Distant Music

- Allan Adasiak (phoenix@alaska.net)

I was raised a Roman Catholic: church school every wednesday afternoon, with harsh nuns who taught that your soul was white, and that sins put black spots on it. If you died with those black spots you would go to hell for ever. God wants you to be good (he loves you -- which of course is why he would put you in hell forever), and the church can remove your sins. In other words, guilt, fear, etc., especially for a little boy whose nature seemed to always be sinning because he was doing things little boys do.

I didn't like the church and avoided it. Decided to give the whole mess up completely by the time I was 13. At about the same time, while working in the school library I came across a book called "A Buddhist Bible," (Dwight Goddard), read a lot of it, understood very little, but somehow liked it. Also in the following year or two I read the Bhagavad Gita, some of the Upanishad, and a variety of philosophical works.

My charismatic religion experience was not the same as yours. [Ed - I told Allan that I liked what I saw in a charismatic church]. Around age 14 and 15 I had a friend whose father was a Baptist minister; he ran the church just down the street from where I lived. My friend was a lively, rebelious "minister's kid" and the two of us got along just fine. He invited me to a service at the church once, and I thought it would be good for me to know what it was like. I was horrified and sickened, at myself as much as by what I saw. The propaganda techniques for moving crowds were everything I had read about, and powerfully effective. Hitler would have been pleased -- although his objectives were quite different. I felt very strongly moved, although I knew I didn't believe the doctrines that were being advanced. Toward the end, people were asked to come up and dedicate their souls to Christ. This was the climax of the evening, for which a fine foundation had been laid. The music, the pleas, the persuasion, were very strong. I felt myself starting to cry and was drawn to the altar -- and it took an amazing amount of strength to resist. I felt then intuitively what I can articulate now: it is one thing to sacrifice your individuality; it is another to have it taken away from you.

At around age 16 or 17, when I had been reading Bertrand Russell and H.L. Mencken, I was deeply moved to re-examine Christianity. I made appointments with various Catholic priests and put my questions to them. No good. They killed it for me. Whenever one of them was put in a box, the answer was always "who are we to question the infinite wisdom of God? A weak dodge for difficult questions, rather than admitting the difficulty, hazzarding tentative answers, and making some effort. (I see as I write this that I was infected by scientific method even then. That is one of the things that makes Buddhism attractive.)

When I went to Princeton, they had a compulsory chapel requirement: you had to go to some kind of church three weeks out of the month, or something. I thought it was stupid to do something I didn't believe in, hypocritical, so I went to the Dean of whatever and told him I wanted out. His reaction was marvelous: "I've been dean here for 24 years, and no one has ever asked to get out of chapel before." To which I replied, "I don't care. That's what I want to do." He was silent, so I pushed, "How do I do it?" He had me go talk to the head of the chapel. I liked him. He and his wife had been held in a prison camp during World War II and had been tortured by the Japanese. He was honest, he was gentle, he had strength. We talked once a week about religion. But while I liked him and respected him, I could not accept his beliefs. I told him I wanted to stop this, and he let me go, with the agreement that I would write a paper on my beliefs -- due the day before Easter.

Sometime in the early 1960's I went over to visit my friend, who was a Japanses American. He wasn't there, but his father was. No one was there, so we sat and talked. He told me how, although he had been born in the United States, he was put in a concentration camp here during World War II, and his property confiscated -- because he was Japanese. He was still bitter, which seemed reasonable to me. I remember that when he was talking about white people he used the word "Caucs," which seemed to me to be a very pleasing and appropriate coinage, paralleling the word "Japs" in its sharpness and denigration. I think he noticed that I did not flinch. Anyway, he introduced me to various Japanese foods, was surprised that I liked them, and taught me to use chop sticks, which to my amazement and his pleasure I picked up fairly well right away. During the course of all this, he quizzed me about my beliefs, and we discussed philosophy. Then, when I was leaving, he said, "you know, I almost think you are a Buddhist, but you don't know it." I laughed, and he said, "OK, but think about it, and some day you may see."

When I was about 23, I had an attack of something like semantic aphasia. I could see words on a page, but I couldn't make sense of them. I also had savage headaches and other things that I forget right now. I saw a psychiatrist who gave me my first acquaintance with Rorscharch (sp?) ink blots, put me on some medication, and talked to me twice a week. He was nice but the sessions seemed pointless. About six months into that, I went to shoot pool in Berkeley with some of my friends, and I ended up with some of the finest headaches I had had. I realized that I hadn't taken my medication for about the past two days (oops), and I decided that maybe I wasn't really getting any better, but was just being drugged. I stopped going to him, stopped taking the pills, and decided to let pain be my guide. When I hurt, something was wrong. I should try to understand it and fix it. The assumption being that my natural state was pain-free.

Sometime after that, I was wandering around in a bookstore in Berkeley (I am a book-a-holic)and I came across a book by Alan Watts, either The Way of Zen or The Spirit of Zen. I read it, and I was drawn to what it had to say -- like distant music. Sometimes clear, sometimes not, sometimes gone.

I am going to have to wrap this up. I was afraid it would take too damned long to write. The brief shot: I have read a lot of Buddhist stuff and even understood some of it. I am more intrigued by what I do not understand. I have done a series of lectures on Buddhism (the blind leading the blind. I would never do that now.). I have gone to a few sesshins, etc. I am still not a Buddhist, although perhaps I am becoming more of one.

I am still following the distant music.


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