Nichijo: The Testimony of John Provoo
The Author and The Hitchhiker
As the summer of 1983 began, I was making a living as a carpenter in the rural Puna district on Hawaii's Big Island. My son and I had a simple two-story house on the edge of volcanic rainforest that I bought half-built, and never did really finish. The world's most active volcano, the Pu'u O'o vent was about seven miles uphill on a gentle slope through the O'hia forest. It began erupting and continued almost once a month for years. When each outbreak occurred, we could walk up to the back road and see the glow from the fountain. It would shoot a red molten column 1500 feet straight into the air, making a huge hissing, whirring and rumbling sound; like massive machinery underground. Island people would hop in their cars and drive up to a vantage point.
We had three dogs. The smaller was the mother of the larger two, and the three bore no resemblance to each other. "Poi dogs" they're called. My old Ford pickup truck was a mongrel, too. It had been assembled from parts from about four different model years. A rear axle part broke as I was almost home one day so that I just barely coasted into my regular parking spot with the wheel and tire sticking out from the truck like a canoe's outrigger.
It wasn't a terribly difficult repair to undertake, except that getting the correct parts entailed walking and hitchhiking the 15 miles into Hilo where the Ford dealer could find them for me in the catalog. Returning the 15 miles to home, by the same walking and hitchhiking method I discovered that the truck was one year and the axle another year. I had to make drawings and take measurements and find model numbers and hitchhike down to the Ford dealer again to figure out what I needed. After much searching we found the parts I needed, except they didn't have them on this island, and ordered them shipped from Honolulu in five days.
It seemed there were about two weeks that it took me to fix this small problem and during that time, I hitchhiked everywhere, depending on the goodwill of a cross section of Island people.
Finally the day came when the truck was whole again and I drove it the three miles to the common rural mailboxes and turned left onto the paved two-lane "main road" that led down to Keaau. Less than a half-mile away at Makuu Drive was a tall Caucasian man in his sixties waiting calmly for a ride. He wore light blue Levi's, a lighter blue windbreaker, thong slippers and carried a kind of soft briefcase. I stopped to pick him up.
"I'm repaying a Karmic debt!" I said, as he got in and put his satchel on the seat between us. There was a whiff of incense as he opened it and shuffled around some papers, and some small black bound books inside. He gave me an odd look as I said it, but it was an odd comment. I explained that my own recent experience on the roadside on foot had made me grateful for the human willingness to give a stranger a lift.
It was obvious from the tools in the back of the truck that I did construction work and he began to ask me about that, and when I made a comment about enjoying the "Zen" of carpentry, about losing yourself in the act, he gave me another odd look.
"Do you know who I am? Do you know my history?" He asked. I said that I didn't. "I'm Nichijo. " He explained that he was a Buddhist priest, "A bishop, actually", and that he had a small group of priests and nuns studying with him in Hilo. I could see now that he wore the Ojuzu beads, the Buddhist rosary. He inquired what I knew about Buddhism.
I told him that I started learning about Buddhism in college and had incorporated what I understood into my own way of life.
About that time, we reached Keaau the intersection with the Hilo to Volcano highway, where I was stopping to visit my cohorts in the backroom of the local secondhand emporium. We found him a good spot to hitchhike, and saying that we hoped to talk again some day, said good-bye.
In the maze of old cane town buildings that adjoined Gaughen's Emporium, a few of the fellow carpenters that it was my great pleasure to work with were at their usual pastime of swapping gags and tales; and the store's owner, Tim Gaughen, was making comedy out of everything.
This day though, everyone had projects to attend to and errands waiting, and the gathering disbanded shortly after I got there. I was to continue on to Hilo to return a borrowed gear puller and left Tim talking on the phone.
As I climbed back in my truck I saw Nichijo still standing where I had left him, under the canopy of Akiyama store, out of the morning rain shower. I pulled up and he got back in. We continued down toward Hilo, another six miles away, and he asked about my college experience.
I described how at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I had spent seven years indulging my interests in Asia and oriental religions and examining my suspicions about the war in Vietnam. At the end of that time I received two bachelor's degrees, one in Religious Studies, and one in Political Science. I didn't care a thing about grades and scraped by with the minimum possible grade average to avoid the draft, receiving good marks only when the subject matter really excited me.
This was very interesting and relevant to him somehow. "I really must tell you about my legal problems, my struggles with the government." By the time we reached Hilo he had outlined a yarn that as each mile rolled by, I became more convinced couldn't be true. It was too bizarre and preposterous. Yet the account had enough detail and coherence to it to allow me to suspend disbelief a while longer.
Our errands both ended up in the center of town, and his first stop was on my way, so I said would wait for him. He had me stop at the office of the Social Security Administration, near the corner of Kamehameha Boulevard and Volcano Highway. He invited me to come in with him. Inside the newish sort of modest two story storefront building, there was a long counter separating the office staff from the public. They seemed to know him.
"Reverend Shaka," said the friendly Japanese woman behind the counter, "what brings you here today?"
Nichijo was sifting through his papers and came up with the bundle he was looking for. It seemed that he was there on behalf of one of his parishioners. The person was to receive disability payments, which had been held up for one reason or another. There followed what could be described as a 15 minute theatrical performance that ranged from a hand wringing melodrama, to a rising crescendo of bluster and demands, softening to charm the clerk, rising again in uproar and outrage to invoke the names of this and that high bureaucrat on up to the Mayor and Governor, and the Bishops of the various hierarchies of Buddhist churches in Hawaii, then in quiet conspiratorial comic tones; "Couldn't she make some exception or waive some procedure or??"
To my surprise, the bureaucratic barriers dissolved and disappeared; forms were filled out, applications were stamped, assurances were given that the check would be on its way to the needy applicant, everyone was thanked for their help and we were soon returning to the truck, mission accomplished.
His credibility had gone up in my mind and as we drove off I asked him some more about the details of his story, especially how as a prisoner of war, he had honed his skills of manipulating the system of his captors. I had just witnessed a minor demonstration in the SSA office. Except that no one was standing by with a saber to behead him if he blustered a little too far.
"Somebody ought to write a book about your story," I said, as we were pulling up in front of the hillside Hilo residence where some of his priests lived. "I mean," he said emphatically, rolling his eyes skyward.
It was probably three or four days later that I saw Nichijo again, this time he was looking for a ride in the other direction. We picked up his story where we had left off. It was out of my way, but I was intrigued again by the details of what I was being told and decided to take him past the turn off to my house, through Pahoa and up to his dojo, his temple. Past the center of this small town and up a rutted road of red volcanic cinder through the cane fields; then on to an unusually well paved section of one lane road, up into the rainforest. The property he called his dojo was at about the same elevation as my house, about five miles away through the nearly impenetrable jungle at the forest's floor.
There were barely two parking places off the road scraped of vegetation, with a base of chunky red cinder. We parked and I helped carry his packages the hundred or so feet along the slippery stone path. The forest is of the ubiquitous grey-green Ohia trees with their sometimes red, sometimes white, bottle brush flowers, towering giant hapuu ferns, and the popcorn of small vanda orchids poking up through the tangle of a small vining ferns which encroaches on every thing. In this forest, a building simply left unattended, and the area around it untrampled, will become engulfed and then swallowed by the vegetation in a few short months.
Calla lilies grew near the stairs to the dojo's front door. The stairs were literally falling apart, having become rotted from the continually wet conditions. The dojo itself was a one-room cabin with a flat roof and windows on three sides open to the outside. Nearly twenty cats of all descriptions clambered in and out of the building. He shouted out to them as he came up the path, "Babies! Kitties! Daaarlings! Daddy's home!" He had brought a medium sized bag of cat food and started immediately to dole out portions to all the cat dishes placed around the room so that each cat could eat within its own social and territorial comfort; some in groups, some alone. Each had a name and was a refugee some sort. He strategically separated problem combinations and resolved disputes between individuals.
The cats fed, watered and fussed over, he turned to his small shrine, lit some incense, bowed and chanted something in Japanese. Next he put a of pot water on the stove for tea. The single room had a kitchen sink, the stove and some ice chests used for food storage, a desk, several bookshelves crammed with books and papers, a closet area with some robes hanging, and a high bed platform with mosquito net draped over it.
It seemed that he would spend two or three nights a week there, on the average. It was mainly a place to house his cats and store his personal things. The rest of the time he would spend at an apartment in Hilo.
"I came into the possession of small fortunes several times in my life, and it always resulted in my losing myself and the fortune in a blur of alcoholism and debauchery. It was when events left me most impoverished, and my prospects most desperate, that I could appreciate the worth of the teaching. Compared to the conditions I've endured, this is a palace."
"When I asked the Lord Abbott at Minobu about my prospects for establishing a temple in Hawaii, he said, 'If you succeed you have failed, when you succeed, you will be old ashes, to be discarded.'"
"It's best to concentrate on the sutra, not the temple, because the conditions that brought my understanding into focus were not beautiful at all. They were the most outwardly horrible of locations and situations imaginable." As we drank our tea, he dug through his papers.
I decided to come back and replace the front stairs and I was beginning to take some notes, for somewhere along the way we had begun to talk of collaborating on his biography.
Hilo was a city of about 70,000 in those days and it had a very adequate public library. To its credit, the Hilo Library had The New York Times on microfilm. Searching the index, I looked up John David Provoo, the name Nichijo had been born with. There were 93 separate news articles. This was no made-up fable. My hitchhiking Buddhist friend was a genuine historical figure.
Over the next six months, I collected what clippings and materials I could, but it was slow going. Between doing my house building, being a Dad and having a life, I could only get down to the Hilo library once or twice a week for a few hours. I wasn't making substantial progress. I would have to take to the writing as a full time job: Get up in the morning and work at it all day, to get anything down on paper.
My twelve-year old son, JW, was planning to spend the following summer on the mainland with his grandparents, and my expenses would be minimal for those three months. My Mom agreed to make my land payments until the book was done. My ex-wife, Patti, who lived in Hilo, offered to take up the slack with whatever Johnny might need in the meantime, and do the typing of the final draft. A gateway had opened up, obstacles fell away and I began to occupy myself with my new mission full time.
These events started in June 1983 and most of our work took place in the summer of 1984. We had agreed to undertake the writing of his biography as a joint project. I would do what research I could and from time to time, interview him about what I had learned, write it up, read it to him for his correction and approval, and move on to another topic.
In the months that we labored on, I came to realize that he was indestructible in many ways and fragile in others. Collecting the early chapters was a breeze; an old priest?s reminiscences of the path to his understanding, paying homage to his teachers and to the books that guided the way. He shared his adulation of the Buddha, his teachings, and all those in the brotherhood and sisterhood of Buddhism. Here?s the world he set out to create for himself.
Working on subsequent chapters, we reconstructed the year of military service leading up to Pearl Harbor Day in Manila. He maintained a calm and detailed narrative. Then, the war began, and for the months he had witnessed increasing carnage at close hand. Reminded of all he had survived, and those he had seen butchered right before his eyes, some of our sessions were a renewed torment for him rather than any sort of catharsis. We were beginning to spelunk the darkest reaches of his memories. Some of our sessions were taking a toll on his state of mind.
Writing the years of prison camps was less traumatic, at least up until the end of the war. It was when he began to describe his Kafkaesque liberation, persecution and prosecution, that he displayed the extent to which betrayals had scarred him. In an innocent researcher's question, I mentioned the name one of the witnesses against him, as I had many times before. This time he became apoplectic and vented his rage at length. Following that session, I discovered that a few days later, he had checked himself in to the psychiatric ward at the Hilo Hospital, something he had apparently done many times over his years on the Big Island. The staff there knew him well and what to do, and in a week or so, he was his old self, and we went back to work.
By September, we had enough of a finished work to send off to the copyright office, and we began to seek a publisher. Copies were sent to all the obvious publishers, including one with whom Nichijo had mutual friend. That one was the most useful. I was a carpenter, a house builder. About the art of writing, I knew little. Except I knew that my first effort would likely be mediocre. I did have BA's in Political Science and Religious Studies, but that was the extent of my writing experience. The resulting manuscript had the tone of a lengthy undergraduate term paper. It was my hope that I find someone with a more sophisticated sense of good writing.
I began again with renewed enthusiasm, doing a re-write along the lines suggested by our contact in the publishing world. Things were proceeding as planned. Then one day, Nichijo came to our meeting apologetically saying that he couldn't go ahead with publication.
Some years earlier while Nichijo was still living on Oahu, reporters for the Honolulu Advertiser had gotten interested in his story. The articles written about him and the public response were quite distressing to him. It called into public attention his legal history and the old accusations. I think he began to realize that publishing the book would bring all that up once again, and he couldn't face it. I didn?t have any choice except to honor his wishes and put the book, the rewrite and all my notes away in a box for another time. We copyrighted the latest version. And sent it off. I had to get back to making a living.
Years went by, and my son and I moved to California and finally to the San Francisco Bay Area where I live today. In the following years my contacts with Nichijo were fewer and my work on the re-write came to a halt. He died in August of 2001 and when I learned of his passing a few months later, I was on my way to China. I didn't get the chance to pay my respects at his gravesite until 2004. At the time of his death, all the prerogatives of our copyright became mine.
It has taken me a while to find the time to thoughtfully edit his words, so that he might finally have his story told in his own way. So, to honor a 30-year-old promise to an old friend, here is the testimony of John Provoo.
--- John Oliver October 2014
Copyright © 2015 John Oliver