This is the third part of the story of my conversion to Catholic Christianity together with my wife Judith and our three sons.
I went to Japan because I wanted to see a culture that was not Western. I had failed catastrophically to understand Western Civilization (I lost my scholarship trying), and I reasoned that people in non-Western cultures had the same human nature, but had a different way of dealing with the human condition, that I wanted to see. I liked Japan, met students, traveled and had an interesting life as a tourist for several months, but I did not learn anything profound. In Japan I met a few Americans who worked, saved money, and went to Japan, over and over until they were old. I could understand why they liked Japan, but I did not want to live that way. I knew that I was an American, and I assumed that there must be a way to be an American, live in America, and find meaning in life.
When I came back to San Francisco, I learned about the Zen Center, where an old Buddhist priest from Japan was encouraging Americans to sit in the traditional meditation. He was the priest of a temple called Sokoji, belonging to the branch of Japanese Buddhism known as Soto Zen. Most of the Japanese congregation were not interested in sitting, but the temple was full of Americans for the early morning and evening meditation. In 1964 I moved nearby to join them. The Japanese congregation and the American newcomers had very little in common, and a few years later the Zen Center moved to another place in San Francisco. But by that time, I was not sitting any more.
The old Sokoji was originally a synagogue, built in the 1880's with wooden Gothic arches. It is gone now. From 1965 to 1968, I lived right across the street, in a sunny room at the corner on the third floor. I could not see either the bay or the ocean from my window, but I could see the stone Gothic tower of Saint Dominic's Church several blocks away.
Crossing the street to Sokoji in the early morning, I went up a long, wide staircase, across the hall and into a big room. It had a high ceiling and high windows. The altar was covered with gold brocade, with a statue of Buddha seated in meditation, and candles and sticks of incense. Along either side of the room were round, black cushions on tatami mats, where we sat facing the wall in meditation called by its Japanese name, zazen. Za means sit, and our teacher said that in Soto Zen you do not try to say what zen means, you just sit. It was there in the old Sokoji, that I first saw the woman who became my wife, and there that we were married in 1969.
The women used to sit under the windows, facing the street, and the men sat on the opposite side of the room, facing the great disused hall of the old synagogue, where samurai movies were shown on Friday and Saturday nights. When we had sat long enough, the priest rang a gong, and we stood in welcome relief, faced away from the wall, and chanted a sutra in Japanese. Since none of us knew much Japanese, we chanted the sutra off of big printed cards that had Chinese characters and English pronunciation. That is how I saw my wife for the first time on the other side of the room, under the windows with the other women, over the top of my sutra card.
I did not know who she was, but it happened on a day in May in 1967 that a group of us Zen students went to the ocean for the afternoon, and to Golden Gate Park for the long summer evening. The weather in San Francisco is cool all year round, especially in summer, when the wind from the ocean brings fog into the city. But it happens sometimes on a day in May, that the weather is warm and enchanting. I can remember two such days in my life. On one of them, several years after Judith and I were married, I took a nap in sweet grass and wild flowers on a hillside above the blue ocean that stretched to the horizon. The other was this day. The sandy beach where we went was below a rock cliff, and the cold surf crashed in the warm sunshine.
In the park, a rock band called "The Grateful Dead" was giving a free concert of their loud music, and Judith and I danced. I mention the concert with some embarrassment, because I do not like loud music. The great violinist Yehudi Menuhin once described that kind of music as "devoid of subtlety, variety and intellect." But I used to like to dance. Judith must have liked dancing with me, as we have been together after that through everything. That part of Golden Gate Park is a narrow strip called the Panhandle. It has a big level lawn and great eucalyptus and pine trees. From there we could see the Baroque towers and dome of Saint Ignatius' Church on its hill, in the golden light of the late afternoon. We remember the date, May 7, 1967. Elsewhere in the world on that day, Chairman Mao Tse-tung proclaimed the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in the People's Republic of China.
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Send comments or questions to Dwite
1. In Rinzai Zen, the other kind of zen in Japan, you do not try to say what zen means either, but your teacher may give you a question about it, called a koan, in case you did not know that.
2. It was the "Summer of Love," when the hippies or "flower children" became famous in San Francisco. Before I met her, Judith lived next door to Janis Joplin and the Family Dog. She remembers Janis, who died of drug abuse, as young and innocent.
3. Obituary, "Violinist Yehudi Menuhin Dies at