Nichijo: The Testimony of John
Coming back to America from the beauty of timeless Minobu, it seemed to me that nothing had happened in the intervening years. It was as though I was returning from my first learning experience at the great monastic center years before; as if the horrors of war, the long starvation and brutality of POW days, and the sordid aftermath through several court trials were as dreams. I was returning to San Francisco, or so I thought, to where everything had begun for me. How little life resembles our plans! It was not to be.
Arriving in Honolulu aboard a British cruise liner on a Sunday, I left the ship to visit the principal Nichiren Buddhist Temple. The chief priest was an old friend from pre-war days, formerly teaching in Seattle, Washington. It was a very pleasant reunion. He spoke English well and we talked for hours about all that had befallen us since our last meeting. When I told him I was en route to San Francisco and only to be in Hawaii for a few hours on a brief layover, he seemed both surprised and disappointed. The Bishop told me that I was needed in the islands, and I experienced a strange, fateful feeling: that this clicked suddenly as somehow right, though I knew I was expected on the mainland. I had left home originally in 1941 for the Far East and now it seemed I was returning at last to commence my mission, for which I had been so long in training; to try and serve as an interpreter of the wisdom of the East to my own people. I felt really free for the first time since 1941, and now it was 1967.
My first weeks of residence in Hawaii were spent at the Nichiren Temple in Honolulu. My predecessor in Hawaii, Reverend Ernest Shinkaku Hunt, had passed away in his 90's. My first trip out of the temple precincts was to chant the Lotus Sutra where Reverent Hunt's ashes were interred. Like many of us from the West, he had spent many years in the study and practice of different schools of the Mahayana: Hongwanji, True Pure Land School, and Zen.
I had previously visited Reverend Hunt in Hawaii in the 1930's, and I was struck again by the lush fragrant beauty of the flowers and the blossoming trees. Everywhere there was color. The sun and refreshing rain were daily miracles. Best of all, there was a climate of peace and aloha. Getting acquainted at the University of Hawaii, where I was asked to lecture, it was apparent that here was a rare atmosphere of true inquiry, learning and reciprocity. It was the long dreamed of openness, understanding, great vitality and awareness in a beautiful free setting, where mutual respect and interest flourished. How soul filling and delightful! It was in these first few months, here at last home and free, that long enduring friendships were formed. There I met Professor Richard Peterson, who has been my supporter and advisor in all things ever since.
The culmination of my life came about after moving my seat (the temple) to the sparsely populated Puna District of the "Big Island" of Hawaii. Not the Hawaii of towering condominiums, honky-tonk metropolis and tour buses on the freeway; but Hawaii of the rusted tin roofs, mongoose on a rubbish heap and dirt road through a cane-field. I established my residence in a simple hermitage in the rain forest on the slopes of Kilauea volcano. When I die, it may be necessary to build a proper temple here, but today I live and I am the temple. When I had asked the Lord Abbot of Minobu about building a temple in America, and the Abbot had answered, "If you succeed, you have failed: when you succeed, you will be old ashes, to be discarded."
There in Puna, Professor Peterson and I found a small, very suitable acreage in a heavily forested area. It was serene and beautiful and located about 3 miles from the nearest village on a dead-end road; an ideal location for a spiritual retreat and training center. Here, in this beautiful quiet setting, I continued my meditation and expiation of those sins accumulated from all eternity. People came for retreats, to share the simple fare, work about our rustic shacks and discuss truths and the nature of reality. A profound peace settled on my heart, and I felt as if I were living in the very vestibule of paradise.
Still, something vaguely indefinable was lacking. As I reviewed the years of persecution, calumny, confinements and trials that together with my numerous hospitalizations resulting from stress and alcoholism, with declining health and the approaching shade of disintegration; it occurred to me that with my death, some part of the universal truth would be forever lost to the knowledge of man. I felt a commission to set down my memories before the hand of time erased them forever. A friend gave me a small tape recorder, and I began my narrative. It ran to over fifteen hours and took almost three months to complete. I had absolutely no records before me and had to rely on my still, except for recent events, excellent memory. I had known for years that I was mentally affected, but in no way impaired in my inner freedom and integrity.
Having dictated my life account in solitude and seclusion, for once without a gun at my back or a sword at my throat, it felt as if a large walk-in safe was lifted off my back. In the peace and purity of this forested retreat, surrounded by great trees, blossoms and fruit, an inner door opened, and I was filled with a deep sense of renewal. The best was yet to come. For years, I had been burdened with feelings of guilt, rage and resentment. Now a major change was taking place within me. Everything began to fit. I was increasingly aware of that vast area above and beyond self-centeredness: When I was young, and for marked periods thereafter, this consciousness had been my usual state. Now it was returning, and in greater depth. How marvelous that change, the constantly evolving process of life, never ceases! We go towards the light. "The Kingdom of God is spread upon the earth, and men do not see it." The idea took on new depth and imminent meaning. As tears of anguish bring clearer sight, so do years of justice denied bring glorious vision and some glimmer of knowingness. Life is the real trial, and without this insubstantial phantasmagoria of phenomenal existence, there can be no Nirvana. The ceaseless burden of expiation, alienation and exile has been lightened.
The forest is filled with birdsong, and the faded flowers thrown from my little shrine cabinet take root and flourish in abundance. I think continually of the wonderful people who have come to my forest retreat to share with me the loving care and friendship while learning of the Dharma teaching. Each one is to me a perfect Lotus of truth.
"All things work together for good" has become electrically real. The higher power, intelligence, grace, eternal-that-which-is by whatever term we might employ, recreated the entire spectrum of the universe in splendor and in peace. Clarity resulted from meditation, and I became aware of the beautiful cosmic creativity and spontaneous nature of existence: In all of this, everything happened just as it should, without any preordained plan or intention of my own. It was as if I had spent the major portion of my existence trying to bring life to an arid plot of wasteland, and at long last miraculously there appeared flourishing fields of grain. Now my entire being resonates with a gratitude beyond understanding or expression. Words fail.
All praise and adoration be to all things, such as they now are; ever were; and ever will be.
In love and reverence, Nichijo, September 1984
2015 John Oliver