The spiritual life sometimes begins with illegally candidates, in illegally situations! Not long after Janet and I made our dash out west in 1978, the bill collectors got serious about my wild spending. They repossessed my car, harassed me at the furniture store where I was working, and made my life as miserable as only they know how.
It ended up being a battle of wits, with me stubbornly determined not to pay them a damn nickel, and soon I was looking for a place to disappear for a few years. I also had to find some answers. My shallow Catholic background, steeped in useless "mystery, miracles, and authority" where I was never exposed to Catholicism's deeper aspects, such as the contemplative saints, was failing me.
I had been doing some casual reading about Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, which appeared to my German heritage because of its rationality, and I was impressed with its clear, concise teachings that stuck a chord in my organized heart. I thought to myself, how could bill collectors ever find me in a Zen Buddhist Monastery? No drivers license to trace, no income tax forms to file. Maybe this is the answer! The perfect hideout!
So one morning after Janet left for her sales job at a Levitz Furniture store, I loaded all my clothes into a couple of huge suitcases and a backpack, wrote a short note that I would be gone for awhile, tipped my hat to our small apartment In Phoenix, and snuck down to the local Greyhound station where I hopped a bus to Shasta Abbey, a Zen Buddhist monastery located in Mt. Shasta, California.
It was hot; The kind of a 114-degree day in the Valley where you've thought twice before picking up a silver dollar from the scaling pavement, and the bus was crowded. Busses have a distinct smell about them; Diesel mixed with. . . Something. . . Humanity? And I never sat in the back; Strange people ride back there! I always sat forward, directly behind the driver to keep him awake and talking in the middle of the night when his head would invariably begin to nod. These guys were good, only sleeping a few seconds before jerking their head up to drive a few miles more. Scary!
A lot of stops and a long time later, the old dog dropped around a curve on a mountain highway somewhere out of Redding, and there it was, truly surreal, its majestic snow-capped peaks floating on a purple haze. I felt something deep in the pit of my stomach, the same feeling when I left my family, and I knew the legends had it right; Mt. Shasta was enchanted.
The bus spit me out at the end of a beautiful afternoon. There were no cabs in sight, there was nothing in sight, so I had no choice but to hoof it from the bus stop up the five-mile hill to the monastery – it could not be that far! So off I trudged, immersed in a blissful ignorance with my two bulging suitcases, a backpack, and wearing designer jeans coordinated with an expensive leather sport coat and handmade cowboy boots, and having no idea what I would find when I got there. I bought enough clothes along to start a Goodwill store, right there in the middle of Mt. Shasta.
It was fun hiking up the old asphalt road, at least for the first mile. It was quiet, not a car or truck disturbing the setting. The topography was strange, like nothing I had ever seen before. The volcanic activity of the past left its footprints everywhere, with lava spouts and weird mounds where there should not be anything, back dropped against that magnificent snowcapped mountain. The whole area was odd, in a moon-like beautiful way, forlorn, an aura of suspense and eerie silence, dotted with a million pine trees.
It was a relief from the broiling concrete that was Phoenix, and the cool mountain air was heavenly, but it was uphill. . . And I was carrying a lot of stuff. . . And the second mile was a lot more challenging. The sun sets earlier in the mountains than it does in the flat valleys of Arizona, and for a moment I panicked. Was I on the right road? I never was a whiz at directions. It was pretty deserted, and when night fell, it would be dark as hell. Neverheless, I had no choice now. I was way past the point of no return and could never make it back to town before dark.
The sun had now gone down and the trees were slowly losing their color, and I was still walking. Then, suddenly. . . There it was. I found myself staring through the cyclone fence of a Zen monastery. It looked quiet, deadly quiet. Only the lonely tinkling of wind chimes, somewhere off in the distance, disturbed the silence so characteristic of this hushed pine forest. Nobody was around except for the trees, and the ever-present pinecones. Big ones.
I dropped the leather clapper on the old bell at the gate. The clang broke the pristine stillness. . . But no response. I rang again, louder. . . Nothing. It was getting dark. Ah, then I spotted a light in the trees not far away. I walked over to a small building and enthusiastically knocked on the door. I knew I would have to sell myself and was extremely confident that I could. I was a great salesman.
The door opened slowly, and standing on the other side was a smallish person who could best be described as Yoda, in a black robe, with a swastika hanging on a cord around her neck!
A swastika! Whoa, I was not quite ready for this.
"Can I help you?" It said, or she said, or whatever it was, said, in an unemotional tone, her eyes and face as expressionless as a professional poker player.
"Yes, I finally made it!" I said, smiling broadly, trying to brighten up the conversation and overcome her obvious lack of personality. A good salesman could talk his way into any situation, right?
"And who are you?" She replied, as pokerfaced as ever.
"Why … I'm Ed Rock!" I said, out of breath a little, setting my bags down on the porch and dusting myself off.
She walked away, unimpressed, and returned with a list that she was carefully perusing.
"Nooope, I do not seem to have you on my list," she said, seemingly relieved, and shot me a look of "Gotcha!" With her eyes. "When did you contact us?"
My smile melted away along with the remaining light of evening, and a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach. . . Again. "Well, I have not actually … contacted anyone … but here I am, and I'm here to stay! You see, I …"
"No you're not," she interrupted me, and attempted to smile politely. "You may call us in three days, if you wish. We will then discuss whether or not you may visit."
And with that, she firmly closed the door, and locked it. . . Loudly.
I just stand there, staring at the door a few inches from my face. Then, I turned around and tried to see down the mountain that I had just scaled. Man, it was dark. Okay, no problem, what the hell, it would be easier going downhill. Right?
I grabbed my bags and stumbled off the porch, headed down the pitch-black hill, but this time I got lucky. After a mile or so, a pickup truck gave me a lift to a local motel in town.
Three days later, I squeezed into the phone booth outside my room and dialed the monastery as instructed (my first taste of Zen discipline). The phone rang an interminable number of times, as I silently practiced my pitch.
"Shasta Abbey," someone answered.
"Hello! Is this the monastery?"
"Yes, this is Shasta Abbey."
"Well, … hello! It's that person in town, you know, that was up there a few nights ago? Can I come back up now?"
"Just a moment please."
I held my breath. If they said no, I would really be on the run, and as usual, I had little money and no plan B. I heard some muted conversation in the background and finally somebody came to the phone. I recognized the voice. . . Oh no! It was Yoda.
"May I help you?"
Things had not changed.
"It's me," I said, my usual exuberant confidence draining from my voice. "You know, the guy who was there a few nights ago? I had a lot of bags. Remember? I apologize for barging in like that. I just had to make arrangements … Uh, is There any way that I can come up for a visit … maybe?
"Yes, I remember you, and you may come for a short visit."
"I can?" I said in disbelief.
"Wow! Right on! I'm on my way … I mean, thank you Sister, thank you!"
I hung up the phone. Yes! . . . I made it one more day.
So back up the mountain I went. But this time, I had unloaded some of the junk. All I needed, as far as I could reckon, was a black robe and a swastika! Man, I would look so cool. I would have to take some pictures. (It was only months later that I learned about the swastikas that were not swastikas at all, but Manjis, or the seal of the Buddha's heart.