“He Made the Path Better For Others”

I recently started running again for exercise. Appropriate footwear for running is essential, and the more I run, the more I thought about the kind of trainer I would get. When thinking of running footwear, one of the first places to buy that came to mind was a shop called “Phidippides” in Encino. I knew the owner of “Phidippides”. His name was Craig Chambers. I knew him from the first class I took at college in the USA, a journalism class at Santa Monica College. I and Craig were seated next to one another. He was a good few years older than me and was taking the class because he had an interest in developing his writing skills. Writing was something he loved as much as running.

Craig not only sold running footwear, but was an extraordinary athlete, who ran all kinds of long distance races; over 200 marathons, and several ‘ultra marathons’ and 100-mile races. For five years he ran the 13 miles commute to his store in Encino from Santa Monica – and back again in the evening! But our connection was writing. I love writing, and we both had a love for writing poetry and short descriptive personal stories.

Craig was born and raised in California, and he was intrigued that I could come from another country to America on my own and begin to start a new life here at a young age. In Craig I was impressed by his congeniality. He was humble, down to earth, and friendly, and had a peaceful way about him.

One of our first assignments for that Journalism class was to interview a person in the class and write a story about them. Craig and I interviewed each other over the phone. He asked me questions about my life, and I about his. I learned about his running career, which I found extraordinary. A week later, when I wrote up the story and showed it to him, a tear came to his eye. He was genuinely touched. But I only wrote what he had told me. I was a mirror. Me and Craig never hung out together, neither during or after that class. We never talked on the phone again, and we rarely saw one another. The only times we met was when I would be in the Encino area and I might stop into his shop to take a look around and chat with Craig if he was there. Those times were few and far between though. I could count them on one hand. But even so it was always great to see him. When I would enter the shop, Craig would look up from helping the person he was with. He would give a surprised double-take glance at me, his eyes would open wide in surprise and a great smile come across his face. Craig was friendly to everyone (and knowledgeable about what he sold), which is why his shop was so busy I assumed. The last time I met him his shop was very

busy with customers. And as anyone will know, when people go out to buy running shoes, it’s not the kind of thing you pop into the shop for a few minutes, purchase and leave; you spend time there, and maybe a lot of time. Craig was very busy, but not so busy that before I left he took time for a brief chat, and then as if entrusting me with something precious, handed me a bunch of his writings on loose sheets of papers. “Take a look at these. They are some writings I have done recently,” he said with an earnest look in his eye. It had been years since we had taken the class together, and I was moved to feel that he still valued my opinion. He hadn’t forgotten our bond, and neither did I. He said goodbye in the same cheerful way that he greeted me. Several months later I stopped by again. I asked him about running shoes, and he asked me about the writings he had given me. Did I read them? What did I think? Again I was touched by the apparent value he put on my opinion.

The thing I liked about Craig and I was that we still valued our relationship in the 12 or so years since we met. So when I called the store last week I wanted to find out when Craig would be there before I made the rare drive all the way to the valley. I was looking forward to meeting him again and getting his advice on running shoes. A man’s voice answered the phone and I asked for Craig.

“Who,” said the person?

“Craig. Craig Chambers.”

“Oh, Craig isn’t here anymore,” he said.

“Where is he? Did he open a shop somewhere else?” I enquired.

“ No, Craig passed away a good few years ago.” “ Oh… I see…..”

I was deeply shocked, but even more deeply saddened to hear this news. It was almost unbelievable. How could Craig, a picture of fitness, die so early? Craig might have passed away a good few years ago, and it was even longer since we last met, but I knew that if we met today we would have greeted one another like old friends who had been regularly in touch.

Craig passed away in 2008 from melanoma. Craig being a native Californian, and me being a foreigner, brings home the impact of his passing all the more. On one level it reminds me of how long I have been living in California, and on another level makes me feel that if I, a foreigner can live on, why should someone from here not be able to live longer. It doesn’t seem fair. It might sound strange, but I can’t help how I feel about it. Craig’s death rocked me in a way I hadn’t expected. Most of the people who I have known and who died in the time I have been living in Los Angeles have been living in other countries. It is rare that I have befriended someone in California, who is young, and who is gone early in their life.

It makes me think how equal all life is. Discrimination is a human thing. His passing has brought home with force that life or death does not discriminate between rich or poor, young or old, good or bad, native or foreigner. Death is the great equalizer. When we feel this, we can be at home anywhere we are in the world. We realize that anyone (and everyone) walking on the road will be gone in a while. This world is temporary; not permanent like Buddha says we think it is. Life can be full of the unexpected -- I got a flat tire yesterday while driving on the freeway. I never expected to be writing about Craig again, twenty years after I first wrote about him, and this time writing about him in memoriam. Sad. These are words from the man himself.

“I started out dreaming of running a marathon. Then, one bright, sunny, summer morning, I woke up and began the Death Valley Ultra-Triathlon. I biked across the desert and back, swam 10 miles in the Furnace Creek pool, and ran over 100 miles back across Death Valley. Shade temperatures were 120 degrees; temperatures on the road were 180 degrees. I expected to sleep four hours after the swim; I slept two. I hoped to complete the event in 60 hours; it took me 57:22. I hoped to run the 100+ miles across Death Valley in under 24 hours; I ran 22:20, finishing late afternoon…. Personally, and privately, I consider the Death Valley Ultra-Triathlon to be a signpost on the field of human endurance. But if stupid old Craig can do it, you can do it. Or, anything you choose to do. The principle limiting agent is your own mind.” – Craig Chambers, from “Freedom and Adventure: The Death Valley 200/100/10 Ultra-Triathlon.”

After his passing the LA Times wrote an article about Craig titled, “He Made the Path Better For Others.” The journalist wrote, ‘You can do this,’ I heard him [Craig] say, repeatedly, to struggling runners that day. ‘Just take things slowly.’” I’d like to think I am being guided with those words, too. As a Shinran follower, I look to Master Shinran and the other Zenjishiki on my path. When I think of Master Shinran I can say the same thing that the LA Times writer said about Craig: Master Shinran and Zenjishiki made the path better for others, for those who came after seeking the true meaning of life. Without Master Shinran I could not be hear seeking the path. I think about times he endured in order to spread the Buddhism: sleeping in the snow outside of Hinozaemon’s home; going out to greet the enraged and sword-wielding Bennen who had come to kill him; disowning his son; being exiled to far away Echigo because of his insistence on spreading Ikkosennen muryoju butsu. He did these in order to spread the truth of Amida’s Vow, so that

future generations could listen to the true teachings. He took the hardest path. But because of his efforts, some 750 years later, I and others, from wherever we are around the world, have the opportunity to hear the essence of Buddhism and be saved into absolute happiness. In Japanese the meaning of the word “gratitude” is “to know the cause”. By knowing the cause of things we can feel grateful. Knowing about the sacrifices our parents made to raise us will make us feel gratitude towards them. Likewise learning about Master Shinran’s life and the Zenjishiki and their virtuous efforts, we can feel deeply grateful for the opportunity that we have to listen to Buddhism and not as something that can be taken for granted. This is direct cause and effect: Master Shinran’s efforts, lead to my opportunity to go towards the light. When I think about it this way, I feel that I have a personal bond to Master Shinran.

Going towards the purpose of life is like running a marathon or an ultra-marathon at that. It takes endurance, patience, and “training” to go the distance. I started out dreaming of finding who I am. On the ultra-marathon that I have commenced Master Shinran and the Zenjishiki are my guides.

Frank Costelloe, USA

Source: The Buddhist Village Times #34 | 2013, “He Made the Path Better For Others”

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