Spiritual Quest, 1958-1959

It is fall, 1957. I am newly married to Barbara, my first wife. We are in Auburn, Alabama where I am a Temporary Instructor in the Physics Department at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute, later to become Auburn University. We have ended up in Auburn because Barbara was acquainted with Dr. Howard Carr, head of the Physics Department and knew that the department badly needed people to teach elementary physics to engineering students and liberal arts majors. Letters written from Innsbruck plus a positive reference from my graduate adviser at Stanford (Georg Polya, a well-known mathematician) sealed the deal. Of course, I had pretty much forgotten the little physics I had ever known so I would need to learn the subject from the text I was teaching and try to stay a week or so ahead of my students. Since I was planning to become a physicist anyway, this was a fun challenge and I didn’t do too badly in meeting it. Certainly, I could appreciate and relate to the difficulties my students were having with the subject. Meanwhile, Barbara had decided to switch her major from mathematics to English literature so was taking graduate courses in the English Department.

That fall we were totally absorbed in life. I was passionately in love with Barbara and working hard on learning elementary physics and doing well with my teaching. As a faculty member I had easy access to football tickets and enjoyed going to games. The Auburn team that year was winning all their games, a new experience for me after watching games in high school and at Stanford. In high school I watched Punahou lose 64 – 0 to Kamehameha in their first game and lose every subsequent game thereafter. Stanford had a similarly bad season my freshman year. In retrospect I think that the Auburn team was the best college team I’ve ever seen. They had an overwhelming defense often holding opponents to negative yardage on the ground. Their games were not exciting because they did not seem to be very fired up. They would get a lead of a few points, shut down their opponents, and play out the rest of the game in a boring manner. There was only the suspense of wondering if the opposition would score on a fluke play. When it came time to play the last game of the season against arch-rival Alabama, the press was wondering if there would be an upset because Auburn’s wins had been less than dramatic while Alabama hadn’t done all that badly. The game started in a usual manner. Auburn won the toss and, as they always did in such circumstances, elected to kick. As the kickoff sailed down the field I suddenly realized I was looking at a different, fired up, team. The Alabama receiver took the ball in the end zone and started up the field, making little progress as flying tackles narrowly missed their target. The runner was shortly overwhelmed at about the 15 yard line. In the next few plays Alabama lost yardage and finally fumbled after a hard hit in their end zone. Auburn 7, Alabama 0. Subsequently Auburn finally displayed their offense. They did have an all-American end, Jimmy Phillips, who played sensationally and their ground game became effective. Final score 40 – 0. What impressed me about that Auburn team was the philosophy of doing the minimum necessary to win, in a relaxed manner, never playing to potential unless necessary or in a game with Alabama. This attitude, with its suggestion of power held in reserve, smacked of the Zen I would later encounter.

Also in that Fall Quarter I was becoming acquainted with Barbara’s family and numerous relatives, taking in the friendly Southern atmosphere, which overlay a terrible racism, seldom explicitly on display to me. However, I knew it was there. The first morning in Auburn I was awake at dawn, still not adjusted to the time change, so got up in the early light and headed to town up the main street. A black man came down the side walk in front of me, began to hesitate when about thirty feet away, then stepped off the sidewalk three or four feet into the street and cowered, half turned away from me with head bowed, as I walked by. I was totally appalled, having grown up in Hawaii where there are too many races and racial mixtures for serious prejudice though people other than haoles (whites) had been quite subjugated in the days before I grew up. By the time I was in high school, however, one could be taunted for being a haole and perhaps beaten up, so what prejudice there was operated in all directions. In Alabama, because I am a realist and definitely a coward as well, I never openly challenged the mores of that time, but tried to treat black people with respect.

A late poem of Wallace Stevens has the title “A Child Asleep in its Own Life”, suggesting the image of a child totally engaged and walking around with concentrated purpose, unaware of what was going on in its surroundings. It seems to me that I and probably Barbara were in a similar state of being that fall. We were fully engaged with our lives and with each other but I had certainly dropped all thoughts of a spiritual journey, of religion, or of anything else beyond our immediate circumstances. Winter Quarter came and things began to change. That quarter I was able to sit in on a class in quantum mechanics taught by Ernest Ikenberry. Professor Ikenberry was in the process of writing a text, loosely based on the quantum mechanics text by David Bohm. At the start of each class he would hand out three or four pages of mimeographed notes and then lecture, explicating the notes. Quantum mechanics for me was a revelation. I loved the mathematics and slowly came to realize that quantum physics totally demolished the deterministic world view of classical physics, a view that I had heartily disliked. I was delighted that physics had opened up in a way that could sit easily beside all the other worlds of human experience. Physics was going to be very exciting.

Another happening that made a huge impression on me was my first encounter with Zen. I can’t remember exactly when this was. Probably it occurred sometime during the Winter Quarter in 1958, or perhaps as late as early Spring Quarter the same year. In any case it came about because that year we were subscribing to Harper’s Magazine. My favorite writer appearing in the magazine at the time was Gilbert Highet whose essays were always interesting and beautifully written. So, it was with interest that I read Highet’s review of Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigal, which had been translated from German to English a few years before. Besides talking about the book Highet also had some additional thoughts about Zen Buddhism, which, at the time, was practically unknown in the US and completely unknown to me. Intrigued by Highet’s piece I went to the Auburn library and found not only Herrigal’s book but one or two others by D.T. Suzuki who in the late 1920’s had thought to introduce Zen to the West. Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism particularly impressed me. Here was a religion with no doctrines or beliefs. One was to discover one’s own insights through meditative practice, aided perhaps, by concentrating on crazy riddles, called Koans or Mondos.

Three things about Zen were apparent to me. First, it was a serious religion. By that I mean a religion that becomes the center of one’s life. Second, because Zen makes no concrete specific claims about the world, it could be the deep, wordless philosophical center encompassing all other more concrete subjects without conflicting with any of them. Finally, if pursued successfully, it had the potential to bring spiritual peace to one’s life in the face of death.

At the time I was by no means converted to the religion. Life was far too busy and I simply didn’t know enough about it. I loved the riddle characteristic of the Koans. They seemed like the problems in physics that I enjoyed struggling with. However, a Koan did not have a rational, mathematical answer as in physics, but a deep non-verbal answer enveloped with understanding – rather like a joke whose point one gets instantly or not at all. (Of course I “got” none of the Koans at the time.) It was clear to me, however, that I would have an enjoyable time ahead learning more about Zen and about the Buddhism it grew out of before I would understand enough for a possible commitment.

As the academic year at Auburn drew to an end there was much on my mind. I had been accepted at the University of Virginia as a graduate student in physics and I was off for a summer trip to the Tetons with Barbara and her young sister Mary, driving an old Ford and camping along the way.

Fall 1958 found us living in a dank basement apartment in downtown Charlottesville, parking the old Ford on hilly streets for more assured starting in the morning, and attending our classes at the University. My most exciting class in classical electricity and magnetism was taught by John Plaskett, English and only a few years older than myself. Starting from Maxwell’s equations he would develop the story of how they came to be and their consequences in a lucid manner. In the afternoon I would spend three to four hours going over my notes, being sure that I understood every nuance of the derivations. In class I always sat in the front row because Plaskett had the charming habit when coming to a key conclusion at the end of a long, mathematical argument of announcing the dénouement in a voice that sank to barely above a whisper. How embarrassingly immodest it would be to be blatant about a beautiful result. I imagined Plaskett as a Zen master who was bringing enlightenment through electromagnetism. If the mastery of archery could bring Herrigal to the brink of transcendent understanding, why wouldn’t theoretical physics serve just as well? Of course I suspect that Plaskett hadn’t the slightest idea he was practicing a Zen art, but I, in my naivety was stumbling upon the idea that depths can lurk anywhere, even in the beauties of a science devoted to understanding the most mundane materialistic reality.

Of course, in my spare time I checked out the University of Virginia library to see what it contained in books about Zen. There was more than at the Auburn library but not so much that I couldn’t read it all during the year. Besides studying physics and reading about Zen I was exposed vicariously to English studies. My fellow physics students remained acquaintances whereas Barbara’s fellow English students became our friends. People studying literature tend to be more articulate and socially interesting than scientists and engineers so we ended up running with the English crowd. Barbara’s most exciting studies were in classes taught by Fredson Bowers, an authority on the textual criticism of Shakespeare. She also had a class in which every poem written by Yeats was read and discussed. In earlier years I had discovered how moving poetry could be so I thoroughly enjoyed the discussions among our friends though my contributions were minimal.

Classes continued during the winter and through the spring and came to an end in June at the beginning of a miserably hot humid summer. That summer we would spend in Charlottesville where I had a job studying and hopefully contributing to centrifuge science. Luckily there was swimming pool, surrounded by a shady lawn where we could hang out and be comfortable in the hot weather. And one afternoon while sitting in the shade with Barbara, cooling off after a swim, I became conscious that I was committing to Zen. Such a decision is not made consciously or rationally. I was very aware that I had little or no understanding and that the whole thing was a big mystery. However, it felt good that I intended to spend the rest of my life attempting to understand what it was all about.

4 thoughts on “Spiritual Quest, 1958-1959

  1. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading all these posts so far, on many levels. I’m especially intrigued by the idea of a spirituality that is compatible with scientific beliefs. I have arrived at that place myself, and it has become a life changing philosophy for me. But I also love the personal stories and memories, which bring the posts to life.

    Like

  2. Your blog is great reading for me, helping me to become more understanding about the science world along with my spiritual world. I’m looking forward to following your quest!!

    Like

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