Events continually happen to me as though some grand plan is being carried out. No matter how I try, I cannot seem to go against the shape of this plan. If one can flow easily with the current, all goes well. But it will, seemingly, reach the predetermined end, no matter what.
When I depart somewhere with nothing certain about the future, I know the coming events are already formed but not yet visible, just as a future sculpture lies within an untouched marble cube. Secure in faith, one can wait patiently and the inevitable will arrive. Several examples follow.
I didn’t go to Japan from San Francisco as planned, but I instead found myself in New Mexico. I decided to take an apartment and build a future in Santa Fe, but after two visits, I did not find a place to stay. Resting at a friend’s house in Taos, I awoke one rainy Monday morning with the feeling that I should be in Albuquerque, a place that had never evinced the slightest interest. I was so anxious to get there (for no apparent reason) that I did not wait to collect my laundry, but asked my host to pick it up and forward it to me. I took off on a 130-mile drive in the rain to a larger city.
Arriving in Albuquerque, I did not even know which freeway exit to take. I emerged on a main street and parked in front of a bookstore. Inside, I asked some unimportant questions. The man behind the counter idly inquired what sort of work I did, and I gave the first answer that came into my head: “I guess I teach T’ai Chi Ch’uan.”
Immediately two students jumped up from behind the books and said, “We’ve been waiting a long time for a T’ai Chi teacher to arrive.”
I protested that I was not in Albuquerque to stay, had no place to live, no studio in which to teach. All the answers were forthcoming, however. Within a few days, six weekly classes had been organized at a nearby yoga academy. From this “accidental” beginning, I began three years of teaching about T’ai Chi Chih and meditation at the two universities, teaching the English language to young businessmen from Japan, and even designing a series of Zen cards and notepaper. Writing books and other things followed (as though prearranged – all, seemingly, because of an urge to go to a strange city and a careless answer to a question.)
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My first trip to Japan took place because a newfound friend, let’s call her Dr. C., suggested I accompany her to Kyoto (where she had lived before) and teach English at Kyoto University. It wasn’t until just before the boat was to leave that I found out that the teaching job was fiction, and that she was not going to Japan as planned. I took the freighter anyway (it turned out to be carrying dangerous explosives) and was its only passenger.
Expecting to arrive in Yokahama (the port for Tokyo), we docked instead in Kobe. Somehow I made my way to Kyoto and was delighted to be able to stay in a Zen temple within the week. I was determined to use that week to travel to Tokyo and find my friend, Paul Reps, who was living in Japan.
At the time no express trains ran between the cities. My old-style train car was half-empty, and I decided to spend the five-hour trip practicing my limited Japanese with homemade flash cards.
A Japanese man entered the car soon after I. He hesitated a moment, trying to decide which empty seat to take. Then, on impulse, he sat down next to me. He later told me the flashcards had interested and amused him.
This turned out to be one of the most significant meetings of my life. In future years I often stayed at Tenrikyo Church in Kyoto, where Reverend Takahashi, my new acquaintance, was a minister. Today we call each other kyodai (brother.) Perhaps I have had some small influence in bringing their church to this country. Largely because of their kindness and hospitality, I still think of Kyoto as my home as much as any place in the world – all because of some crude flashcards with Japanese characters on them.
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After a long and dusty train ride from Bombay (for which ten tickets had been sold for the six places in our compartment), I arrived in Baroda. Deep in the countryside outside of Baroda, it was not easy to find the Vishwajyoti Ashram, to which Swami Krishnanand had invited me when he was in America. Upon arrival, I was dismayed to find that Swamiji had just left (for many years, it turned out) the day before.
What to do? I returned to the Baroda station and began to walk aimlessly around town. Few seemed to speak English, and I wondered what I would do when darkness descended. Idly, I noticed two young men playing badminton. Thinking they might be English-speaking university students, I walked over and addressed myself.
“Do you play chess?” he asked irrelevantly, ignoring my question. “Sure, I play chess. Why?” was my puzzled answer. “Come live with us and play chess with my father and me,” exhorted my new friend Kaushik. By evening I was installed in their part of a two-family house, where only Kaushik (the oldest son) and his father (a fine, religious man) spoke English. The two younger sons (one with a terrible cough) slept in a room with their father, who read a nightly scripture to them at bedtime. Their mother stayed behind the kitchen with the servant. Sorrowfully, I could not communicate with them at all during my stay, even to ask them to make the curry and red tea less pungent.
I never won a chess game from the expert Kaushik (who had often played simultaneous games against ten or twelve students), except for the one day he was greatly upset. That day, surprised at the first obvious blunder I had ever seen him make, I asked him what was wrong. “The marriage is off,” he blurted out. There were tears in his eyes.
His parents had arranged a marriage with a girl from Bombay, and it was to take place shortly after I left Baroda. Her caste was right, the astrology signs checked out, and everything seemed appropriate and auspicious. He had even been allowed to meet the girl, whom he liked. “Why, Kaushik?” I exclaimed in astonishment. “In our caste, the cousins arrange the preliminaries,” he explained, and “It is our custom to make gifts to each other of some gold, a sari, and some chocolate. The other family did not give all they should have, and my cousins were offended, so they called off the wedding.”
“Nonsense,” I countered. “How do you know your cousins didn’t fudge on your gifts? Take the first train to Bombay, see this lovely girl, and tell her you want to marry her.”
Kaushik shook his head mournfully. “Things aren’t done that way here. I’ll never see her again,” he predicted. And illogically, that is exactly how it turned out. After that day I never won another chess game against Kaushik, in whose home I had such a lovely stay. Looking back, because he did not choose to answer my question, for the first time I got a close-up view of Indian family life, for which I was very grateful.
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All this is preliminary to the story I really want to tell, however. It involves the I Ching, the ancient Book of Changes that has played such an important role in building Chinese culture.
When the ship on which I was traveling had put into Hong Kong harbor for repairs, we were tied up in Kowloon for a few days. This gave my new friend, Mr. Liu (whom I had met through a letter from Paul Reps), a chance to show me his fine art gallery, do an amazing reading of the lines on my hand, and arrange a dinner with some old Buddhists who crossed over from China. (Mr. Liu was a fine and knowledgeable Taoist.) By the time the boat was repaired and we were underway, I was much indebted to the kind Mr. Liu.
Our dinner took place at an old restaurant near the art gallery on Cameron Road. We did not eat downstairs with the other diners, rather, we had a special table upstairs from where we could see the gambling room behind open curtains. I had no idea if the gambling was legal, but there was certainly a lot of action going on. Well aware of the Chinese propensity for gambling, I was not surprised to see several young mothers playing with infants in their arms. (Wealthy Chinese living on the English side of Hong Kong, though unable to speak English, peruse day-old stock market tables of the Wall Street Journal and are remarkably well-informed.) I had no idea what kind of gambling was taking place, but the pace was feverish. When our party was seated, we began to drink quite a lot of warm Chinese rice wine, which is very mellowing. It soon became apparent that Mr. Liu and his erudite friend, Mr. Tung, were the only ones (besides myself) who spoke English. But this didn’t seem to dampen the conversation, which was on an increasingly deep level and mostly about Taoist concepts. A steady procession of tasty dishes (like almonds cooked in a rich sauce) appeared at our table and we speared them with our chopsticks in the Chinese fashion. No dish was on the table more than a few minutes – just long enough for a taste before it was gone, replaced by a seemingly endless stream of delicacies.
I remember thinking, “These ‘ascetics’ really eat well.” There was a pleasant haze from the wine, a feeling of well-being from the delicious food, and a heightened sense of awareness as we leisurely explored the cosmos together. I remembered what another Chinese host had once said to me, “You have come a long way. The least we can do is offer you good food and good company.” Remarkably civilized people, the Chinese.
When the evening regretfully ended, Mr. Tung took me aside and said he had something to give me the following day before my boat left. I was surprised but arranged to have tea with him on the balcony in the giant terminal next to our ship’s berth.
The next day Mr. Tung arrived exactly on time, carrying a slim red book under his arm. He handed it to me with a triumphant smile.
“Thank you,” I said somewhat hesitantly. A quick glimpse revealed a book written entirely in Chinese (which I do not read). “This book contains a mathematical discussion of the I Ching,” he explained. The Book of Changes can be used for divination, as a work of deepest philosophy, or as a source from which to study three thousand years of Chinese culture.
“I want you to take it with you,” he continued in a kindly manner, “You will have need of it.”
“But I don’t read Chinese,” I protested. “And I have such limited space. Traveling across the world for a year, staying in snowy countries, in jungles, and in big cities, I have had to throw out everything extraneous so I can get by with just one bag. Forgive me for seeming ungrateful, but …”
He shook his head decisively. “Take the book,” he commanded. “You will see.” With that he rose and was gone in an instant, through the dense crowd packing the terminal.
I stared at the book, which seemed useless to me. Nevertheless, it was not large and had many fascinating diagrams, which I thought I might examine at another time. So I placed it in a pocket of my carryall bag and promptly forgot about it. This was probably in November.
Almost a year later, I returned to Los Angeles by plane from New York, having completed my swing to the West through India and Africa. One of the first people I phoned upon my arrival in Los Angeles was my good friend, the eminent scholar, Professor Wen-Shan Huang.
“I am glad you arrived back today,” he exclaimed in a delighted tone of voice. “This afternoon I am giving a talk to a large audience on the I Ching, and I would like you to come with me to hear it.”
Something clicked in my mind, something I had forgotten for so many months. Asking the professor to wait a moment, I went to my unpacked bag. Sure enough, the slim red volume was still there.
“Professor Huang,” I spoke into the phone, “I have a book about the I Ching which I have been carrying around the world for almost a year. Would you like to see it?”
I could visualize his indulgent smile at the other end. “Thank you, but I think I am familiar with all the I Ching commentaries. The only book I would be interested in is a rare volume of mathematical calculations on the I Ching, which I once saw many, many years ago in Shanghai. But that book was written in Chinese.”
I hastily explained that this book, too, was in Chinese and contained a mathematical system of the I Ching. I begged Professor Huang not to move, that I would come as quickly as traffic would allow.
When I arrived, Professor Huang took one look at the book and stated, “I have waited thirty years to find this volume.” He then opened to the first page, on which Mr. Tung had evidently written a fitting inscription, seemingly aware that the book would find its way into the Professor’s hands.
A broad smile filled the older man’s face as he read the long inscription, written carefully in beautiful Chinese characters. He did not attempt to interpret the message, but it was obvious that Mr. Tung’s message had hit its mark. Seldom have I seen the professor smile so brightly. Then, placing the book under his arm, he walked briskly to the car with me, and soon we were on our way to his lecture. I have often wondered, whether Mr. Tung might not have been the author of the mysterious book.