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‘Never Seek This Gohonzon Outside Yourself’

Following a traumatic accident, I learn that victory lies within. I’m Brian Lindgren from Charlottesville, Virginia.

Brian Lindgren in Charlottesville, Virginia, September 2022. Photo by Tristan Williams.

Living Buddhism: Thank you for speaking with us, Brian. Earlier this year, you completed a novel instrument, the EV2, an electronic stringed instrument that placed in the semi-
finals of the Guthman Musical Instrument Competition, one of the foremost worldwide. We understand that you built it amid an onslaught of personal hardships. What was going on for you in the years leading up to its completion?

Brian Lindgren: To be a musician in New York is to struggle. But in 2018, several events conspired to give me serious trouble. I was out of work, and my financial resources dried up. At the same time, my landlord barred subletting, which effectively doubled my rent. I scrambled to get by. As it happened, my former roommates had left behind a hodgepodge assortment of dried goods with which I improvised recipes, postponing for as long as possible my next grocery trip. I sold off everything I didn’t need, suspended my internet service and stopped riding the subway, getting around the city on an old bicycle on loan from a friend.

It was hard going. Mining old email exchanges between myself and former employers, I eventually drummed up freelance jobs and was almost able to make ends meet. In March, I applied to every grocery store within biking distance from my apartment and was turned down by each one. I can’t even compete for an entry-level job, I thought. How am I ever going to stabilize my financial situation?

In April 2019, I finally secured a job at a grocery store and was deeply appreciative as my situation stabilized. Having put out one fire: the pending disaster of eviction, I’d lit another: working freelance and a regular job, I now had no time to compose music, my main passion.

What did you do?

Brian: Through chanting, I realized that these hardships were part of my mission, and that this was precisely the time to fight my hardest and score a significant victory for my life. For months, I’d been chanting fighting daimoku, raising my life condition to meet the day-to-day problems of food and rent. I was more determined than ever to find a path to achieve my aspirations as a musician and never again be in dire financial straits. Now, however, I reflected on the deep training I had received in my years in the youth division. Since my teens, I had striven single-mindedly to develop a career as a musician, and this was the time to hold on to my dream tighter than ever and continue making causes. While engaging in SGI activities as a district men’s leader, I began applying to master’s programs in music composition.

In March 2019, I was accepted to the Sonic Arts program at Brooklyn College, where I began my first semester that August.

Is this when you started building the EV2?

Brian: That’s right. In college, I had come up with an idea for a novel electronic viola, and had created a prototype. After graduating, however, I shelved it, pursuing other paths in the music industry. Now, chanting abundant daimoku to make the most out of each day, I chose to realize this idea from years earlier as the final project in one of my classes. For the next three semesters, I worked with that professor side by side to realize the EV2 as my final capstone project. This was a daunting challenge as I was already overloaded; taking classes, freelancing, doing a work-study and SGI activities. To complete an instrument on top of this was truly ambitious. But Nichiren Daishonin says, “If in a single moment of life, we exhaust the pains and trials of millions of kalpas, then instant after instant there will arise in us the three Buddha bodies with which we are eternally endowed” (The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings, p. 214).

In short, it was not a matter of time but of life state. Making the most of each moment, I could make the impossible possible. By the program’s end, I’d built the instrument to a playable state.

You were in the middle of your second semester when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. What was that like for you?

Brian: Having fought so desperately in the years leading up to the pandemic, I felt I had forged my determination to fight through anything. All the same, in the spring of 2020, New York saw an explosion of COVID-19 deaths. I lived by a hospital; an endless procession of ambulances shuttled in and out of its parking lot, wailing 24/7 in the streets. It was in this deeply disorienting state of affairs that I was asked to record interviews and compose a score for a video commemorating the Soka Gakkai’s founding, November 18. Feeling that, with the devastation brought about by the pandemic, people were in more need than ever of the life-affirming philosophy of Nichiren Buddhism, I poured my heart into this project. In July, I set out with a small crew traveling to Connecticut, Boston, Virginia and Atlanta, to shoot the interviews.

In Boston, I overheard a conversation about prayer. Asked what she was chanting about, the young woman we were interviewing said, “To do my human revolution to change my circumstances.” I was struck by the simplicity and purity of that prayer. Returning from that trip, I began chanting more than ever, focused on that prayer. I worked tirelessly on the film score while meeting with the men of my district over Zoom, offering Ikeda Sensei’s encouragement.

Shortly after, I rode my bike to a friend’s for her birthday. Passing through an intersection, an SUV driving in the opposite direction, without warning or signal, swerved hard, straight toward me, like a homing missile. I smashed into the side of the hood and was sent somersaulting some 20 feet down the road.

When it was clear my spine was unbroken, I was carried out of the street, propped up against a nearby fence and taken to the hospital.

Photo courtesy of Brian Lindgren.

What were your injuries?

Brian: The crash left me with several fractured bones, the most personally significant being my left kneecap and pinky finger. I was immensely protected. That said, I’m an avid long-distance runner and cyclist, and a professional violist. Hearing from the doctor that total recovery was unlikely, long-term consequences were probable and partial recovery extremely arduous, I felt a terror I’d never known.

With intense daimoku and great encouragement from friends in faith, I faced the challenges ahead, undergoing three surgeries, completing the score for the SGI film (I made do without my pinky), beginning the third semester of my master’s program, moving upstate to live with my parents and beginning intense physical rehabilitation.

Each day, hour and moment was an exhausting battle against the devil of illness—the worst of which is the doubt and fear I faced as I fought to regain my physical well-being. The accompanying trauma made even ordinary tasks difficult. My morning daimoku enabled me to fight back against the anguish threatening to drag me down.

What turned things around?

Brian: At a moment of particularly deep despair, I sought guidance from a senior in faith. He shared Sensei’s message to the August 2020 men’s meeting:

To a person battling severe problems, my mentor, second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda, once said: “As the Daishonin says, in the face of hardship ‘the wise will rejoice while the foolish will retreat’ (“The Three Obstacles and Four Devils,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 637). You mustn’t take the course of the foolish. Use hardship as an opportunity to reflect upon yourself. Practice with strong faith and see what happens. You’ll gain ten times the benefit you have so far!” In this most trying time, please challenge yourselves with joyful enthusiasm and continue to chant resounding and invincible daimoku with the conviction that “no prayer goes unanswered.”

I felt this passage was intended for me personally and determined to fully recover. I would be victorious. Looking beyond my initial recovery as well as my master’s program, I contemplated a variety of professional paths I’d be interested in pursuing. One was to apply for Ph.D. programs in music composition, focusing on electronic music.

Preparing my portfolio and Ph.D. applications was grueling; I was in rehab, about to undergo a third surgery for my finger while striving day after day in the third semester of my master’s program. I was serving as a chapter leader in Brooklyn, leading the 2021 Brooklyn Region Courage Group, a men’s study group, and participating in the men’s division band. It was an all-out battle to make each of the application deadlines, but I did. After completing the fall semester of my master’s degree virtually from my parents’ home, it was time to move back to Brooklyn.

Life was busy, and I forgot about the applications until a professor of one of the schools emailed me asking if I’d heard the good news. I checked my unread emails and found an acceptance offer from the University of Virginia! Included in the offer was a full tuition waiver, generous living stipend, health insurance and funding to attend professional conferences and festivals. For the next five years, I’d be able to focus on creating music, learning and earning a Ph.D. without worrying about my living expenses. Floored, I immediately accepted the offer.

What an incredible victory! What is the central lesson you take with you?

Brian: I’ve spent countless hours reflecting on these words from Josei Toda: “Use hardship as an opportunity to reflect upon yourself.” My many reflections boil down to one: “Never seek this Gohonzon outside yourself. The Gohonzon exists only within the mortal flesh of us ordinary people who embrace the Lotus Sutra and chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” (“The Real Aspect of the Gohonzon,” WND-1, p. 831). I discovered that happiness, ability, creativity and all the functions of life that I’ve sought to embody lie within, and that this Buddhism and Sensei’s encouragement are 100% correct in enabling us to navigate all that life throws at us. Going forward, I’m determined to dig even deeper into my practice and ingrain in my heart my bodhisattva vow to fight alongside Sensei as we establish the foundation for kosen-rufu toward 2030 and beyond.

Brian in Charlottesville, September, 2022. Photo by Tristan Williams.

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