I am ashamed to admit that, somewhere within, carefully placed behind and beneath the T-shirts of the mind, there is a lustrously-simple box that contains my treasures. I say "ashamed" because nothing of importance ever fit in a box and memory, like belief, exists solely in the past ... a past that can never be exactly remembered or relived. Nevertheless, I have my treasures and one of them crept out of hiding this morning as I was doing zazen.
It would have been late August of 1959 -- a time that might be called "BB" or Before Buddhism, a practice that was still 10 or 15 years in the future. I was 19 and returning from a summer's work in an Oregon lumbering camp. I had done hitchhiking before, perhaps 20,000-miles worth, but this was my first time trying to hitchhike across the country. I was in Wyoming and the sun was shining as I stood next to a two-lane road that gave off into scrub grass, stunted trees and low hills in the distance.
About 200 feet off the road was a railway track where, after a bit of trying to hale one of the few cars that passed, a freight train passed in slow motion. A long, long, long train, passing slowly, slowly, slowly. On top of one of the box cars, three hobos waved to me, inviting me to join them. And I might have if I had run, but images of railroad bulls reared up in my mind. I knew something about hitchhiking, but nothing about riding the rails.
I waited. Hitchhiking, like military service, tells wonderful post-facto tales about one adventure or another, but it never tells the actual-factual, hurry-up-and-wait truth. Wait and wait and wait some more. So, I waited.
A car approached from a distance. As it grew closer, I could see that it was a 1949 Ford coupe that had seen better days. And closer still, I could see that the car contained both a male driver and a woman. My hitchhiking etiquette had taught me never to expect a ride when there was a woman in the car, but somehow this car was slowing down. It stopped several yards ahead of me and, as I dog-trotted towards it, I saw a young, black-haired and very pregnant young woman get out. She held the front seat forward as I clambered in the back, settled down and attempted to say thank you to the driver, an equally black-haired man with a wonderful tan that seemed to be partly the result of birth and partly the result of long hours in the sun. "De nada," he said with a sparkling smile filled with sparkling white teeth.
It became apparent quickly that the couple spoke no English. And what Spanish I spoke was riddled with words I simply didn't know. As the car started forward, we all dissolved into a companionable silence.
From my perch in back, I could see the man's hands on the steering wheel. Very strong, very brown, very used to doing hard things and then doing them again. The only adornment he seemed to own was the wedding band he, like his wife, wore. And as I looked at my benefactor and his hands and the black hair both he and his wife had, I confected a tale ... they were Mexican migrant farmers traveling to their next field, next harvest, next stint in the sun. Who, in the middle of Wyoming, would have given them a ride if our roles had been reversed? And yet all that hard work had made them both know what it was to try to get by with little ... and to lend a hand where they could. Somehow, this morning as in the back seat of that car so long ago, it made me want to cry.
The old Ford traveled perhaps 500 yards before the driver slowed down and pulled a U-turn. He looked back at me with great embarrassment and transmitted somehow that he had goofed: He was headed in the wrong direction and had just now realized it. I got out and feebly tried to say the thank-you's that were singing in my heart. "De nada," he said one last time and drove off.
For headline purposes, I can remember the time I caught a single ride from outside Sacramento, Calif., to outside Boston, Mass., a distance of something less than 3,000 miles. How about them apples?! But for purposes of treasure -- when recalling prayers that were answered before they ever were uttered -- I keep this one in my box ... the box that cannot contain anything of real importance.
And when I look over the other treasures kept in that box, many of them springing from the world of Buddhism I would later throw myself at, it seems much the same ... prayers answered before they ever were uttered ... something with the Dalai Lama, something with Soen Sa Nimh, something with Trungpa Rinpoche, something with Soen Nakagawa ... always something that was outside the box of Buddhism or even kindness ... something whole and true and remembered in dwindling resolution. Perfect blessings and yet I never even asked.