Dan McKinneyDan McKinney filming at Agbogbloshie scrapyard for the PBS documentary “Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground

In an essay written by SGI President Daisaku Ikeda, he quotes Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–81): “Stories of beautiful lives and courageous and virtuous deeds, even in this age of skepticism and negativity, are the best weapons for combating the illnesses afflicting society.”

I started practicing Buddhism around the age of 12 in Northern California where I grew up. One thing that I have loved ever since about Buddhist activities and meetings, has been listening to people’s experiences. These real-life dramas of people using their Buddhist practice to gain insight and inspiration on how to overcome the problems they are struggling with made a lasting impression on me. So, with this love of stories and strong desire to tell my own, I decided to study documentary filmmaking.

My master’s thesis project at the University of California Berkeley’s school of journalism started as a documentary about my high school wrestling team, but quickly turned into a story about myself. Why, for years, had I endured all the push-ups, the bruises, and punishing practices in order to call myself a wrestler? As I became more involved in my project, it became clear that my struggle had not been to wrestle any external opponent, but rather to confront something much darker and deeper.

My practice and friends in SGI gave me the courage and composure to see this wrenching time as a transformational period of growth in my life.

In 1986, the year I started high school, my father was diagnosed with brain cancer. What came into focus in my documentary was how much I had struggled internally, plagued by the constant fear of losing my dad. Breaking down those walls of fear and doubt about his recovery became the first goal of my early Buddhist practice and something I addressed in the film. The documentary ended on a happy note—my father defied doctors’ expectations and lived for another 16 years. My practice and friends in SGI gave me the courage and composure to see this wrenching time as a transformational period of growth in my life.

I graduated from Berkeley with my documentary degree in hand and hit the ground running. With a one-year-old son and a second child on the way, I struggled to take any work I could find. I was a cameraman on shows about everything from submarine rescues to kitchen makeovers. The hubbub of work and daily life left me feeling that my original intention of telling worthwhile stories was getting lost. I was chanting about my work and my career, but could find no clear path to move forward.

One of the meanings of the character myo in Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is “to open,” and I was strongly chanting that my life would somehow open up and reveal its potential. One quote I often read was from Nichiren: “Whether or not your prayer is answered will depend on your faith . . . When water is clear, the moon is reflected. When the wind blows, the trees shake. Our minds are like the water. Faith that is weak is like muddy water, while faith that is brave is like clear water. Understand that the trees are like principles and the wind that shakes them is like the recitation of the sutra.”

related article SGI Members in Singapore and Paraguay Perform at Anniversary Celebrations SGI Members in Singapore and Paraguay Perform at Anniversary Celebrations On August 9, some 640 members of Singapore Soka Association (SSA) performed during Singapore's National Day Parade 2014. Themed "Our People, Our Home" and held at the Marina Bay Floating Platform, the parade celebrated the 49th anniversary of the country's independence and was viewed by some 27,000 spectators including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and President Tony Tan Keng Yam. Despite my confusion and hesitation, my chanting seemed finally to animate protective influences in my life. We moved to Vancouver, Canada, my wife’s original home. Despite having little prospect of work there, one connection proved crucial. A producer I had worked with briefly in Vancouver the previous year invited me to co-teach a broadcast news class with him at the University of British Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. This was an important breakthrough because my decision to go to graduate school was, in part, to gain the credentials to teach someday. I could have never anticipated such a huge opportunity. While I was still uncertain of my direction, my chanting and Buddhist activities were moving my life forward.

During the last three years, I have enjoyed teaching immensely. However, the early days were a struggle. One of the first classes I taught was International Reporting. The class entailed taking a group of students on a television reporting trip to Africa. It was an intimidating first assignment. For most of the students it was their first experience of reporting in the field. To top it off, we hoped to see our project broadcast on network TV. It felt like an overwhelming responsibility, shooting and producing a long-form news piece at the same time as teaching the students how to do it. I took my anxiety to the Gohonzon and used my practice to quell my doubts. I felt that my life was about to grow.

Collecting electronic waste at Agbogbloshie scrapyard to earn US$2–3 a dayCollecting electronic waste at Agbogbloshie scrapyard to earn US$2–3 a day

Our topic was electronic waste. To do a truly global story, the journalism school sent teams out to India, China and Ghana. My group followed the trail of electronic waste such as old computer parts from recycling centers in Vancouver to the teeming streets of Accra, Ghana’s capital. There, we discovered a disturbing scene: children, often doing the most difficult and dangerous work.

In a scrapyard just outside the city, known as Agbogbloshie, eight or nine-year-old children were “recycling” old TVs by cracking open the glass monitors with their bare hands and ripping out the plastic wiring which they then burned to expose the copper. Over fields strewn with mountains of cast-off computer casings, dark plumes of acrid smoke rose into the air. What was previously a wetland, had become a river coated with a greasy film, the banks choked with broken computer moldings. The children were working barefoot, without gloves or tools, in the broken glass and often cut their hands and feet. The slum they lived in next to the scrapyard was nicknamed Sodom and Gomorrah. The creek that bordered it served as an open latrine for the shacks which lined its banks. It was a sobering reminder of how many people on the planet still struggle for simple necessities and live in truly difficult conditions. The scene left me shell-shocked. Being a father myself, I was horrified but also knew my job was to document what I could.

related article Buddhism in Cuba Buddhism in Cuba by  Joannet Delgado, general director,  SGI-Cuba Joannet Delgado, general director of SGI-Cuba, shares her journey of discovering Nichiren Buddhism and how it took root in her country. My students and I returned to this challenging place to film three more times. We followed the children through the piles of computers, trying to find characters for our documentary. Each morning before heading to the site, I would chant to connect with the humanity of one of these children. In the midst of all this despair, I desperately needed to find a hopeful scene or moment. My chanting enabled me to crystallize a sense of hope that was critical in allowing me to push forward. Finally, a group of boys showed us where they lived and how they worked. They revealed dreams of returning to school to become a pilot, an accountant or a teacher. Even within such a chaotic environment, these children showed the ability to see their problems clearly and to express themselves with an undimmed humanity and hope.

In creating a documentary film, the technical elements and logistics of sorting the equipment, arranging the transportation and getting the necessary shots are not often the biggest problem. The challenge for me is having the faith that I will find within myself and within the situation, all I need to tell the story. The process of finding evocative images and moving moments often requires great persistence and patience. The ability to tap into my Buddha wisdom at those moments is what creates a turning point. My environment may not initially cooperate, but as Nichiren says, determined prayer will animate a positive response from the environment.

The scenes and characters we shot at the Agbogbloshie scrapyard proved vital. The finished piece, Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground, opened with the moments we had documented at the scrapyard before describing the plight of electronic waste workers in other countries that students from our graduate school had visited. Before it was even complete, the film was picked up by a major US current affairs program called PBS Frontline.

The important thing is to take that first step. Bravely overcoming one small fear gives you the courage to take on the next.

The prospect of millions watching our piece was exciting. And given the film’s origins as a student project, its nomination in 2010 for a US Emmy Award was even more of a surprise. When it went on to win in the long-form investigative journalism category, I was simply stunned. It was a profound victory for everyone who had worked on the film and one that I cannot imagine would have been possible without my Buddhist practice.

President Ikeda says, “The important thing is to take that first step. Bravely overcoming one small fear gives you the courage to take on the next.”

My years as a Buddhist have helped me to become more graceful under pressure. Whether with my work behind the camera or in my early struggles as a high school wrestler, my practice and connection to the SGI community have been a great support and inspiration. Thanks to my practice, I continue to find hope and beauty in dark corners of my life and to see the same in the world beyond.

[Adapted from an article in July 2011 issue of Soka, SGI-Canada; photos courtesy of SGI-Canada]

Read more: “The Afterlife of E-Waste” interview with Dan McKinney in the SGI Quarterly

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