July 2022
Reclaiming the Buddha
Sometimes an act of ugliness can be redeemed.

Hiking on the many trails around Prescott presents you with great views, better health, good conversations and, occasionally, good stories.

I recently uncovered a story, the arc of which covers elements of beauty, meaningful human connection, even poetry, then moves to villainy shrouded in mystery, and finally to a happy happenstance and a heroic finale with a very satisfying redemption.

No, this isn’t a book I read. It’s a story that happened right here in Prescott.

Those who enjoy hiking the trails on the west side of town, specifically around Ponderosa Park, may be familiar with the old campground, closed since the Indian Creek fire some years back. It’s a beautiful place to walk, and there are a number of concrete picnic tables still there, too heavy to be removed.

One of these tables, located right in the middle of the campground, became an impromptu shrine, where people started leaving pretty rocks or objects they found interesting. Over time the table became quite full. Some of the items I remember were a broken teapot, a music box and a journal someone had left containing some very sad thoughts. One day we found a large, smiling wooden Buddha. I remember thinking at the time that the story of this community-offering table would be interesting to write. Clearly people cared about it, and left (mostly) thoughtful items.

Then one day we hiked in to visit the table, and it was bare.

We were sad, but figured the Forest Service had cleared it out, as per their mandate to leave nature undisturbed. We continued to hike in the area, but saw no sign of any of the lost items in the bushes or creekbed.

One day my husband was out hiking that area by himself and stopped to chat with a stranger named RJ. RJ is quite a talker, and has led a very interesting life. One of twelve kids from Duluth, he joined the army as early as he could, served in Vietnam and has done a lot of interesting things. An avid hiker and reader, he is constantly spotting birds and wildlife that most others miss, and can discuss writers from Atul Gawande to Marcel Proust.

RJ and my husband chatted for quite a while, and my husband told him about the table and the Buddha, and that we wondered what had become of it. The two men met up to hike together over the following weeks. Then RJ called one day and said he had found the Buddha!

This is how it happened.

RJ demonstrates what it took to do the dirty deed.

RJ spends winters in Prescott and enjoys being outdoors and cleaning up trails around the Ponderosa Park area. One day, after he’d met my husband and heard about the Buddha, he thought to ask a neighbor whether she knew anything about it. “Oh, yes,”she said, “it’s in the outhouse in the campground!”

RJ was stunned to hear that she actually knew where it was, but immediately went to check it out. Sure enough, shining his flashlight down the old pit toilet, unused these many years, he could see the statue at the bottom. Lowering a rope down to snag it around the neck and pull it up, he found that it didn’t fit through the toilet seat. “How the heck did it get down there in the first place?!” RJ exclaimed as he recounted the story.

He finally went back to his house for a metal bar, with which he could pry the metal toilet from its concrete base and so free the Buddha. Clearly someone had gone to some effort to get it in there — possibly someone who would disrespect any religion other than their own. RJ brought the statue home and has since cleaned it and plans to refinish it. It sits in a place of honor on a table in his home.

RJ at home with the Buddha, who doesn't seem to have minded his ill treatment.
A shrine of a different kind.

So this unlikely series of events led to a wrong made right, a gesture of respect to balance an ugly act. The Buddha statue would likely have remained forever in the outhouse if:

— we had not loved the community offering table so much,

— RJ weren’t so chatty and observant, and

— the neighbor had not for whatever reason looked into the toilet and seen the statue.

It’s good to talk with people. You learn new things. One thing can lead to another, and sometimes, surprising things come to light.

Abby Brill is Associate Editor of 5enses.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.