I became a Christian at the age of 44, after a background that included some years in Zen Buddhism. I am sometimes asked to give my testimony. Here is what I said to a local Christian college’s comparative religion class in 2011.
Try to imagine a young Western guy in Japan. He’s dressed in nothing but straw sandals and a loincloth and he’s standing under a bitterly cold waterfall, near the peak of one of Japan’s holiest mountains, taking part in a Shinto purification ritual.
That was me about 30 years ago. I was on a spiritual quest, looking for God, although I didn’t even realize it at the time. If you had asked me then what I was doing, I would have told you that I was a journalist and that I was gathering material for articles and books that I planned writing. It is only since arriving in Australia and subsequently becoming a Christian, that I have really been able to understand what I was doing back then.
I was born in New Zealand, in 1949. My father was a Jewish refugee from Vienna, and my mother was a New Zealander from an Anglican family. Both were active in left-wing politics, and we were not a religious family in any traditional sense.
I know that from a young age I sometimes felt inside me a sense of emptiness that made me restless and unhappy and feeling that something was missing in my life. There was a vacuum there, possibly from the lack of religion in my life, that left me with vague, undefined longings for something spiritual in my life.
I graduated from Auckland University with a Bachelor of Laws degree, and became a newspaper reporter, then set off overseas, and for some years I was just kind-of drifting. I worked as a journalist in England, I got work for a few months in Greece, I spent six months picking oranges on kibbutzim in Israel, where I have relatives. In 1976, when I was 27, I went to Japan, planning to spend a year or so traveling around Asia. I ended up living in Tokyo for 17 years, and it was there that my interest in spiritual matters exploded.
In Tokyo I found that several temples offered instruction to Westerners in Zen Buddhism and Zen meditation, and I became a regular participant.
I didn’t really have much interest in doctrine, but, as I understood it, Zen Buddhism was a way of bypassing all the attachments of the world for a direct experience of Buddhist enlightenment, through intense periods of meditation. Zen practitioners tended to be pretty cynical about other forms of Buddhism, which they believed had become too attached to the world, too dependent on extraneous forms like fancy worship ceremonies, the chanting of sutras, lots of study, beautiful temples, and so on. Zen appeared to say that nothing of this world is worth much, and for a person like myself, cynical about just about everything, this was very appealing.
Initially I went to these Zen meditation services for the chance to experience something new, and also because as a freelance journalist in Tokyo I was always looking for new topics to write about. I got my own column in the Asahi Evening News, a Tokyo newspaper, and did a series of 20 articles on how Westerners could experience Zen.
I became friends with one of the leading Western Buddhist scholars, Professor John Stevens, who lived in Japan, and together we wrote a book, “Zen Guide”, which was a kind of manual for Westerners coming to Japan to study and practice Zen. It was published in 1985, and is out of print now.
This writing took several years and involved visits to dozens and dozens of temples and monasteries around Japan – not all of them Zen temples – and interviews with many priests. Often I stayed overnight at the temples and joined in the evening and early-morning religious devotions. I also continued as a regular participant in Zen services in Tokyo.
Yet when people asked me at the time if I was a Buddhist I would answer “no,” that all this participation in Zen worship was simply a matter of gathering material for my articles and book. But I can see now that I was on a spiritual search. I was looking for God, although sadly I did not recognize that at the time.
So though I was sympathetic to Zen ideals, as I understood them, I really had little interest in doctrine. I wasn’t interested in religion as such. I wasn’t looking for the meaning of life. I was looking for spiritual experiences, I was looking for God, which is why I spent so much time moving from temple to temple.
I have to say that for a wide-eyed young Westerner a Buddhist service is very enticing. Monks wearing colorful robes chant sutras; there are gongs, drums and chimes, and the fragrance of incense; and there are all kinds of dazzling Oriental rituals.
I remember at one temple in Kyoto where participants sat in near-darkness, with the only light coming from a roaring fire, while at the front of the hall monks furiously beat on giant drums. It was all thrillingly exotic, and for a person like myself, who came from a non-religious home, the whole atmosphere always seemed to be one of great holiness and the presence of the supernatural.
A combination of a collapsing marriage and a desire to write another book sent me to the mountains of northern Japan, where I lived for several months. I completed a famous pilgrimage to 33 Buddhist temples, each housing a statue of the Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, and was told by some of the priests I met that I was the first Westerner ever to have done that pilgrimage.
I took an interest in Shintoism, an animistic Japanese religion that worships nature, and I took part in a three-day Shinto group pilgrimage, trudging through snowy mountains, dressed in straw sandals and a white robe. Each day we walked into an icy cold river and stood under a waterfall, crying out to the local mountain deities. At the end I was interviewed on Japanese radio about my experiences, and I was featured in a Japanese magazine.
But nothing left me with any real satisfaction. The emptiness and the feelings of restlessness remained. I was continually searching for something more. As I said, I was searching for God, but without realizing it. Gradually I drifted away from any involvement with Buddhism. Nothing dramatic happened, but soon I had no involvement at all.
Then in 1987 I married Younju, a Christian from Korea, our first two children were born, and we decided to leave Japan and move to Melbourne, Australia. We arrived in 1993. After that, things happened very fast. Younju had joined a local Korean congregation in Melbourne, but suggested we try to find a church near our home where we could worship as a family.
I thought it wouldn’t be bad for our kids to go to Sunday School – something I’d missed out on – and was amenable. I had no idea what it meant to be a Christian – I thought that if you believed in God you were a Christian, and I decided that I could probably believe in some kind of God – and so one Sunday morning we all turned up unannounced at Templestowe Baptist Church.
Very quickly the pastor visited us and he invited us to dinner at his house, together with various church people who had Japanese or Korean connections. Then a couple of church ladies came to our home and said they would like to do a series of Bible studies with me.
I was prepared to accompany my family to church, but had no interest in reading or studying the Bible. However, I felt blackmailed – one of the ladies had taken it upon herself to pick up our oldest boy and drive him with her daughter to kindergarten on the days when I was working, as Younju still did not have her Australian licence. I was quite angry, and felt these ladies were taking advantage of my kind nature.
So two ladies began visiting every week to talk about the Bible, and I started asking more and more questions. There were no thunderbolts, no flashes of lightning, but one day one of the ladies made the offhand comment that the life of Jesus and much of the New Testament had been forecast in the Old Testament. And at that moment I felt this warm glow passing through my body and in my heart I just knew that everything I was being told was the truth.
Over the coming weeks I had a growing feeling that I had found something I had been searching for. The next time at church, when the bread and grape juice was passed round, instead of letting it pass I took some, and said a silent prayer to God, asking Him to confirm that I was doing the right thing. And I did feel a great peace.
I was subsequently led to a confession of sins, and so at the age of 44 I gave my life to Christ and was baptized. I went on to study at Bible College of Victoria, anxious to catch up with what others in my church knew about the Bible, and I completed a Graduate Diploma in Christian Studies.
Now I look back and am astonished to see, quite clearly, God’s hand at work in my life over many years, long before I became a Christian, guiding me, prodding me, sometimes protecting me, and softening my hardened and cynical heart.
That He was loving me when I despised Him is something I sometimes struggle to understand, and accept. And occasionally I think “Why me?” and that I find very difficult to answer. But I do know that in that mighty love of God I have at last found the sense of peace and hope that for so much of my life seemed impossible to attain.