Remembrance by Wagner, Eugene

WALI ALI: It is mentioned here that it appears that he had tried to get a hearing and he couldn't, he was blackballed

EUGENE: by whom?

WALI ALI: by whom right that was my question.

EUGENE: I never heard this before.

WALI ALI: You don't know.

EUGENE: I heard Sam mention it once before and I don't know where he got his information, because he was kind of fuzzy on it.

WALI ALI: So you actually didn't know about that.


WALI ALI: Do you remember when you met Samuel Lewis?

EUGENE: No I think I was lecturing at a Theosophical Society in San Francisco and I think that he showed up there and I think that was where I first met him. God knows when that was I have no idea.

WALI ALI: I think it was 1963 because I was pregnant with this one the first time we met him.

EUGENE: We went to San Francisco from San Jose which should have been about that time I guess.

WALI ALI: Did he come up and speak to you after the lecture?

EUGENE: Yeah he came up and introduced himself and I'd heard of him before, I'd heard Sumangalo mention him a time or two and so I just knew that than he existed but I didn't know much about him other than the fact that he was there.

WALI ALI: He came up and he introduced himself.

EUGENE: Yeah, then we ran into each other from time to time.

WALI ALI: What places did you run into him?

EUGENE: Probably at various lectures around San Francisco and Buddhist Meditation meetings and things like that. For quite a while in the sixties there was a lot of Buddhist activity in San Francisco and we tried very strenuously to get the various Buddhist factions to work together, at least once or twice a year. and we were somewhat successful at that. We didn't hold with any illusions with what we were going to do but at least they got meeting on a friendly basis without battling each other a couple of times a year. And we thought that was an accomplishment and he used to show up for these things. We reinstituted the holding of Wesak services and we got these in Golden Gate Park. I think they discontinued that during the war.

WALI ALI: The services?

EUGENE: Yeah and we started that on an annual basis; I don't know if it is still continued since we left or not. I doubt it very seriously because there is too much to do for the necessary work that was required to get the thing going and keep it running, somebody going as liaison between various groups; I doubt that's continuing any more. Sam used to participate in that a lot too.

WALI ALI: In the service?

EUGENE: Yeah the first one we had out there we had maybe 30 or 35 priests—all the major sects of Japan, the Zen sect of China and we had Korean groups there and we had Tibetan derived groups there. There must have been 7,000 people attending.

WALI ALI: Was that a weekly service?

EUGENE: No, that was the annual Wesak service and it was pretty impressive.

WALI ALI: What time of year?

EUGENE: That happened on the 8th or so, or the closest Sunday to it in any case. But Sam was probably in that in lots of ways. He'd been thwarted most of his efforts, he didn't have a big name; he wasn't possessing in stature; he was a little runt to look at, and he chose not to be diplomatic when it wasn't necessary and people didn't like this any, but then of course that's what he was instructed to do, so that's the way it was done and that was people's tough luck. They didn't get to know him for what he was and the Buddhist groups being very jealous of one another everybody was jockeying for position, everybody who'd had any sort of experience in more than one line was generally looked down on by them as being a threat to them and so he was not overly popular with the various Buddhist groups. They considered him a threat because he could and would ask embarrassing questions which should not have been embarrassing to any Buddhist priest but they were because the people were not doing what their ordinations obligated them to do, what their training obligated them to do. They had egg on their face and so Sam wasn't too popular.

WALI ALI: Was there any kind of inner circle or group of people like yourself who would see Sam, did an exchange happen?

EUGENE: Oh sure; between Sam and me and then there was a fellow named Warwick who came from somewhere—nobody ever knew—he's still in San Francisco—he dabbled in a lot of things but when he was focused in on the Buddhist field he was quite a powerful man and Sam and I and Warwick used to function quite well together for quite a little while and we tried to knock off all the sectarian business and if someone wanted to play coconuts and somebody else wanted to play oranges and somebody else wanted to play apples why that was fine but when we were together we just left them all home and put them all in the same basket and we functioned as individuals and as priests and let it go at that. And I was going to say daily but that wasn't necessarily true—it came out semi-weekly I guess or several times a week where we would get together and we had a [?] time. Oh there were twenty to fifty people who up more or less regularly.

WALI ALI: So the three of you were led a service or a meditation?

EUGENE: Yes. And we just didn't bother to jockey for position. We tried to get the other groups to come in. Once in a while somebody would show up, mainly to see what was going on to see what we were up to.

WALI ALI: Did you have a meeting place or was it someone's home?

EUGENE: I had a place and Warwick had a place and eventually Sam had his place on Precita Avenue which you folks use now—that was his house.

WALI ALI: Who was this other person? Warwick was that his name?

EUGENE: Neville Warwick.

WALI ALI: So as far as you are concerned these fifty people saw Samuel Lewis as a Buddhist priest?

EUGENE: He functioned as a Buddhist priest. He got fed up and eventually there were some dissention. I don't want to pinpoint it on any particular person but there was dissension and the triumvirate between the three of us sort of dissolved. There was only Sam and me working together by that time. He decided that he'd about had it with the various politics and the various groups and he just figured it wasn't worth the effort so when I saw him functioning as a Sufi he was still functioning as a Buddhist because he functioned on a pretty high level and I attended a lot of the sessions that he had there on Precita. He was devoting most of that time that I was there to Buddhist emphases. I know that that wasn't the sole focus, that he also put a lot of the very esoteric emphases of Sufism into the groups but they were not in conflict with anything Sam was teaching from the Buddhist area so there wasn't any real distinction as far as we were concerned. We might sometimes quibble over terms on it but when you get down to terms you're talking about ideas and so [?] the ideas you don't have the problem anyway and so that was the way that Sam functioned.

WALI ALI: So when you said we you meant yourself and Sam?

EUGENE: Yeah and the group that I had going at that time.

WALI ALI: Did they go with you to Precita?

EUGENE: Occasionally they did, not often sometimes they did.

WALI ALI: What was a session like?

EUGENE: We called them sessions but they were meditation meetings and lecture meetings—we would combine them and they occurred at least once a week, generally two three times a week sometimes.

WALI ALI: In the evening?

EUGENE: Yeah. Because we all worked except Sam. Sam didn't. The rest of us had to work for a living and we worked in the daytime in San Francisco more often than not.

WALI ALI: You refer to various Buddhist groups. Do you want to mention which ones these were?

EUGENE: At the Wesak services we had the Shin Shu people, the people that were on Vine Street and we had the Zen people who were on Bush street at that time. Now they're on Page under Suzuki. Then the Chinese people would come from the Buddhist Taoist, Association, and the Chinese American Buddhist Society and then there was a group that's up there now, Rev. T and his group. They were not his group at that time but he was with a separate outfit at that time. He was sort of all working independent with a smaller group of people. We had the Tibetan and Mongolian representatives from Berkeley area—they were brand new in the area at that time and they came and the Koreans. The Koreans were represented by Dr. Sho who showed up in the states periodically.

WALI ALI: And these were some of the people who didn't have an easy time with Sam because of the questions that he asked?

EUGENE: The Mongolians never had a problem with Sam and Reverend Sho never had any problems with him but the Japanese groups all had problems with him. They had problems with me for much of the same reason.

WALI ALI: Is there any story or any question that you can remember him asking?

EUGENE: Occasionally when they would be talking they would make statements which were the opposite of what the Buddhist doctrine would teach and when they finished they'd open the floor to questions. You'd ask them, "How can you say such and such if the doctrine says this?" And of course that doesn't ever endeared him to anyone except the people who were listening.

WALI ALI: How long a period did you know Murshid Sam?

EUGENE: Until the end.

WALI ALI: Did he come down to Los Angeles to visit with you?

EUGENE: We weren't down here. We've only been down here just recently.

WALI ALI: I see.

EUGENE: About three or four years ago we left San Francisco, we went to Palm Springs, we went to San Jose, then we came back down here where we are now, so it's been about three and a quarter to four years altogether.

WALI ALI: So then you just knew him in San Francisco?


WALI ALI: Did you know Phra Sumangalo or Robert Clifton at that time?

EUGENE: O yeah well Clifton died in '63 and I've known Sumangalo since 1955.

WALI ALI: Were you in Southeast Asia with him?

EUGENE: I met him in Hawaii and then later I went to Southeast Asia and I stayed with him there a few months. We traveled around Bangkok and Thailand and Laos and then I left him and I went down through the peninsula and then he came to the States. After I left he stayed in Hawaii for a while about a month I guess, then he went back to Southeast Asia and I never saw him again. He died shortly thereafter.

WALI ALI: Do you know much about his experiences in Southeast Asia? Did he share that with you in addition to the time you shared their together?

EUGENE: Yeah, what sort of experiences are you referring to?

WALI ALI: I don't really know. I would think that was it a religious trip a spiritual search of any sort. Is that what took you there?

EUGENE: I got there because I'd never been to Asia and—let's back up a little bit. In 1955 Eisenhower held a Whitehouse Conference on Education and he invited participants all around the world and the man from Cambodia was a man named G. Darmawara and he was a Buddhist Monk of about 30 to 32 years standing and he spoke eight, nine, ten languages, something like that and he stayed in Hawaii for about two months I guess and he and I got to be pretty good friends and I I'd been in Buddhism for 48, 49 years, something like that and I'd moved to Hawaii partly because of that and I made the comment someday I'd be able to go to his part of the world and maybe stay in a monastery there and so the time came for him to leave, he said, "Would you still like to come to our part of the world." I said, "Yes, if it's at all possible I could go and spend some time." He said, "I'll go back and arrange it" and so he did and a couple months later I was in Cambodia. So that's how I happened to get there.

WALI ALI: You spent time in a monastery there?

EUGENE: Yeah I spent time in a monastery there.

WALI ALI: Phra Sumangalo was with you?

EUGENE: No, he was in Thailand, he was up in Chinmoy in the northern part of Thailand and he came back just before the monsoon season again and then I stayed there in Bangkok about four, four and a half months, something like that. For a while we stayed in different monasteries. Before I left we stayed in the same monastery.

WALI ALI: What was your experience there, any kind of turbulence?

EUGENE: There was no turbulence there except what was caused by the political party currently in power in Thailand but that been that way a number of centuries. You just have to stay off the streets when they were having elections and things like that—you could quite literally be shortened by a head. They even set the voting booths in some of the monasteries—kind of a strange thing we thought but PS I think was the Prime Minister at that time and he was ostensibly running for re-election. You just had to buy your way through and somebody who didn't want him in office was trying to promote another candidate so he tacked up a little sign with the other candidate's name on it and ran it past the voting booth over there and somebody hit him in the head with a ax right then and there and eliminated him so that sort of dampens the enthusiasm for voting for PS opponents at least in that immediate neighborhood. When we knew things like this were going to happen we just stayed out of the way and that was all.

WALI ALI: They didn't seek out the monasteries except if they needed the space for voting booth or whatever they wanted.

EUGENE: In Thailand you mean the political parties?


EUGENE: Yeah, they do. The whole life of the country is tied up culturally with Buddhism. Much is given a lot of lip service and there's a lot of superstition around—some of it valid some of it not so valid, depending on how you define all these things, but the major Abbots of monasteries in Thailand are appointed by the Prime Minister and then they are ostensible elected by the sangha in a democratic manner but there are only certain ones who are permitted to do all this so those were the ones who were appointed by the Prime Minister and where you have political appointees for big monasteries then you generally have large government support, funds for the monastery and these monasteries were elaborate and well healed. Little monasteries with no type political groups around don't get very much. They don't get anything at all, except contributions from the people which are pretty meager.

WALI ALI: Is that where you stayed?

EUGENE: We stayed at both places. We were not involved in any of the political business. We could just simply observe some of it that was there. We didn't wish to be involved in any of it. We weren't out there for that reason. We just chose not to get involved that's all.

WALI ALI: There was no problem?

EUGENE: There was no problem. It's just that periodically there were countries in Southeast Asia and South America where you have banana republic uprising sort of thing and the foreigners are all evil spirits and the enemies of the country. The local groups currently running through with clubs and as long as you're aware of the fact that such things do exist you remove yourself from the area and so there's not any embarrassment.

WALI ALI: But Phra Sumangalo was in Southeast Asia then actually longer than yourself?

EUGENE: Yeah, that was his third or fourth trip to Southeast Asia. He originally went over because he was from a place called Clifton, New Jersey and I don't know what his original name was, I've forgotten but anyway he had it changed. He changed it to the name of Clifton probably. He decided that was where he was going to settle, so he took that name and then he was quite active in the lecture circuit. There are not very many colleges or Universities around of any size in the United States that he hasn't lectured at. At least once many several times.

WALI ALI: As a Buddhist.

EUGENE: As a Buddhist Priest and he was quite well known around the New York, Washington D.C. area and the various Asian consulates and Embassies in Washington D.C. knew of him and he knew most of the Ambassadors so they asked him if he would go on a fund raising trip around the world, well not around the world but Southeast Asia to see if they could obtain sufficient funds from the various governments and private sources to erect an Asian Temple which would be an Asian Headquarters for American Buddhism in Washington D.C.. That never materialized but he went over and he got some funds and then he became very very ill and it became apparent he would never be able to come back and go to work again. He was physically incapable of that and so he decided to stay. So he took Theravada ordination in Laos from the Patriarch there in the [?] and then did stay in Southeast Asia. Eventually of course ended up in Bangkok and did trailer hunts and stuff out in the jungle and put lots of statues and PH was invited down to the Penang Buddhist Association and shortly after I left, I don't know, about three, four, five months after I left, he went down. Then he just stayed there and he became progressively weaker and then he died there.

WALI ALI: What did he die from do, you know?

EUGENE: A bad heart. The males in his family for many many years dropped dead in their early sixties, 62, 63, something like that, just following the genetic constitution That did it.

WALI ALI: And what was he trying to communicate here and to whom.

GENE : Yeah I know some of it but I don't think I'd better say. Just by and large the political situation which went on in Thailand at that time was such that they were quite thoroughly extorting U.S. funds. There was a lot of stuff that was being said in the local press and most of the people with positions in the U.S. Embassy up there weren't aware of it because they didn't read Thai. Obviously we had people who did read Thai and they probably counseled but we'd hear rumors periodically through the various political grapevines in the monastery. We'd overhear things—if we thought it was appropriate we'd pass it on if not we'd just forget it. We both wrote letters to John Foster Dulles and I even know of a letter of Sumangalo's that got as far as Eisenhower because it was seen by somebody else and things like this so we know there was some information that was passed on and received but whatever happened apparently wasn't sufficient because it wasn't considered important enough. I don't think the U.S. knew then or knows any more now how to deal with Asians. They didn't understand the Asian process of thinking and vacillating and saying one thing and meaning something else and that's the way it went. We lost out quite abominably by taking sides against various what we would probably call in this country democratic factions, various factions of government which were opposed to the overthrowing and put down of democratic things but PS took over several years before I got there. There was a big battle and a lot of people who were in Bangkok were killed. They erected a big monument to the people who died in the uprising. Shortly before I got there some of the families went out and put flowers on the anniversary days of this monument and they were all arrested for treason as a demonstration against the government, so that's the kind of thing that we were trying to convey. But that's a mentality and it never got through.

WALI ALI: You said that Phra Sumangalo took ordination.

 EUGENE: He's had many ordinations, yeah. The one he took with the Theravada organization was taken in Laos.

WALI ALI: I don't know if this is right, that he functioned directly as a result of that. That's what I thought you were indicating.

EUGENE: No, he had his first ordination, I think in 1920, 1922 in Chicago, I think it was. I don't know if it was from a Soto priest or a Shin shu priest but anyway he had way back around 1930 sometime and then he had several others because he'd gone back to Asia from time to time but then he got the Terra Hattta ordination in Laos. He wore the Chinese robes which was not Theravada. In Bangkok he wore Theravada robes and for a time in Malaysia he wore Theravada robes and eventually he went into the Chinese robes. They were a lot more functional, and a lot more in keeping with the Chinese group he was working with and the Chinese priests have a very practical attitude about the whole thing. If you're ordained the kind of clothes you're wearing for the group doesn't matter. If you're an ordained man you're an ordained man and that’s it. If you want to wear garments from some other ordained groups, sects, schools, that's perfectly all right. They couldn't care less.

WALI ALI: But he functioned as a religious person over there.

EUGENE: Oh yeah the whole time he was there. He rebuilt in effect the Penang Buddhist association and Sunday schools started all over the Malay peninsula. Something that had not happened before. and Brian Good from down here went up and stayed with him for three and a half years and helped teach and helped him out to organize the various things and then he went on lecture tours around Southeast Asia also. Many of the groups they had are still functioning down there—I don't know how well. Also he put out a magazine called the Golden Light which is one of the best English magazines to come out of Asia in a long time. And I think it petered out also just shortly he was dead. I think there were one or two issues and then it went down the drain.

WALI ALI: Was he addressing himself to the English speaking people there?

EUGENE: The Chinese are all bilingual down there. and since it was an English colony—once upon a time they still speak English in school—so virtually everybody speaks English. But he was something of a linguist. He forgot about it as fast as he picked it up. He used to be fairly facile in Japanese, then he went to Laos and Thailand and he picked up Thai and he became quite good at that and then he went down into the Malay peninsula and he knew a little bit of Chinese but everybody down there also spoke Malay and so he also got good enough in Malay that he used to speak over the radio in Malay.

WALI ALI: And it was all right for Sumangalo because he had the ordination?

EUGENE: Not only the that but he had the experiences behind him. He was a highly developed individual and it showed. That was the primary thing. Even if he hadn't had the ordination it wouldn't have really mattered. Because this was the thing—he was developed enough that it really showed. And you don't argue with success. That's all. It works.

WALI ALI: People saw that readily. They wanted to be with him.

EUGENE: As he became more debilitated he became more spiritual. He had a tendency to do an awful lot of running around, investigate things. He didn't necessarily neglect his own development but he seemed to shove it aside to be doing things for other people and then he got to be quite incapacitate physically . Then he developed, I started to say highly, I'm not sure that's the term but anyway he got so highly developed that he used to scare the daylights out of people who were around him because they just didn't understand him at that point.

WALI ALI: How did that manifest, just his presence?


WALI ALI: The light and communication.

EUGENE: Yes, he used to do a lot of that and he used to do a lot of healing. Laying on of hands of people and in two days they'd go home and it practically ruined him because it just took everything out of him when it happened. And he used to have long sensitive periods of clairaudience and teleportation. This sort of side lines to the development. That's all. He didn't try to develop those areas specifically. They just happened to be the side line of his own development.