He once played touch football with Elvis. Those were years blown softly on humid Southern winds, far away from the Pacific Northwest, in Memphis, Tenn. Bill Metz was 13 that summer.
Today he remains vibrant. His beard and hair are sparse and silver-hued, and reminds one of a Chinese philosopher, but one dressed in pressed slacks and a short-sleeved shirt. The man is neat. At 62, deep lines crease his forehead, his kindly and sensitive face. Wire-rim glasses throw bullseyes around his pale blue eyes. Perhaps the bright sun has faded them like denim - or this could be the mark of age - but they strike you as being as kind and intelligent as the Buddha's.
Metz would like that comparison. He is a follower of that ancient master. The long winding road has been kind to this tall slender man, and those who know him say he has grown in stature.
A different kind of road leads to the Great Vow Zen Monastery in the foothills behind Clatskanie. One might expect a gravel road - a slower pace of life - but for years, school buses carried their precious human cargo to and from this large school house and abundant grounds. Taxes paved the way until a mill foundered, until logging and fishing slumped. Soon after that, the property was bought and transformed by a remarkable husband and wife, Hogen and Chozen (Jan) Bays. That was four years ago now. From the head of the dining table on a hot summer night, they preside over a celebratory dinner like a dignified lord and lady.
Very few people carry themselves with a definable presence. This couple radiates keen intelligence and firmness of purpose. Beyond first impression - like finding a hidden evergreen copse buried deep up some ancient valley - one feels serenity and compassion building behind those firm expressions.
Under a clean Japanese work shirt, Hogen bears the mark of faded jeans and worn leather boots. His hands are muscular and tanned brown by arduous labor and the summer sun. The monastery is surrounded by handsome gardens and stands of evergreen. Participation in work is mandatory here. Busy hands are happy hands, and a quotation on a wall says it all: "The secret of life is to have a task... something that you devote your entire life to, every minute of the day for your whole life." Those words bear the signature of Henry Moore, the English sculpture who shaped marble and brass into fertile earth-mother images.
Chozen Bays imparts another spin on the guiding light of the monastery. "If we make a vow to live with compassion, then each choice will be subtly impacted by that vow." Guiding that force is another inspiration, and here lies an explanation for the title of the monastery. "Listen," says Bays, with confidence, "the great vow is different for everyone. Only you know the vow."
DifferentMetz carries himself differently than the younger students who arrive like pilgrims to the center, or, for that matter, Hogen and Chozen Bays themselves. The man appears as the perfect incarnation of kindness and patience. Perhaps he defines himself as the elderly statesman. Certainly he is the oldest member of the monastery. He wasn't always so steady, but, even as a young man, he exhibited deep thinking and a gift for mathematics, physics, and those patterns these disciplines shape into abstractions most of us fail to grasp.
No problems for young Metz - he galloped though the first 12 years of school and into the University of Notre Dame, a star rising. Later, Metz pursued his master's degree at Yale, which led three years later to a Ph.D. in nuclear physics. Metz loved the idea of transferring scientific information to others. That calling card led him to Science, one of the two most prestigious science magazines in the nation.
One afternoon Metz found himself outside a Quaker meeting house in Cambridge, Mass. "I just went in and found exactly what I needed. There is no mantra or dogma in this church, except perhaps that the church is opposed to violence. People stand up and give short messages, read poetry. There is no preacher, no hierarchy. In some ways there are many similarities between Quakers and the Zen Buddhists, except the Quakers don't call theirs prayers meditations. Teach me the difference," he implores.
He seems to be saying, surprise me, long and winding road.
Certainly this was a departure from an explanation Metz expressed as a student of physics when he defined his quest as "a rare privilege to understand one aspect of the world that will always be true." God is more illusive than that. Metz moved on, hungry for more answers.
After hundreds of articles for Science, the scholar felt hamstrung. He made another life-shaping decision and enrolled in a four-year art program at Massachusetts College of Arts. Another step - another path along the way - and the man was grasping at truth, and he had courage, enough courage to follow through. After art school, he tried teaching. Metz declared that to be very hard work. Every nerve in his body told him that teaching wasn't for him. A long term relationship ended sadly. He steadied himself with God. The self-avowed atheist began to find his way. That way led him eventually to Clatskanie.
A delegation from the Great Vow recently headed out for Nagasaki. Chozen Bays' 60th birthday just happened to correspond with the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing of that Japanese city and she wanted to be there. Metz stayed behind as the senior adviser. He strikes one as the kind of sailor who steadies the ship. If not doing his fine carpentry work and other choirs around the monastery, he heads for Eugene where he keeps a home.
At the dinner table in the old gymnasium at the monastery, Metz carefully unfolds a cloth that holds three empty bowls. Dinner this evening is a formal affair, a ceremony before the group heads off to Japan.
Thirteen students chant:
"Now we set out Buddha's bowls.
"May we, with all beings' realize the emptiness of the three wheels,
"Giver, receiver, and gift."
To the mind of a Buddhist, all three bowls are equal, and offer equal opportunity. All three remain empty, and there lies the potential. Giver, receiver, gift - all are special to the one universal God, to the force, to each individual that walks the planet. Metz folds his hands in prayer. His eyes are closed, his face serene. The chant rolls on. The soup is passed and each person at the table helps themselves to the offering: bowls full and a roomful of compassion.
Outside, the sun is falling. The evergreens stand still in the summer heat, still as the statues of the Jizo (the Japanese icon) that grace a garden behind the gymnasium where the students work late into the evening, preparing for their journey.
Metz walks to the chapel where he meditates four hours a day. He bows before a marble statue of the Buddha, and then strikes a mallet on the side of a singing bell. Sound swells around the room and out, out to the garden, into the forest of fir and cedar that define the foothills, rising richly from the fertile valley.
Metz loves the sound of the bell. Loves where it takes his mind. Loves to put gratitude, as he puts it, "into the doing."
Here at the center of the world, the man is happy.