Outside Omaha, John, a University of Nebraska Psychology graduate student, picked me up. He was taking time off school to visit the Grand Teton National Park in northern Wyoming. As we were talking, he invited me to go along with him, and I happily agreed. Actually, I’m not sure if he invited me, or I invited myself, I think it was a little of both. As we were driving down the highway, John picked up two more hitchhikers, Tom and crazy Jon. Tom, a Philosophy student at Berkeley, was on his way back to California after spending the summer in Europe. Crazy Jon was a nice guy, but still a bit crazy. He was returning from New Jersey where he visited a girlfriend and he was also on his way back to California. Apparently, he hitchhikes back and forth to see this girl on a regular basis. He wore a summer jacket, carried nothing, and he was out of money.
After dark, just outside Cheyenne, Wyoming, we pulled off the
highway to sleep. John and Tom slept in their sleeping bags on the
ground while I shared a blanket with crazy Jon in the backseat of
the Mustang. (After spending two weeks in the farmer’s field my gear was still wet.) In the backseat, crazy Jon and I spent the night like two ice cubes lying on a bed of nails; our body heat just
didn’t get the job done. In the morning, the car heater was greatly
appreciated. In Cheyenne, crazy Jon got out and continued on his way to California, but Tom decided to go along with us. I, for one, was glad to have him; he was a very interesting person.
As we traveled farther north, we could see Caribou leaping in the
prairies. As we approached the mountains, our excitement
intensified. The Teton’s were formed from a geologic fault that left
shear rock walls anchored in the grasslands of the flat prairie,
unlike other mountains that rose up out of the foothills that
surrounded them. After we drove through Jackson’s Hole, the last
town before the park, the view of the mountains rising above the
fall colors was spectacular. Finding a nice campsite was a cinch,
since we were the only campers in the park, and after filling our
water jugs from Lake Jenny and making our fire out of tree stumps, we cooked hot dogs. After dinner we went exploring, but with daylight almost gone and the nighttime cold setting in, we were back standing around the fire in no time flat. We were all in agreement on one outstanding issue: we didn’t gather too much firewood.
It’s hard to describe the feelings that arise when you’re sitting
around a campfire in a mountain wilderness. We spent a lot of time
in silence as we watched and listened to the fire snap and crackle.
I asked John, “What are you going to do after you
graduate?” “Probably become a school counselor,” he replied. Tom, like me, didn’t know what he was going to do.
“What can you do with a Philosophy major?” he said, then he answered his own question, “Maybe I’ll join a monastery.”
John looked over at Tom and said, “Do you have a philosophy that you like best?”
“Not really,” he said, “but lately I’ve been studying Shankara. I
tend to like the philosophy that I’m studying at the time I’m
studying it, and right now it’s Shankara. I like his ideas. Get back
with me in six months and I’ll probably like someone else’s ideas.”
“I thought you said you were into existentialism?” I said from
across the fire. “That’s right,” Tom responded, “At school I studied
existentialism, but I’m studying Vedanta philosophy on my own.
Actually, it was the nausea created from reading too much
existentialism that got me interested in Asian philosophy.”
“Wow!” I said, “I don’t know anything about existentialism, but I
did take a class in Asian philosophy, and just last year I became a
“Really! What kind of Buddhism?” Tom replied.
“Japanese, I think,” I said, “I haven’t really studied up on it.”
“Well how did you become involved then?” asked Tom.
“I was walking down a street in San Diego when these Chinese ladies came around a corner and asked me, `Do you want to learn Buddha?’ I said `Sure,’ and they took me to a temple and after a brief ceremony, I was given my papers and a mantra, `Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,’ and proclaimed a Buddhist. Then the ladies drove me back to the city, and now here I am, a Buddhist, I guess.”
“That doesn’t sound right to me,” Tom said, “Papers and mantras do not make a Buddhist, there’s more to it than that.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought too, but when I chant the mantra,
silently or out loud, I actually feel better, ” I said.
“That shouldn’t come as a surprise,” Tom replied, “it’s not how you
quiet your mind, it’s the effort you put into it that matters. And
you know, I’ve heard that mantra before. I believe it’s a mantra
used in the Japanese Buddhism of Nichiren Shoshu. I don’t know much about it, except that chanting the mantra was supposed to bring you things, material things, and that’s not what Buddhism is about either, at least not the Buddhism taught by Buddha.”
“You’re right,” I said, “But the guy at my initiation explained it
to me when he told me that Nichiren, the Japanese guy that gave his people the mantra, did so because at different times, different
teachings are necessary. Even the Buddha taught different stuff to
different people. What was taught depended on how ready a person was to hear what needed to be heard. Nichiren lived long after Buddha. I agree with you though, I don’t think that’s what the Buddha meant to teach when he gave us his four noble truths. Anyway, I don’t use the mantra to get things, just to focus my mind.”
“So why do you like Shankara?” John spoke up, “Who is he?”