Have You Heard the Philosophy? or, Encountering the Buddha in Disguise

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By Tony Vigorito

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!


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.

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.

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