We can all think of things we might enjoy in this lifetime but can also feel we don’t really deserve them, or suspect they're beyond us. Result? Feelings of frustration and inadequacy. Phil Becque explains why he practises Nichiren Buddhism

I started chanting in August 1976 and quickly came to realise what a real treasure I had found in the practice and what a profound difference it made to my life condition on a daily basis. There were fewer than 300 members in the UK at that time and I threw myself into all aspects of the practice wholeheartedly and rapidly established a group of similar like-minded young men in and around Stratford-upon-Avon. I think it's fair to say that like many other members at that time my faith was tested regularly. I had plenty of doubts, but each one was resolved and each victory contributed to my confidence in my own Buddhahood and the Buddhahood in my environment.

I remember putting this to the test personally in many different ways. On one occasion — shortly after the birth of my daughter in a grotty housing association flat — I remember standing outside Matthew Boulton Technical College in the rain and swearing to myself that I would get a much better and highly paid job. It took me seven years to achieve that after finishing my electronics course. I also had health problems and had to battle with my own demons while I expiated that aspect of my Karma over the first ten years of my practice.

With the demise of my good friend Richard Causton, the first general director of our Buddhist lay organisation in the UK, who had been such a brilliant inspiration to me, I started to think deeply about what I could contribute and was asked to write an article for our monthly magazine UKE (now the Art of Living) about 'The Buddha of Absolute Freedom'. I summed up my  feelings in this way:

While we can all think of things we might enjoy in this lifetime, many people feel they don’t deserve to enjoy these things; or people may have dreams that they suspect are beyond them, which may leave them feeling frustrated and inadequate. It is at times like these that we need to remember that because of our strong practice and commitment to creating a peaceful and just society, that we are 'Buddhas of Absolute Freedom'. In other words, we take action. Our Buddhist practice enables us to purify our lives so that we are naturally able to make the causes which will result either in making our dreams come true, or else enabling us to see that these dreams would not make us, or our loved ones, happy.

 One of the dreams I had, that I suspected was beyond me, was to make a film about Nichiren Buddhism. I was particularly attracted to the idea of ichinen sanzen, first formulated hundreds of years ago by the Chinese Buddhist sage called T'ien-T'ai, as it forms the theoretical underpinning of our belief system. I that thought if I could be involved in the production of such a project, I would be helping to propagate an important aspect of the teachings for future generations. Also, I was aware that a lot of people might be more interested in Buddhism if they realised what a wonderful premise it was based upon.

I spoke to various members who were involved with film or TV and we kicked around a few different ideas. In the end it all came to nought as the sums of money involved were prohibitive, so I put it to one side.

As well as attending regular discussion and study meetings in Birmingham, I worked on both of the Alice shows that SGI-UK staged to raise funds for UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, and CHEC, the Commonwealth Human Ecology Council. I was responsible for the sound, and although it was extremely hard work, I was very happy with the results.

About eight years later DV camcorders came onto the market and I thought that there might be a way to make something like a demo of the film I was trying to envisage. I had absolutely no background in script writing, photography, editing, or documentary film-making; but I could see that the new DV technology would make it possible for anyone to have a go at it, on a fraction of the budget that would have been required previously. As things turned out, I had enough money to buy a DV camera and an editing system, so I started experimenting with recording various events at Taplow Court in the late Nineties with limited success. As far as my dream was concerned, I didn't seem to have the creativity, or a clear vision of what I wanted to end up with. It's difficult to get across the amount of effort I put into chanting about this;  it was a 'constant thought' from 1997 until 2006.

Experiences have the power to move peoples lives

In 1998 I wrote down my experience of the early part of my life: my natural mother died when I was three years old and a close friend died when I was eighteen. Then I met Buddhism, and through the practice I started to make some sense of birth and death. After twenty-two years of practice I was ready to share that experience at a public lecture that the local members had organised at Taplow Court. I had set up the DV camera to record the whole event and my experience was part of the section on Karma. Later, it was published as an article called 'Hidden Depths' in monthly magazine.


Around the same time I got talking to an SGI member who was a very experienced director of documentaries. We agreed to try to create an 'Introduction to Buddhism' via a question and answer type of dialogue involving several members. We had our plans for the day, set up all the equipment, and were ready to start tuning the set up for recording.

As we started to go through the questions and answers, it became clear that there were substantial differences in the way that people would articulate a particular point, and the whole thing quickly descended into chaos. We never got to press the record button! We packed all the gear away and sat outside in the glorious sunshine. My hopes had been so high for that day — I had thought that at least we'd get something to practise editing with.

To say it was a learning experience would hardly do justice to my crushing sense of disappointment. It all felt as if it was completely beyond me. 'Who was I trying to kid?' I spoke to a good friend and fellow member of SGI-UK,  Barbara Cahill, about my quandary and she looked at me very sternly and said: 'You have got to get your act together.' Although that hurt at the time, she did have a point. So I went back to the chanting, still unsure of whether I had the potential, and started again.

I still wanted to make my documentary about ichinen sanzen and the eternity of life, so I set about writing a 100-page script in December 1999. I wanted to try recording a short segment of the script, to see how it might work, so I asked a member to sit in front of the camera to respond to a series of questions. My photography and lighting skills were improving slowly and my actress was looking great! Unfortunately my script was so 'clunky' that the results were awful. It did not sound like natural dialogue at all. Still, although I was unable to use any of that footage or the script, I could see a way forward. The questions were OK.

As luck would have it, soon after this the company that I was working for collapsed into receivership, so I had to find a new job. I was looking for a safe harbour. I wanted to get my daughter through university so a large stable company would be just right. After a few weeks, one of my ex-colleagues contacted me via email to say the company he'd just started working for were looking for people with my skill set — was I interested?

After three interviews, in as many countries, I accepted a very good offer at one of the most prestigious high-tech companies and had to travel out to Silicon Valley in California for three weeks of training in March 2000. As I was going to be there over two weekends I decided to pack the DV camera as I'd heard that there was a nice coastline going down from San Francisco to Monterey along Route One. From the viewpoint of the Buddhist practice, this would turn out to be perfectly in rhythm.


Magic in Yosemite

Silicon Valley lies in the Bay area of San Francisco and is a sprawling industrial desert. While on my training course I got talking to a marketing guy. He was raving about Yosemite National Park where he had been for the weekend. I liked his enthusiasm, but I still wondered what the place looked like.

'Come out into the hall,' he said. We went out, turned a corner, and on both sides of the corridor hung some of the most beautiful, massive photographs I had ever seen! These had been taken by the world famous Ansel Adams and I was overawed for several moments. When you are not much of a photographer, looking at shots by someone who is obviously an expert can be a bit intimidating. But I was hooked. I booked my trip for the following weekend, arriving late in the evening after a five-hour drive on the Friday. That way I'd get a fullish day in on Saturday and a chance for some more photography on the Sunday morning.

As I made my way into the Yosemite area I was greeted by an appalling site of devastation: forest fires had charred the hillsides for as far as the eye could see. I remember thinking, 'I don't need to get the camera out here.' I carried on for about an hour before I arrived at a the park entrance proper. I paid my fees and enquired how much further to the valley — 'About two hours,' came the reply. And there was me thinking that I was almost there!

Yosemite National Park is in the high Sierras — about 8,000 feet up, though the valley floor is about 5,000 feet below that. It is a glacier-carved canyon on an epic scale, surrounded by sheer granite cliffs. Huge waterfalls plunge thousands of feet, and when I was there the falls were in full flow as the park had just reopened after the winter break.

On the route I took down into the valley you don't see much because you are surrounded by trees. Then, as I drove into a clearing, right in front of me was 'El Capitan' — a colossal, vertical, granite rock face, rising nearly 3,000 feet. I got out of the car as I couldn't see the top of the cliff from inside it. I stood beside the car for a good few minutes, craning my head back, barely able to comprehend the spectacle. I had never seen anything so majestic, so stunningly beautiful, so BIG!

I got the camera out and set it up; I couldn't get the whole spectacle in the frame with the standard lens so I fitted the wide-angle. Phew! I could just get it in with that. Then I went a little further down the road and became aware of a deep roaring sound like thunder. Around a corner, there was the Bridal Veil falls in full flow — four tons of water a second pounding the rocks below. I parked up in the reserved area about half a mile from the falls — it was deafening!

I carried the gear towards the stream that flows on from the base of the falls. I wanted to get some shots of moving water as I intended to use the water cycle as a metaphor for the eternity of life. I also kept thinking about different quotes by Nichiren Daishonin — 'The deeper the source, the farther the stream', 'When grass withers, orchids grieve. When pine trees flourish, oaks rejoice.' I felt a really deep and powerful connection with my environment. I was having problems with my tripod getting the shots I wanted, but I wasn't too bothered by that. I was enjoying it, so I thought I'll just takes lots of shots and pick the best ones afterwards.

After a while, happy with what I had, a favourite piece of music by Stravinsky (The Fire Bird) came into my head. And somehow, there was a connection between that music and the shots I had just taken. I started to walk up towards the Falls itself, where there was a viewing platform.

Before I got there I could feel a light spray swirling around and I didn't want the camera to get too wet. So I set the camera at a very low angle to get the top of the falls in the frame, and as I started to record an amazing thing happened. Tiny spots of water were landing on the polarising filter in front of the lens and as a result they refracted the light — the spots looked like stars against the dark background of the rocks. I panned right towards the sun and got a real tingle of excitement.

One of my problems with the whole project was how to find images that would speak to the connection between the Earth and the Cosmos — and here, quite by accident, I had created the perfect shot! I also knew exactly where this shot would go in relation to the piece of Stravinsky 'playing' inside my head.

This to me was real proof of the practice — real proof of my Buddhahood. I was releasing my potential simply through taking action based on plenty of chanting!

I went around the rest of the day on a real high, taking as many shots as I could fit in with the time. I got a particularly nice shot of Yosemite Falls, quite unique and very evocative. I started to think — well, I might not be much of a photographer, but I'm quite enjoying this! Another lovely shot of El Capitan but from a different angle, and then a set of stunning shots down the valley with everything in. What a brilliant day!

I got the footage off the camera when I got back home and started to edit together the shots with the music. I had now got, conceptually at any rate,  what I knew would be a stunning ending to the project as a whole. Something beautiful and inspiring that would tie together any loose ends in the mind of the viewer about the wonder of the eternity of life!

A New Beginning

The year 2001 was going to be a very different year for many people. But for me it was marked not just by the end of World Trade Centre on September  11th, but by my father dying three days later. He'd had a pretty good innings, as they say, though his quality of life had deteriorated over the last few months due to a stroke.

While I was chanting for him in the next few weeks, I got a very strong feeling about my own mortality and I decided to start a company called Bodhisattva Productions Ltd which would be dedicated to providing inspiring content for the discerning viewer.

I hadn't made much more progress on the film, but I was now more determined than ever to finish it. I had an ending lasting about two and a half minutes. I figured the whole thing would be about 90 minutes long — so just 87.5 mins to go then?

I got in touch with everyone who might be able to help with all the graphics I was going to need. For 'The 10 Worlds' I had the wonderful
Errol leCain images, but nothing for anything else. I needed something for 'The Ten Factors' and 'The Three Truths', 'The Three Realms', ichinen sanzen as a whole, and most importantly — a fantastic beginning?

Slowly, slowly, they all found a home and became work in progress — which just left that pesky beginning.

I started trawling the Web for images I could get permission to use. I didn't really know what I was looking for. I had some vague ideas about the cosmos and water, violence and poverty, creation and evolution, war and destruction of the environment. A real hotch-potch, with nothing to tie them together.

In 2005 I bumped into Edward Canfor-Dumas at Taplow Court and asked him if he would help out. He'd seen a version of the script and didn't like it very much; but he thought the questions were good. I had become more flexible in the way I wanted various points articulated, so we fixed up a couple of days and shot all of his parts in my front room. I was lucky enough to get Jo Lane and Ben Forster for the other parts and that gave me all the verbal explanations I needed. Towards the end of 2005 I had lots of stuff to edit so I got stuck into that.

After months of editing it was down to putting on the narration and the music. A friend recommended a band called Out On A Limb and Hugh Burns came down and did a brilliant job on all the sections that needed bespoke music.

I tried narrating it myself but that didn't work too well. In the end I asked my daughter to try it, and after a few attempts it started coming out quite well. I also had various different names for the project which I wasn't completely happy with. One day I was looking at the Errol leCain image for 'Realization' (in 'The Ten Worlds') and I thought, hmm, Creation on the one hand Destruction on the other. It's like human beings are 'Between Creation and Destruction' from moment to moment, so that became the title.

I was getting somewhere with the beginning as well, so the whole project came together in July 2006. We had our first screening at a local pub in their 'event party room'. About fifty people came along to three screenings and most people thought it had some interest or merit. At least two people found it rather boring and walked off.

I started selling DVDs from my eBay Web shop and submitting to various film festivals. I got my first screening at Swansea Film Festival in June 2007 and my second at Everglades in South Africa. My third screening was at MoonDance in the USA in September 2007. So far I've picked up two awards: a Silver Medal from Everglades and, very pleasingly, 'Best Foreign Feature Documentary' from MoonDance, so as you can imagine I was really chuffed about that. It never ceases to amaze me how much creative potential it is possible to release with the Buddhist practice.

I think the main thing I've learned over the last thirty years of practice is that the power of your Buddha state — or of the most positive aspects of your own life — is absolute.

Phil Becque


Q: What is meant by ‘the Buddha of Absolute Freedom’?

A: The Buddha of Absolute Freedom is also known as ‘the Buddha of Limitless Joy’, or the Buddha who derives limitless joy from the Mystic Law. When we first hear this, I think our natural reaction is to think ‘How wonderful, if that is what the practice leads to, I want some of it.’ Up until this point, we have probably spent a fair amount of our lives feeling the exact opposite — the common mortal of absolute restriction — despite many vain attempts to shed ourselves of the numerous things that weigh us down.

Our unaided perception might identify the things that keep us fettered as: a sense of duty, family responsibilities, mortgages, work worries — you can make your own list, I'm sure. While all these things are important, they can act as the ideal camouflage for the deeper things in our minds that are really holding us down; things which cause us to behave in ways which produce a feeling of unending repetition and limitation.

Whether we are aware of it or not, we behave from moment to moment according to our 'belief system'. A belief system can be complex and subtle, with many layers intertwined. It sets very powerful limits on what we can perceive and how we react to these perceptions.

Nowadays, many people think that war is inevitable. Similarly, in days gone by, people thought that plagues were inevitable. They were convinced that there was nothing that could be done to avoid them. Because people believed that plagues were inevitable, they were unable to see that it was their behaviour, in terms of unsanitary modes of disposing of excrement, which caused one plague after another. Of course, there was no directly observable link.

As daft as this seems to us now, we can see that people operate belief systems whether they are aware of it or not, and this radically affects the way in which they behave. Furthermore, as the way we behave determines the results, which follow as a consequence, should we not be very cautious about what we operate as a belief system?

Most of us have grown up in a culture that has an 'unhealthy' view of death. Most of us probably prefer not to think about death; some of us have probably had difficulty chanting about our own demise. I've noticed myself that I find it easier to chant about someone else's death rather than my own. However, in the last ten years or so, I've noticed that my thinking, and hopefully my behavior, has started to take on a different quality. This quality owes something to a new way of looking at reality — a new paradigm.

The main feature of this new way of looking is a sense of undivided wholeness: all thoughts, actions and physical matter are somehow interrelated and connected. So I don't share the idea some people have — that dying means that you won't be a part of the universe anymore. On the contrary, because life is eternal it is impossible to escape the cycle of birth and death, so why not try to enjoy it?

While we can all think of things we might enjoy in this lifetime, many people feel they don’t deserve to enjoy these things; or people may have dreams that they suspect are beyond them, which may leave them feeling frustrated and inadequate.

It is at times like these that we need to remember that because of our strong Buddhist practice and commitment to kosen-rufu, we are Buddhas of Absolute Freedom. In other words, we take action.

Our Buddhist practice enables us to purify our lives so that we are naturally able to make the causes which will result either in making our dreams come true, or else enabling us to see that these dreams would not make us, or our loved ones, happy.

Taking full, personal responsibility for the universe of which we are a part, constantly seeking out the Buddhahood that exists in and around us, enables us to rid ourselves of any feelings of frustration or inadequacy and instead enjoy boundless exhilaration, gratitude, joy and freedom.

About SGI