It was the Fall of 1994 and Claire had just returned from a visit to Atlanta where she had been reintroduced to old friends in the Atlanta Soto Zen Center and had spent a few hours meditating there over the weekend. Her description of and enthusiasm for the newly-discovered Zen Center dropped like a hot coal in my mind.
Giana and I had been living in Jesup, Georgia for some five years then, and we had been friends with Claire since she and her husband Neill had moved to Jesup about a year after we did. We had hit it off immediately and become best friends, especially as Claire became our doctor and delivered our daughter, Liana.
We shared lots of interests and values with Claire and Neill, but somehow the topic of Buddhism had never come up –we didn’t talk about religion or spirituality at all as I recall. We were all pretty much socialist and materialist in our life philosophies — one reason we hit it off so well in a small south Georgia town where to express such ideas was a sure path to social ostracism. In fact, in Jesup, the first question you’re most likely to be asked upon being introduced to someone is: Where do you go to church?
So we had become fast friends with Claire and Neill, and no one had ever noticed my half-carved Buddha statue sitting in the living room, nor had my quiet interest in Buddhism ever come up in conversation.
But when Claire told me about re-connecting with a friend from Emory University days who had for several years been leading a Zen meditation center in the Candler Park area of Atlanta, I pointed out my rude sculpture to her and told her of my early Buddhist experiences in Thailand, and my continuing interest in Zen. I think I was in the midst of reading Suzuki Roshi’s little book at the time, and was still trying to sit every now and then, so I was ready for the news that there was somewhere I could go for serious Zen.
And more than ready for someone to share it with. Claire had brought home chant sheets from Zen Center, and she and I began doing little meditation sessions in the under-construction second floor of their house, which I was helping Neill build. Of course, I didn’t journal during much of this, so the details and sequence are pretty cloudy for me now 24 years later. I did write in August of 1993: “…I know clearly that I am on the Path now. Consistent sitting (inspired by Claire’s jump into Zen and the legitimization in Giana’s eyes that Claire gives it) has made me sure of the Buddhism that I embraced those years ago when my Thai friend said, ‘Buddha say, just enough!’”
And it wasn’t long before I went with Claire to Atlanta for a weekend sesshin.
That first day in the little Candler Park zendo, October 2, 1993, sitting on those black cushions facing the old granite walls of the converted gas station, is very clear in my memory. I remember the slight apprehension as I removed my shoes in the tiny, quiet foyer formed by old windows with white panes, the smell of the incense, and the black backs of the motionless meditators around the walls as I followed Claire to a vacant cushion.
Settling in to my cushion I remember a deep sense of gratitude and wonder at the opportunity to be there, actually sitting with a group of people doing Zen meditation.
For years, I had assumed that such things only happened in faraway places, and that seven years in a monastery in Japan was pretty much the only model for finding enlightenment. Now here I was in the midst of clearly serious Zen practice, only a few hours from home.
I spent most of that first day with tears rolling down my cheeks as I sat and breathed, walked and chanted. In my journal that night, I wrote: “I have wanted to do this for so long, and despaired of ever having the opportunity, so the reality is very sweet.”
I also discovered the Heart Sutra and quickly came to love it. The group chanting, and later my own chanting of it, seemed to open up meaning in the ancient words that a simple reading of it might not reveal. I had long loved the Buddhist sutras, since my introduction to them in the university class in Kansas City, but this was my first experience with how their use in meditative chanting revealed deeper meanings.
So the Heart Sutra and other chants became a part of my regular practice, one that has held up through the years since as a profound comfort through the difficult times of my life.
I think the most important effect from finding Zen Center and a zen buddy was that I began, really for the first time, consistent sitting. I began sitting on our screen porch, because there I could set up my cushion and a little altar and it wasn’t in anyone’s way — or in anyone’s face. I could pop in, sit for a few minutes, and move on with little wasted time. I was teaching school then, so I had a regular daily schedule and could work in one or two sittings each day fairly easily. I found that even a few minutes in the morning helped my school day — engaging with middle schoolers is not easy — go much more smoothly and I was much less affected by the stress of the job.
Surprisingly, my entry into open Zen practice also proved to be a very positive influence in the development of a better spiritual relationship with my mother.
As I mentioned in the chapter on Daddy and the problems we had surrounding my resistance to the Vietnam War, my mother and I had long been on a close spiritual path in many ways, and she understood my pacifism and the need to part ways with the Air Force. But she never had been able to accept my negative ideas about Christianity and my refusal through the years — despite the brief flirtation with the church in Missouri — to find an adult acceptance of “Jesus as my savior”. My mother’s personal faith was a profoundly spiritual version of Christianity, one that I deeply respected, and she was never a “hide-bound” Christian, to use a term she employed. She would have likely been run out of the southern Baptist church she attended had the folks there known the depth to which her differences with their theology extended, but her faith and love were so strong, shone out so clearly from her great, great soul, that no one ever suspected her heresies.
Because she was able to transcend what she saw as the human limitations in the Christian religion, she thought I should be able to do the same, and we had never quite seen eye-to-eye on any of it, especially as she was so acutely aware of the suffering I experienced without a truly liberating spiritual life.
My formal, open entry into Buddhism, while not what she would have preferred for me, was positive for Mother because it made me a happier and more balanced person. She could see that, and for her that was strong evidence in its favor, despite her differences with the beliefs and practices. So our relationship steadily began to improve and we began to be able to have meaningful discussion about spiritual matters.
Though I didn’t really talk about it a lot, I did “come out” as Buddhist to my family — and eventually to my students — with no negative responses. I even made it through that first Christmas with my siblings at Mom’s house smoothly, despite the fact that some of my siblings are toward the fundamentalist side of the Christian religion.
My wife, Giana, was supportive of all these changes, though she wasn’t too sure about it all, and didn’t have any interest at the time in Buddhism or in taking up the practice of meditation. She was, to my great relief, fine with my going off on weekends with our friend Claire for retreats, and fine with holding meditations in the loft of her pottery shop, even supportive of my setting up meditation areas in the bedroom when it got too cold out on the screen porch for sitting.
The next summer, I went off for a week-long retreat at Southern Dharma, this time by myself, and she was very supportive of that as well.
She was fine with most of it because she too could see that it was good for me. I was easier to get along with and less prone to the depression and anger that plagued me after beginning the regular practice.
But it didn’t fix everything.