Urban legends

As Dave Barry says, “I am not making this up.”

There’s this story on Snopes about finding money hidden inside a Gideon Bible. It’s new to me. I’d never heard about it, never even thought to go looking to see if it was true, despite the inordinate number of hotel rooms I’ve been in over the past few years. The story is weirdly appealing, and I can see the way the legend got started, and the tenacity with which it lives on despite the total absence of objective proof. A legend’s not a legend that doesn’t die, right?

Last week, I was in Kihei having an argument with myself about the precise wording of John 11:25-26. (Don’t ask.) And I thought, “Hey, I have a Bible right here. I can use one of these old-fashioned books to do my research; no need to fire up Google!” The Gideon was sitting in its desk drawer as if it had waited years for this moment: someone, a guest, was reaching in for an Answer. But something was wrong — it was lying strangely, as though a bookmark had been left inside. I let the Bible open on its own. There was a bookmark: a $1 bill.

This was clearly something that required Google, so off to the search engine we went, whereupon I discovered the aforementioned Snopes page and its dismissal of this urban legend as “indeterminate.” Fair enough, yet here I was staring a real-life counterexample. I could have bought the argument that the bill had been left in the Bible for safekeeping — if it had been a $20. But a buck? Who’s going to try to hide that? Then I looked more carefully at where the Bible had opened. It was the Gospel of John. I’ll bet you can guess which part.

This was obviously well into urban legend territory. Nobody was going to leave a $1 in a Bible of safekeeping; this was deliberate. I tried to imagine the mindset of a person who would mark those particular pages with a dollar bill, in the hopes that someone would find the bill, take the time to read the entirety of both pages and then recognize the significance of a dozen words in one verse of one book. (Note to that person if you’re reading: a highlighter might have helped here. Just saying.) Or maybe it was left as a talisman for someone else to find, a kind of “A Follower of Christ Slept Here” marker. I liked the idea of someone trying to reach out through time to communicate this message to another person, in such a specific way, while using a clumsy and blunt instrument like this. (Note to that person: maybe stick the bill out of the Bible too? So it’s obvious? With a highlighter?) Then I wondered whether it might just be someone familiar with the legend who was fucking with me and the future. Then I gave up thinking about it, because I couldn’t decide which scenario I liked more. Still can’t, actually.

But it got me thinking: John 3:16 is probably the most famous verse in the entirety of the Bible. It’s the Gospel In A Nutshell. It is the distillation of the essence of Christianity — put a gun to your head and tell you to explain that whole religion in 10 seconds or less, it’s probably the single best choice to save your life. I get this. (I also get it is a cultural cliche, but never mind that. I’m talking theology here.)

As has become more common these days, Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai had been to my hotel on Maui, and left their own contribution to the hotel room night stand religious conversation: The Teaching of Buddha. I’m highly familiar with this book, though I won’t lie — it’s hard to read and it is not what I’d choose if someone asked me to provide a non-denominational introduction to Buddhist thought. Staring at it, lying in the drawer, it occurred to me: what is the Buddhist equivalent of John 3:16? Gun to my head, how do I explain the essence of Buddhist thought in 10 seconds or less?

“God loves you; Jesus saves.” That’s the short message of Christianity. What would work as the Buddhist version of this? The core message of Buddhism, independent of school or sect, is that the world is full of causes and conditions and that our failure to understand and see those causes and conditions for what they are leads us to desire things, and those desires cause suffering; to alleviate that suffering, you need to — oh, I don’t need to spell it out. You’re smart. You know what it means. It’s a pretty simple message — see the world for what it is, stop pretending it’s something it isn’t, and you’ll feel better — but you can’t print that on the bottom of a take-out cup. It’s too nuanced, too dependent on explanation. So what else is out there?

(Sadly, the single best and most succinct explanation I’ve come up with isn’t from “The Teaching of Buddha” and it isn’t from any recognized authority on Buddhism. It’s also incredibly flippant: “Life sucks. Get a helmet.” But Leary wasn’t far off the mark, and despite the obnoxiousness it actually kind of works.)

Eventually, I settled on the first line of Chapter 1 on causation: “The world is full of suffering.” I figured that if the unknown Christian traveler had counted on me reading all the way through two pages of John to find what he or she really meant, I could get someone else to read about the Fourfold Noble Truth. It wasn’t an evangelical act or anything like that — it was more of a thought experiment, a way of paying the notion of religious messaging forward; someone left me a Christian message, so I’ll try leaving someone a Buddhist one.

Maybe the next time I check in to a Marriott I’ll find someone has left me a message in the Book of Mormon. Who knows?