Last weekend, a gentleman on Valencia Street blockaded my path, demanding, “Have you heard the philosophy?” The pointedness of his question paused me, and though I resumed upon my way once I’d gathered that his bloodshot eyes were pickled in alcohol, I couldn’t help wondering what timeless wisdom I’d hurriedly declined.
What if, for example, I had just disregarded the Philosopher’s Stone, that alchemical magic that can turn any lie into light? Or what if I had just summarily dismissed the Buddha, cleverly disguised as an aggressive drunk? If that’s the case, then the Buddha is much too derivative in his approach to the Hare Krishna who once accosted me with his loaded question of “Did you get your book yet?” while thrusting said book into my hand. Worse, it all puts me in mind of a Bible-thumping campus preacher I once overheard, whose last words as I wandered out of earshot were, “If you would just listen to me!”As no less a luminary than Hermann Hesse reminded us in his classic, Siddhartha, “wisdom cannot be passed on.”
Here’s the thing, though: There is a philosophy worth learning, but as no less a luminary than Hermann Hesse reminded us in his classic, Siddhartha, “wisdom cannot be passed on.” That’s worth remembering, but it’s also worth pondering: What is this wisdom that cannot be taught?
Obviously, I couldn’t tell you even if I knew. But I can tell you the story that the aggressive drunk told me when I ran into him again three days later, on the very same block of Valencia. He was still drunk, though not so aggressive this time. He didn’t recognize me in any event, but I said no worries, I just want to hear about that philosophy. This is what he told me:
* * *
Once, there was a Buddhist monastery in a sorry state of disrepair. The Zen gardens were tangled, the monks were oversleeping, and a fight had even broken out – something to do with the feng-shui of the dining area. One day, a renowned sage came by in his travels, seeking shelter for the night. The abbot welcomed him warmly, but apologized that the monastery was far from the haven it once was, and poorly-suited for a sage of his renown.
The renowned sage had nowhere else to stay, so he toured the grounds of the monastery with the abbot. The abbot pointed out the various monks that were about, bemoaning their lack of discipline: Here’s Joe, see how fat and lazy. There’s Moe, see how full of himself. And over there is Jane, see how she’s just getting up at this late hour. It is no wonder the Zen gardens are a tangle.
He thanked him for his hospitality, and then he told him what an honor it was to sleep under the same roof as the Buddha.The renowned sage nodded along, and after he had stayed the night and refreshed himself, he prepared to be on his way. Bidding his farewell to the abbot, he thanked him for his hospitality, and then he told him what an honor it was to sleep under the same roof as the Buddha.
“The Buddha?” The abbot blinked, astonished at this revelation. The renowned sage was widely-regarded throughout the realm for his wisdom, and there was no doubting his insight.
The renowned sage nodded. “And none other.”
“Well who is it?” demanded the abbot.
“I cannot tell you,” the renowned sage shook his head. “For the Buddha is here in disguise. Your failure to recognize and honor the Buddha is why your monastery is in such a sorry state of disrepair.”
“Ah so!” exclaimed the abbot, and once the renowned sage had taken his leave, the abbot stalked about the grounds of the monastery. Could it be fat and lazy Joe? What a clever disguise! Or Moe, pretending to be so full of himself, who would have guessed? Or maybe Jane, throwing us off with her oversleeping? The roster of monks was long.
And that evening after meditation, the abbot shared the renowned sage’s good news with the rest of the monks: That none other than the Buddha was living amongst them in a clever disguise. They looked at one another with suspicion, and then humility. Whoever could it be?
And thereafter, not knowing where the Buddha was hiding, the monks took to treating each other with the deepest respect, and this respect kindled the light shining in their eyes, and before long the monastery was flourishing, its Zen gardens no more a tangle, and the monastery went on to become a light unto the nation.
* * *
But no, that never happened, not at all, not really. Everything else I’ve said is true, I promise, but I never actually saw the drunken philosopher again. Nonetheless, I like to imagine that’s there’s a mad philosopher haunting the streets of San Francisco offering some version of this Zen philosophy, if only because of something I recently discovered.Did you know that the word respect derives from a Latin root meaning “to see?”
Listen to this: Did you know that the word respect derives from a Latin root meaning “to see?” This can immediately be grasped by noting the identical root of respect in words such as spectate. And further, if we notice respect’s synonymy with regard, we can see that dis-regard means to ignore, to intentionally refrain from seeing someone. Respect, therefore, denotes seeing a person as they are – not only as a unique personality, but also as a universal expression of humanity, and as the Buddha in disguise.
I’ll have more to say about respect in another essay, but for now, may you always see the light shining in the eyes of those around you.
PS: A Russian translation of this essay is available here.