Friday, August 24, 2012

A Strange Experience on the Street

     Recently I was walking down one of the main streets in Bellingham on my way to a friend/supporter's house to obtain some very important dental floss and instant coffee, when I caught up with a young man strolling along the sidewalk. Before overtaking him I noticed that he occasionally waved his arms about in a symmetrical manner (with both arms synchronized, like mirror images of each other), but aside from that he seemed nothing out of the ordinary. He looked to be in his late twenties, and wore a rather dirty-looking orange T-shirt, baggy pants, and white sneakers, with a tattoo sticking out above the back of his collar.  
     As I passed him he glanced at me and said something like, “Hey Bro, what is that apparatus you're wearing?” I explained that it was a monk's robe, and that I am a Buddhist monk. Then he asked me to slow down (I was walking faster than him) and engaged me in an increasingly strange conversation, the likes of which I had never participated in before. He said, “I've seen them in movies, in shows, in plays, and so forth, but what is a Buddhist monk? While I was considering how to answer this question he did not wait for the answer and said something along the lines of, “That is not a monk's robe---that is Buddhism. You are not a Buddhist monk---you are Buddhism. Buddhism means that you don't have to take shit off anybody.” Then he began meandering in the general direction of Comparative Religion, often inventing words as he went along, like “disattachmentality” and “religiousment.” He almost totally monopolized the conversation, and I listened. Before a minute had passed I realized that he was very far from the mainstream, psychologically speaking.
     It was rather interesting hearing him talk, and he seemed friendly enough, so I continued walking with him. After a few blocks he asked if we could sit and talk for a while, pointing to a low curb nearby, so I pointed out that right across the next intersection were some benches. We went to the benches, but neither of us sat down. There he spoke at length about subjects so arcane and personal to him that I could hardly follow what he was talking about. Much of his vocabulary was invented improvisationally as he spoke. Sometimes he would ask me leading questions, like “What are the three things that all Buddhists are against?” I replied that a Buddhist shouldn't be against anything, whereupon he grinned as though slightly embarrassed and said, “That's one,” holding up two fingers. He then explained that all Buddhists are against “free exercise of will,” which did not include “sexual exurgencies” (I am unsure about much of his wording). Shortly thereafter he assured me that although he had been a “gangbanger”---presumably meaning a member of a gang---he was not a crook because he was not a sex offender. He placed much emphasis on this.
     Before long he began asking if he could spend the night with me in prayer. Considering that he seemed mentally ill and quite irrational this seemed like a bad idea to me, and I honestly told him that I was a guest myself at the place where I was staying and couldn't invite him there. He was insistent that I had powers that he needed immediately, and at one point began weeping in earnest as he pleaded for my spiritual assistance. I told him that he would get what he needed and that my “energy” was with him---but this was not enough for him: he needed to spend the night with me. At one point he tried to explain some of the secret religious reasons why immediate interaction between him and me was absolutely necessary, but fearing that others would overhear, asked “Do you read lips?” and then silently mouthed his more or less incoherent reasonings. He thanked me more than once for my patience, shook my hand, and seemed really to like me. I can't say for sure whether I liked him, but I certainly felt for the guy. Once he intended to explain some important truth to me and warned, “I may speak Arabic,” then with a deadpan expression made a number of incoherent sounds, ending with a loud clicking noise. After about twenty minutes of participating in this strange conversation I politely informed him that I had somewhere to go, and wished him well. The evening prayer issue not yet being resolved in his mind, however, he asked if he could follow along with me for a while. Politely yet reluctantly, I told him it was OK. I wondered, with true wonderment, what kind of strange karma was coming up.
     As we cut through a grocery store parking lot he told me with much agitation that _____ (I didn't catch the name) had tried to murder him. I calmly reassured him that only the body can be murdered, which he seemed to appreciate. Before reaching the far side of the parking lot he asked me to stop; told me that even if someone like me blew his brains out with a gun he couldn't be killed; then requested that I look at his shadow, not at him, and demonstrated in pantomime himself shooting himself in the face. At that I turned and continued on my way. He continued to follow. One statement he repeated more than once during this time is “I am not God.”
     When we reached the house of my supporter I told him that I would spend some time inside, and that since it wasn't my house I couldn't invite him in, hoping that with his short attention span he would eventually lose interest and wander away. Also I hoped that my supporter wasn't home, but she was. As she opened the door for me her response on seeing my companion was like, “Oh, who's your friend?” with my response to her being an intense look and a slight shaking of the head signifying “No---Don't invite him in.” As I explained the situation to her inside the house and we discussed what to do, he didn't go away, but doggedly alternated between standing and sitting crosslegged on the ground as though in meditation.
     By now I was sweating, although that was largely due to the fact that I had just walked a mile or so on a hot August day; and also I was shaking a little, not so much from fear as from the intensity of the experience---I had never been in such a situation before and was not sure what to do. Calling the police seemed to be a desperate last resort. I really wished that I could help him, although not enough actually to spend the night with him.
     After a little while both of us went out and met with him on the front porch. My friend gently asked, “What do you need? What can we do for you?” He vehemently replied, pointing to my robe, “I need a sheet like his!” At this my friend's eyes lit up, and she knew exactly what to do: she went inside and got a set of regulation Burmese monk's robes that she had stored in the house, and came out and gave them to him! Then he said that he had to be “cleansed” before putting on the robes and performing whatever ceremony would follow. (He obviously used the word “cleansed” in more than just a physical sense.) I tried to persuade him to go home and take a shower, but he ignored this idea, so my friend told him that there was a garden hose in the back yard that he could use to wash up. He went into the back yard with the robes, stripped himself, and hosed himself off naked on the lawn. While he was doing this, my friend and I went back inside and conferred some more.
     I got an idea which seemed like a good one at the time: A few weeks previously I had found near a river what looks like an old native American spearhead; so when he came back to the front door dripping wet with the Burmese robes on, I offered it to him, saying, “This is an ancient spearhead. Go with it until you feel energy emanating from it. That place will be safe for you.” As it turned out though, he immediately refused to accept it, and when I offered it a second time he said, “You know where you can put that?” and began snaking his hand around in a peculiar manner, so that I suspected it would wind up in an obscene gesture, but perhaps tangential thought got the better of him, and he was distracted into another direction. He asked if it was necessary for me to see his tattoos before we started. I said no, but he showed them to me anyway. He had several. A large one on his back said “Liberty or Death.” On one part of his body he had a rather erotic, scantily-clad female angel that he said was his guardian; and on the corresponding part on the other side he had a demonic-looking Grim Reaper, reminiscent of something from an Iron Maiden album cover, that he said was his deity. He began speaking animatedly of the Dark Carnival, a conspiracy in which Jesus Christ is endeavoring to destroy the world, with the Devil and his followers trying to prevent this. Again I told him firmly that I had done what I could, that he would get what he needs, and that my energy was with him, but he became more agitated, even annoyed. He repeatedly insisted that he was in “disarray,” and did not want “discontinuation,” meaning of course that our business together was not finished. As he became more angry I kept glancing at a large pair of hedge clippers lying on the porch near our feet; I considered nonchalantly putting my foot on them just in case he got worked up enough to use them as a weapon, but figured that he might be offended by my lack of trust and become even more worked up.
     He claimed to be a murderer, but without sin, as he was not a sex offender. He repeatedly referred to his father with increasing anger, sometimes calling him Chico, sometimes Samsonite, sometimes other names. He repeated that he himself was not God, but was descended from an obscure yet powerful native American spirit. Then he furiously declared that he would kill a blond, blue-eyed fathead bastard named David Meyer, or Miller (I didn't remember the name, but afterwards considered that I should have). I'm not sure why, but at this point I began standing before him with my arms extended downward and outward from my sides with the palms open and towards him. I still wonder about why I did that.
     He furiously insisted that I had been observing him and his father, that I knew all about them, and that he and I must be together now. I said “We are together now,” whereupon he replied, “Not now, now now, without discontinuation,” indicating that we still had urgent spiritual work to do together. Around this time he heatedly said something about a goat with three horns, and then, “There is no goat retard. Gort! Gort!” His eyes took on a certain intensity when he said “Gort,” as though he were making a particularly salient point.
     My friend/supporter then opened the front door and looked out at us to see what progress I had made. Our guest informed both of us that he had had no heartbeat for six months, and had had no food for five---although he assured us he was by no means hinting for a meal. Then he asked if he could feel our spines, but I refused. Then he asked us to feel our own spines. My friend looked at me and asked in a quiet voice, “What should we do?” and not knowing what else to say I silently mouthed to her, “Call the police.” She closed the door and called 911.
     Meanwhile, he and I had some disagreement about ravens. He asked me what sound they make, and I said they caw. “No! It's crows that caw! A raven is not a crow!he retorted. “Oh, yes, ravens croak,” I answered, knowing he was leading up to the quote “Nevermore” from Poe's famous poem. (He had already mentioned it once before.) He turned around and asked me to feel his spine, asserting that it had no discs between the vertebrae. I felt it. My friend opened the door again and said quietly, “I called,” and within a minute or two he lost interest in us, went to the back yard, took off the monk robes and put his old clothes back on, and went away, leaving the robes neatly folded. Perhaps criminal instinct, or perhaps plenty of similar experiences in the past, cued him to leave at last, before the police arrived. Afterwards I was sorry that we called the police, as though we had betrayed him somehow, and I was glad that he left before they showed up. Actually, the police never showed up. They called back about an hour later and asked a few desultory questions. Apparently mentally ill people wandering the streets and threatening to kill people are so common as not to be taken very seriously by the Bellingham Police Department.
     I have little doubt that he was the most mentally disturbed person I have ever met. I've met people with schizophrenia before, and people whose mind was pretty much absent through severe mental retardation or the extremity of old age, but nothing quite like this. He did not appear to be intoxicated, nor was he faking it. His mind seemed broken, fragmented, with a few predominant themes, like obsession with his father, stringing it together. One remarkable thing was that there was no revealing wild, staring, or haunted look in his eyes, as one sometimes sees in people who would be diagnosed as “psychotic.” Just looking into his eyes was not sufficient to let one know that anything was wrong with him. It seemed that his human “spirit” was still intact. I also have little doubt that if he had lived in Palestine during the time of Jesus he would have been declared demon-possessed. In his furious insistence upon my help he hinted more than once, but did not actually say, that some force or forces---not some person wanting to murder him but some malevolent spiritual influence---was causing his “disarray.” I suppose that if Jesus or the Buddha were in my position they might raise one hand and in a voice of authority drive out whatever influence was afflicting him. At the time I was with him I was thinking in terms of Western psychology and schizophrenia, but afterward I kept thinking of demonic possession---for some reason he reminded me of “Legion” in the New Testament, who lived in a cemetery shrieking and cutting himself with sharp rocks. For days after meeting him I was in a rather bleak, foul mood, with a weird readiness for a fight, as though his state was somehow contagious. I will say that if my foul mood was in any way a symptom of some of his turmoil leaving him and entering me, I was quite willing to take the hit for his sake. I had a strange feeling of helplessness and humility not being able to do much for him, even though I'm supposedly an authority on spiritual matters, at least on Dhamma. I do hope his interaction with me helped him in some way. I blessed him silently again and again, and still do. If anyone out there can bless him better than I can, please do so.
     I still wonder about the strange karma that suddenly brought him into my life that day. I certainly could never have guessed when I started walking that within two hours I'd be ceremoniously offering a stone spearhead to an incoherent demon-worshipper dressed in monk's robes! I have considered that many people who see me walking through Bellingham with robes on, bare feet, and a shaved head simply see a lunatic. Truly, Buddhism teaches that anyone who is not fully enlightened is insane. It may be significant that for perhaps half an hour he and I were probably the only two beings in town wearing the Theravada monk's cīvara. Ah, life is strange.



  1. "The Dark Carnival" is a concept by the musical group Insane Clown Posse. Not sure why I know that, and even less sure that you would want/need to check out ICP, but there it is!

  2. Thank you for sharing that story, Bhante. I deeply feel with that fellow. May he wear the monk's robes one day in a future existence with the proper understanding and free from mental "disarray".
    You have done well I think in face of such a confusing situation.

  3. Woah Bhante, that is quite an experience. i like how he said " thats not a robe that IS Buddhism! " i look forward to seeing you in either Myanmar or Stateside

  4. There are multiple types of schizophrenia. He may have not resembled those that you have seen before but it has a very diverse manifestation in symptoms. Unless he has serious organic brain damage from drugs or a history of major head trauma (certainly possible), likely he has schizophrenia (or drug use AND schizophrenia -- very common). There are 5 subtypes, but based on what you said, he sounds most likely paranoid subtype. Again, a very wide range of symptoms can be seen. Its a very tragic disease. I am finishing up medical school and my inpatient psychiatric experience was quite overwhelming. I felt very sad for the patients and their families. It is a disease which is very difficult to treat, destroys the lives of young people in the prime of life (most are 18-25 when they are diagnosed) and shatters families. As much as I would never wish harm on anyone, I certainly would never wish on anyone to have to experience this disease or watch loved one experience it. Thankfully he left before anything dangerous happened. It sounds like you and your friend handled it about as well as you reasonably could have. There are no good choices in these circumstances, just less bad choices...

    But really, the most concerning thing is that the police did not respond. Legally, they MUST come if you call. If I were your friend, I probably would have called my local congress person or state representative (or maybe the state Department of Justice). Seriously if something like that ever happens again and the police don't come, I hope your friend advocates for herself and her neighbors. This is a major problem waiting to happen...

    1. I'm guessing that the reason they didn't show is because she reported a crazy person outside her house wearing monk robes, and the police figured she was talking about me and was just being paranoid, since I was the only known person in town who dressed in Theravada Buddhist monastic robes at that time. Also, the city of Bellingham has a rather large population of people like that guy who rely upon food kitchens and homeless shelters, so I imagine complaints about them are pretty common. But I agree the police should have come.