If You Meet The Buddha On The Road…
Posted on September 11, 1993
It was a particularly hot afternoon in the California desert, and Earl Habit was cursing colorfully, if unfortunately, futily at his Volkswagon bus. The flower covered object of Earl’s verbal abuse was serenely ignoring him, and was in fact doing what Volkswagons do best, which is not a lot of anything. Earl had been probing the engine with various tools for the better part of an hour without success, and the isolation of the old road seemed to eliminate the possibility of help. Laying on his back in the sand, Earl continued to swear at the uncaring vehicle as his right hand groped about for a 9/16 crescent wrench. A hand appeared next to Earl’s head holding the sought after wrench, and Earl replied absently, “Thanks.” It took a few seconds for Earl to register the new presence, and the sudden realization caused him to shoot out from beneath the van, crawling like some strange, frightened sand crab. Out from under the van, he sat up and promptly banged his head on the engine hatch cover. Swearing mightily, Earl rose slowly to his feet, one hand on his throbbing head.
“Who the hell are you, man?” Earl demanded as he surveyed the lone figure.
He was a short, thin man of considerable age. His skin was dark and smooth like polished wood, and his eyes glittered like a small child fascinated by the least occurrence. He wore pale yellow robes and a smile of supreme contentment.
“I had not intended to startle you,” the old man replied, “but you seemed to be in need of assistance.”
Earl continued to stare at this sudden apparition, while the ancient figure smiled and bowed his bald head in a short nod of greeting. The stranger’s smile had an almost too happy quality. Earl’s friend “Wild” Bill sometimes smiled like that when he was really stoned, and Earl began to wonder what this old guy was on. The robes also worried Earl. What if this guy was some sort of religious fruitcake? As a child of the sixties, Earl had lost a number of friends to airport zombie religious groups, but the blank stares of his brain-dead buddies were in sharp contrast to the excited gaze of this mysterious stranger. Something about this guy just felt strange, Earl thought. It reminded him of the time he had visited the Sequioa National Forest, and stood at the foot of the tallest tree. There was a sense of permanence and solidity about this man, and despite the throbbing in his head, Earl found himself returning the strange man’s grin.
“Didn’t mean to snap at you,” Earl replied, “but you scared the crap out of me.”
“You are engaged in a most interesting conversation with your vehicle,” the old man replied, “If I may ask, does it help?”
Earl’s face flushed slightly and he sheepishly admitted that, so far, it had not helped.
The old man gazed intently at Earl, and, as if bestowing the wisdom of the ages, asked, “Why do you do it?”
Earl’s eyes glazed over as he considered the absurd question. The more he considered the question the less absurd it became. Earl pulled a small worn note book, and a pen from his shirt pocket. Flipping the book open to an empty space he wrote:
“Sorry I zoned out on you, friend.” Earl replied, “I like to write down important thoughts when they come to me…” Earls voice trailed off as he noticed the stillness of the man’s posture. He appeared to be carved in stone, as if he had been in that spot for centuries, waiting for something that had finally come. The elderly man slowly opened his eyes and spoke.
“You wish to fix that which is broken.”
“Yeah,” Earl replied “My van won’t start and…” The old man continued.
“You wish to find that which is lost.”
Earl began to realize that this guy wasn’t talking about the van, and that smile was starting to make Earl nervous again.
“You seek answers to your questions.”
The voice of this ancient traveler was rich with power, like an electrical storm. It was as quiet as a whisper, and yet Earl felt blasted by the force of the words. He wanted to run, but the voice held him in it’s grip, like a fierce lover. He began to sweat, and his breath came in short gasps. He felt as if he were on the edge of a huge cliff and being slowly pushed over. The voice was hypnotic, drawing him closer to the edge, calling him like an old friend.
“You want to know who you are.”
The voice was powerful.
“You want to know were you came from.”
The voice was frightening.
“You want to know why you are here.”
The voice was right.
Earl stood very still as the voice finally became silent. He found that he could hear his own heartbeat, and the sound of his breath seemed to resonate within his body like the wind of the surrounding desert. He listened intently, but found that he could not distinguish his breathing from the breathing of the desert around him. He felt as if he was breathing in the desert itself, and the desert was breathing in his very essence. The air itself seemed to sing to him, a low soft hum, a single word which held the answer to all of his questions. Earl strained to hear the word, but it faded like the perfume of an absent lover.
Earl opened his eyes slowly, reluctant to surrender his pursuit of the fading voice. He was startled to find that the sun had almost set. The old man sat in front of him his legs folded in the lotus position, hands resting lightly on his knees. He gazed calmly at Earl, and asked, “Do you know what time it is?”
Earl gazed vacantly at the sitting figure. It was several moments before the words registered in his fog shrouded brain.
Do you know what time it is?
“What?” Earl replied thickly.
“Do you know what time it is?” the old man repeated.
Earl slowly lowered his slender frame to the ground, and sat facing the old man. Earls body was covered in a thin layer of sweat, and he felt a giddy kind of exhaustion, an almost breathless sense of wonder. Ignoring the old mans question he asked, “What did you do to me?”
“I asked you questions,” the unmoving figure replied, “The answers were your own.”
“But that doesn’t explain anything,” Earl protested, “I mean I was gone, really gone, but I was here… I was a part of… I was everything… but it wasn’t me anymore… It was…” Earl’s voice trailed off, his words seemed empty, and unworthy.
The old man simply gazed at him and asked, “Do you know what time it is?”
Earl replied with thinly veiled frustration, “You didn’t answer my question. What happened to me?” Earl glanced absently at his watch and said, “It’s eight fifteen. Satisfied?” The old man looked at Earl for a few moments and then shook his head. “No,” he said, “We will have to do better then that.” Rising, with an almost liquid movement, he continued, “Come with me, for we have much to do.” He began to walk away from the road, with smooth measured strides.
“I haven’t got time for this.” Earl shouted at the retreating figure.
The old man stopped, and slowly turned his head. Looking back over his shoulder he replied, “Yes, I know. That is exactly why you must come with me.” He turned his attention back to the desert and resumed his unhurried pace.
Earl stood in stunned silence. He wasn’t about to follow this nut case into the desert. He had places he needed to be and he wasn’t going to get there by following some screw-loose old geezer through the desert. His mother did not raise stupid children, no sir. What did it matter if he never found out what the heck had happened to him? What did it matter if it never… happened… again… Crap. Earl began a slow, shuffling trot, following this strange, grinning guru.
They walk in silence, until the van had disappeared in the distance, and the highway was nowhere in sight. As they walked Earl felt himself becoming more aware of what he had previously considered a barren landscape. There were scattered rocks, strewn about like a child’s building blocks, and small bushes which looked thin and brittle. He was uncomfortably aware of the sand in his shoes, and he stopped briefly to take them off. As he jogged to catch up with his silent guide, he was keenly aware of the warm sand beneath his feet. It was different than beach sand, more coarse, and it made a strange squeaky sound as it shifted under his feet. It struck him as very funny, and he found himself first smiling and then chuckling to himself. “Squeak, squeak” he mumbled as he ran, “Squeak, squeak.” He was soon in the depths of a full blown giggle fit. He stumble once, then again and promptly collapsed to the ground in helpless laughter. All his problems seemed to dance just out of his reach, the more he attempted his dignified pursuit of them the more he laughed.
After a time his laughter subsided, and he sat up with a final half laugh. He shook the sand loose from his hair, reached into his pocket, and drew forth the battered notebook. After thinking for a moment he pulled out his pencil and wrote:
It’s base was huge, easily five feet thick and its branches seemed to stretch out in every direction. It was as if God had set up a giant umbrella on the worlds biggest beach, and standing at the base, one hand resting lightly on the trees surface, was the old man.
“Sorry I’m late,” Earl said as he approached the base of the tree. The old man look at him and shook his head. “The tree is here,” he said, “You are here.” His eyes searched the sky, “I am here.” Returning his gaze to Earl he asked, “What makes you think you are late?”
“I just seem to hear it all the time.” Earl remarked, “You know, ‘Earl your late for work,’ or ‘Earl the phone bill is late,’ all that everyday crap.” He slowly ran his hands along the ruff surface of the tree. “It’s like the whole world is on a tight schedule and Earl ‘the slacker’ is holding up the show.” He paused briefly and laughed, “Sometimes I wish I could be like a tree, no worries, no bills, and no rush. Isn’t that silly?”
The old man looked at him with that strange grin and replied “That is not silly, that is very Zen. You are much closer than you believe.” He lowered himself to the ground with his back to the tree and motioned for Earl to do the same. “Why do you think it is that trees are so peaceful.”
Earl thought for a minute, and replied, “Well, they really don’t do much of anything. It’s hard to not be peaceful when there’s nothing to do.”
In the darkness the old man responded, “It is incorrect to say that the trees do nothing. They are born, they reproduce, they grow old, and they die. They provide oxygen for the planet, absorb it’s carbon dioxide. They provide shelter, and shade to tired travelers, and when they die they provide food to other trees and plants. What they do not do is worry. If a storm comes does the tree worry? No, it merely bends with the wind. It does not fight the storm, it flows with the storm’s energy.”
Earl asked, “What if the storm damages the tree, breaks off it’s limbs?”
“It will grow more limbs.” the old man replied.
“Ah!” Earl replied triumphantly, “but what if the storm kills the tree.”
Earl could almost hear the old man smile as he replied, “Life is not a series of problems for the tree. It is concerned, neither with storms nor with death, It is only concerned with being a tree. When death comes for the tree, it will not worry about what it has left undone, or what it will miss about being a tree. All things die in their own time, and that is a unique part of life; Being alive is fatal, no one survives it.”
That’s pretty damn depressing,” Earl replied, “Sounds like some of that ‘to live is to suffer’ stuff.” He paused for a moment, “You aren’t one of those Buddhist guys, are you?”
There was quiet laughter in the darkness, and then the softly spoken question, “Tell me what you know about the teachings of the Buddha?”
“Well,” Earl began, “I remember it had something to do with these four true things, and these eight rules you were supposed to follow…” The old man sighed. “I’m sorry,” Earl continued, “I guess I really don’t remember that much.”
“The fault is not yours,” the old man replied, “In California, the trees know more about the Buddha’s teachings than the people.” He slowly rose and began to move about the tree gathering fallen branches. “The truths you speak of are known as the Four Noble Truths. The first truth does indeed speak of suffering, the suffering of birth…aging…death…sickness…grief…pain despair, but this is not a simple recitation of the ailments of being alive. It is simply an observation. People suffer most of their lives.”
“But I have been happy several times,” Earl said, “Lots of people have.”
“Why then are you not constantly at peace with yourself,” the old man replied as he began to arrange the wood with the consideration one might give fine art. “You say that you have been happy several times, but what made each time a finite period of time?”
Earl grinned “Well, usually what ever made me happy left, broke, or got stolen.
“This is the second noble truth; Suffering is the result of attachment. Looking for pleasure from an outside source is only temporary pleasure. When the object of your pleasure is no longer their you begin to suffer again.”
“So what do I do about it,” Earl asked, “give up everything? Then I can shave my head, get some robes, and wander around the airports selling flowers. I don’t think so.”
“Of the millions of possible paths you could take, why do you believe only one is correct for all beings.” The old man paused in his work to regard Earl in the dim light. “If a man follows a righteous path is he not a righteous man? If a woman is possessed of right view, right thought, right speech, and action, if her mind and concentration are pure, and she focuses all her attention to the moment… is she not a righteous woman. This is the way to end your suffering, not to throw away all of your possessions, but to dissolve your attachment to these possessions. This is the Eightfold Path. It is not as set of rules to restrain you, it is a path you may choose to walk. Humankind, unfortunately, believes that all wisdom must come with a title or a denomination, and many even believe that titles and denominations are proof of wisdom. Wisdom is in the path a person walks, not the title the person carries.”
The old man moved between Earl and the carefully arranged wood, and kneeled down in front of the small stack. He paused briefly, and when he rose a fire had begun to glow within the wood pile. He returned to sit beside Earl, who noticed that his hands were empty.
Earl stared for a few moments, and decided he really didn’t want to know how the fire had been lit. The answer would probably make his head hurt. Forcing his thoughts back to a more quieting track, Earl moved closer to the fire in an attempt to alleviate his sudden chill. “Let me see if I got this right. People suffer because they are attached to stuff, and if they become detached they won’t suffer. Isn’t that a little selfish, like saying ‘I’m enlightened, the rest of you can go rot?”
Again, there was gentle laughter from the frail seeming figure. “Unattached, not detached. One of the foundations of Buddhism is universal love, and a truly enlightened being cannot help but feel this boundless compassion for all things. Being unattached means seeing each moment as a new moment, and seeing each object as a new object, with no preconceptions. It also means understanding that you do not truly own anything. Enjoy things while they are there, but do not grieve when they are gone. Each experience is unique, and once you have experienced it, it is a part of you and cannot truly be lost.”
After the old man had been silent for some time, Earl withdrew the battered notebook from his pocket and began to write.
each experience is new ,
and should be enjoyed fully in its suchness.”
“I tried that for a while,” Earl said, “but I always got distracted.”
“Attachment to your thoughts is difficult to overcome,” replied the old man, “but if you acknowledge each distraction as it comes, and release it, your thoughts will begin to focus. Do not fight your distractions, or denigrate yourself for having them, but simply accept them and let them pass. Ideally you should focus your thoughts on nothing, but I find that a Koan will often aid in focusing the mind.”
“A what,” Earl replied?
“A Koan. It is a question with no logical answer, asked by a master for a student to solve. Each is personal to the student, and the master will know when it is answered correctly.”
“You mean like, ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping,'” Earl asked?
“Just so,” said the old man , smiling like a proud teacher,”That is the most famous example. The idea is to shake the mind loose from its logic, and achieve a state of emptiness. When this peaceful mind is attained it is then possible to achieve Nirvana. In this state of being one will do the right thing, at the right time, to the right extent, with effortless grace.”
Earl sat in silence for a long time thinking about what he had been told. Thoughts whirled around inside him like frightened birds, and he couldn’t seem to get them into focus. He opened the small notebook to a blank page and stared at it. The idea formed and disappeared just beyond reach, taunting him with its seductive closeness.
The old man slowly held out his hand and said, “May I?”
Earl thought briefly, he had shared this book with no one else, but this simple request seemed impossible to refuse. Slowly he handed the book, and the short pencil to the old man. The old man did not look through the book, but instead took the pencil and began to write. Earl started to object, but he thought to himself he could always erase it later. The old man finished his writing and nodded his head in approval. He then held the book up so that Earl could see it in the flickering light of the fire. On the page, in beautiful flowing script, were the words:
if you had to die now,
what would you want?”
The book hung in the air above the fire.
The sun was just beginning to rise when Earl opened the heavy lids of his eyes. He was kneeling in front of the burned out fire, his legs folded beneath him, and his hands resting lightly on his knees. There was light breeze blowing and, Earl took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the fresh morning air. As he reached up to move his hair out of his face, he realized that his cheeks were moist with unremembered tears. As he paused to consider this strange occurrence, a voice spoke from behind him.
“Are you hungry?”
Earl turned slowly to see the old man sitting with his back to the tree. In his lap were two apples, one of which he offered to Earl, who came and sat next to him. Earl was surprised to find how hungry he was, and he quickly devoured the apple. His face was still wet with juice as he turned to speak. “It was beautiful. I was surrounded by love… not surrounded, a part of it. ‘I’ wasn’t really there anymore. I was nothing, and everything. It was like falling into an ocean, and as soon as I hit the surface ‘I’ became water. There was no time, no space,… just love… so big… so pure…
The old man nodded, “The words we have are insufficient to describe what you have experienced.”
“Will you teach me all that you know,” Earl asked, “Please, I have never experienced anything like this. I want to understand”
The robbed figure rose slowly and shook his head. “No,” he replied, “I have shown you a path, you must choose to walk it. Your heart already knows the way. If I were to tell you what I know it would be words, and I think you would agree that words pale before the impact of experience.”
Earl nodded, “I suppose you are right. I guess we should be going.” Earl walked slowly forward to run his hands along the ruff bark of the huge tree. Quietly he said, “Goodbye, old friend.”
They walked back to the van in silence, and as they approached the flower covered vehicle, Earl felt his old life began to press against him trying desperately to regain his attention. His thoughts became crowded with bills, work, appointments. After a brief moment of panic, Earl focused his thoughts on the tree. As each new problem approached, he acknowledged it, let it blow through him like the wind, and then let it continue beyond him. His mind became calm again, and he breathed deeply slowly releasing the tension in his body.
On a whim, he climbed into the front of the van and twisted the key that still dangled from the ignition. The engine coughed once and then roared to life. The old man looked through the window at Earl and said, “Perhaps the van was not what was broken.” The old man scanned the horizon, and asked absently, “Do you know what time it is?”
Earl looked down at his watch briefly, and then unfastened the clasp and handed it to the old man. “It is now, old friend.”
The old man smiled and replied, “Just so.”
Earl returned the grin, and was faintly aware that he now had that same “too happy smile.” “One last request,” Earl said, “Will you show me how you lit that fire?”
The old man chuckled lightly and reached out to shake Earl’s hand firmly. “Goodbye, my son,” was all he said, and as the ancient figure turned and walked away, Earl glanced down to see what the old man had pressed into his hand.
An old Zippo lighter.
Earl smiled and shook his head. As he went to put the lighter in his pocket he noticed the inscription:
You have all that you need
Work out your salvation with diligence