Smack-Talk of the Town

“Berkeley Bodhisattva”

by Isa Hopkins, editor-at-large


He sits under an ornamental cherry tree, face serene in the dappled sunlight.  “This is my lotus,” he says, pointing upwards.  “And I’m gonna die here.”


A dire pronouncement from some — but from Bodhi, the guru of Berkeley’s People’s Park, this statement is triumphant.  After all, says Bodhi, how many people can claim such knowledge of their own peaceful end?


“I don’t know how it will happen,” the forty-two-year-old continues.  “But it’ll be right here.  Me and the tree.  And the people.”  He gestures vaguely towards others in the park, the homeless and the students and the weekend picnickers.  “It’ll be a lesson for us all.”


Born James Theodore Marshall III in Mobile, Alabama, Bodhi’s spiritual trajectory has been unique.  His earliest religious memories are of the black gospel choir led by his mother, Alfreda “Alfie” Marshall, at their Baptist congregation in Mobile.  When James was four years old, Alfie moved him and his older brother, Thomas, to Salt Lake City — and when it came to racism, the South had nothing on Mormon country.  The boys’ only saving grace was their new stepfather, the reason they’d moved.  Duane Anthony Michaelson was an attorney and the highest-ranking African-American member of the Mormon Church at the time, regularly upheld by the Mormons as evidence that they weren’t so racist, after all.


Duane was well-spoken, kind, educated, and affluent; he never swore or drank, and he was a good father to his stepsons.  Alfie, whose first husband died before James was born, found security in his presence, even though she was barred from joining the famous Tabernacle Choir because of her skin color.


“It was tough,” says Alfie.  “And James — James hated it the most.  He always had so many questions, questions about everything.”


Thomas Marshall Michaelson graduated from Brigham Young University and is one of a tiny handful of black bishops within the Mormon Church.  James, on the other hand, dropped out of high school and ran away, a transient in the American West.


“I lived on a flatbed truck with two other drifters,” says Bodhi, calm as ever.  “For three months.  Driver never even knew we were hitching a ride until my buddy Al got bitten by a rattlesnake in Socorro.  Scared me straight, watching an old man die like that.”


James ventured to Los Angeles, where an acquaintance talked him into Scientology.  “I couldn’t afford it,” Bodhi recalls, “doing odd jobs, living on the streets, barely feeding myself — but they gave me work as the janitor, so I paid for my classes.  Made it up to level three, but then they wanted even more money, and I just couldn’t do it anymore on my salary.”


So he tried to rob a bank.


James Theodore Marshall was twenty-three years old when he was convicted of armed robbery and assault.  He landed at San Quentin, in wealthy and beautiful Marin County, north of San Francisco.  It was at San Quentin that he was first introduced to the Koran.


“Islam opened my eyes,” says Bodhi.  “Before that, all I knew were American religious traditions; it was like the rest of the world didn’t exist.  Also, here’s the thing about Mohammed: he dies of natural causes.  No murder, no mayhem.  It’s not like Jesus, up there on the cross, or Joseph Smith getting murdered, or any of those other guys.  Mohammed just does his thing and then dies of old age.  I really dug that.  I wanted that.  It spoke to me.”


James became a fixture at the prison library, reading up on world religions.  “Hinduism, Shintoism, Confucianism, Sikhs — I know my shit.  But the one that resonated the most was Buddhism.  You know?  Other prisoners, they were busy changing their names to Mohammed, joining the Muslim Brotherhood, all that — I changed my name to Bodhi.  Just Bodhi.  I got out of prison literally a new man.”


Bodhi was released after five years, paroled for good behavior.  “And then I came here,” he says.  To Berkeley?  “Well, yes, but really here, to this very spot.”


For the last fourteen years, Bodhi has sat under this very tree in People’s Park, meditating, dispensing wisdom, and occasionally running into trouble with the law.  According to Rudi von Schechter, the Berkeley chief of police, Bodhi is “pretty much harmless.  I just wish the guy would have a little respect.  Public fornication — that’s what we always get him on.  Not because we want to; this is Berkeley, after all.  But we have to.  He never does it, you know, at night, behind the bushes — it’s always midday, with little kids around.  We gotta respond to that.”


“I’m a prophet,” says Bodhi, “and the Berkeley PD can’t always understand that.”


Nor can local Buddhist leaders.  “Bodhi is a crackpot,” says Jason Nevits, a professor of Buddhist studies at the nearby University of California.  “His spiritual philosophy seems to be centered on not holding a job, having sex in public, and dying under a tree.  That’s all he ever talks about, at least.”


“What’s wrong with dying under a tree?” counters Bodhi.  “Isn’t that, like, the heart of Buddhism?”  (According to Nevits, the answer is “No.”)


“Look, man,” says Bodhi.  “I’m on a journey.  There’s a path — or eight paths, or something.  There’s as many paths as you need.  I’m not just about Buddhism; I’m about everything that got me here.  I’m gonna die under this tree and when I get to heaven there’s going to be seventy-two virgins, and I’ll be able to take many wives, and I’ll party with Tom Cruise and John Travolta again.  That’s my Buddhism.  That’s my salvation.  That’s my nirvana.”


There is no heaven in Buddhism, of course, but this hardly phases Bodhi.  One of his devotees brings him lunch: a bag of bread and jar of peanut butter from a grocery store dumpster and tomatoes from a community garden.  He caresses her face in thanks, leaning in for a kiss as he pulls up her shirt.  Nearby, a small child begins to scream for his mother.  “Don’t tell Rudi,” Bodhi says to me, winking, as he unzips his pants.


I take the opportunity to go for a coffee break.  When I return, forty minutes later, Bodhi is sprawled beneath “his” tree, eating his lunch alone.


“Those crazy guys on the streetcorners, yelling about Jesus and the end of the world?  They just don’t know how to do it right,” he tells me, tomato juice dripping down his chin.  “Just find a tree, be a guru.  Just like Siddhartha.  It’s simple stuff, this whole religion thing, really.”

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