Friday, July 19, 2013


Diplomas have always been somehow oddly suspect in my mind and nowhere more so than when I received one. Others may trust that the acknowledgment of others -- be it institution or organization or high poo-bah -- was sufficient grounds on which to believe that the accomplishment somehow accorded with an objective reality, but I always seemed to have my doubts.

Which is not to say I haven't conferred my own diplomas of belief.

For example: When I graduated from what was then called the Army Language School in Monterey, Calif., I received a certificate attesting to my graduation. The certificate said my grade for six months worth of study was 91 and that I had placed fourth in a class of 32. A 91 is an A or an A- ... pretty hot stuff. Pretty good. But it wasn't until a year or more after graduation that I conferred anything resembling a believable diploma.

The diploma arrived in a bar in Berlin where I was having a beer when a young couple asked if the extra seats at the table were free. This is or was customary in Germany -- utter strangers sitting down at the table you might have staked out as your own. I loved the custom since it allowed me to meet all sorts of people.

The young couple sat down and as usual we started chatting. They were from somewhere else in Germany, were on holiday and were enjoying their vacation. I asked them where they came from, what they did, where their travels had taken them so far ... just the usual, trivial banter. They were both bright, well-educated people. But then the young woman looked at me and asked where I came from.

"New York," I told her. Her eyes narrowed slightly. No, she said, she meant where had I been born, what nationality was I? And again I said I came from New York ... I was an American. And, lightly but with some seriousness, she said she didn't believe me and asked to see some identification that would prove what I said was true. She wasn't kidding and she wasn't stupid. And it was in her eyes that I found my diploma from language school. Even though I didn't look like a German or dress like a German, she was convinced from my speech that I was a German.

Years later, I was a member of a Zen center. As time passed, I was asked to give weekly training to people who wanted to become members but did not yet know the ropes. I did this several times -- a once-a-week meeting over a period of about six months, after which, if they chose, these students could become members of the center. Classes consisted of learning chants, ritual moves, meditation options ... pretty ordinary stuff. I have to admit I was somewhat impressed with my station ... kind of a junior teacher ... not yet able to call myself "roshi" or anything so grand, but, well ... working my way up what I thought might be a ladder of accomplishment. If I were to become a Zen-teacher-proper ... well, how kool would a diploma like that be? (Much later, a roshi would suggest to me that I go back to the Zen fold and "get your ticket punched" -- get the credentials ... but by then it was too late.)

Anyway, during one of the training classes, there was an Irish-faced woman of 35-40 with whom I became chums. She had come to the zendo because she felt she could no longer go to the Catholic Church that had filled her upbringing and belief system. She had too many doubts and too many downright disagreements, she said, so she couldn't in good conscience return to the church she clearly missed so much. And so, together with talking about Zen with her, I started to nudge her: Wasn't she an adult? Wasn't she capable of going where she wanted when she wanted on her own terms? Why not return to church and take what was palatable and leave the rest to those who insisted on swallowing it? If the longing for church really was an incompleted chapter in her life, why not return and complete it on whatever terms she chose?

The woman heard me out with good grace and a deep distrust in her eyes. She couldn't do that ... that wasn't right ... that wasn't playing by the rules ... you couldn't do whatever you wanted and still be a believer in God ... or at any rate a Catholic. Still I kept after her.

At the end of the Zen training period, the zendo closed for a month or so and when it reopened, the Irish-faced woman was nowhere in sight. Of the twenty or so who had attended the class I instructed, perhaps three returned ... an average number, Zen training being what it is. I hadn't received a diploma for my instruction efforts, but of course that would have been an attachment (lol) ... an attachment I secretly had. I imagined a pat on the head was warranted, but if anyone had given it I doubt that I could have accepted the diploma.

And then one day, months later, I was walking down the street in New York -- a city of 12 million -- and from a distance, I saw her coming towards me -- the Irish-faced woman. And she recognized me, even from a distance, with a radiant smile. And when we got close enough, she threw her arms around my neck and told me she had always wanted to be able to say thank you: She had returned to her Catholic Church.

And I had my diploma.

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