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The Man on the Subway

Guest post time again! I don’t have anyone lined up for next week, so if you’re in the mood to do some writing, send me an email.

This week, we have Philip Miller, who first discovered Buddhism fifty years ago but only recently came grasp it. He’s a member of the Heart of the Lotus Sangha, Princeton NJ. Today, he writes about a chance meeting he had three years ago. It was an incident so powerful that he tried to record the gentleman’s words from memory as he rode home on the bus:

Phil Miller

Phil Miller

The Man on the Subway
by Philip Miller

Last night I had one of those rare “New York Moments” that intersected with the spiritual plane.

I had boarded my customary E Train at West Fourth Street and proceeding uptown to 42nd Street and the Port Authority Bus Terminal for my ride home to New Jersey. The train was packed, as usual, and most of my fellow passengers who were seated were either immersed in their newspapers or books or were dosing, and those who were standing were holding on for dear life in that packed train.

At the next stop, 14th Street, an African American gentleman got on. He stood about 6’4, built like a linebacker, and was nattily dressed in a modish suit, the kind that one might expect to see worn to church on Sunday. Even before the doors closed he began to harangue the passengers like a Bible-belt preacher in a mellifluous and stentorian voice.

The passengers, typical New Yorkers, seemded unruffled by this distraction on their commute home., and I admit, I too wanted to tune him out.

But his voice boomed over the noise of the train and I found myself straining to catch what he was saying. Before we reached 42nd Street I heard him say:

“You are probably wondering when I am going to pass the hat. Well, I am not. I only want you to do one thing for me. Please look at the person sitting or standing next to you and recognize the image of God in that person’s face. Each face carries the beauty of God. We are all kind to our family and friends. But think about the beauty of God in that stranger next to you, and realize whatever kindness or selfless act you perform for ANY stranger only increases God’s beauty in you. I am not asking for money. Only for you to see God everywhere and in everyone around you.”

At 42nd Street he bounded off the train and walked with such enormous strides that I was completely unable to keep up with him, let alone reach to thank him for allowing me that moment of Grace.

No, he did not preach in the name of Buddha, but his words were clearly “Dharma.”

Wikipedia defines Dharma [upper case] as “a … spiritual and religious term that means one’s righteous duty, or any virtuous path in the common sense of the term…” Further on, it says that it “contextually implies one’s religion…, ” and is presented as a central concept that is used in order to explain the ‘higher truth’ or ultimate reality of the universe.

It was once explained to me that dharma [lower case] at its root had nothing to do with religion and simply means “experience; event; happening.” As such, anything and everything that happens to us is “dharma,” and our Karma determines our “dharma.”

The wise person learns from every experience, event, or happening, for even something that externally may appear to be negative has a positive side.

The “dharma = experience” of hearing this gentleman at that time and place, as well as the message he brought was clearly “Dharma.”


About two weeks after this happened, I was on the E Train going uptown at about the same time. As I alighted at 42nd Street I found myself in the passageway next to this same gentleman. He had obviously been on a different car of the same train.

This time I stopped him and thanks him for his message. Squeezing my hand in his, he replied, “How can you thank me for something you already own?”

With than, he leaned forward, kissed me on the cheek, released my hand, and bounded away.

Phil doesn’t have a website, but if you post comments below, he’ll be sure to see them.

8 comments to The Man on the Subway

  • Sabrina

    Thanks so much for sharing. I think when we have these moments of grace, apart from our the changes we hope will occur in our own behaviours, it is very important to pass them along. This is not the same kind of thing but I will share one of my moments. Once when I was backpacking around S.E.Asia and I was trekking in India, I came across a Buddhist monastery who asked for money to let me enter. On principle, I don’t give money to churches, but as I checked my pockets, I found a plaster cast of Buddha that I had no idea how it got there. It turns out that when I had been on my way to the hospital in Thailand (I got hit by a motorized rickshaw) a taxi driver thought I needed help and gave me the icon. I gave it to the monastery and they were quite happy. There, in the himilayas, I thought about the way life continues to be a mystery. I think you get what you need when you are ready to appreciate it. Good luck to you and again thanks for sharing.

  • zac

    I particularly liked this story. Thank you for sharing. I liked that it as unique as any given day to day situation, and it applies so many varying parts of any given day – to attaining awarenesses of so many different facets of what is taking place – and in accordance with the right attention aids in the journey of infinite appreciation – which i feel is a stepping stone towards blissful day-to-days. Aand the man’s huble response -one needn’t say thanks for waht they already have. But one can share it in a hopes other will recieve and preceive. Thanks again 🙂

  • steve

    what a wonderful insight into the interconnectedness of all of “us” and of GOD,Buddha,Life and whatever label you want to give IT.

  • I just returned from my native NY and I said many times in the last few days, verbatim, “God is closer to me in NY.” I love stories like this; they happen to me as well. Whether it’s because NY is my home or because it is its own miraculous energetic field, the most earthly kind of divinity crops up for me on this island.

    Thanks for this story! I hope I catch this guy one day on the E!

  • […] The Man on the Subway ¬´ Daily Buddhism Last night I had one of those rare ‚ÄúNew York Moments‚Äù that intersected with the spiritual plane. […]

  • Phil

    You may be poin ting out the obvious diconnect between “last night” and two weeks later. The first part of the posting was taken from a diary entry, dated Sept. 2005. Two weeks later was, well… October 2005.

  • Phil; the timing was fine as you wrote it, I think everyone understood you wrote it “last night” but it happened “two weeks ago” prior to that point.

    The post from “daily / links” is a snippet from some OTHER blog that linked to your story. It’s an automated thing… click on their link to go to that blog and see what they had to say.

  • Jami

    Edward Conze- perhaps Suzuki too- used to make comparisons with the various conceptions of ‘Nirvana’ and ‘God’. In showing the subtelty of those two terms, they were able to show their similarity.

    Phil Miller, in his memorable way, has encountered the unique meaning of a word (dharma)in a busy subway and through the presence of an Afro-American Christian.

    Very nice.