One of the times I lived in Bay City, Michigan, I took a daily, half-hour bus ride out to the college where I worked. Most of the faces on the trips were anonymous, as was mine. But there was one person who stood out. A long, gray beard of wiry strands and feral, faraway eyes. A stained cloth bag for collecting empty beer and soda cans. And, always, the same road-beaten work boots. His voice was a hoarse whisper, and you had to lean into his rank odor-aura to hear him speak – which was mostly unintelligible gibberish.
I thought he must be a buddha. Some enlightened soul hiding within this decrepit exterior. He even carried a bag like Hotei – he knew the essence and actualization of Zen.
“Hotei” by Kano Takanobu, 1616
The story goes that Hotei was confronted by a monk who asked him, “what is the essence of Zen?” and Hotei dropped his bag on the ground. When the monk asked, “And what is the actualization of Zen?” Hotei picked it back up, threw it over his shoulder and walked away.
The essence: non-attachment, letting go. The actualization: just do your thing – chop wood, carry water.
There were always too many people on the bus for me to try to ask my Hotei for his wisdom, but I thought if I ever had the chance …
He shows up in a poem, cobbled together from journal entries over the course of a bleak winter. This was 30 years ago, at the tail end of living above a liquor store on Saginaw’s Southside, with crumbling walls, broken windows and just a hint of heat.
“Pablo’s Fortress,” our deliriumscape wrinkle on the map of reality
There had been a couple years of wild days and wilder nights with a great group of friends and strangers, but by this point, after a couple break-ins, robberies and slashed tires, everyone had moved on. I was there alone, and the party was over.
I was on a sporadic diet of ramen noodles and quesadillas. No car, no money, no good writing coming to me, no good reason to believe the winter would end.
I needed to get out, get a job, get a haircut (well, at least two of those). I moved to Bay City, to a basement room with Eric the cat and a new job working with the international students out at the community college. Things slowly began to look up. Eventually, spring came.
When I went back through the journal I had kept, I pulled the few sparse lines that I thought might be something. When I put them on a page, in the order they were written, I had a found poem called “Pissing Purgatory.” It ends with this:
Yesterday, I thought that the voiceless,
far-eyed yogi in work boots
would bring some new vibrancy
as we got off the bus together
but he just wandered off in a vacant lot
& took a piss
walking along that choking road
I see a cigarette butt smeared with lipstick
half-buried in the black-white slush
& am saved by its vulgar beauty
Sometime later, some friends and I formed the poetry band, Miscellaneous Jones, and “Pissing Purgatory” became one of our pieces. Here’s a recording we did at Dick Wagner’s Downtown Digital Studios. The band is Marko Musich and Ray York 2 on guitars, Todd Berner on bass and John Weirauch (when you can roll) on drums and backing vocals.
So, I guess the bum on the bus turns out not to be Hotei, but then again, maybe that’s exactly what he wanted me to think. Thirty years later, it occurs to be that peeing in a vacant lot is pretty much the same teaching as dropping a bag and picking it back up.
[If you enjoyed this, I’d love to send you my free e-book, Notes from the Grizfork: A Year of Watching in Montana’s Paradise Valley. Simply click here.]