In college I lived for a year in a house on a steep dirt road a couple miles from campus. In the morning, I walked down the dirt road toward the town, and as I walked I chanted “om mane padme hum,” which I think means “jewel in the heart of the lotus.” That was the year I stopped taking LSD, because my experiences with the substance kept getting narrower and narrower, but I wanted to find a way to hold on to a sense of elevated reality that the hallucinogens had offered. After about twenty minutes of walking and chanting, I reached the place where the dirt road turned to asphalt, by a lumber yard at the edge of town. I stopped chanting. Often, a morning mist was still hanging over the stacks of wood and parked forklifts. I felt high and awake and had no thoughts in my head for a little while.
After I passed through the small town I climbed another hill for a while and arrived among the complex of brick buildings. Often I got to the library just as it was opening. I’d been a bad student through high school, but in college I was interested in everything. I read and wrote in the library until it was time to go to my first class, and then during free periods I went back to the library, or else went to the gym to play pickup basketball. One evening after classes were done for the day I was walking back up the steep dirt road toward home and I looked up at the stars and prayed silently to Jack Kerouac. I don’t remember what I said or what exactly I was thinking. We had been reading the Dharma Bums in one of my classes, and at one point I’d blown up at the teacher (the poet Neil Shepard, one of the great teachers of my life) for allowing a few criticisms of Kerouac to seep into his lecture on the book. But the prayer wasn’t about that. It was more like an imitation of the yearning plea for meaning woven through that book.
Jack Kerouac: What am I supposed to do with myself in this life here on earth?
And then a comet streaked across the sky, going almost from one horizon to the other, the longest shooting star I’ve ever seen.
I thought of that dirt road this morning, twenty years after those mornings and evenings, as I read that Willie Davis, underrated centerfield standout of the pitching-dominated 1960s, took up Buddhist chanting in the early 1970s. He didn’t use the chant I used but used the one that I’ve been encouraged by strangers to use on a couple of occasions, long ago, when I was young and walked around with the open, searching look of the pilgrim or rube on my face: Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. This chant is supposed to enable you to get whatever it is you want. In a 1975 article in Ebony, Willie Davis implies that the chant was going to allow his team at the time, the Texas Rangers, to “win it all.”
They didn’t, of course, and neither did any of his subsequent teams as he finished up his long pro career, but this didn’t stop him from chanting. In Japan, where he went to play after a year with the team he is beatifically depicted as a member of in the 1976 card above, he expected that his chanting would be welcomed and celebrated, but instead his teammates hated it, thinking that it made the clubhouse resemble the rite most likely in Japan to include Buddhist chanting: a funeral. (To put yourself in the cleats of those Japanese teammates of Davis, imagine if Ichiro hung around the Seattle clubhouse in a black suit and dark sunglasses singing “Amazing Grace” and weeping all the time. It’d kind of sap your will to go out and crisply hit the cutoff man.)
I live in the city now, and so I can’t walk around chanting like I did on that empty dirt road unless I want to attract the kind of attention crazy people attract. And I feel sort of stupid just sitting around in my apartment chanting, plus when I’m in my apartment I am more often than not shoving food in my mouth and staring at the television. I don’t know if that’s what the Kerouackian shooting star had in mind for me. But Keroauc died fatly watching TV, so who knows? [Correction: He died in a hospital; I may have been thinking of Kerouac’s poem about Charlie Parker, in which Bird is described as dying laughing while watching a juggler on TV.] Anyway, there’s a jewel in the heart of the lotus. No matter what. There’s a gleaming answer in the sky. There’s a stillness below everything, and morning mist everywhere. There’s a big shining smile on the face of Willie Davis.