Beggar or Bodhisattva? You Decide (A Story From Three Steps, One Bow)
The Big Sur Beggar came along at the right time to help me sort out my fantasies of being a Bodhisattva, an “Awakened Being.” My companion, Heng Ch’au and I had been reading the Avatamsaka Sutra, a section where the Bodhisattva tests his ability to give generously by responding to the outrageous requests of suffering living beings. These particular living beings come up in great numbers to him. They are so poor they are starving, emaciated, and at the point of death. They beg the Bodhisattva for a piece of his flesh to eat, and the Bodhisattva of course, unwilling to attach to any material thing or to deny them anything, cuts off a piece of his body to feed them. Furthermore, he does so happily, grateful to them for giving him the chance to practice renunciation.
Next he makes vows to get a bigger body so that he can accommodate more cannibalistic living beings. He next tags on a condition: that all beings who eat his flesh will realize Buddhahood and liberation.
This story is marvelous and inspiring; it is also over the top and violates a creepy taboo against eating human flesh. I reminded myself that the Sutra is using hyperbole, a literary device, to show the absolute selfless quality of the Bodhisattva's vows and his heart’s resolve. The story is not to be taken literally.
I was however, in a needy mind-state, looking for validation of my practice. I was laying my body down all day long on the highway underneath the wheels of semi-trailers and pickup trucks and station wagons. Very few people we met from day to day found any way to relate at all to our highway bowing practice. My thoughts occasionally strayed to what would happen if I died on the side of the road. My mind had to be ready to let that possibility go. When I found moral support in the images of the sutra, I grabbed it with both hands. So I felt a certain sympathy with the Bodhisattva's willingness to give his or her body away.
The mistaken thinking was to confuse myself with a real Bodhisattva, which I was not. Being a sympathizer, an admirer of Bodhisattvas, even a student of their unselfishness is not the same thing as being a real Bodhisattva, but I entertained the illusion.
Marty and I were unprepared for the cold along the Big Sur River. The nights were down to freezing and we had only our robes and a thin blanket each for protection. Our sleeping bags had been stolen several nights before at Cambria. That evening a car of Dharma-protectors had driven down from San Francisco to bring us warm jackets, replacement sleeping bags, thermal underwear, wool socks and knit hats. We felt blessed and remembered.
We finished bowing and returned to the car when a figure popped up between the car and the bushes, a ragtag character who initially alarmed me, he was so dirty, with an aura of darkness. His hair was filthy blonde, he hadn't washed or shaved in weeks. He wore a yellow plastic raincoat, pajama bottoms and thin, broken flip-flops. He was in his twenties but he smelled like a burned out wino who'd been homeless for years. Most alarming was how familiar and casual he acted, as if he had been waiting for us like an old friend.
"Oh, there you are. What's for dinner?" You got something for me?" he asked with a rude and sloppy grin. "I could sure use some warm clothes, too. Show me what you've got. I need just about everything."
The brazen demand from this forlorn beggar raised a flag in my mind. I put down my pack and stood in the open door to block access to the inside of the car. The beggar moved directly for our clothes bag, as if he knew where everything was, sliding past me and stepping directly into the car. Marty subdued his first impulse, which was to haul the guy back out by his legs and dump him on the pavement. He fought with his first instinct, patiently wrestling to restrain his temper.
"Yeah, it's cozy in here. I like it." laughed the beggar.
I wrote a note: "What if this is our test, just like the Sutra last night?" "We'd make a mistake by throwing him out." Marty was skeptical, but he was uncertain how to deal with this character and he had to consider the possibility that I was right. The beggar was just as outrageous and demanding as the suffering living beings in the sutra’s narrative, to be sure.
“Have you got any underwear and some socks? I’m fresh out.” We exchanged glances.
I reached in to my clothes bag, some of the underwear and socks still had the sales tags on them from the lay donors offerings the night before.
“How about a sleeping bag? Have you got one of those?”
How uncanny that he seemed to know every new item that had just arrived. Had we meet a real test of our attachments? Marty’s eyebrows knit together and his hand trembled as he handed the stuff sack with the Sierra Designs down bag to the ragged man. He tucked it under his arm while putting on a pair of knee length socks. He was so scattered that he one task interrupted another. One sock on, he reached over and took the clothes bag out of my hands and began to dig around inside.
“I like the hat. Hey, long johns, those look like they fit me.” Item by item he emptied the car of warm clothes that we needed. And my mind rationalized that only when it hurt to give, was it the giving of a true Bodhisattva.
Wearing the knit hat at a rakish angle, one sock on and the other foot bare he slung the sleeping bag over his shoulder and said, “You guys got any grub? I can use some food.”
Marty in disgust opened the back of the car and gestured inside. I thought his attitude was uncharitable.
The guy tossed bananas, bread and a jar of peanut butter into the pockets of his rain coat. The bread spilled open and two slices hit the mud, but he didn’t notice. “ Have you got any meat? What do you eat? Is this all you’ve got?” The ruder he got the more I was convinced he was a gift from the sutra, just like we read at night.
Suddenly he straightened up and said, “Well, gotta go. See you guys later,” and down the road he lurched under his load of clothes, food, and bedding. Pieces of his stash dropped off by the roadside and he paid no attention. I didn’t know whether to run behind and salvage what he dropped. Should I offer the thermal shirt to him again, or keep what dropped for myself?
The night came swiftly in the canyon of the river; straight over head the stars shone with an eerie clarity and brilliance Two hours later in the car shivering in our thin blankets, . We had just finished our sutra reading and my heart sang with the knowledge that some magic synchronicity had happened and that finally we had earned some traction as genuine cultivators of the Bodhisattva Way. A piercing spot light blinded the left windows and a powerful engine roared to a stop and died.
“Pardon me fellas, could you step out for a minute?” Marty and I put on our shoes in a hurry, shivering in the mist and cold. It was the Los Padres Park ranger; we had met him as we entered Big Sur.
“I’ve got an individual in the car who we’ve identified as a vagrant. He has a quantity of new merchandise that he hasn’t the means to purchase. We picked him up on suspicion of theft. He claims that you two gave it to him. Is that correct? Would you mind checking out his story. Did you lose your gear?”
I saw Marty choking on his words: “No, officer, actually... ah... we did give him some things. He seemed particularly needy.”
The Ranger shivered involuntarily in the chill and looked first at both of us in our robes and then at the beggar sitting in the back seat of the patrol jeep, wearing my undershirt backwards, an idiot’s grin on his face. He gave us a broad smile and waved like a beauty queen.
“Are you sure? We’ll take him in for questioning if you want us to.”
“No, we gave what he asked for. It’s his,” said Marty.
“Alright, I’ll let him go but I have to say with all due respect that I think you’re nuts.”
I felt my mind lurch under my conviction. Meditation was particularly silent that night.
Bowing the next week we had a visit from Laypeople from Los Angeles who showed up with a car full of warm things. They had been monitoring the weather and feared that we might be suffering. Nearly every item we had given away was back. We only experienced one night of genuine discomfort. It was lunch time and we were higher up, away from the river and the damp. I was sitting in full lotus eating a bowl of granola and hot water when outside the window appeared a face. I saw blond ragged hair and a toothy, leering smile. It was the beggar again. “Hey, it’s lunchtime. Whatcha got for me?” He was wearing ratty khakis, a trench coat and a torn tee shirt. He was barefoot.
“Where are the clothes we gave you?”
“Don’t know, must have lost them.”
Without waiting he climbed into the car and plopped down right beside our tidy seats. His stench filled the car. He smelled like a Mission Street drunk; like he hadn’t bathed in months. He reached into the stew pot with and ate directly with both hands, spilling soup on our Sutras and cushions.
“Ow, hot!” shaking drops of liquid around the car from his fingertips.
Marty stepped out of the car; I followed. We looked at each other, stunned at the sudden aggressive intrusion.
The beggar’s head appeared in the door. “Hey, I’ve got to make a phone call. Can you take me to a phone?”
“No, we have to bow. That’s what we do.”
“No problem, I can wait. You can take me when you’re done.”
He wandered up the bank and sat down under the pines, still holding the soup kettle. He emptied it and tossed it at Marty who caught it with one hand and moved to the back of the car to clean up. I was bowing in place because of the narrow road and didn’t move from the spot the rest of the afternoon. I counted up bows on bottle caps and stones to account for the narrow, impassable section of the highway, before we moved ahead to the next turnout. The beggar reclined under the trees, snoring loudly.
Just as we finished bowing four hours later he popped up at the back of the car with a broad smile. “Okay, about that phone call. Let’s go.”
“We’ll take you to the phone drop you off and that’s it. We have to stick with our bowing. You understand?”
“Yeah, yeah, sure.”
“Where is the nearest phone?”
“Oh, it’s just ahead up there. Not too far.”
Marty drove the car a mile down the road and there was only cliffs and arroyos. “I thought you said it was not far.”
“Maybe it’s the other direction, let’s go back the other way.”
Marty pulled over and looked long at me. The beggar had reached into the food box and had found a jar of honey. He stuck his fist into the jar and honey was dripping over our Sutras, our altar and our picture of our teacher. His feet were on top of our sacred text, the sutra I had vowed to protect, the sutra I bowed to every day. I felt anger rise for the first time. How could this person be so repulsive. Where were the limits?
“No way. You get out right here. Get out of the car. Find your own telephone,” said Marty his voice suddenly hard.
“No, come on guys, just a little farther. I know there’s a phone around here somewhere. Let me stay with you, c’mon.”
It was the pleading tone, suddenly so vulnerable, not a bit brash or demanding, that flicked a slide in my eyes. I saw this character as a pathetic burnout, somebody whose primary need was emotional. He was lonely, and we had interpreted his needs as physical, blinded by the sutra’s image of how a real Bodhisattva would behave.
“Out of the car, now, before I throw you out.”
“Okay, pal, anything you say. So long, you losers.” He disappeared into the dusk with a swagger, holding the honey jar upside down and dripping a sticky trail behind him.
We spent more than an hour cleaning the car at the state park bathroom, smeared honey and bread crumbs came off sooner than the stink which lingered for days.
After bowing the next evening we made a phone call north to San Francisco. I always felt strange initiating contact with the Venerable Master.
“Shr Fu, we’d been reading in the Avatamsaka about the Ten Practices where the Bodhisattva gives to countless beggars whatever they ask for - - including his own body to eat. Shr Fu this guy came and demanded our clothes and food and, and, we gave them to him, everything.”
“What person? Who was he?” demanded the Master.
I felt the bottom drop out of my conviction that the man was a response from the Sutra. “It’s hard to say, Shr Fu, he was needy, that’s for sure.”
“Put Guo Ting on the line.”
Marty picked up the phone like it was burning hot. “Shr Fu?”
“I think we were taken in by a beggar Shr Fu.” “We gave away our offerings and he came back. I think he was just a crazy person.”
“Ah. So Guo Zhen thought this was a response, a test of his sincerity. You both did, right?
“Yes, that’s right, Shr Fu.”
“You have to use wisdom at all times. You’re the Dharma-protector. Alright. Try your best. Put Guo Zhen on.”
“Don’t do so much false thinking. If this was a real test, a true test of your sincerity, as soon as you have a thought of it your ego grows as tall as the mountains and the true becomes false on the spot. Do you understand?”
“Uh, not really. Sort of. There were so many coincidences, Shr Fu.”
“The Avatamsaka Sutra is infinitely magical and subtle. As soon as you grasp at it with your coarse desire for success you cover over any response that might be coming to you naturally.”
“Just bow with a single mind and don’t do so much false thinking. Seeking for any result, even the finest result, is still raw greed. It’s no different than greed for wealth or fame.”
“You two are pathetic. Work harder,” and he hung up the phone.
We meditated in silence and slept.
The next day at lunch I wrote a note. “Who do you think that was? A beggar or a Bodhisattva?”
Marty gestured “locked lips,” our gesture for “silence!”