Nichijo: The Testimony of John Provoo
Gold Fish in a Golden Pond
I would like to tell it all from the very beginning; exactly how it all unfolded; how step by step, and I came to be what I am, and how I came to be regarded as a traitor to my country. If just this once, my uninterrupted testimony is considered, it will be plain what happened to me. What will never be plain is why, and that I do not pretend to know.
I lived in a fairy tale. I felt like one of the large gold fish that nibbled on the mosses of the koi ponds; safe from predators, well fed, cared for. The koi pond in the Japanese Tea gardens in San Francisco's vast green Golden Gate Park was part of my playground. The park was an enormous maze of forest and meadows to explore and to act out my imaginary adventures. The destination of my quest would always be to reach this secret outpost of the far, far East: the sculpted and manicured paths, ornate orange pagodas, tiny bridges and ponds, the great gold and white Koi that swam there.
I was born John David Provoo, August 6, 1917, in San Francisco. When I was a kid, we lived in the Richmond district to the North of the park and I could easily make a bicycle tour from home East through the area known as "Japantown", back to the park to play in the Tea gardens, and make it home before lunch. I usually took much longer than that during the summer. I was drawn to the exotic feeling of the Japanese neighborhoods and markets and I would literally ride my bike up and down certain streets just to savor the kaleidoscope of cooking aromas.
The Tea Gardens had been created for the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894. The man who had guided its building, Makoto Hagiwara, convinced the city leaders to maintain it as an attraction in the park after the fair closed. I got to know the Hagiwara family in the early 20's when I was in grade school. They lived in one of the traditional Japanese structures there and served as caretakers of the gardens. I became privileged to let myself in the back gate when the gardens were closed to the public. I would often come early in the morning, or at dusk. It was a quiet, calming realm for me. I needed that. I was an unusual kid.
Buddhism rang a bell for me at a very early age. The very first time I heard the chant of a Buddhist priest, though I could not translate a single word into English, I had the distinct feeling that I understood exactly what was being said.
The chant meant that there was another reality within the common one, obscured from awareness. Just as the words of what I was hearing were in my ears but not understood; a greater reality was all around us, within our ordinary perceptions, but unintelligible. I felt that the chant called out to learn the secrets.
San Francisco of the 1920's was a focal point of anti-oriental sentiment and racial tensions. The Caucasian-American majority feared the further influx of Asian immigrants: As coolie labor in the previous century, they had been tolerable, as farm labor or gardeners and fishermen they could be ignored and minimized. The succeeding generations had proven themselves all too capable of competing on an equal basis for jobs and commerce; and seemed increasingly successful in acquiring land and creating larger scale agriculture.
This was the era of the Alien Land Law in California, 1924, legislation declaring that persons of Asian descent could only own land under certain circumstances. The Supreme Court upheld that persons of Japanese descent could not be naturalized, and that any U.S. citizen who married a Japanese would lose his or her citizenship.
In San Francisco there were many little "Japantown” neighborhoods, where Orientals lived in their peculiar ways, ate rice, raw fish, octopus and seaweed. A scornful common term for them was "Buddhaheads". At that time, the Christian majority in this country regarded Buddhism as a relic of pagan idol-worship and would ultimately become extinct as Christianity replaced heathen beliefs in all the dark corners of the globe. Buddhist churches were few in these days, and many "temples" were merely homemade shrines in a corner of a Japanese home or business. Caucasian Buddhists were extremely rare, and I, a Caucasian child following his own inspiration, was the unlikeliest Buddhist of all. I have to say, it never bothered me to be different, in fact, I reveled in it. If we were all in an ice cream shop and everyone was ordering Vanilla, I would have to have tutti-frutti.
My brother George tells the tale of me rescuing ants from drowning in the kitchen sink. I remember doing things like that a lot. I even took a serious fall and cracked my skull when I was six, trying to rescue a cat on our balcony. I have always been highly sensitive to the plight and suffering of any living being.
I was seven in 1924, and as children are, had been oblivious to the prejudices of the adults. As I was growing up, it became increasingly clear that the society around me didn't share my love of things Japanese. In fact, there was more and more hostility toward them and toward me, I was so often in their company. Most of my friends were Japanese.
In 1926, my family moved twenty miles south to Burlingame. I couldn't visit the park as often and made efforts to recreate the experience. I made a shrine in my room, and bought little Buddha incense burners at Woolworth's. I clipped from the pages of National Geographic whatever pictures of Buddhist statues and temples I could find, and displayed them on my altar. I would stand before this array, light incense, bow and chant my made-up chants.
My father thought this behavior to be an obsession that would lead nowhere. He tried to derail or at least sidetrack and once even burned some of my books. My mother was able to convince him to let my interests run their course. "The boy will grow out of it."
Well, of course, the boy didn't grow out of it. I continued to read everything I could find about the subject. I read the life of Buddha. I read of a young a prince in Northern India who abandoned his advantages in order to explore his own mind and to understand sickness, suffering, old age and death. I collected information about monasteries and monks, and began to add more authenticity to my chants, stringing together the different names and titles of the Buddha into an exotic-sounding litany.
One day when I was eleven, I used scissors to cut off all my hair, as short as I could, wrapped myself in an orange bedspread, and with a small bowl, walked into the hills. I was trying it on, play-acting how it was to be the young prince embarking upon a spiritual path. I sat down beneath an oak tree to meditate. By dinnertime I returned. A little too young to depart for Asia, but that was my childhood dream. The path would be ready for me, when I was ready for it.
We had a large basement in our house in Burlingame, and a more traditional form of play-acting was being nurtured. We were a literate, theatrical family at home. We four brothers, Frank, Myself, George and Robert, were encouraged to follow intellectual and artistic pursuits. We had an extensive library of the classics of Western literature, encyclopedias, atlases, the works of western philosophers and the poetry and reflections of Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau. My eldest brother, Frank, had a definite inspiration for dramatic acting and directing, and would write short plays and skits for the entertainment of family and friends. We would present them in our basement theater. I was the second son, and I was always eager to take part in these events. Any school play that came along, I was in it. I loved the costumes, the putting on of another identity; I was good at that.
It was while I was in the sixth grade at Roosevelt Grammar School that I first saw the inside of an actual Buddhist Temple. It was part of a Japanese laundry building in San Mateo. It was a very small one but it had an exquisite black lacquered altar cabinet with a standing figure of the Buddha inside. I had come to the laundry with a Japanese friend and there was no service going on at the time. When I discovered that there was a Sunday school service held there for the few Japanese children in the area, I joined.
In the next few years, my interest deepened and I was acquiring a large library of Buddhist books. Once a month, a priest would come down from San Francisco to perform the service. This was the time when I first heard the priest chanting and had the distinct feeling that I understood, and an inescapable feeling that the message was for me, personally.
By the time I had reached my first year in high school, I realized that my curiosity had become so serious, that my path had to include studying in Asia. The realization both thrilled me and forebode the homesickness I knew I would feel. This would be the central conflict of my adolescence and all the events of my life pointed toward a day when I would be prepared intellectually, emotionally and spiritually to go; when either I had my parent's permission or was old enough to go regardless; and of course, when I had the money to pay my way. That day was to be ten more years in coming.
Our family moved back to San Francisco, and for a few semesters, I attended Commerce High School. My interests led me to explore the established Buddhist temples in the city. They were, of course, located in the Chinatown and Japantown districts and there were quite a number of them.
My interests led me of course to have extensive contacts with Japanese people and it was becoming increasingly apparent that the society around me was racially prejudiced in the extreme. It was something that I wanted to ignore; I hoped that it would pass away. I would find myself the object of hateful glares when seen in the company of kimono-clad Japanese girls. Events like these darkly contrasted with the idealistic "bridges of understanding" that were the theme of so many of my Buddhist books. East was meeting west, but in a horrible way.
One of my friends at Commerce High School was Robert Yamanaka, who also attended the same temple. Robert was Japan born, and before the war he would return to Japan. Few realize that for some, the war was like our American civil war, or probably many wars, had elements of brother against brother, friend vs. friend. Years later, Robert and I came face to face in that horrible war in the Pacific. He had become a Japanese soldier.
My brother, Frank, had been offered several drama scholarships and had accepted one from the Pasadena Community Playhouse in Southern California, and my visits with him gave me opportunities to experience Buddhist temples in all parts of the state.
I learned about the Triple Jewel: The Buddha, the Dharma (the Teachings) and the Sangha (the Community). You do not find enlightenment on your own. I had realized that I needed to find genuine instruction in order to progress. I finally met Bishop Masuyama Kenju at the Hongwanji temple in San Francisco and under him took the next step to become formally accepted as a novice priest. The vows taken upon becoming a novice define tasks that are infinite, not to be completed in a lifetime. The Bodhisattva Vow:
"Innumerable are all sentient beings; I vow to save them all. Inexhaustible are human passions and ignorance; I vow to overcome them all. 84,000 in number are the gates of the True Law; I vow to learn them all. Most difficult is the path sublime, which leads to complete enlightenment, I vow to attain it."
Bishop Maysuyama Kenju was head of the Jodo Shinshu sect, numerically the largest in Japan. As always, I was an eager student and quickly learned the teachings of the Pure Land and Tendai schools and the differences between the various schools of Buddhism throughout the world. The differences are, basically, their choice of the Buddha's discourses, or sutras, which they emphasize.
On the occasion of a very high Abbot of the Shin sect's visit to the United States, I was elevated to full priest. The abbot was Prince Otani, a direct descendant of Saint Shinran, the founder. He was on his way to Washington, D.C. to make a call on the president and made a stop in San Francisco. The young novices who were studying under Bishop Masuyama were presented to him as candidates and Prince Otani himself administered the vows of the Sangha, the brotherhood of priests:
"Do you understand upon entering the Sangha, that: For abiding place, you may have only a tree or a cave? For clothing you may have only rags? For food, you may have only what is left over from others, Or what is clean and freely given? For medicine you may have only urine?".
While these vows were meant as a willingness to seek a humble path and forego the pursuit of worldly comforts, for me, they were especially prophetic. That wasn't the half of it.
In the meantime, my brother, Frank had returned from Southern California and made a big success as a radio actor at KFRC in San Francisco. He had been so successful in his acting and creating of new programs that he was hired by NBC to go to New York to continue his career, and created such early radio dramas as My Son and I for the Kate Smith Hour and Concerning Miss Marlowe. He wrote and acted for Texaco Star Theater and many others and much later, television shows like From These Roots.
Through my brother's reputation, I was given an audition at KFRC. I did very well apparently, and had no trouble performing, owing to my experience in our basement theater in Burlingame. My first roles were juvenile, but soon I proved myself capable of a whole range of voices. The radio work was exciting and paid very well, but the rehearsal and broadcast schedules conflicted with regular school attendance, so I transferred to night school.
This was 1933 and 1934, at the end of alcohol prohibition, a time when a speakeasy in San Francisco was easier to find than a water fountain. I floated into my brother's high life of big paychecks, flashy cars, smoke-filled studios and highballs for lunch, with ease. I did my parts at KFRC, learned that I had affinity for debauchery, scattered the money like flower petals, spent too much time in those nightclubs.
I continued with my Buddhist studies but two parts of my nature were developing, at odds with each other. Just when I had taken vows accepting poverty, I had been steered into San Francisco's fast lane. I was the sincere, searching, scholarly mystic ...a Buddhist Priest; and I was the flamboyant and theatrical prodigy of materialistic America. I was becoming a man with two heads, irreconcilable heads.
I began to correspond actively with Buddhist scholars in all parts of the world, including such notables as D.T. Suzuki, Christmas Humphries and the great Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore. I also had a great deal of correspondence with Reverend Earnest Shinkaku Hunt, an Englishman who had become a Buddhist priest and settled in Hawaii, and met him in person during several summer vacation trips in the islands. I had extensive correspondence with a Dutch Buddhist in Java named Van Dienst, who invited me to live and study at the temple there.
My horizons were expanding. I explained to Bishop Masuyama that I wished to go to Japan and pursue further studies in the Shin school of which the Bishop was a part. The Bishop explained that his position in the Shinshu was a hereditary one and that in his own mind he felt that I was beyond that teaching already and that I was ready for the Lotus Sutra, the highest teaching, which the Buddha had taught during the last eight years of his life.
During this period, I met Edward Fricke, a wealthy San Francisco socialite, at Temple, and had been asked up to his California Street Mansion to read Buddhist books for him. Fricke was virtually blind and had great difficulty reading for himself. At the end of their first reading he offered me a $100 bill. I refused the money and told him that I was happy to read for him. This began a long association in which I was introduced into the upper strata of San Francisco society, names that will mean little to you now; the Templeton-Crocker's, Frederick Julius McNear, George Kleiser, Jr., Count DeClauson, Lady Rose, Baroness Von Rautcuf, Baroness Von Pistolacurst, and members of the Catholic hierarchy, notably Father Gleason, the top Jesuit in California and Father Gregory DeWitt, an Augustine from Belgium, who was an extremely gifted artist and was allowed to travel with his collection. Anyway, it was a rarified atmosphere.
Accompanying Edward Fricke to St. Mary's each Sunday for Mass, I became acquainted with Noel Sullivan, who had given his inherited $17,000,000 dollar estate at Carmel to the Catholic Church in order to renounce the world and enter a Jesuit monastery. For a seeker of a higher plane, this confluence of wealth and voluntary poverty was dazzling.
My radio career was expanding also and I took jobs with other radio stations, took all sorts of speaking parts, paid political announcements of Socialist candidates that others were unwilling to do, and interviewed some of the top athletes of the day: Max Baer, Baron Von Kram and others. And all this when I was just sixteen and seventeen. And I had a very good time but I was too easily lured by the booze and fast life that was available to me at this tender age.
Now I was the young prince who had it all. I had become so successful in the material realm that now it would be meaningful to renounce it; and important to do so, I thought, before I became hopelessly addicted to that life. I opted for the ascetic pursuit of the Buddhist Priesthood. I hoped it would cure my two-headedness.
So in 1935, I went to work as a lowly clerk in the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco, a job I kept for five years, making less than a tenth of what I had been making at the radio stations and diligently saving for my passage to Japan, at first swimming with difficulty against the currents of temptation. The stoic stone columned Federal Reserve Bank building on Sansome Street was my refuge. Its gates and locks and timetables, and need for steady precision that the world of numbers requires, kept me from drifting back.
Naturally, I become involved with the growing number of Caucasian Buddhists that seemed to gravitate toward Bishop Masuyama's Hongwanji temple. Some were a bohemian fringe, with earnest but sometimes zany expressions of their pursuit. I would find them with the shades down all day in incense filled rooms, wearing lots of meditation beads, hypnotically chanting and endlessly discussing Eastern texts. At the same time they had serious interests in the English transmission of Buddhist literature and undertook many successful projects; films, art exhibits and lectures organized under the auspices of the English Department at the Hongwanji Temple. The head of the department was an American named Robert Stewart Clifton, who had been ordained a missionary priest in Japan. He started a magazine they called The Middle Path, which later became The American Buddhist.
For a short time, I took up the study of Zen under the great Zen Master, Nyogen Senzaki, mentor to the "Beat" generation a decade later, but then I became aware of the Lotus Sutra.
Sometime in 1936, I received a copy of the latest translation into English of the Lotus Sutra, by H. Kerns. It came as a complete revelation to me. It was one of those experiences in which someone else had verbalized my innermost thoughts and put them into print. There are hundreds of schools of Buddhist teaching, each one emphasizing a certain sutra in a certain way. When I discovered my own innate concurrence with the Lotus Sutra, it became clear that I should focus my studies through the Nichiren School, which is based in Japan and formulated almost entirely around the Lotus teaching. The Lotus Sutra is the final teaching of the historic Buddha, transmitted to a multitude of followers on Vulture Peak. It proclaims the Buddha to be the embodiment of eternal enlightenment; the realization that this is the perfect world: and that Nirvana and the everyday world are one in the same. The Nichiren School was established to reaffirm this as the ultimate doctrine.
"Namu myoho-renge-kyo", literally, "Adoration to the Lotus Sutra." Or, as I say after my years sculpting my understanding of this sutra, I've come to think of it this way:
"Adoration to the Lotus Sutra, Adoration to the mysterious perfection of everything, just as it is."
That chant, with that meaning, is as deeply ingrained in me as breathing, and it has been a vision that comforted me through years of the most terrifying events in the most horrible circumstances.
I began searching for an English-speaking priest of that school in San Francisco and hopefully, a mission. I found a branch of the orthodox school of Nichiren in the person of Bishop Ishida Nitten.
Bishop Ishida had his temple in a large converted residence, with a large shrine downstairs and living quarters upstairs and in the back. In the attic of the house lived the American sculptress Gertrude Boyle Kanno, whose husband was Japanese. They had had difficulty in finding a place to rent, as they were a "mixed race" couple. The racism, particularly in regard to Japanese in San Francisco was difficult to avoid in these times, and it was creating a disturbing conflict in me.
Bishop Ishida spoke very little English, and in the style typical of teacher-student relations in the East, he would put me off, saying, "Go away," or "I am much too busy," or "Come back another time." A prospective disciple is tested and prepared in this way. I kept going back. Finally the Bishop gave me a collection of letters that he had laboriously translated from the Chinese into English. I had been accepted and instruction had begun, but slowly.
A traditional saying in the East is "when the disciple is ready, the master will appear." I came across another smaller temple in a two-story house with the garage underneath made into an orthodox Nichiren temple. The priest was a cheerful round-faced man with glasses named Aoiyagi Shoho, who later became Bishop Nippo. He was from a priestly family whose ancestral home is at Ichinose, not far from one of the major temples of the Nichiren sect. This time my reception was entirely different. On my first visit the priest welcomed me warmly. "Please come, come in," which was practically the extent of his English. It was a relationship that seemed to be fully developed at the first meeting, although neither of us could speak the other's language, and the relationship would last with the same strength for our lifetimes. We taught each other our respective languages, and night after night we studied the Lotus Sutra, often until after midnight. My understanding of this highest teaching was intertwined with the learning of the Japanese language and most of the realizations came to me without first being translated into English ...I had quickly reached the stage where I could think in Japanese ...I could think and express my deepest thoughts in Japanese. At times I felt that East and West were unified within me, but in the external world events were pulling East and West apart. The Lotus seemed the only thing that resolved all contradictions. I memorized the 16th chapter in Japanese, and often chanted it from that day forward. In it, Buddha says to his audience:
"Beneath the dark surface of this crumbling illusion, My perfect world shimmers with light. Though this illusion seems burning, And these suffering beings lie broken and bleeding, My perfect world is here, And these beings are whole and filled with light. I have revealed the fate of the world: That all beings shall be illumined."
During these years at the bank and studying under Reverend Aoiyagi, I had been saving toward the expense of traveling to the Far East and experiencing a great deal of conflict about going at all. My mother, who was my confidant in most things, favored my going through with it. My father was against it and would not have allowed me to go. I had to wait at least until the age of legal majority. My master, Reverend Aoiyagi, of course, encouraged me to go, but my girlfriend saw it as the likely end, for us. The debate of course was mostly going on within me, it was two worlds struggling to claim me and I was not certain that I would survive the contest: I might be torn apart. At one point, on the advice of members of my family, I sought the opinion of an alienist, which was the term for psychiatrist in those days, Dr. Joseph C. Catton. After listening to my conflict, Dr. Catton advised me to go through with my plan. "You may be disillusioned if you go, but if you don't, you'll remember it all your life, and regret not having done so." It was sound advice on the face of it, and I took it to heart.
Finally, the course of romance made up my mind. My girlfriend went to Indiana to attend college for a semester. We wrote every week and when she returned to San Francisco on vacation, I asked her to marry me before returning for the following semester. When she left for Indiana that year, I felt that my last distraction departed with her. I would focus on the Buddhism.
Reverend Aoiyagi had written to the temple authorities in Japan, telling them of my conversion and desire to enter the monastery there. It was Reverend Aoiyagi's wish to accompany me, in order to introduce me, sponsor me and facilitate my entry into formal training. I gave notice at the bank and paid my fare on the NYR line to Yokohama, Japan.
In March of 1940, the day of my embarkation arrived, several robed priests came to my house, a temporary altar was erected in my living room, and incense and prayers were offered. The entourage left in a caravan of automobiles, stopping at several temples on the way. When we arrived at dockside, several hundred well wishers, many of them Japanese, were there to see Reverend Aoiyagi and myself off.
Resplendent in my full robes, I stood with my parents saying goodbye. At the last moment my mother and father switched roles. My mother had always been my patroness and it was my father who characteristically said, "Well, the jay-birds will have to feed him." Now it was my mother who said "Oh Daddy, Daddy, don't let him go." My father turned to her and said, "Why, he'll make the finest damn 'Budda' priest there ever was."
Copyright © 2015 John Oliver