I met a man over the weekend who lives in a Zen Buddhist retreat. I think he’s technically a monk. He’s the kind of guy who had major life changes and then moved away, found inner peace, and now lives off of next to nothing in a remote, self-containing, life-affirming, meditation-and-chanting sort of way.
In other words, the kind of person I find fascinating, yet would never, ever want to be. I started asking him questions.
He’s lived there for three years now, he told me. For much of the year they meditate and live in their tiny rooms, but for part of the year the retreat becomes a tourist resort, and that’s when they work for the tourists. He’s head of the kitchen area, supervising a cooking staff. There is one phone for eighty people; it does not take calls from outside. He has a voicemail that he checks maybe once a month. There’s hardly any way to reach him. He is living his life in the most John Lennony way: no possessions, a brotherhood of man, kumbaya.
“How did you end up living there?” I asked. “At a certain point, you had to give everything up. When was that?”
“After about a year,” he said. He smiled. “It was easier than I thought it would be. It just made me so much happier, living simply like that. We spend much of the day being silent.”
“Forgive me for asking so many questions,” I said. “I’m just… you don’t get to meet someone like you that often.”
He smiled again, serene and understanding. “That’s okay. Ask away.”
“I’m a bit of an asshole, though, so I’m going to ask some other questions.”
And I suppose this is part of his teachings, somehow, dealing with an asshole like me. “Go ahead,” he said.
“Aren’t there some people there you can’t stand?”
He laughed. “No. We don’t have all that many people there.”
“Men and women?”
“No. It’s pretty strict and severe. Like I said, we don’t talk much, and there’s meditation. You’re pretty much living with yourself and your own shit, and don’t really have to interact with others.”
I nodded. “But it’s human nature to pick favorites. To get competitive. Isn’t there someone there who just…”
“No, it’s really, everybody’s great.”
“But there have to be grievances. Is there a council, or a court?”
“When people have problems, we have elders who help resolve conflicts. They are mostly societal, and not material in nature.”
“So people do get frustrated with each other, then.”
And he looked down and said, “There’s this one guy…well, he’s on my staff, and it’s already weird being in charge of people, but we have so much to do, and he’ll sharpen his knife for half an hour before he cuts the vegetables, and then another half hour after the vegetables are cut. And it’s like, Dude. You only have to sharpen your knife once, you know? I mean… he’s so slow! All the time! I don’t know how to make him speed it up. That’s the beat of his drum, you know? I can’t make him be someone he isn’t. I can’t do that. But I’m his boss, and I’ve got food to serve, and I’m supposed to tell him what to do, but I can’t because he is who he is! And I know that it’s my own shit making me frustrated with him. He can’t make me feel anything. I am letting him make me feel this way. I’m feeling this way because what he does taps into my own shit, you know?”
I’m watching this poor guy try and pull it together, but it seems I’m the first person he’s talked to about this, and now he’s telling me all about this slow guy who drives him crazy. “But even he I can deal with, because I know he’s trying. But there are some people who don’t even care! They don’t even try. They’re the ones who are so frustrating.”
I know I had to have had this smug grin because this was really satisfying and then I only encouraged it. “And then I bet your place has some poseurs. That must be annoying.”
“With the resort. I bet there are celebrities who think they’re just like you because they’re near you and wearing the robes.”
“You have to really want to be there if you’re there,” he says. “It’s not a hobby.”
I can’t even say I wanted to drop it right then. “So there aren’t some people who get competitive about their meditation?”
“Ugh. Some people really get into wearing the robes. I mean, for some it’s really important to have the robes and the things to hold — ”
“Like rosary beads.”
“Exactly. But then some people just get so excited about wearing the robes, like they’re so into wearing the robes, you know?”
And then we were interrupted by someone who asked what we were discussing. “She was just getting me to vent,” the monk said, a little sheepishly. I apologized for getting him so riled up. “No, it was really interesting,” he said. “Something to think about.” When we saw each other a little later, he didn’t try to resume our conversation. I let it go, feeling guilty enough for making him think he was only half Zen.
I told stee the story later. “You’re right,” he said. “You really are an asshole.”
I just find it reassuring that no matter where you are in life, no matter where you live, even if you give up all of your possessions and live the most selfless way possible, there’s still going to be some douche at your job who makes you eighteen kinds of crazy. There are nuns who hate other nuns. There are monks who overmonk and drive everyone else in Tibet up a fucking wall. We are people, and people get sick of other people. That doesn’t make you a bad person. That makes you human.