar: How did the film’s life make itself known?
DN: Oh, by making me ask all these questions about what it means to be a father, and what kind of effect Brad and growing up Buddhist has had on me–how it will shape what kind of of father I might be. Plus there’s all this stuff about living The Big Life.
This last quarter I was teaching this class on The Meaning of Life, and somehow I kept bringing up examples of Brad, and how because he believed he was destined to lead a Big Life, he DID.
SStar: How do you mean?
DN: Well, in the class we talked about Sartre’s existentialism. He says people would prefer to be born either a hero or a coward, because then it gives them an excuse for being a coward: “I was just born that way.” Whereas Sartre thinks we are what we make of ourselves, and there’s no destiny or plan or whatever.
So many of my students (and so many people in general) have this belief that they just aren’t destined to lead a Big Life. They’re not going to be president or cure a disease or be a celebrity. They don’t think they’re going to lead influential or memorable lives–even if they secretly dream of such things,they think it’s just not in the cards for them. I have this t-shirt with an astronaut on it, and it says, “not all dreams come true.” I remember a student in South Carolina who told me, “The world needs Wal-Mart checkers too. Maybe that’s what I’m supposed to do. You just gotta let go and let God.”
But I keep pushing them: what would your life be like if somehow you believed–fully believed with your whole heart, not just sort of hoping or wishing–that you were destined for greatness? Or at least that a Big Life (however each individual would interpret that) was within your grasp? I think that just having that belief might very well cause them to live that Big Life.
And Brad’s strong belief in his own destiny really made a difference. He lived a Big Life for sure. Part of this is also connected to some deeper beliefs that are part of the Nichiren Buddhism: First, just the idea of reincarnation encourages the idea that we’re each leading epic legendary lives that span thousands of years. Maybe in this lifetime you’re poor and have all kinds of obstacles, but in a previous life perhaps you were a prince or Einstein or Jimi Hendrix.
Then there’s the idea that each of us has an innate Buddha nature, and we each have the power to attain enlightenment in this very lifetime. It’s a very empowering way to live. It was an empowering way to grow up. I remember first learning about Christianity when I was a kid, and it scared me. “You mean these people actually believe that there’s this powerful guy watching everything you do and listening to all your thoughts, and if he doesn’t like what you do, say, or think, he’ll have you tortured for eternity?! That’s AWFUL!” Whereas the Buddhist in me was thinking, “We’re not the small pawns of some giant god, we’re more like gods ourselves.”
Now I think about this stuff in connection to my soon to be born child. How do I help my my child to grow up empowered, believing that an amazing life is within his/her grasp? Too bad Brad isn’t around to be a grandpa. He had this uncanny ability to inspire people to really believe that their dreams were attainable, that your Big Life is waiting for you if you really want it.
SStar: What were you working on when we started talking?
DN: Some stop-motion of little people chanting. I’m working on the video for this piece about a religious experience my dad had when we were in Japan, I think for the first time, chanting in front of the Dai-gohonzon. I’ve got his journals where he talks all about it.
SStar: That’s huge.
DN: Really huge. Here’s some of what he wrote in his journal: “It was during this ceremony that I had what can only be termed a mystical experience. I saw my whole life at its essence. I came to understand what Buddhists call ‘Original Identity’. I understood who I had been in past incarnations, and what it was I was to do in this lifetime. The Buddhist concept is called ‘Hoshaku Kempon’ — to shed the temporary and reveal the true identity…”
DN: It gets bigger. It was from this experience that he got he basically got psychic powers. He didn’t call them that, it’s a way for me to describe it.
Here’s some more: “I began to see people differently. I know this sounds strange or psychotic, but people looked like they were on 3D television. They sometimes appeared to be exaggerating their expressions. I heard their words but I got other meanings other than what they said. It always turned out that the meanings I received were their true intentions. At first I didn’t trust my vision, but gradually I began to accept it and use it in counseling….”
SStar: Was this something you saw for yourself?
DN: I was a little kid back then. Actually when he had the experience itself, I wasn’t born–I’m not sure exactly what year it was, though I have his passport so I can see when he traveled to Japan. It might have been when my mom was pregnant with me. Which is crazy to think of, since my wife is pregnant with my child right now. When my dad was in my place, he was having an intense religious experience that would change his life forever.
SStar: How old were you when your father passed?
DN: Let’s see…it was August of 1998, so I would have been 25. I had just gotten my master’s degree. He was very proud of me.
SStar: If I recall from your recent showing at The Project Room correctly, after your parents were divorced, you and your dad were friendly, but not close. Am I misremembering that?
DN: I lived with mom, my brother with Brad. He moved to California in 1991, right after as I graduated from high school, so I didn’t see him very much during those years. We would call, and have visits maybe once or twice a year. I have some VHS footage I took of him on a spring break visit in 1995 or 96. He was still able to walk, but just barely.
SStar: What was going on?
DN: He was in the late stages of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a.k.a. amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS. The motor neurons in your brain slowly die, starting with the extremities. So your fingers stop working, and it’s hard to hold your fork, then your arms and legs and it’s hard to walk, eventually it gets the muscles controlling your organs. By the end his lungs didn’t really work so he was on a respirator. He could only talk in between automatic breaths.
SStar: Were you able to see him during that time?
DN: Yeah, on a couple of different visits. My mom had the foresight to realize that he might not be with us for much longer and helped me and my brother go visit him a couple of times. The last time was about 3 weeks before he died. I brought some of his old photo albums so he could identify people in the pictures and tell me stories.
SStar: You grew up with Nichiren Buddhism in your life, how aware were you of what Brad was doing?
DN: Well, we kids were definitely steeped in the religion. We were always going to NSA events. And we chanted a lot at home of course. I remember we had a chart, sort of like a chore chart, and each day that we remembered to do our chanting, we’d get a star. And if we had six stars at the end of the week, we’d go out for a treat (like ice cream) on Sunday. At six years old, I had almost all of gongyo memorized. [Gongyo during this time frame meant chanting portions of the second and sixteenth chapter of the Lotus Sutra five times in the morning and three times in the evening.–Ed.]
Sometimes I’d go to meetings with my parents and hear people tell stories and watch my dad speak. But he was also gone a lot, traveling around the country and the world. Going wherever George Williams sent him, and doing conventions and what not.
SStar: Essentially, doing what was required of a national leader in the organization.
SStar: After the divorce, did your mom maintain the practice or did she leave it too?
DN: She practiced some, but she no longer had a leadership position in the Women’s Division, and it was hard to keep being able to go to meetings and such when you’re a single mother waiting tables to get by. So she did less and less, and after a while wasn’t practicing at all.
SStar: Did that end up getting mirrored in your life, as well?
DN: Yeah, I guess so. No more chanting chart, so more time spent playing outside and drawing and what-not.
SStar: What led you to philosophy?
DN: In one sense it feels sort of random. I used to really like math, but my senior year of high school I went to a different school with different books and such, and I took an AP math class, did really poorly, and had to drop out. I lost all my math confidence. So the next year when I went to college, I took a logic class to get out of having to take any math. I really liked it, and was good at it, so I kept taking more philosophy classes. At first I was a drama major, but later I switched into philosophy.
SStar: What about it appealed?
DN: That’s a good question. Philosophy engages the left brain – analytical, logical, objective.
Imagine David (or rather, Dony, as I was known back then) at 6 years old, pre-divorce. He has imaginary friends. He believes that he is magic. Maybe he has some awareness of being the son of a powerful religious figure. He daily chants a mantra and sort of “trances out” and sees and hears things. He has a very active imagination.
Then his parents divorce, and all the chaos that comes with that. He doesn’t understand it. He wants to fix it. After a time he no longer talks to his imaginary friends. He doesn’t believe in magic, he doesn’t chant. He’s lost his faith, so to speak. He gets a new step-dad he doesn’t get a long with very much. He wants control. He gets in arguments with his step-dad and learns to be cool and calm and “win” the arguments with (what he later will know to be) logic. So this logical, philosophical part of him starts to develop. He also starts programming computers when he’s about 11, and that also engages that logical part.
I don’t know. This is part of the stuff I’m figuring out in the process of this show. When Brad fell from grace, what happened to me?
SStar: How do you view the Nichiren Shoshu practice these days? Have you kept up to date with all of the shit that’s gone down?
DN: What shit do you mean? I know about the split with the priests that took place in the early 90s.
SStar: That’s the stuff.
DN: It was kind of sad to see they tore down the Shohondo temple [For more information about this issue, the most neutral accounting of the event is found at Wikipedia.–Ed.]. I’ve got a lot of pictures of my dad there.
Otherwise, I have a lot of old family friends that still practice. Someone was asking me recently if I still thought of myself as Buddhist and I was telling them about a girlfriend I had in college who described herself as a lapsed Catholic, but she didn’t believe in God and all that anymore. But one day we were driving and she saw her old church, and said, “hey let’s stop by! You can see where I did communion”. Once inside, I was walking all around and unknowingly walked up onto the altar area. She freaked out and looked up (as if at God). I said, “I thought you didn’t believe in that stuff anymore.” She said, “yeah, well, it’s how I grew up. It’s still IN me.” Sometimes I feel like that about SGI/NS.
SStar: You just mentioned Brad’s fall from grace, will that be covered in Bladfold?
DN: Yes, it’s got to be. That’s pivotal stuff there. The fall, the divorce. I don’t know how specific I’m going to get, it’s hard to say at this point.
SStar: Given the forthrightness of everything you’ve put out so far–in The Shelf, in your Kickstarter campaign, etc.–it would be weird not to go over that period.
DN: Have you read Marc Szeftel’s The Society?
SStar: I haven’t.
DN: It’s a “fictionalized” account of NSA Seattle in the 1970’s. Brad is a major character (in the book he’s Bryan Magneson or something). Brad was a mentor to Marc.
SStar: Does it delve with that fall as well?
DN: Not all the events in the book actually happened, and a lot of the details are switched around, but it captures the wild feel of those days pretty well — at least according to other people that were there then.
SStar: Did Brad bounce back from the fall in any way?
DN: In a way, yes. He never stopped believing in Nichiren Buddhism, though.
I think of the 80’s as his hermitage — living on Vashon, a million scams, always broke, a lot of being stoned — but then at the end of that, he went back to school (Antioch) to get his master’s degree. Then he split with Joyce, his third wife, and moved to L.A.
This was around the time of the SGI/Priests split, and I think that Brad took that as vindication of his troubles with SGI from way back, so he sided with the priesthood and started to get active at Myohoji, the temple down in L.A. He also remarried, a woman named A.M. Collins, who wrote a famous play called Angry Housewives — which was a long running musical in Seattle in the 80’s that eventually made it to Broadway. Also down in LA he worked the Psychic Hotline.
Maybe he would have had a comeback in the new organization down there, but then the Lou Gehrig’s hit.
SStar: This seems like an impossibly huge story.
DN: It ought to be an incredible challenge to condense everything into song, but somehow it all seems to be falling into place.
SStar: Which song seems to be the most surprising?
DN: We wrote a song about the Hoshaku experience, which just got figured out a couple of days ago. It’s a new favorite of mine.
Part of the trick with telling a story like this is not trying to sum it up for the audience or tell them what to think. you give them a few good details that paint a picture and let them think whatever they want.
SStar: By tapping into the poetic/lyrical aspect of the story?
DN: Yeah, though it’s funny, I’ve really let myself off the hook about trying to be poetic. Sometimes I just come right out and lay a fact or event on the table. Here it is. Here’s something that happened. No trying to fancy it up with clever language. Often I don’t even care if it rhymes.
But if you say something in a straightforward manner, but let the melody and music carry all of this emotion, it can be quite powerful. At least I think that happened in The Shelf a lot.
SStar: I’d agree, actually. I think part of what makes the last song in The Shelf so bittersweet and poignant is its matter of factness. It’s both a celebration and an apology.
DN: Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it.
SStar: Has your perception of Brad changed in the telling of the story? Have you grown an appreciation for him and his life? Or has it underlined what you’ve already known, flaws and all?
DN: It has. It’s a more complex picture, I think. Deeper.
I don’t really believe in “bad guys”. I mean, yes, there are psychopaths and sociopaths that have something actually wrong with their brain structure or whatever. But other than that, I think there’s always a story about why people do the things they do. And you learn that story and you begin to empathize.
I love my dad. I really really do. Some of the things he did really piss me off. The more I go down this rabbit hole, the more invested I get in him as a person. You know, like if someone you hardly know does something awful, you just write them off and forget about it. But when your best friend does something awful, you can’t do that. You’re invested in them.
I’ve started to dream about him a lot more. I’m talking to him, and there’s something nagging at the back of my head that I’m supposed to remember, but I also know that I don’t want to remember it. And finally it hits me: he’s dead. it’s too late. And then I wake up.
And I just want to go back inside that dream and talk to him. I want to tell him, “It’s okay. It’s okay. I understand it all now. Man, that was a crazy life you had. A Big Life. I love you.”