story by George Tanabe
photos by Dana Edmunds
I first encountered Zen Buddhism in the early ’60s when I had to deliver a load of lumber to an old house in the hills of Pupukea on O‘ahu’s North Shore. My father had a hardware store in Waialua and I was his unpaid delivery boy, home from my first year of college.
“Diamond Sangha?” I asked my dad after he gave me the address. “What’s that?”
“I’m not sure,” he replied. “The guy who came to order the lumber looked like a hippie, but he paid for it in full.”
Surrounded by scrub guava and haole koa bushes, the Pupukea house was in disrepair—peeling paint, torn screens, dry rot and termites. Soft-spoken and slightly emaciated, a young, shirtless Caucasian man helped me unload the lumber in silence. After the last two-by-four was off the truck, I asked him, “What’s the Diamond Sangha?”
There was a long pause before he finally said, “A Zen Buddhist group.”
Zen was rising in popularity back then. Life Magazine carried stories of Zen monks and Alan Watts, the energetic writer and promoter of the mysteries of Zen. D. T. Suzuki, the Zen master and philosopher, was as well-known as the Dalai Lama is today. The word Zen had entered the English language: After seeing a green flash as the sun disappeared into the ocean at a Hale‘iwa Beach Park picnic, a girl from the Midwest turned to me and exclaimed, “Wow, it’s sooo Zen!”
It didn’t matter that nobody really understood the essence of Zen. It was enough to know that it was some kind of Aha! moment, a mystical insight that could not be explained in words. That was part of its attraction—it was a feeling, an aesthetic, not an idea.
“If you really want to experience Zen,” the Diamond Sangha young man told me, “you must meditate. Would you like to try it? Just sit and don’t think.”
I took off my steel-toed work shoes and sat on the bare wooden floor, crossing my legs painfully. I immediately thought of lots of things—the stranger next to me, my next delivery, the shave ice I craved, the pain in my legs, the ticking of the timer he had set for twenty minutes.
Ding! Finally, at long last. I couldn’t have gone on for another minute. “Well?” he asked. “How was it?”
“I failed,” I admitted. “I couldn’t stop thinking.”
“I knew you didn’t have it in you,” he said, unsurprised, a bit condescending. “But maybe someday you’ll get it.”
As I drove down the winding road from Pupukea, I wondered about the discovery I had just made. The haole guy on the hilltop, new to Zen, had experienced the truth of Buddhism, but I, even though I had grown up in a Buddhist family, didn’t have the slightest idea of what he was talking about.