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The Package is The Message: A Guest Blog by Keith B. Hopper

The Package is The Message: A Guest Message by Keith B. Hopper

NOTE from Rev. Anne Spencer: We always enjoy sharing insights and experiences from our diverse IOBT community. This month we are happy to share a reflection from Keith Hopper. Although Keith now lives in Florida, his early years were spent in Vale, Ontario, and parts of western Idaho. He graduated from Ontario High School. In 2022 he received a tip from a friend about our twice-monthly Tuesday evening online discussion groups and he decided to join us.  He has been a regular at our meeting ever since. Let us know if you would like to join us too!


"The medium is the message" was a familiar twentieth century adage. Enigmatic, separated from its context and author (1960s Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan), it was claimed by academics, promoters of all sorts, and also politicians, television preachers and other dubious sages. It has a ring to it and seemed to apply to our world, likely did, but as something of a koan. The exact meaning is fuzzy.

On advice, I ordered a copy of Bright Dawn from Amazon, and later a second copy to share. The books arrived pristine but from different Amazon partners. Both new, unblemished in shipping, covers shiny, pages crisp without smudges. One arrived smartly, stuffed unceremoniously but efficiently into a thin, high-tech plastic mailer—a technological marvel with embedded air padding and a perforated opening that somehow stays closed in transit, but tears open easily for the customer. The book fell out with the aplomb of a Snickers bar plopped down by a vending machine.

Picture of Bright Dawn book by Rev. S. Koyo Kubose

Picture: One of Keith's copies of Bright Dawn (by Rev. S. Koyo Kubose) 

The second copy arrived a week later in a simple paper mailer. Cancelled book rate postage made it look like it was from another decade. My address was imperfectly but carefully done large by hand in black marker. Inside, another book in same mint condition, and a colorful sticky note of thanks.

This package evoked a soft tone—a person cared about the experience of an unmet receiver, in an ordinary transaction. This is a message—a long distance nod and smile. Machinery isn’t good at this.

Soon after, an air freight shipment arrived from Japan (500yenshop) with 25-year-old used headrests for my veteran Subaru pickup. Impossible to find in any condition, they appeared in a translated Japan Yahoo ad and I got them cheap, even with air shipping. A new experience, it was a bit of a puzzle wending through translations and currency conversions. Expectations curbed, if a package even arrived not containing a steam iron or brake shoe, I planned to take the headrests directly for cleaning, painting, and recovering.

As packages go, the one from 500yenshop was a treat. Unfamiliar labels, colorful tape, stickers, and markings made a cheerful impression. It looked like somebody had fun packing and shipping it. I so wanted to open it but dreaded what I would find. Donning nylon gloves, the outer box opened easily with a flick of a sharp knife, and the packing materials brought a smile—lots and lots of crumpled Japanese newspaper pages, which I put aside to examine later. And Japanese candy, each piece a new experience. I munched one while digging for the headrests, recalling the curious Japanese treats grade school friends shared on holidays.

The headrests were packed deep in rolled newspaper, efficiently bound with clear, reinforced tape. Separating the parts, I found them intact, and in nicely useable condition. Clean fabrics had a single small stain, and to my delight, matched my seat covers. No rust, no odors. They looked five years old and well cared for. Taped along one metal brace were all four original machine screw fasteners with painted heads, which had clearly not been abused with my habit of haste; I imagined the care to remove those without rounding heads and damaging old threads.

2  Subaru Headrests

Seller profited about $18 USD on the transaction.

As a little boy riding shotgun on endless pickup drives crisscrossing Treasure Valley, I absorbed my father’s unfiltered commentary. He pointed out pastures, hay fields, hops and row crop fields, noting those that stood out with evident care, or neglect. The exemplary fields of onions, sugar beets, potatoes, beans, and corn comprised rows straight and uniformly rounded, nearly devoid of weeds, and extending evenly to the end of the property—no growing space wasted, evenly irrigated, identical plants on their best behavior.

These were Japanese fields. Whizzing by I looked far down each row in turn, rows so straight they flashed strobe light glimpses in long streams bright with water. In time I saw that this standard of care was not confined to the highway side, or to farming.

Out in those fields, in the singularly bright Treasure Valley summer sun, were familiar bright hats, dark glasses, and figures in loose clothing bent to work. Weeding, clipping, tending, sometimes in pairs or staggered in small groups, they often worked alone. I wondered about their thoughts, their patient solitude.


Photo: Onions!!! (then and now)

In the pleasing book package, meticulously done headrest shipment, and in the toil and care invested in the fields is an essence—an investment beyond just necessary or passing. It is a near tangible gift, to do it better than it must be, for a stranger who may not notice. A subtle nod of respect and good will conveyed without words—the package is the message 

In due course, in the way life seems to spiral, I was drawn more seriously to Buddhism. What I knew was spotty and thin, from popular reading and casual research. A reunion friend mentioned an online Sangha session originating in Treasure Valley, which I join from Florida. We enjoy first rate dharma lessons and discussions with expert teachers. After three decades in the Bible Belt this has touched a certain homesickness. I have small stacks of bulleted notes. Thoughtful content, often timely, delivered with clarity and brevity. Buddhist fundamentals offered with no more bombast and spin than a livestock market report.

Photo: A road splits in the forest

They had me at “84 paths up the mountain.” This is a startling contention. Eminently sensible, it clunked into place. More familiar with “dogma or death" at volume, it is refreshing. Thoughtful, pleasing tone. I was presented with a new takeaway term I could apply: Bombu.*

“It's OK, so are we all.” There’s a relief. I thought they were on to me.

My religious indoctrination, sometimes bombastic, focused on a desperate fear of an eternity of burning agony, making the present of secondary priority. There are pleasant memories and good friends, but a little braying preaching on hellfire goes deep. The wickedness of others and their inevitable gruesome end were central, and a bit satisfying.

There are parallels to Christian teachings. For me, it is not a matter of abandoning a tradition. More a dusting off and linking. In one instance early on listening to a dharma lesson, there was a microsecond of something clicking beyond insight—I gasped—then gone. I no longer recall detail. But for an instant I may have glimpsed beneath the words. I recall the sense of awe and that it had to do with connectedness and those illustrations of mirrors reflecting all the other mirrors. I think I "saw" how this was so. Sort of a wink to a Bombu, I guess.

The familiar essence—Buddhism? Some sansei friends are Buddhist. The Japanese 500yen seller may be Buddhist. It seems to me more of a culture with core values of integrity, fair-mindedness, and thoughtful interactions—doing things well a deeply held community and personal value. It strikes me as a pragmatic consciousness. It is appealing; sometimes disarming. The most compelling evidence of the divine to me is humor, and it is part of this essence. A "just happy to be here" theme.

That essence suffuses the Sangha in able leadership and generous labor in this and wider roles. Scholars, skillful teachers, they do heavy lifting. The familiar essence is in the welcomes and bright smiles. I began to see love behind the persistent efforts of Christian friends.

Growing old along with Buddhist and Christian friends, I've watched intelligence temper to wisdom, and I suspect an advantage for those spared harsh early instruction in the preposterous, however well intentioned. Shouting moves us to an emotional stance where it is hard to think. Practical instruction with here-and-now lives interconnected in a community is an advantage.

The resilient Japanese community emanates this essence, outliers notwithstanding in a messy world. I begin to understand the growth and maturity I envy in close friends, though we do not discuss Buddhism. I am grateful for a place to ask questions, enjoy the honor of skillful listening, and hear thoughtful responses. A favorite author says love is work. As an accomplished bombu, I feel qualified to appreciate the teaching and modeling in the Sangha.

With a nod to Groucho Marx, I hesitate to contemplate an assembly that would welcome me.

But I'm trying to do better.



*凡夫 bombu / bonbu  meaning "ordinary/foolish person"