Warning: naughty language ahead!
To meditate with the enlightened Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh is akin to playing guitar with Pete Townsend, making cookies with Martha Stewart or tying your shoes with Mister Rogers.
And so, despite my tight budget, when I heard back in 2008 that “Thay”, as he is known, was leading a retreat in California, I did what any overzealous aspiring Buddhist would do: I mailed off a hot check to procure my place at the monastery.
All Thay wants is for us to be happy with ourselves and each other. He reminds us that intent is the key—aim for your compassionate goals but don’t worry if you fall short.
“When we follow the North Star,” says Thay, “we don’t really expect to reach the North Star itself. We just hope to go north.”
Buddhists strive not to have attachments, but humans, like vacuum cleaners, come with many. Still, if you want to sit with Thay, you must find a way to let go of some of the more obvious ones, like smoking, meat eating, drinking booze and sleeping past 5 a.m.. Other attachments we were required to release during the retreat included iPods and laptops.
Which left me with my cell phone to contemplate. Technically cell phones were not banned, though they were discouraged. If we did use them, it had to be outside of Noble Silence time—10 p.m. every night until 2 p.m. the following day. During these stretches, all attendees were required to keep their pieholes tightly shut or else risk coming back in the next life as a teacup Chihuahua at a rescue ranch for hawks.
Pre-retreat I’d toyed with leaving my phone at home. But soon enough I was rationalizing—what if my son needed to reach me? Which was, I admit, code speak for What if I can’t live without talking to my new boyfriend Warren for five days?
I swore I would only call Warren from airports, not from the monastery. And I maintained this vow. For about twenty hours. But midway through day one, Noble Silence having ended with the conclusion of Afternoon Gruel Consumption, I just had to tell him something extremely important. So I texted him:
“I CAN’T WAIT TO DO YOU BABY.”
Having convinced myself that it was okay to utilize my phone to text—come on, if they were that serious about silence they could’ve knocked out the cell tower—I decided, what the hell; I’ll save wear and tear on my opposable thumbs and just call him.
And so it was, on day two that I climbed up a mountain path, far from the meditating crowd, and called home. While on that call, I got an incoming message from a friend in crisis, a call I returned immediately in the name of compassion. A fellow retreatant hiked by me as I consoled my distraught friend. When he got about fifty yards past me, he shouted something. What was he saying? And then I understood: He was yelling at me.
“Can’t I use this mountain, too?!” he bellowed angrily, by which he meant: “Pardon me, I’m a loud, domineering dick disguised as a peace-loving Buddhist and I am using enraged sarcasm to shame you and yelling to let you know you are talking too loud!”
Few things chap my ass more than being shushed, particularly by a man. So I ended my call and went marching after the screaming madman.
“Excuse me,” I said, when I caught up. “Did you just yell at me?”
“That’s your perception,” he hissed, launching into a sort of Zen Orwellian doublespeak.
“I was helping a distraught friend,” I informed him.
“And now you’re confronting me!” he said, shushing me again.
That did it. I busted out my most angry line given that a huge Buddha statue was looming nearby. “You are making me very unhappy,” I said.
“Your unhappiness is an obstacle of your own creation,” he replied, smugly.
I walked away. He came after me. “So you’re just going to walk away?”
“You never would have yelled at me if I were a man.”
“Not true,” he said. “That’s just your issue to work on.”
“No, my work is to rip off your head and shit down your lungs, asshole,” I said, using my patented South Jersey Buddhism, which involves enlightening dicks by metaphorically punching them in the nose.
Okay, so I didn’t really say that. But I wanted to.
That night, I pointed out the jerk to my friend, Kymmie.
“That can’t be the guy who yelled at you,” she said. “He’s really nice. We clean the toilets together. He’s part of my assigned camp family.”
I decided to call Warren the next day, again seeking a private place to do so. The porta-potties were way off in the corner of a parking lot, out of everyone’s earshot. I brought a chair with me to maximize comfort. I wrapped up in my hand-knitted recycled Tibetan silk meditation shawl. I settled in and got ready to make the call. Along wandered Kymmie.
And then, from nowhere, he appeared: Mister Go Yell It on the Mountain. Yes, in a camp filled with a thousand meditators, with me far away from them all, my loser magnet was apparently strong enough to pull him to me.
“I’m Joe,” he said, offering his hand, clearly not recognizing me.
“I know,” I said. “You yelled at me yesterday.”
“WAS THAT YOU?!” he shouted. I did not shush him. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“Well I’m right here, making calls from the porta-potty so as not to disturb you,” I said.
Joe said he wanted to share his feelings and work through it.
Really though, he just wanted to continue being a pig in a blanket, a dick wrapped in enlightened language. Picking up where he’d left off, he unsuccessfully attempted to disguise his vitriolic woman-hating in words that suggested he wanted me to believe he was talking about spiritual growth.
When he was done, I thanked him for explaining and then, in equally carefully-selected words, I ripped him another asshole.
Kymmie, ever the peacemaker, intervened. “I know,” she said brightly, as the tension between Joe and me mounted and I wondered if I might be the first person ever to get in a fistfight at a Buddhist retreat. “You two pose for a picture!”
And so we stood, side-by-side, our smiles actually grimaces. But we did it for Kymmie. And we did it for Thay. We aimed for the North Star, not reaching that goal, but making it as far as the plastic rental toilets.
Author: Spike Gillespie
Editor: Caroline Beaton