The warm weather coupled with the bus ride beside palms and beaches along the Gulf of Mexico had really lifted my spirits. Gary, a student and member of the local peace group, was at the station to pick me up. We drove to his home in the French Quarter where I met Dennis, a part-time house painter and part-time worker at a radical bookstore. The house was filled with bookshelves and there were more books and magazines piled on tables and stacked on the floor.
After a big supper with two pots of strong coffee, we walked to the prayer vigil, arriving just as it was beginning. About 40 people were standing in a circle holding candles. A few other were handing out literature. I was introduced to the monks, Reverend Morishita and Reverend Sakamaki.
The pair stood out among all the others in Jackson Square. Morishita, the older, wore a saffron robe and a pair of green running shoes. He was standing by a large sign that said, "NO EUROSHIMAS." Sakamaki was much younger, appearing to be a teenager. He wore sandals with his saffron robe. Both monks' heads were cleanly shaven. Sakamaki was holding a ten-foot aluminum pole with a long purple silk banner attached to the top. It was very windy and the banner was flying almost horizontally so that the large white Japanese characters along its eight-foot length and the bright red sun at the top were clearly visible. Later I understood that this was their prayer banner and the writing was their chant for world peace. The words which they were chanting alternately in loud voices were "Namu Myoho Rengekyo." I wondered what they meant. Since then I have learned that a Christian might best interpret them as: "I wish upon you the entire goodness of the New Testament. I give this to you with each step that I take." It is the refrain of the Lotus Sutra.
It was New Year's Eve in the French Quarter and tomorrow was the Sugar Bowl Game. The streets were filled with college students and tourists, almost all drinking heavily. The air was charged with the sights and sounds of exploding firecrackers. Many people were already too drunk to be clear about what was going on and some of the tourists confused the monks with Chinese Maoists.
A solitary middle-aged man approached the monks waving a bottle of cheap wine. He was so drunk that he could progress forward only by walking sideways. This progress was further slowed as he occasionally staggered backwards. But he finally arrived in front of Morishita. He was apparently trying to mimic the chant, but all he could manage was a drunken howl. After a few minutes, Morishita stopped the chant. He and Sakamaki bowed to each other three times, and then Morishita, smiling broadly, bowed to the howling man in front of him, shook his hand, and embraced him. The man broke off his howl, stared wide-eyed, then silently staggered sideways to a park bench. I saw him a half-hour later, almost unconscious. He would probably never recall the event, but it left a strong impression on me. The prayer vigil for peace had occurred in the rowdiest circumstances and had retained its dignity; my spirits soared.
After the hour vigil ended, Gary, Dennis, and I celebrated the New Year in more conventional ways. We walked around the French Quarter, bumping into a few of their friends, and went to a relatively uncrowded piano bar where we listened to a young, blind Black man play jazz. After a few hours it was time for a party. Was it wishful thinking or the previous celebrating that made us believe that Gary's friend was having one? Not only was she not having a party, she had just gone to bed. It was eleven-thirty. But all the same, she was glad we came, and we had several hours of good conversation over the bottle she opened.
When we finally got back to Gary's house after two a.m., we ordered a large pizza. I finally got to bed to try to complete five hours total sleep in two days.
It was a restless sleep. What was starting tomorrow? An adventure? An ordeal? The monks knew some English: good. What did they know of American customs, of Southern customs? What more should I do before walking away from New Orleans?
My mind churned and turned to the past. My body wanted to sleep; my mind went on, trying to piece together special events of my life that had led me -- in some ways compelled me -- here. An ironical aspect surfaced first. Soldiers carry flags; my twin Doug and I carried the American flags into church at the summer Bible schools at the Southern Baptist church. Later we raised and lowered the flag in our Key Club activities in high school. I smiled, remembering the "good citizenship" award I received in the graduation ceremony.
I wonder whether I would have been asked to carry those flags if I hadn't been a twin. Twins are "cute" and adults like to put them on display. So people paid attention to what I said and did; I sensed early that I could have an impact on the world outside my family. That feeling has lasted. (A lot of adults have lost it.)
I was an active church member as a boy -- both in Sunday school and in the choir. The Beatitudes mattered, and helped shape my ideals. Later, they still mattered and made me leave the church for a long time. One detail came back to me, lying half-asleep in Gary's bed. The minister of my small-town church had his personal plane but didn't know of any poor families who could benefit from food donations at Thanksgiving.
During my high school years, the social protest of students was gaining national attention. I listened eagerly toBob Dylan albums. For a while, existential philosophy fascinated me, and I retain the powerful belief that I must take responsibility for all that I do.
I entered UNC in 1967, hoping to continue studying politics and law. I had already begun in high school, had always been studious; our family had a strong work ethic. Though not really poor, sometimes both my parents had had to take paying jobs.
Now my energy and drive went into student politics. Social issues were no longer addressed by the church, and UNC was alive with the challenges of the Vietnam war, racism, sexism, and multiple economic and social injustices. My great need to understand drove me into courses on contemporary issues and Latin American politics and American History. In a few years, I was in SDS (Students for a Democratic Society).
The politics of the classroom was not just history and theory. The war went on and escalated. Social injustices cheated people of fully lived lives, and by the end of my senior year, my alienation with established social institutions had become complete. I graduated Phi Beta Kappa but didn't take the entrance exam to law school. After graduation I lived for a short time in a political commune near Selma, Alabama, which grew food for a free breakfast program in New Orleans. It was too isolated; also, I saw plants dying a few days after being planted.
So I came back to North Carolina, worked one job after another until I found my vocation, social work. I went to graduate school and got a job with the Department of Social Services in Greenville. There I came across a lively peace group, the Greenville Peace Committee, some of whose members had been active peace workers for decades. Weekly meetings helped us support each other.
I worked with blind and partly blind people for six years, finding them money and the right glasses, driving them to appointments and seeing that they got help for chores. But I grew more and more frustrated with the paperwork and bureaucratic decision-making, and the need to "be professional." Likely I was looking for more than any establishment job could offer. In 1981, I resigned to look for whatever that was. I hiked the Appalachian Trail, thinking, alone, of what I had learned about the world and myself. Now 1981 was over, and my search was about to continue with a group of Buddhist monks from Japan.
At last I fell completely asleep.
go to page 5