The Buddha Whale

"Whether it was Ahab's or Jonah's it was too soon to say..."

"Whether it was Ahab's or Jonah's it was too soon to say..."

We were in Phoenix, finally out of the nasty weather that had been following us from city to city like we were carriers of plague. Until then, the Killing the Buddha book tour schedule had read like a catalogue of biblical portents: the coldest night in New York City since 1893; a sudden ice storm that littered a stretch of highway between Chicago and Madison with tractor-trailers turned on their sides; a near-blizzard a few days later that wrecked the car of a reporter on his way to our reading in Iowa City. It was enough to make even a good skeptic wonder if God might have something against a book advocating heresy in all its forms.

But why this particular form of divine retribution? By the time we’d reached Boulder — and talk of twenty more inches of snow — it was easy to long for the days when messing with scripture could get you burned at the stake. We began to understand why Lin Chi, the 9th-century Zen philosopher who said you should kill Buddha if you meet him on the road lest you mistake him for the real thing, advised torching all the sutras. No better way to keep warm.

So Phoenix was in some ways welcome: the sun hot and bright in the winter, the colors finally earthy, red and brown and cactus green, not a bit of icy white in sight. Also nowhere to be seen was any sign of religion. Among other things, Killing the Buddha is about finding religion — belief — everywhere: in a gangland tattoo parlor in East LA, in a strip club outside of Chicago, in the chaos of a tornado in Oklahoma. But in Phoenix, it seemed to have gone missing. Nothing to be found in our hotel, tucked away in the no man’s land between city and airport, chain stores and strip malls in every direction.

All through the tour we’d been gathering new stories as well as reading the ones from our book, stories of faith lost and found, tales of gods hated, adored, and left at the altar. Now, with only twelve hours on the ground, exhausted and hungry and unwashed from our early morning flight, we had no interest in chasing down leads. We decided it was a good time to do some laundry.

In the hotel laundry room we emptied the pockets of our suitcases: parking tickets from Boulder and Chicago; a matchbook from Austin; a cocktail napkin from our flight that morning, folded over a half-dozen times. Unfolding it, we saw that it was printed with a map of the US, upon which Peter had passed the time on the flight by locating the twenty-five cities of our tour, marking each with a small black dot, freckling the country with the all places we’d been.

Waiting for the rinse cycle to end, we stared at the dots — Boston, New York, Washington, Annapolis — until a picture seemed to form.

Not a face. Not a cross. Not the Virgin Mary.

A fish.

A fish? Yes, a fish. To confirm our suspicions, we found a pen and traced a thin line between the cities. Sure enough, it was a fish as big as the lower 48, its tail taking up all of New England. The more we looked though, we realized it was slightly square-headed for a fish. And it had no fin on its back, only a few small sprays of highway — Chicago, Ann Arbor, Madison… — shooting up toward Canada like a spout.

Not a fish. A whale.

Drawing from San Francisco to Portland to Seattle, and then a long line back east, we completed the picture. There was no denying it: If you connected the dots of the all cities we would visit during the Killing the Buddha tour, the shape it made was that of a big whale, white as the napkin it was drawn upon. Whether it was Ahab’s or Jonah’s it was too soon to say, but it was clear enough that coming to Phoenix had stuffed us right down its maw.

We moved our clothes into the dryer and walked back toward the elevator, puzzling over the peculiar shape of our travels. Just as we were wondering what it would mean to be trapped in a whale’s belly as bright and bland as Phoenix, a pear-shaped man in a rumpled suit rolled his luggage to the elevator door.

“A difficult place to find!” he said, shouting the words. Whether he meant the elevator or the hotel didn’t matter much — the former was folded into the center of a nervous system of hallways leading from multiple entrances and a wrap-around parking lot; the latter was a characterless box on a high-numbered street between the airport and the city.

“Where are you from?” he asked as we all stepped into the elevator. The doors closed behind us.

“Back east,” we said.

“Ah,” he sighed, disappointedly, “I thought you might be European.” And then he announced,” I am Italian! ” He swept his hands through the air as if his citizenship alone warranted a bow.

“What brings you to Phoenix?” we asked.

He started to answer but then went silent for a moment, staring through the wall of the glass elevator, looking out at the bare concrete of the hotel swimming pool, drained and closed for renovations.

“What I am doing here?” he said. He stared at us, and then for who knows what reason — read the book; this kind of thing happens to us — he decided to tell us the truth. “If I am being honest, my friends, I must say I am here to take care of a woman. I keep a mistress here. It is very complicated, of course, but that is my life.”

We rose one floor, then another, the mountains on the far side of the city just now visible through the glass as we climbed above the poolside view.

If he had more to say he didn’t show it, content to lift his bag and wait for the door to open. When it did, he began to step out and only in passing asked,  “And you? Why you are here? Business?”

“More or less,” we said. “Our book was just published and we’re traveling the country talking about it.”

The door began to slide between us. He shot a plump hand out to catch it.

“A book?!” he shouted. “What is this book? Tell me now, quickly please!”

“It’s about religion in America,” we said.

He raised a substantial eyebrow behind his glasses.

“We collect stories,” we told him. “Stories about all the things people believe and don’t believe.”

The elevator door slid again. He stepped forward to brace his body against it.

“No! How can this be? I am a professor of religion! I know everything! I was nearly a priest!”

He beamed as the door moved in and out, the rubber bumper thumping him like a drum. He leaned his weight into it to keep the door from closing. “You collect stories,” he said. “Now you will have mine.” Suddenly he seemed to have much more to say, more about the complications he had mentioned, more about what knowing “everything” meant to him, more about what had happened that had made him “nearly” a priest. Later, we would see the professor and his complication — a robust blonde with a mighty coiffure, who outsized her lover in every dimension — rushing through the lobby, the professor tugging her by the hand toward his room, pointing out the virtues of the hotel he’d selected along the way like a proud child. But for the moment, he kept the details to himself, adding, “I must buy your book!”

“What’s your name? We’ll leave information about it for you at the front desk.”

“Yes, please, of course!” he grinned. “The name it is Cala . C – A – L – A. Very easy to remember.” He stepped out of the door, backing away with his arms outstretched to us. “In Greek it means good,” he laughed as the metal door began to slide. “But I am Italian!

The elevator closed. As abruptly as we’d met him, we were swallowed by the doors and Cala was gone. Whatever he’d left unsaid, he did manage to tell us something about the way religion stories seem to turn up everywhere, when you least expect them, even when you’re trying to take a day off.

Jeff Sharlet and Peter Manseau were co-founders of Killing the Buddha. Together they wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible.