The man standing close to me on the sand was wrapped in burgundy cloth gathered over his left shoulder. If he was real, I could have reached out and touched him. But before I could do anything, we were startled by that one wave that flows higher on the beach. With his back to the ocean, the wave washed over the tops of his ankle-high shoes and he started high stepping beside me as I backpedaled, watching him go past me.
His friends were laughing so loud, for what seemed like a long time - two couples and a little boy. There was nothing remarkable about their clothes or behavior. They weren’t speaking English, but maybe one would speak to me. I didn’t know what to say to him, so I didn’t speak.
“Are you the Buddha?” I wondered.
Not his skin color, but the color of his cloth robe told me his country of origin. Only Theravada monks wrap themselves in burgundy cloth. Theravada Buddhism is strongest in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Burma (Myanmar). What was a Theravada Buddhist monk doing on an Oregon beach?
I doubt that he knew the rule about never turning your back on the Pacific Ocean. We were complacent, standing in the sun on a warm October day with little or no wind. What a strange situation and coincidence that brought us together here at this place, at this time.
On the right beach, on the right day, at the right time, under the right conditions, you may find — just for a while — that the seventh wave washes up higher on the beach. Or you might stand there counting waves, you lose track of time and who is near you. In that moment, your mind wanders, you stop counting, then realize you have stopped counting and have to start over again.
If this man was not the Buddha, then maybe we were there to share that moment without talking. Each breath we took had a moist ocean smell. I turned and glanced behind me to see him reach down and pull up his wet socks. Looking along the beach the people appeared to be stationary ghosts in a translucent fog. Sunlight and ocean mist painted watercolor ghosts standing on the sand.
If the ghosts standing on the beach, in the warm October sunlight, didn’t appear to move, then they might not be real. As the tide was going out, waves broke farther out, exposing more sand on the beach. Sea gulls stood with certainty in the shallow water waiting for the next wave to bring food.
Remember what the moment felt like when that one wave, unannounced, pushing a front edge of foam across the sand, washed over the top of his ankle high boots? Watching him and the foam edge, engaging my motor skills to run backwards; that all happened in a second. Now, I am uncertain that not talking to him was the best way to react. Maybe I should have taken a stand, to stand absolutely firm in my intention to engage with him.
The man standing alone on June 17, 2013 was Erdem Gunduz, Turkey's "Standing Man," who became a symbol of peaceful protest in Taksim Square, inspiring a movement. All he did to earn this status was to stand completely still.
Hope means believing that society and laypeople have the ability to undertake actions to make a difference. Gunduz stood from 6pm until about 2am. Police searched his clothes and bag while he was standing still. They tried to talk to him. Then slowly other people came and stood nearby, not moving. There were live broadcasts and videos shared over the internet of Gunduz and the others standing still.
We remain forever in doubt of where we come from before we are born and where we go after we die. Between those two events, we choose hope. We choose to stand for something: for principles, values, ethics, insight, mindfulness and many other positive experiences.
I used the “Standing Man” technique once at a public event with someone who’s behavior I had finally determined was not going to change no matter what I said or did. I tried many times to understand why they behaved the way they did. Finally, at a scheduled event, instead of engaging with them or confronting them, I decided ahead of time I was going to simply stand there and not react or engage but simply look them in the eye.
I gave them nothing to criticize. They were totally flustered and walked away. That person has never spoken to me since, except via email communication that remains cold and calculating. I doubt that I will ever get over the lies, misinformation, manipulation and criticism that they flung my way without any justification. All for the purpose of putting me down to temporarily inflate their own ego.
When my mind wanders into the past, the uncertainty of relationships informs the ghosts in my mind. They remind me of the watercolor ghosts standing on the sand that day I saw the Theravada monk at Cannon Beach.
In Theravada Buddhism, a very strong relationship exists between monks and lay people. In the present, that bond would not exist without interaction by way of mutual support - lay people supply food, medicine, and cloth for robes, and monks give spiritual support, blessings, and teachings. But this is not a tit for tat situation. Monks are not allowed to request anything from lay people; and lay people cannot demand anything from the monks. The way of Theravada, in the spirit of open-hearted giving, stands for values that support community.
The spirit of the Theravada tradition emerges from their scripture, first passed on verbally and then written down based on the original teachings of Buddha. Unlike Zen, that is based on verbal teaching from a Zen Master, Theravada requires reading the scriptures and verbal instruction.
Maybe someday I could adopt a Theravada monk and ask him if he is the Buddha. Or simply live with my watercolor ghosts, my wandering mind, my relationships. Maybe there is a way for me to join a community.
The Beach Buddha and the Standing Man create in our mind impossible dilemmas. They engage our emotions so that we feel doubt. The greater the doubt, the greater the insight. But insight into what? And just how do we do this? And why subject myself to this emotional disorientation?
Zen Koans are an ancient example of verbal dilemmas that encourage uncertainty and doubt. Encouraging fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) also became a common tactic in negative marketing campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s in the software industry.
FUD might be a personal strength. The poet John Keats (1795-1821) argued that the secret to being an artist was to cultivate a mindset he called Negative Capability: “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” As an artistic practice, Negative Capability becomes learning all sides of a question as a critical thinker. Maybe an artist and intellectual’s ability increases when they hold in their mind, at the same time, negative capability and personal beliefs.
When you really stop believing your thoughts, insight happens. In psychology, positive thinking reigns supreme and an infinite number of self-help books describe how to stop negative thinking. If I practice holding duality in my mind, then negative capability and positive personal beliefs, life and death, the sound of one hand clapping, and many other impossible dilemmas remain peacefully unresolved in my mind.