My mother was raised Methodist, my father Episcopalian. I think I’ve got that right, as background it’s close enough. I was raised in a Wisconsin farm town transitioning to suburbia, with Germans & Polish as the dominant ethnic groups, in which there lived basically two apparent species; Catholics & Lutherans. Lutherans did not eat fish on Fridays, tho there may have been other distinctions of significance. There were some Methodists across town, a rather silent species it seems, somewhat aligned with the Lutherans; we occasionally attended for hymn-singing at holidays.
A life of the spirit was important to my parents, but passive participation in the existing structures was not; & so, with a few other families, we started a “church.” It began, I recall, in rented space in the basement of the town hall; during the Cuban missile crisis this broke down, as the air raid siren was atop the building, too often interfering with proceedings; so we began meeting in each others’ houses; I mostly recall ours, and especially the Forests’, with a large enclosed porch & large windows, on a beautiful wooded lot overlooking the Milwaukee River, across the river from our part of town.
The involved parents took turns officiating the service and providing for the children; many years later, when I discovered Quakers, I had the sudden realization that this is what we had been all this time.
After many years the collective families finally raised the funds to purchase a lot & build a church, incorporating it as Presbyterian (“governed by the elders”) & to hire a full-time minister, a respectable Dutch-Reformed gentleman. Pews & lectern, families in the pews, folks hired for youth education, a grand project in the eyes of many, but for me, the essential nature of spiritual community became lost in the shuffle. I realize some folks desired a formal “tended to” church, and this met their needs, not fitting in to the existing denominational structures in the community; but for me, the life of the spirit had been in the act of co-creation, the communion of souls. The final coup to “religion” for me was the reluctance of my church leaders to offer guidance during my Vietnam War years leadings to pursue conscientious objector status with the local draft board.
I attended Michigan State University in East Lansing Michigan, and became active in a few groups organizing protests of the war. Most were lost in Protest, & I perceived the psychic violence in that protest to be parallel to the violence of the war, not in body count or physical hardship certainly, but in psychic burden. There were a few rather pithy older women involved, however, who seemed to possess a foundation, a clear understanding of why war (& not just this war) was objectionable; or rather, more meaningfully, why peaceful alternatives to war were preferable. They had few words, and between the drawing of my introversion, and the intrigue of mystery, I was pulled in to the Society of Friends (Quakers), rediscovering the nature of spiritual community that had been planted as seeds in my youth. The Student Mobilization Committee lost its appeal on my realizing that the real work was internal and local, and Tolstoy, Hermann Hesse, Ram Dass, a Penguin edition of the Bhagavad Gita, eastern teachings embedded in the evolving 1960s beat community, and Friends traditions and Practice became my focus.
My parents struggled a bit with my “political” leanings (tho perhaps more with my hair & beard), both having served in the military in WWII, but have I mentioned that my dad was unconditional in his Love & Regard for all? Dad had served as an unarmed (for lack of ammunition) combatant in then-Czechoslovakia (more on that connection later), and witnessed many of the the horrors of that war, I grew up with his beautiful pen-&-ink sketches of the countryside about Cheb & Pilsn about the house; and in truth my personal peace testimony derived more from him than from any other source. The Quaker Peace Testimony derives from a perception of “that of God” in everyone, our essential interbeing, a concept I believe my father truly understood, & that I inherited from him (Margot, Diana, would you agree?).
Mary & I were married in a Quaker ceremony, under the care of Midcoast Friends Meeting, in a log lodge at Tanglewood Camp in Lincolnville, Maine. The marriage certificate – a large illuminated document signed by all in attendance, friends, family, and one still-mysterious stranger, hangs on the wall above our bed. It’s worked for 33 years, and shows no signs of failing despite our recent hardships.
It is difficult for me to frame my involvement in Buddhism as “religion;” I prefer to call it “practice,” but perhaps that’s more the result of western attitudes about “religion” than it is about the essential nature of Buddhism. I think my first introduction was Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, followed by the writings of Gary Snyder, wanderings from there into the poetry of Basho, Issa, Dogen, and on from readings, to the practice of Sōtō Zen, principally inspired by my teacher, Shunryū Suzuki-Roshi, at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. My Sangha is my Friends (Quaker) community, which I’ve participated in these past 15 years inconsistently due to my introversion colliding with an extrovert’s daily job, rendering Sunday mornings often a precious time for seclusion; my personal practice is Sōtō Zen / Mahayana Buddhist practice with some wanderings into Tibetan Mahayana tradition.