Buddhists in Carpinteria
I was reeling from an extended trip to the country of Bhutan. Somehow living in someone else’s culture, even for a short time, has a way of calling into question much of what you took for granted before.
I was back in my own culture, living my California life….. which on this day involved riding in the car with my youngest son (then 18), Joel. He had been to Bhutan with us and was accustomed to having a Bhutanese “brother”- as we had informally adopted a young man from Bhutan who was studying at the College where I was on the faculty.
As we drove along the familiar route from Santa Barbara down the 101 to the Casitas Pass exit in our town (Carpinteria, CA), we were talking about our trip and what it made us think about religions different from our own. Bhutan is 100% Buddhist, and at the time we visited it, the country was almost a completely closed country. Many people from our culture and religious tradition felt that Bhutan was a “dark” country, because there were no churches in it and no missionaries allowed. Our experience was the opposite. We found it full of light and hospitality that would put most American Christians to shame. I found myself wondering if Bhutan shouldn’t send some “missionaries” to us! Perhaps to lead us to the ways of Jesus!
It was evening and my son and I were wrapped up in a conversation about this as we drove down the Casitas Pass Road heading toward the Pacific ocean. On the right was a typical strip mall and on our left was another. Starbucks was beckoning from one, and Mexican food from the other. All in all- a typical day in our life.
Then we saw them.
We couldn’t believe our eyes. There were about seven men, walking down our ordinary sidewalk by the French Bakery in the mall on our left…. seven men with completely shaved heads, sandals, and saphron robes. Buddhist monks in Carpinteria! Having just come back from Asia we instantly knew these to be “the real thing.” These were not North American New Ager’s…. or Hare Krishna’s from some American suburb, seeking to distinguish themselves from their own culture. We recognized them instantly as devoted Asian Buddhist Monks walking down our street. We drove by in wonderment.
“What should we do?” I asked my son.
“Don’t you think we should welcome them?” he answered with a question.
We both knew from experience that is what they would have done if the roles were reversed.
“Maybe we should invite them home?” I offered.
“Well, turn the car around and lets go talk to them! “ Joel said.
So we turned the car around and went back to where we had seen them. But they were gone. Were they at Starbucks? Seemed unlikely. “Why hadn’t we stopped immediately!” I chastised myself internally. We may have lost an amazing opportunity to return the kindness we had so often received.
Then I saw it. An 20 ft. long RV parked nearby on the side of the main road, with a sign on it saying, “Walking For Peace.”
“They have to be in the RV, Joel!” I said.
“Let’s go!” he agreed.
I felt a bit sheepish knocking on the door of someone’s RV hoping to find 7 Buddhist Monks inside, so I tapped lightly. The door opened quickly and I gazed into the brown eyes of a shaved-headed, smiling, Monk.
“Hello.” he said.
“Uh, ‘Hi!” I muttered, and added, “Welcome to America…. we are glad you are here. And welcome to our town.”
“Please come in.” he said, as he moved away from the door and back into the small RV.
We climbed in and as our eyes adjusted we looked around at 7 sets of eyes in a sea of saphron robes peering at us with smiles. Then the leader of the others addressed us with an honorific welcome and a blazing smile. He introduced us to the others and it was then that we realized several of the “Monks” were actually “Nuns.” It was hard to tell at a glance as they all had shaved heads and similar robes.
I told them about our recent trip to Bhutan and how we had been received with such grace and kindness….. and how I wanted to welcome them in a similar fashion. Then I asked what they were here for. The leader answered.
“We are walking for peace. We don’t believe in war and we are walking from San Francisco to Los Angeles to join the Dali Lama in a peace conference.”
This seemed exactly right to us and fit what we thought of Buddhist Monks and Nuns. But then he went on.
“We were just having a reading and meditation time as we rested from walking and I am wondering if you can explain to us the meaning of the scripture we just read?”
I was a bit shocked by his request, but before I could answer he leaned back (smiling all the time) and looked up to the Monk reclining in the loft bed above the driver’s seat of the RV and said, “Can you hand me the Scripture, please?”
The Monk above handed a book down to the leader. He opened it respectfully and focused his eyes and began to read:
“Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness….These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give. Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts— no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep. Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave. As you enter the home, give it your greeting. If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you.”
I was stunned. I assumed he would read from a Buddhist Scripture, not from a Gospel! Here were 7 Buddhists literally living out Jesus’ instructions to his Apostles…… in Carpinteria, California…. and asking me to teach them!
Had I ever gone on a trip with no money? No.
Had I ever gone without preparation, planning, passports, hotel arrangements….. simply trusting the hospitality of those I would encounter? No.
I don’t remember what I said. I doubt if was very helpful. But I did make a decision, “Would you like to come to our house?”
“We would be delighted.”
“Okay, follow me, then.” I got in our car and the North American man who owned the RV (and who himself had met them a few days earlier) followed me the short distance to our home, as I called my wife and said, “Honey, I bringing a few new friends home for dinner….. yes, seven….. yes, well, uh….they are Buddhist Monks and Nuns…. when?….. in about four minutes.”
The RV parked in front of our little tract house on Arbol Verde Street. It must have been a strange sight for our neighbors to see an ordinary RV pull up and then seven orange-robed, bald people get out and walk up to our front door. My wife welcomed them all as if it had been planned for weeks! We asked them if they would like tea- which they gladly accepted. Then we offered dinner (in a short while) and they declined very politely saying (what should have already known), that they only eat one meal a day and they fast the rest of the time. But they would love tea and would be very pleased if they could wash some clothes while we chatted.
The leader was sitting on our brown, plaid sofa and I was beside him. I learned he was Vietnamese and seemed to be about my age (mid-forties at that time). I instantly wondered how he had faired during the “Vietnam War,” as we were accustomed to calling it. I asked what his journey had been like during the war.
He told me how he had moved from the countryside to a larger town when he was a young man partly because of the war. He worked for an entrepreneur who was all about making money no matter what was happening around him. As a young man he took on these same values- make money any way you can.
Then on a trip back to his home village one day, there was an air-attack by American planes. Nepalm was dropped. His village burst into flames. People were running in every direction, including himself. Then he felt a burning sensation on his torso and realized that he had been splattered by the gel-like nepalm. He was on fire.
At this point in the story, he looked straight into my eyes…. and then slowly lifted his robe so I could see the left side of his rib cage. His entire torso was one massive scar of burned flesh. He put his robe back down.
Then he said, “When I woke up I had to decide how to live my life. In hatred, anger, revenge? or on a different path….. a path of love and forgiveness and peace?”
It was obvious which path he had chosen.
And here he was in my country (the country that had dropped the bomb that burned his village and his body)…. and he was walking for peace and trying to follow the instructions of Jesus in the way that he went about it.
I was so flustered by the encounter that I didn’t get adequate enough information on him, and therefore have not been able to stay in touch. The last I heard he was in Australia teaching a path of love. I have stayed in America…. and am trying to do the same- two very different people, trying to follow the instructions left by Jesus.