Different Spiritual Journeys

Two throngs gather at the base of the southern tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. Fifty Buddhists wearing maroon wetsuits prepare to swim 1 ¼ miles in the chilly waters beneath the Bridge to the Marin Headlands near the Bridge’s northern tower. After crossing, it is a short hike to a very secluded retreat center in a hidden cove.

Close by a group of fifty Christians have gathered to begin their march across the north shore of San Franciscoto Fisherman’s Wharf. There they will board the ferry “Faith” to Angel Island. The island is a beautiful nature preserve in the middle of the Bay. It has 25 miles of hiking trails with panoramic views of the Bay and San Francisco and several uncrowded beaches.

A monk addresses the Buddhist swimmers. “Blessed monks, you are about to embark on a noble journey to the Nirvana retreat center. First you must swim over a mile in the cold waters of the Straits of Bad Karma, crossing quickly before the tide comes in. Otherwise, you will be swept into the Bay by powerful currents. It is critical that you keep repeating your mantra as you swim: ‘The water is warm. I am a strong swimmer.’ You must gauge your own ability to complete the swim. If you feel that you cannot make it quickly across, you should turn around and swim back. Once you make the crossing, you will only need to hike a few blocks to Nirvana. Thoughts about it must fill your mind.”

A young monk, new to the Sangha, poses a question. “Blessed Dasbala, shouldn’t we just walk across the Bridge instead? We would only need to walk about two miles. The water is 55 degrees. Even with wetsuits, few of us will be able to brave the cold without experiencing hypothermia. After all, the Christians nearby are going to cross the Bay in a ferry.”

“Ignorant one! We would never be able to overcome the disgrace of taking the same path as thousands of reckless, speeding cars. Nor would we do so easy a thing as to take a ferry. We must take the path of tranquility, meditating as we swim and working off our bad karma.”

A few muffled groans waft through the air, laced with salt water smells. Dasbala surveys his followers with piercing eyes as he shakes his head in disappointment.

A block away a huddle of fifty Christians listen to Pastor James: “Today we will journey to the paradise of Angel Island aboard the ferry ‘Faith.’ First, however, we must march four miles across the northern shore of San Franciscoto Fisherman’s Wharf, where the ferry is docked. We will carry the banner, ‘Praise God’ in front of us as we march. We may encounter significant opposition and ridicule.”

The Buddhist swimmers stoically walk out to the end of the pier. They rapidly wave their arms back and forth to loosen up and warm themselves, taking deep breaths. Then, one by one, they dive into the water. Some let out shouts of shock after plunging into the chilly water. Within minutes, about half of them begin swimming back to the dock, some shivering uncontrollably as they ascend the ladder at the pier. After twenty minutes, all but one of the swimmers have turned around.

An hour after starting the sole remaining swimmer reaches the rocks by the Bridge’s north tower. Looks of joy cover his face. He gazes back, but doesn’t see any swimmers in sight. Shivering, he scampers over the rocks and onto the trail to the retreat center. There he finds an empty meditation room in a setting of complete peace and solitude. “Nirvana!” he whispers happily.

The Christians begin their march, parading their banner and singing, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise Him all creatures here below, praise Him above ye heavenly host, praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” As they approach Fisherman’s Wharf their route is blocked by a throng of protesters waving signs saying, “Phooey on God! We have Sinbad’s Fudge,” and “Powered by Devil’s Food Fudge.” The protesters entice the marchers with little wrapped bits of fudge, tossing these into the midst of the marchers. Some of the Christians catch these and pocket them while others, wary, let them fall to the street.

When the Christians get to the pier at Fisherman’s Wharf, Pastor James addresses them: “Our ferry is about to take us safely on a 40 minute crossing to Angel Island. You must dispose of any fudge you have before you board. Otherwise, you must stay here. We will search your pockets and backpacks.” A few line up to board, but the others hang back, fretting over their fudge. Only a dozen finally board.

When the ferry docks at Angel Island, a dozen Christians disembark. There a sumptuous banquet awaits them, with a broad array of savory dishes. For dessert, however, there is no fudge. Only some amazing angel food cake.