I was a senior in college and my roommate was a Japanese American woman in school on a very selective music scholarship. Our school had a one-of-a-kind organ built into the center of a round chapel building, and my roommate was there to master it. Some mornings before she left for the day, so early I was barely conscious, I would hear mutterings of her daily mantras. This was my first exposure to Buddhism and I was curious but respectful. She did her thing, I did mine. I didn’t give it much thought.
I was raised in an agnostic family of 2 generations of scientists, with some Jewish ancestry (my maternal grandparents escaped Germany in WWII), and I had an appreciation for Southwestern Native spirituality as well as a blend of Catholic/Christian/Mexican symbolism having grown up in New Mexico. As a child, I was invited to both Pueblo ceremonies and Christian churches with friends.
One day, my roommate was distraught. She was unable to find the Buddha amulet she wore around her neck for protection. This amulet had been given to her by the minister of her temple, and she was extremely upset. Two weeks after she lost it, I found it, and that is when Buddhism found me. I was walking outside, about a mile from our dormitory on ground completely covered by fall leaves. Enjoying fall, I began to kick the red, gold, orange leaves and a glint of metal caught my eye. It was the amulet.
One year after graduating from college, my former roommate called me. She asked me to accompany her to Japan to do secretarial work for a small import company. Wanting adventure, I agreed and left my job as a technical editor. She told me if I came up with the airfare, everything else would be provided for a trip to Hawaii, where I could become accustomed to Japanese culture before going to Japan. I was invited to attend services at her Buddhist temple daily for a month as they were preparing for O-Bon Festival (the Japanese version of Mexican Day of the Dead), and got acculturated to Japanese life. The minister of their temple is the only woman Sensei of this Japanese sect, and was believed to have psychic and/or healing powers. She had been a housewife who people came to for healings and advice until she underwent extremely rigorous 2-year training in the mountains of Japan to become a Sensei.
I remember the first time I sat in the temple on the floor with other people cross-legged or on their shins, in front of a glorious golden Buddha with offerings of incense and flowers at a huge alter, I felt completely and utterly at home. So real, so grounded, so grateful. The mantras I learned then are still with me, though I now meditate without a mantra as a focal point. At times of high stress, I can immediately calm myself by thinking of the Sanskrit/Japanese repetition I learned. The ultimate biofeedback.
I lived with my friend’s mom who spoke sparse English in the 1-room “maid quarters” of a huge mansion on Diamond Head while my friend traveled with her boss on a tour of US destinations so that he could experience them. I believe I was intended to stay a week in Hawaii, but ended up staying a month. I had use of a borrowed car, no schedule except attending the temple, and a month lodging on Oahu! My friend’s mom was given housing in exchange for maintaining this mansion – one of 7 homes for a Japanese soft drink company CEO. Then to Japan for 2 months. The intention was for me to work a full year, but I chose to return to the US after my tourist visa expired, so essentially I left on mixed terms having just begun to get over culture shock.
The next time I would have contact with my former roommate was within 24 hours of 03/11/2011, the day of the largest earthquake ever to hit Japan. She chatted with me on Facebook real-time about what she was experiencing. Today she is a highly skilled performing professional pianist residing in Japan, and I am forever grateful for her family’s generosity (her mom was a single mom!) and for believing something was special about me, even if it was based on the karma of finding a lost amulet.
Since that introduction in 1990, I have read countless writings by Buddhist authors from many branches beyond Zen, and although there are stretches of time I slip out of daily meditation practice, I incorporate wisdom from the Buddha in my life and anchor myself again and again in mindful practice, both walking and sitting. A small alter I moved everywhere we went during my daughter’s 2 years of cancer treatment was a tremendous solace and comfort. I have been uncertain whether to identify myself as Buddhist, because I have never attended a formal retreat, but the other day I did find myself saying to the Jehovah’s Witnesses at my door, “I’m Buddhist” when they asked. Maybe it’s okay to think you are even though you have not been tested with rigorous monastic regimens. Maybe someday the opportunity for an extended retreat will arise.