I accidentally signed up my mother and I for a volunteer work camp. I didn’t realize it was a Stalin-era, Nazi pre-game work camp. The irony of a pair of Russian Jews ending up in a work camp did not escape us. We aren’t even run-of-the-mill Russian Jews. My mother is an immigrant. She fled communist Russia to avoid this sort of thing and here I was manifesting my first-world guilt in volunteerism. There was no better way to spend Labor Day weekend than with manual labor. It was an honest mistake. I was (let’s be honest, I always am) in need of some soul-searching, kumbaya, and peacenik time. I thought, “What could be better than spending a weekend at a Buddhist monastery?” That’s when I searched online and found Bhavana Society in West Virginia. Visitors can come to the monastery by signing up for retreats, which include free room and board. I saw the schedule online and it said that we had to work for a few hours a day. I thought, “Sure that makes sense. I’ll work for my stay.” I imagined that I was going to rake sand or get into some zen-like fruit cutting. Nope. I spent my time splitting wood, pulling algae out of a lily pond while knee-deep in it, and shoveling gravel. I don’t have much experience in log-splitting. Most girls who enjoy getting pedicures and buying lipstick at Sephora haven’t spent a lot of time around axes. And at 5’2” I’m not exactly Paul Bunion’s kid sister. They had two petite women and a delicately built monk in charge of splitting wood and stacking them. The other jobs were no walk in the park either. My mom reorganized and cleaned two tool sheds. Others cleaned gutters, trimmed trees, painted little huts, built a porch, etc. Then there was the gravel shoveling, which made me feel like I accidentally ended up in North Korea. Opa Gungan style!
Turns out that this was the one retreat out of the entire year where guests were supposed to do manual labor. Oops. Every other retreat people stay and eat for free and meditate all day. Generally, you are not allowed to talk on these retreats, so I thought that this was a perfect vacation for my mom and me. We were going to get along great. My sister told me that if I’d like to go on another vacation I could visit her in Miami. I would clean her house and in return she’d offer me a bowl of rice. I think we found a new business model for vacations. Anyone want to visit the beautiful landscapes of Afghanistan? You’ll just have to spend a few hours a day digging through rubble and killing terrorists. Go Army! This is not what I imagined Julia Roberts’ life was like in Eat, Pray, Love. How disappointed would I have been had I traveled to a monastery in Nepal or India and halfway into the third day thought, “Does anyone wanna turn on the AC? Who wants to watch American Idol? Anyone know where I can find a mattress with a box spring? Wood planks hurt my back.” I was half expecting that all the women would stay in one large room à la prison or an orphanage. I was pleasantly surprised that we had our own rooms. Of course, it was not 5-star accommodation, but if a monastery looked like the Westin, someone would have some splainin’ to do. The food was to die for. It blew my mind. It was all vegetarian (Buddhists don’t kill anything) but it was so flavorful and rich in textures. I couldn’t get enough of it. I thought that it would be a lot like Indian food, but it wasn’t at all like it.
Since it was a work retreat, they allowed us to talk and I met some wonderful people. The head and founding monk goes by the name of Bhante G and when I met him I thought he was Yoda incarnate. He even sounded like him. He is a wise, shriveled man from Sri Lanka with dark piercing eyes that shine and have a presence of their own. Bhante G is 85 years old and sharp as a whip, with a PhD in philosophy. He’s also a prolific author, and my mom and I purchased a few of his amazing books, which he graciously signed. Mindfulness in Plain English is among his most popular. I met a Sri Lankan family of four. They were all smiles and had an infectious positivity. The girls were 11 and 9. The 11-year-old asked how old I was. When I told her that I was 32, she said that she thought I was a teenager. I told her, “That’s ‘cause I have frizzy hair and pimples.” She laughed hysterically. It wasn’t supposed to be THAT FUNNY. There was only one annoying person who was competitive and smug about her Buddhism, which seemed to defeat the purpose. She said things like “Oh I’ve been here many, many times. I know my way around here, and my Buddhist name is Shangri-la.” Shangri-La isn’t even a real place. It’s from a 1930s novel, but whatever. She was also clever and sneaky. She signed up to work in the library all weekend, which I didn’t realize was a sweet deal until I was asked to shovel gravel. I can only imagine what she was like before she became a Buddhist. We meditated every day from 5:30-7am and 7:30-9pm. Buddhists are the masters of meditation, and I initially wanted to go to the monastery so that I could practice. I’ve been meditating for years and I won’t shut up about it. “It’s changed my life forever for the better: blah, blah, blah.” I quickly learned that a serious meditator does not a Buddhist make. Turns out you have to worship Buddha and such. Who would have figured? I like to think that I am open-minded about religion, but apparently I’m not that open-minded. I really like Buddha’s teachings, but I couldn’t bow down to a statue. Although I always fancied myself rebellious, I just sat there and respectively observed. They didn’t expect everyone to comply. They knew that people of all religions were there, and they respected their beliefs and differences. I am really grateful that I got to spend my weekend at the Bhavana Society. Even though I complained about splitting wood and waking up at 5am, it was a relief to spend a weekend away from technology and the raging narcissism and materialism that pervades our society. Speaking of which, have you seen my Louis Vuitton purse? It’s real. I promise.Jessica Brodkin is a stand up comedian based out of Washington, D.C. Follow her on twitter @jessicabrodkin