Luckily, or karmic-ly, I got an assignment with a recon squadron as my SEA deployment inevitably came up, and after a few more months of training, an emergency leave due to my father’s first heart attack, and a trip to survival school, I was on my way to Danang.
Surrounded by Vietnamese refugees who didn’t like Americans very much, Danang was an armed camp (popularly known as Rocket Alley) and there were no trips into the surrounding countryside, save a very scary bus ride to China Beach, no stops along the way. Under these conditions, I didn’t meet many locals. There were many indigenous workers on the base, and I got to know a few of them, but not well. But after a few months, I got transferred to our detachment in Thailand.
In Thailand, we could go into town whenever our schedule allowed, and there was much greater contact with the local, Buddhist, population. I was in love with the Thai people immediately. One of the workers in our ‘hooch bar’ – a small recreational facility our group shared with the hooch, or barracks, next to us – whose name (I think) was Ba, became my friend, and it is to him that I attribute my conversion to Buddhism. He was a very calm and kind man, and he patiently explained the ways of Thai culture to any of us who would listen.
I was particularly interested, and he liked me because of that, I suppose, so he talked to me a lot. In one conversation, he was relating to me the story of the Buddha watching a musician tune a stringed instrument. I don’t remember the details of the story, but I remember very clearly the beatific look on his face, the great compassion of his smile, and the softness of his tone of voice as he said to me, “Buddha say, not too much…” holding one hand up above his head “…not too little,” hand down at waist level, “…juuust enough!” …hand floating through at chest level, big smile and kind eyes looking into mine.
In that moment, it was all clear to me. I knew that this was my own miracle, my own glimpse into the mystery, my own religious truth. These words set me on the path of the Buddha’s teachings that I still follow today. And of course, if you study Buddha’s teachings, you learn that meditation is very important. To say the least.
Although, in the same way that many “Christians” don’t follow the teachings of Christ very closely, most Buddhists don’t practice meditation, – they expect the priests and the monks to do that, and they give alms so they share in the merits of the ones who do meditate – it is clearly what the Buddha himself and all of his primary followers over the 25 centuries hence teach as the thing you must do if you want to come to know Truth. Meditation is “the way” to be able to live in that realm of “just enough” all the time.
I began then, using the very limited resources of the base library at Nakon Phanom, to study Buddha’s teachings. I took every opportunity to hang out on the street near the house in town where novice monks could often be seen on the porch, or outside the gate of the local Wat Shri Thep monastery to watch the monks sitting around the huge well in the courtyard.
Without going into the whole story, I will say that being in the Air Force, especially in the American war on southeast Asia, was very hard for me. Seeing the monks gave me a sense of peace and happiness that was otherwise very hard to find in that setting.
Little by little, I began to think of myself as Buddhist, or at least wishing I could be Buddhist. It seemed unattainable. I didn’t realize then that many authors I had read in college, people like Kerouac and Ginsburg, were actually Buddhist. It seemed to me that only Asians could be Buddhist. Standing outside that monastery gate looking in, I felt relegated to the position of permanent outsider.