In a large temple of minor significance in northern Thailand, there once stood a 9-foot-tall statue of a clay buddha. The origin of the statue is unknown, but over the next few hundred years, the clay buddha endured numerous relocations, army assaults, government turnovers and violent storms.
In 1955, the clay buddha was once again lifted from the pedestal to be relocated to a new building in the temple when the ropes broke and the statue fell on the ground. The clay cracked, and the monks noticed the shiny gold surface underneath the plaster coating.
Soon after, the true nature of the buddha statue, casted in 5 tons of gold, was revealed. Now, the golden buddha is housed in the Wat Traimit temple, drawing pilgrims from all over the world.
Every weekday morning for two months now, I walk three blocks from my apartment to a zendo (meditation hall) in downtown Salt Lake City for the morning zazen (meditation) at 7:45am.
During the short walk, I pass the International Rescue Committee, St. Vincent de Paul Homeless Resource Center and a large homeless shelter. Next to the shelter are two portable toilets enclosed by fences with a giant metal lock. Dozens of men and women congregate here every morning.
The portable toilets have a guard who comes every morning to open the fences. When I first discovered the zendo and walked by the portable toilets, I noticed him right away. A frail, old man in his 60s — or perhaps 70s — wearing a beanie and a bright orange, mesh safety vest. He was so thin that the vest looked baggy on him even with a thick navy coat.
He was sitting on a plastic folding chair right outside of the fences, smoking a cigarette with one hand with another tucked between his knees. The denim looked clean, but worn.
What made him stand out from the crowd, aside from the garish safety vest, was his composure — steady and comfortable. Over the next few days, as he got used to the new face on the street, we began to greet each other with a nod and the occasional wave.
The skin on his face was so tan and wrinkled that before the sun lit up that side of the street, I could barely make out what he looked like. But his piercing blue eyes shone through the darkness, holding a steady gaze that made me feel seen and safe on the block.
And I haven’t seen him for a few weeks.
The new guard for the portable toilets is a much younger Hispanic man, and he spoke Japanese one day as I walked past the fences. I heard the word konichiwa after I was already four or five feet away, and I didn’t turn around.
I miss the orange safety vest and the blue gaze, and I hope he is doing alright.
When I think of the golden buddha, Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama came to mind: some of the few people who have shedded away their plaster coatings, and come to rest in their true nature, offering faith and unconditional love to millions of pilgrims.
And I’d love to think that I’m surrounded by clay buddhas in my life, who seem rough on the surface, but only if I care to chip away the plaster over time, will I be able to greet the gold on the inside.
I don’t know the name of the old man with the safety vest and piercing eyes, and we’ve never really spoke to each other. But I think I’m the lucky one who happened to notice the cracks and found gold.