Zen Center

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.


(This post also appears here as a Page in the sequential section as 17.)

The hybrid way

I have been wandering in the wilderness for the past year or so.

The antecedents of that journey probably don’t merit a lot of discussion, but suffice it to say, there was a “fatuous concatenation” – a mostly illusory series of circumstances – that led me into abandoning much of my daily meditation practice in the mistaken belief that I had to clarify perfectly what the nature of my practice is before I could really pursue it.

This past weekend, in a meditation retreat with the Red Clay Sangha and teacher Terese Fitzgerald I found new inspiration and assurance that my rather unconventional practice is okay.

Terese, who was ordained by Richard Baker Roshi in Soto Zen and after eight years at Tassajara, went to study with Thich Nhat Hanh at Plum Village and helped found the Community of Mindful Living with him, calls herself “a hybrid.” In the retreat, we did silent sitting meditation and walking meditation indoors and outdoors, lying down meditation with a guided body scan, chanting and singing, talking, hugging, cleaning, cooking and eating meditation, and probably some other forms that I’ve forgotten.

In her dharma talks, Terese drew from a wide variety of primary and secondary source materials, laughed and joked, and told stories from her own life in expounding the truths of the Buddha’s teachings for our lives. It was all so incredibly wonderful that I’m emotional and tearing up just sitting here remembering and writing about it!

There were a number of deeper insights and stimulating realizations, but the thing I took away from the experience that has put a smile on my face and new life in my time on the cushion these few days since returning is the realization that it is okay for me to be a hybrid too! I have for some time now been in a state of near paralysis practice-wise because I felt I had been such a flit-about, such a butterfly (as they say in Thailand about unfaithfulness) in my practice, going from yoga to Zen to Vipassana, all with many side trips out into Tibetan practices, Engaged Buddhism, Centering Prayer… such a real dharma bum that I had to just cool out for a while and decide what I was.

I truly backed away from everything – though I did try to get on my cushion occasionally and at least do some mindful breathing, and I continued to practice the Lojong – with the thought that I needed to clear my mind and make a choice.

But listening to Terese, sitting with these ideas in the retreat, I realized that I am okay following my own path, in tune with the Buddha’s admonition to be a lamp for your own path. I know that all these different parts of the Buddhist world are helpful and meaningful to me, so I can draw from them all as lights along the path. Since the Zen path is my strongest, deepest groove, the tradition I have taken vows in, it seems I can just rest in that as my primary identification, perhaps for convenience sake, and consider all the other practices and teachings as expanding and confirming my way.

But in my heart, I’m just a hybrid. And I’m very happy with that.

As if in confirmation of this realization, I was reading earlier today an article a friend sent me several days ago, and here, in the Q&A at the end of the article is this:

Q: We have such a richness in the West, but for us as individual practitioners it’s also so tempting to try to do everything, to do a little bit of Vipassana and Dzogchen and everything so it almost becomes a distraction. It’s not so easy. It’s really something that attracts me, but how to deal with it.

A: Every silver cloud has a dark lining! I agree that the downside—the negative side of richness—is a difficulty in choice, and it can lead to a distraction of flitting from one thing to another and that’s one extreme. Another extreme is to say: »I’ll only take this insight and shut everything else out.« But another is to choose a practice—choose an approach that makes sense—but to draw insight and illumination from other places, and that can be a very, very useful thing. I don’t think that that needs to be a cause for too much anxiety.

Authentic living: Does it matter?

If there were a madman standing somewhere – perhaps on some hidden island in the middle of some unknown ocean (thinking of Dr. No…) – with his finger on the Destruct button, sending live video out to all the world saying that everyone must accede to a set of demands else he will push the button, what would we do? What would be authentic life in that moment?

What if this fictional madman had a series of buttons, each labeled with one of the world’s major cities, and began pressing them one at a time, with subsequent video of the total destruction of each city following upon his press of each button, laying out for the world a timetable of sure destruction and a list of demands including such things as ‘no more plastic’, or ‘eschewing all non-renewable energy,’ or ‘destroying all weapons of war’ … you get the idea.

What would be the reasonable and prudent course of action in such a scenario?

The world we live in is in fact in just such a predicament, though the madman is not a Dr. No on some remote island, the madman is us.

The timetable is yet to be agreed on, and the means of our destruction is still a bit up in the air, but make no mistake, unless we make some drastic changes at some very deep levels, it will come.

“Sustainability” is a cruel hoax.

Even if we make all the changes currently on the table and considered “reasonable” by those in high positions, we will not be able to sustain anything close to how we are now living for more than a few decades… perhaps, if some technological breakthrough materializes, we might sustain our way of life for a century. Which would allow my grandchildren to have children, yes – but how long would those children survive?

What is usually presented as sustainability is more like “stretch-ability”.

A description of the kind of life that is truly sustainable indefinitely on this earth would be so radically different from our present lifestyle as to be unacceptable to most, perhaps even unrecognizable. Somewhere between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic, we left a truly sustainable paradigm behind. By the time agriculture made “civilization” possible, we were firmly set on the course to the economic polarization, authoritarian regimes, and environmental consumption of today’s world.

So yes, we face sure destruction, yet we temporize and hem and haw and argue about the prudent course, and we stroll about on the deck smoking Cuban cigars and enjoying the evening breeze even as the iceberg looms.

So yes, I am asking, what constitutes an authentic life when faced with the mass destruction, maybe even the extinction, of our progeny, perhaps even of life on earth.

Perhaps I am too audacious. Perhaps I am arrogant as well, to think I have anything to say about authentic living. But I persist.

I offer these words in a spirit of humility and gratitude, realizing that I could be very off the mark with all or any of it, and acknowledging my great debt to the thousands of teachers, writers, thinkers, friends, enemies, and lovers who have helped me along the path to this point.

I also offer these words out of serious, ongoing love and concern for the well-being of the people and all the life-forms on this imperiled planet.

This concern is the real motivation for writing, for sharing, for perhaps at times sounding insistent. The situation is dire everywhere you look. Things are ‘going to hell in an egg basket’ as the old folks I grew up with said. The economic, social and environmental crises threaten to collapse the world our children and grandchildren depend on for their very lives. Is this not sufficient motivation for speaking out, for risking a strident tone?

Indeed, I believe we all need to begin to speak up on behalf of life on the earth, to speak up and to step out of our comfort zones, to change our ways of thinking and living, and to demand – as non-stridently as possible perhaps – that others take note of the impending disasters we face and to behave appropriately.

The changes we can make in our own lifestyles, while significant in many ways, are not enough. Even if all the “environmentally conscious” people of the world made all the changes they could “reasonably” be expected to make in their lifestyles – indeed, even if we, this tiny minority, really radically simplified our lives and reduced our consumption and all those things, it would not be enough to avert the environmental crises. Even if all of the progressives really got active in the political and social systems and took to the streets with the Occupy movements (Which I love!) around the world, it wouldn’t be enough.

There are just not enough of us.

So the strategy must be broader and stronger and more radical if we hope to make a difference in how things proceed.

The most important thing for us to do is to help others – our families, our friends and neighbors, our enemies in the culture wars, the great unwashed, the roiling masses, everyone! – come to see the true nature of the situation. This won’t be easy, because everything else is stacked against that seeing. Intense creativity will be required if we are to reach enough people.

So how do we help others to see this critical truth? Yes, speaking out and being strong examples is important. But again, it’s not enough. People generally change deeply set beliefs and ways of life only after powerful emotional experiences, not from being convinced by rational arguments, persuasive Power Points notwithstanding. It’s difficult to construct powerful emotional experiences for others, but the closest we can come to it is through the power of Story.

We must all begin to dig deep within ourselves to find the most powerful stories we can create, stories that will communicate at a real, undeniable emotional level the truths that we are coming to know. Truths that will help others to access the new understandings that power our lives, the new visions that give us hope, the new freedom from conventional living and thinking that offer the possibility for a new world, a beautiful world where humans recover the true ways of life that once were as natural as breathing.

The first step in the process is to see where we went wrong: separation.

Eugene to Florence…

No, living in the Green Hole didn’t jump start my quest for enlightenment. It was one more step on the karmic path: one more obstacle, the navigation around which defines that part of the path.

As I look back on my time in Eugene with the perspective of the years, I can see that I learned a lot there, and even made some progress in a fairly short time.  But it wasn’t at all clear to me then that I was even on the path.

I thought of myself as vaguely Buddhist, but I didn’t really know what that meant.

I was very happy to be there. At least I was reunited with my family, superficially. For a while, I lived in the big house on Broadway where my wife and son, Connie’s sister Holly, her daughter Jenny (and off and on several others) lived in a loosely communal arrangement. I worked at a few marginal jobs around Eugene, the most interesting of which was as a casual worker on an organic farm, and helped out with the kids and the housework. It was a different life. I never really considered trying to teach school there. Somehow, I thought I was done with that life.

It became clear fairly early on that we were not going to be a family again, and gradually we drifted further apart, though we continued to have a sweet, friendly relationship. I had not yet figured out how to actually be in a relationship with another person. I more or less decided to stay out of relationships altogether, though I kept narrowly avoiding getting entangled. I won’t go into those stories. Some were painful though sweet, and I learned a lot about myself through them.

I did get an actual job working at a motor home construction plant, but I left it so I could go back to Georgia for my brother’s wedding. Hitchhiking to Georgia was another adventure! I did a few other temporary gigs to help with the finances, but eventually my daddy sold our house in Georgia and I became a full-time volunteer activist.

It was a politically charged time, Ronnie Ray-gun having just been elected, and I got involved in activism at a level I’ve never been before or since.

The US was aggressively killing Indians in El Salvador and Guatemala to protect the banana plantations and other financial investments there from the effort of the local people to regain control of their countries. It didn’t seem right somehow, so after a rally, I volunteered to help the Eugene Council for Human Rights in Latin America (ECHRLA).  The name doesn’t exactly roll off your tongue – we called it “the Council”.

I began just helping out around the office, putting up posters and such, but after a while I became a full-time volunteer, sort of an assistant to Robert, the director. Nelly, an Argentine woman who pretty much ran things there, let me live in one of her houses, and the three of us ate, drank, and slept political organizing 24-7. We hosted a lot of cultural activities, speakers, workshops, conferences, as well as fund-raisers like movies and meals, serving mostly students and church groups.

I talked to people who had been in Central America on a near-daily basis. I knew what was going on by first-hand accounts. As I compared those reports to the reports in the media – part of my job was reading the daily reports – I began to realize that nothing we read in the papers comes close to telling us what’s really going on.

A few NY Times reporters were occasionally printing accurate stories on the events there, but they were reviled and attacked by the political commentators. It was an eye-opening time for me, a radicalizing experience.

But it was a bit too intense, so I didn’t hang in very long. And then too, the money ran out, so I had to find work again. I got a job – well, sort of a job – taking care of a woman’s kid and house while she went to college classes. This involved moving to Florence, a quaint little town on the coast straight across the Coast Range from Eugene. I liked it there a lot, and eventually got a job as a proofreader and typesetter at the local weekly newspaper.

The  Oregon coast – the ocean, the dunes and the forest – were all beautiful. Florence was magical… especially because it was in Florence that I met Giana.

Life was very nice, calm, and peaceful in Florence, hiding out from the world, as my friend said. Old Town Florence, a street on the north bank of the Siuslaw River, was a wonderful scene in those days, populated with an extremely interesting array of alternative business men and women, and peopled most any nice afternoon and evening with an even more diverse group of folks from the surrounding countryside.

We’d occasionally see Ken Kesey parking his old convertible in the parking lot there, and learned that the Siuslaw was the model for the river in his novel Sometimes a Great Notion.

Everyone knew everyone on the street, it seemed, and the various parties, bonfires, plays, and other events just happened without a lot of planning or publicity, yet everyone knew about them.

One of those events was the Sunday evening guitar circle at Donnie’s coffee shop, which usually drew 10 to 20 guitar-playing folk. It was at that guitar circle that I first met Giana.

I had spotted her early in the evening, a very cute brown-eyed girl behind a big Martin guitar. As the song lead went around the circle, everyone played a song they thought the rest would enjoy and maybe play along with, so when it came Giana’s turn, she ‘lit out’ on “Friend of the Devil” and I jumped right in, following her chords and singing along. She smiled at me a lot during the song, which was the hope behind my enthusiastic response, though I had always loved the song, and when the singing was over we talked a bit, and she smiled again and waved as she went out the door.

I knew I would see her again; that’s how things were there.

We in fact saw each other often over the next few weeks; the next time I saw her she was dressed as the wind, having just come from a children’s theatre event. Before long, we were friends, and then one night on the dance floor we kissed.

The rest is history, as they say.

Within a year of that meeting, we got married in the Old Town gazebo in sight of the dunes, the bridge and the street where all our Florence friends hung out. We sent no invitations, put no announcements in the paper – tho as the classified ads typesetter, I often sent her love notes and cryptic announcements via the classifieds – yet there were, by all accounts, at least 200 people at the wedding, with lots of wonderful food and drink at the mostly impromptu reception in our apartment afterward.

Eight-year-old John was the ring bearer, and Giana’s dad was there, as was Connie.

It was a wonderful day.

Over the next few years, we lived in several different, amazing places in and around Florence, – on top of a 300-ft. high cliff overlooking the Pacific, upstairs in an old general store in a huge apartment with 20-ft. ceilings, and in a little house in ten acres of forest with a sauna and three out-buildings – Giana opened an art school for kids, and I became the manager of the print shop. We had an amazing group of friends who got together frequently, naturally, and our lives were amazing.

Pretty soon, Luke was born and our lives became even more amazing and wonderful. We had an idyllic few years there, with lots of friends, one of the most beautiful natural settings on the planet, and a fairly stress-free life.

But there always seemed to be something missing for me. I read a few books with Buddhist themes, and I tried to meditate occasionally, but I wasn’t really getting it.

Our friends Mike and Monica went to a Zen retreat in Hawaii, and I wanted to ask them about getting involved, but I was hesitant. It seemed forced, artificial, inappropriate to ask. I don’t know why, but as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t.

I think I thought that somebody was gonna come up and tap me on the shoulder and say, “Wanna get enlightened? Come with me!” Sorta the Baptist model.

But it kept calling to me, and I knew it was what I wanted.

I started a sculpture that I thought of as a Buddha-rupa (image of Buddha) in a large block of Port Orford cedar. Somehow it seemed to help me feel I was doing something in the way of finding a spiritual path.

I was really just getting very complacent, hiding out, waiting for something to happen. Then life just slapped me right down.


Road to the green hole

[This is installment 14 in the narrative of my Way-finding. To read the first 13, go to the Pages, which are in chronological order.]

After Koinonia and Habitat, my life seemed to drop into some kind of vortex.

After a few weeks of erratic spinning, the cosmic blender spit me out, and I crawled up onto the western shores of the continent wet, hungry, and disoriented.

On a less-cosmic plane, I managed, through the long-suffering help of my parents and liquidation of the few material things of value I had accumulated, to get an old and cheap ($700) – but seemingly reliable – Datsun station wagon and head out for Oregon where Connie had gone to visit her sister. I had some vague idea that if I was sufficiently abased, apologetic and charming, we could get things back together. At least I could be in the same city with my young son.

With that vague goal and no plan for how to accomplish it, I set out.

The trip was about as successful as you might imagine.

I ran out of gas on I-20 somewhere in Alabama or Mississippi and had to walk miles to find gas. Then I began to imagine that my right front wheel bearings were going bad – there was this insistent roaring sound. After stopping at a parts store and changing out the wheel bearings in the parking lot, the roaring continued. I was consumed with anxiety until I discovered that when I put my hand on the strap holding a few random things on the top of the wagon, the roaring stopped.

The lessons – and the suffering – were coming fast and furious.

Somewhere along the long drive northwest out of Dallas, heading for Amarillo, the temperature began to drop, snow blowing across the road and through the cracks around my windows. When I noticed it piling up in the empty seat, I got worried. I turned on the radio and discovered that a major blizzard was blowing through and would be dumping feet of snow within hours.

I found the wisdom that is the better part of valor and stopped just after noon at a motel in Amarillo. This is an interesting trip, I thought, as I found a booth in the attached coffee shop and sat back to watch the storm unfold. I didn’t know how interesting it was going to get!

Sitting in the booth, I watched and listened to a number of blizzard stories – cowboys talking about cattle frozen in the fields, drivers talking about impossible road conditions, etc. But one group’s conversation caught my ear.

They were young and urban, and they talked about the destination of their interrupted journey: a relative’s funeral in the east somewhere. Their car, which we watched being towed in to the parking lot, refused to run after they pulled over to the side of the road in heavy snow and shut down the engine. Eventually we learned the car had a cracked block – apparently it had no antifreeze, the reason for which I came to understand later. The teenagers were distraught, as they had no money to pay for expensive repairs, even if it could be repaired, and had no idea how they would continue, or even where they would spend the night.

At that point I volunteered to put them up in my room. They seemed nice enough, and certainly in need. They were so grateful and we sat up late together watching TV as the snow fell. As I listened to their talk during the evening, I pieced together the situation: they were from LA, the car was stolen, and they were buying gas with a stolen credit card. The clincher to my conclusion was the presence of an ominous tool, a steel shaft about 18 inches long with little gripper fingers on one end, a stop on the other end, and a weight that slid along the shaft. One of the boys couldn’t stop playing with this instrument. It was a tool for yanking ignition switches out to facilitate hot-wiring.

I started to worry about what might happen. I had gotten into some good conversation with one of the young girls – I think there were two girls and two guys, though it’s always been a little hazy for me – which proved to be my salvation.

At some point late in the night when I was trying to sleep, I heard a heated discussion among the group. They were arguing about whether they should steal my car next. The girl I had made friends with persuaded them to spare me due to my generosity in giving them shelter, and there were plenty of other cars in the parking lot.

I didn’t sleep the rest of the night, and left early for the coffee shop. At that point, my car was covered in several feet of snow. As I sat in the coffee shop, I saw them come out into the parking lot, ignition stripper in hand, choose a large, snow-free car, jump inside and drive off. Gone in 60 seconds. I considered a police report, but I was so relieved to have them gone I wanted no further involvement.

Besides, I kinda liked them.

When the snow melted mid-afternoon, I got a jump start and was off for Arizona.

I stopped in for a visit in Winslow, with Connie’s parents, and then struck out across the Mojave. Exactly half way between Needles and Barstow, the car stopped going.

It spit and sputtered and lurched for a few miles, and then the engine just stopped, and I coasted to a stop somewhere near the 60-mile marker. It was the middle of the day, luckily in late January, so not so hot, but I had no idea what to do next.

Out of ideas, I stood next to my car with thumb up for hours. It got dark, and I began to wave my flashlight as cars zoomed by.

Just about the time I was sure that I would starve to death here in the Mojave, a pickup truck slowed, braked, and pulled to the side of the road. Inside was a young couple who lived on a boat in Monterey.

They were probably the nicest people in America that day. They took me to Barstow where I found a 6X10 room for the night and considered thanking God for saving my life.

The next day I bought every auto part and fluid I could think of that might possibly remedy my poor Datsun’s ills and went to stand on the I-40 on-ramp. My appearance – longish curly hair and beard – was not exactly out of place in California in 1981, but for some reason, no one going East that day gave me a second look. After all day and not even a slow-down, I walked over to a gas station and asked how could I get to my car 60 miles away on I-40.

Just call the Highway Patrol, they’ll come get you, the man said.

He was right. I have forever since loved the California Highway Patrol. In 10 minutes, the officer was there, cheerful, friendly, even great company, and we were at my car in less than an hour.

I installed plugs, points, condenser, inline fuel filter, gas-dry, and a few other items I’ve long forgotten. Something worked. Maybe it just needed to rest, or needed a little TLC. The Datsun started right up and off we went… for a while. In a few miles, the surging began again, so in Barstow I stopped at a repair shop, spent another night, another day, and all my money trying to fix whatever the problem was.

Two mechanics later, nothing worked, but eventually I just gave up and headed for Bakersfield.

Amazingly, I cruised along with only a momentary lurch every few minutes, never sure I would make it to the next town, all the way to Eugene.

I had to stop in Sacramento and pawn a few things, including my beloved typewriter that I’d had since going off to college, but the car just wouldn’t run without gas.

I was very happy to be reunited with my little family after this harrowing trip, and things went well for a while. We talked and we tried to resolve our issues, we tried to be a couple again, but it just wasn’t working.

I thought at the time that I was truly trying to make things work, but the perspective of the years, the experience on the cushion and in life since, have taught me the truth: I was completely consumed by, not just my passion, but by my addiction to self. I think that I must have convinced myself, – and thought I convinced others – using all the deep thinking and fancy words that I had come to rely on, that I was open and kind and compassionate and deeply concerned about deeply important things… and such bullshit on and on as I can hardly even bear to go back and read in my journal!

But the truth is, I was just very self-absorbed and ego-driven, very blind to the truths about myself, very alienated from life and other human beings, extremely ignorant about the causes of my own suffering and the degree to which I was inflicting suffering on all those around me.

In short, I was where most people are before allowing a little light in, but with an extra added dose of over-intellectualized self-righteousness!

I wish I could say that my arrival in Eugene – know locally as The Green Hole – precipitated a sea change in my attitudes and behaviors and I began a serious quest for Enlightenment.

Unfortunately, it took a while longer before light began to dawn in my life.

Just enough

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.