By Brent R. Oliver
When I was 23, I discovered Buddhism and it pulled my stupid ass out of the fire.
My life was utterly pointless and I was edging toward the precipice, ready to jump. Buddhist philosophy instantly made sense and soothed all the existential angst I’d been working on so hard since age 14.
It just clicked, you know? The real world suddenly came into focus.
A few years later, I stumbled across my local Shambhala center. Holy shit! I didn’t know they had Buddhism in my town, so I joined up.
At the time, I didn’t know much about the vast multitude of Buddhist schools and approaches. I vaguely understood that Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan were different permutations and I felt a strong pull toward the Tibetan variety (probably because it was the only thing available in Lexington, KY). However, I decided I’d been a Tibetan in one of my innumerable past lives because I swallowed the whole reincarnation party line at the beginning.
Shambhala was my first love. And, like most first loves, it wasn’t perfect but it didn’t have to be. It was brand new and shiny and exciting and sexy as hell with all its multi-colored gods and demons bumping their hideous uglies. I’d never experienced real live Buddhism before, with real live Buddhists and meditation and shrines and shit.
After a couple of years with Shambhala, I figured I should deepen my practice. They ran a residential retreat center in aggressively rural Vermont where I could do work-study. In return for laboring with the kitchen staff, I’d get three meals a day and access to classes, programs, senior teachers, and the occasional by-god Rinpoche. I’d also get to live in a tent in the woods about half a mile from the Blair Witch’s house.
After sending in an application and doing a phone interview, they unwisely decided I would be a swell addition to the work-study team. So in August of 2001, I took an unpaid vacation from my bartending job to spend the rest of the summer at Buddha Camp in the Vermont wilderness.
It wasn’t an easy transition. Being a dedicated indoorsman, I was pretty resistant to the notion of sleeping in a tent for 60 days.
I spent my first two nights in what they, for some reason, called the men’s “dorm.” In reality, it was a collection of about 10 bunk beds jammed into a shadowy, dank basement that smelled like a fart had thrown up in its own mouth.
After those two smelly, sleepless nights, I fled into the woods, Blair Witch be damned. I stumbled around, tripping over roots and smacking into trees like every horror movie character until I found an unoccupied tent. It was a 15 minute hike straight up the goddamn mountain every night in a smothering darkness untouched by any urban light pollution. The creepy sounds filling the woods were obviously supernatural and they were getting closer.
I always made this terrifying trek with my trusty Benchmade folding knife in one hand and my massive Maglite in the other. My fellow work-study buddies, comfortable with the spooky outdoors, laughed that I was ready to “cut and clobber.”
I didn’t really fit in at Buddha Camp. It was home to every version of hippie imaginable, a smattering of Dharma brats, and vast acreages of well-off, well-groomed white people looking to chill the fuck out. Everyone seemed to be trying super hard to be wise and compassionate bodhisattvas which created an atmosphere of slightly manufactured niceness.
I dropped into this sea of saccharine sweetness like a monster shark sniffing for blood. Noah Levine’s Dharma Punx hadn’t been published yet so I thought I was the lone Buddhist who rejected the hippie ideal and embraced the radical rebellion of the path.
Suddenly, all these kind-hearted buddhas-to-be had to deal with the shaved-headed, aggressive, loud-mouthed comedian in their midst. I refused to get up with everyone at 6 a.m. to do all the morning rituals in the shrine room because it was optional and 6 a.m. is a ridiculous time. I constantly made fun of the superstitious elements of Shambhala and Tibetan Buddhism. I cracked obnoxious jokes trying to get laughs out of these serious people and I was purposefully vulgar since everyone else was so goddamn polite and soft-spoken.
I still wanted to participate, though.
I knew I could learn a lot if I let myself relax a little and be a part of the sangha I was gently antagonizing. My schedule made it hard since I was cooking lunch when everyone else was free and then I was free during everyone else’s work period. I spent most of my off hours alone reading dharma books and secretly listening to Tool albums since we weren’t supposed to have music.
Right before dinner there was a group meditation in the shrine room. I always went to that, even though there was an inordinate amount of chanting to the domesticated demons that were supposed to protect the retreat center. I wasn’t into that, but at least I was part of the gang.
After dinner, there might be a dharma talk or a video of Chogyam Trungpa. In some of those videos he was obviously drunk. In others, there were elaborate ceremonies dripping with all the glam and ersatz royalty that Trungpa created for the Kingdom of Shambhala.
I had questions. No one wanted to answer them.
I was told numerous times my queries about Trungpa’s behaviors and vision were very inappropriate. I wasn’t criticizing, mind you; just questioning. But it became obvious that Trungpa was still the undisputed King and his legacy was bulletproof. Apparently, Shambhala suffered the same reluctance to discuss thorny subjects as did the Abrahamic religions.
Everyone but me went to bed early since everyone but me got up early. I was used to bartending late and staying up even later. We weren’t allowed to watch any movies and internet access was severely limited, so when everyone turned in, I was left to my own devices.
Me and my devices got bored quickly.
There’s only so much Buddha-related shit you can read before you need a change of pace. I was used to devouring novels and movies, neither of which were available. I mean, I get it. The point was to limit our distractions so we could assiduously focus on practice and study.
And it worked. A little. I read several great books that helped me understand Tibetan Buddhism better. I meditated at least twice a day in the gorgeous shrine room. And, after a lifetime of jagged insomnia, I found myself sleeping well in a tent in the middle of a haunted forest.
I still caused trouble, though. It was almost a reflex. I was the “bad crowd” at Buddha Camp and I attracted a few others who were less hippie-spiritual and more renegade dharma anarchists.
Despite the restrictions on media and entertainment, there was no prohibition on drinking, so we drank. All you had to do was sign out one of the two ancient cars available for staff use, drive 20 minutes to the nearest minuscule, New England redneck town, find an open liquor store, spend 15 of the 25 dollars you made each month, drive back 20 minutes, and you were ready to party. We built huge campfires after everyone else had gone to bed and stayed up late pounding beers and talking shit (also, smoking weed, which was definitely against the rules…and some laws).
After one long night of puff-puff-give, I was far too stoned to make it up the Blair Witch’s mountain to my tent. I had to be helped by two slightly less stoned outcasts. It was like Ray Charles guiding Stevie Wonder.
At one point, I led a stealthy ninja mission into the center’s carefully raked Zen rock garden. Under cover of darkness, I dove in and thrashed out a pretty decent gravel angel. Even the other pariahs were a little appalled. Only one of them was bold enough to jump in with me.
The next day, I giggled like a jackass watching the garden guy confusedly re-rake his usually immaculate domain.
I was always the one who found other shit to do. You know, instead of practice, which is why I was there. The tiny town nearby had one movie theatre with three screens. I would skulk off in the car to go see whatever was playing. When people found out, they wanted to go with me since they were starved for a bit of the outside world.
I commandeered the van one night and smuggled out some staff and retreat attendees to go bowling. I had to get them back early, but still, we drank beer and slung balls.
I made friends with a Canadian who had the same questioning attitude I did but was smart enough to keep it mostly to himself. On one of the rare occasions we had two days off in a row, we had a drinking contest. I’d been making fun of Canada; he’d been making fun of America; it was time to throw down. So, we got a fifth of vodka and 12 beers and settled into the dining room. Since no one had to get up early, we had a small audience at first. But once ten o’ clock rolled around, everyone was bored with our drunken shenanigans and went to bed.
We finished the fifth of vodka and two beers each then called it a tie. Afterwards, we stumbled around the dark and silent main house talking about all our quibbles with organized Buddhism and finally went to bed around 3 or 4.
He and I are still great pals, even though he’s a filthy Canadian. We text each other and talk way too infrequently on Skype. We’re both still skeptics, still questioners, still not joiners.
But he was the only real friend I made there, mostly because I felt like everyone else was drinking the Kool-Aid.
I thought they’d sold out to the Trungpa mythos and traded their authenticity for a bogus geniality. No one seemed real; they just struck me as bodhisattva clones going through the motions.
I don’t know if I was correct in that opinion but I do know that I wasted my time at Buddha Camp. I had a big chip on my shoulder and was absolutely determined to be the guy who shook things up. I was predisposed to react to gentler practitioners with sneering disdain because I was holding on to my contempt for dear life. I didn’t want to lose it; I didn’t want to soften it. I was a Buddhist, and a meditator, but I only wanted the practice to change certain things about myself.
I still don’t really fit in with most other Buddhists. I remain far too inquisitive and suspicious for them. I’m unwilling to trade my rationale for any belief, no matter how comforting, unless my own direct experience corroborates it. I also like the cutting edge of Buddhism and meditation: secular mindfulness, neuroscientific research, streamlining the dharma, and especially Shinzen Young’s approach. That doesn’t sit well with a lot of traditionalists.
I am starting to relax, though, and let the practice do its work on me.
I’m finally easing up and thawing out, becoming less caustic. I still call “bullshit” when I see bullshit, but I try to point it out rather than shout it out.
I really don’t know how the majority of people at Buddha Camp thought of me. I was definitely something of a hellion but was I a lovable one? Endearing at least?
There was a corkboard outside the dining room. It was the one place we all went every day, so any announcements were posted there. On my last day, someone tacked up a note that said, “Brent is leaving today!!!”
Three exclamation points. Even now, I’m not sure how to take that. Did they mean that one of their favorites was leaving so everyone should give me a hug and bid me fond farewell? Or did they mean the asshole everyone complained about was finally moving on and they were excited to be rid of me?
Yeah…I think I know the answer.
Editor: Dana Gornall
In addition to being a columnist at The Tattooed Buddha, Brent’s writing has also appeared in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and Morpheus. He lives in Lexington, KY with his wife, two cats, and a crippling addiction to horror. Swing by his website brentpurpleoliver.com for more information.