Animator Leo Matsuda, of Los Angeles, on how his Buddhist practice enables him to win the duel between his brain and his heart.
World Tribune: Thank you for sharing your experience with us. When did you decide to become an animator?
Leo Matsuda: I’ve loved drawing and storytelling since I was a kid. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing characters that only exist in our imagination come to life, walking, running and expressing their emotions.
I came to the U.S. at 22 years old after being accepted into a prestigious animation school. To support my dreams, my parents actually mortgaged their home. I was naive and felt that optimism and hard work were all I needed to be successful. I worked extra hard at school building a strong portfolio, and my efforts paid off when Disney Studios offered me a job in 2008.
WT: Congratulations! You must have felt on top of the world.
Leo: Actually, the bottom fell out of my dreams immediately, when I discovered that I couldn’t work in the U.S. on my student visa. Without getting a job, I couldn’t pay off my loan, and my parents would eventually lose their home. I felt like I had ruined not only my life but their lives too. It was then that a good friend introduced me to SGI Buddhism.
WT: What attracted you to the practice?
Leo: I felt I had nothing to lose. I chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo desperately, with strong resolve, and my visa situation was resolved within weeks. It was my first benefit of the practice. I also worked extra hard at my new job and paid off all of my parents’ debt within a year. Because of all the actual proof I saw in my life, I became fully engaged in SGI activities, especially in Soka Group, a young men’s behind-the-scenes training and support group, I also introduced my mother to the practice in 2009.
WT: What was the biggest thing you wanted to change?
Leo: Even with all of the tangible benefits in my life, I still lacked confidence. I would put my heart and soul into my work, and when I faced rejection, I would feel dejected and distance myself from others. One day, I realized how self-centered my attitude was, and I determined in front of the Gohonzon to give my all to any task, with appreciation for being able to work as an animator. I strove in SGI activities, and I found that supporting others in faith energized me even more.
WT: How did your circumstances change in the process?
Leo: In 2014, I was selected from 73 artists to direct a short film. Being a first-time director was fulfilling but the extreme challenges brought out my deep insecurities. I was scared of showing my film to the world and worried what would come next in my career.
Amid my work challenges, I tragically lost two family members, one after the other. All my struggles were accumulating like a giant snowball rolling downhill at high speed. I became increasingly sad and depressed, losing motivation to participate in SGI activities and even work. Whenever I chanted, I felt numb.
Although I felt miserable, I had a responsibility to help my fellow youth to prepare for our monthly study lecture. As I studied SGI President Ikeda’s encouragement, I came across the following passage:
Buddhism is an all-out, earnest struggle. There is no place in Buddhist practice for an easygoing lackadaisical attitude. Having a position in the organization or social standing does not mean we can automatically give others hope. Only by waging a great inner struggle can we truly encourage others. (Learning from the Gosho: The Eternal Teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 165)
I realized I had to challenge myself despite my struggles. Would I let depression and pessimism defeat me, or use my challenges as a catalyst toward an optimistic and victorious future? I determined to fight like Sensei—to advance with the heart of a lion king.
I began sharing Buddhism with many others as the catalyst to bring forth my own Buddhahood, and I wholeheartedly supported all the young men in my region to create a strong foundation in faith. Recently, young men gathered across the country to attend the first SGI-USA Young Men’s Division Meeting (see p. 11). At the meeting in Los Angeles, my region was able to bring 81 young men and have 11 people receive the Gohonzon. This was deeply meaningful for me, because I graduate into the men’s division on New Year’s Day.
WT: Your film was released in theaters the week of Thanksgiving. How does your Buddhist practice relate to the film?
Leo: Inner Workings was released in theaters along with the film Moana. The film follows a day in the life of Paul, who experiences a tug-of-war between his enthusiastic and adventurous heart versus his pragmatic and fearful brain.
The theme directly relates to Buddhism, in that we all experience inner battles at every moment. Once we win the battle in our hearts, it causes a ripple effect that reaches those around us and society as a whole.
I was fortunate to travel around the world for the film’s premiere, and made history as the first Brazilian to direct a short film at Walt Disney Studios. Inner Workings has also been shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination.
One of the best moments, however, was the night my mother called to say that she had just read my newspaper interview. She told me how proud she was that I was advancing kosen-rufu through my work.
WT: On Nov. 18, you celebrated your eighth year of Buddhist practice. What have you learned?
Leo: Through this Buddhism of hope, I have learned never to retreat a single step, regardless of the circumstances. Sensei writes in his essay “The Spirit of Youth”: “Each day is a battle field, and our struggle is one waged through steady, tenacious activities for kosen-rufu . . . It is through continuous challenges that you can forge yourselves and develop iron fortitude and strength” (Feb. 1, 2002, World Tribune, p. 2).
My mother noticed the positive changes in me, and has strengthened her Buddhist practice. And my stepfather, seeing the benefits in her life and in mine, decided to receive the Gohonzon on New Year’s Day.
Together with Sensei, I will continue to support the young men in the same way I was supported, and to fight for world peace and happiness, always starting every day in front of the Gohonzon by winning the duel between my brain and my heart.