Retreat for compassion, or from compassion

At Buddhist retreats, everyone is usually too blissed-out to drum up unkind words or an angry spat. You also don’t hear much complaining about money. After all, dharma is priceless. It’s like a Visa commercial.

Comfy yet sturdy meditation cushion: $60

Pack lunch so don’t have to leave your mountain retreat for food: $5.50

Weekend retreat with enlightened Tibetan Buddhist master who spent 20 years in a Chinese prison and is still the most compassionate person you’ve ever met: priceless.

So it was jarring to hear someone say (rather loudly) on the second morning of the retreat:

“I paid $120 for this retreat, and I should be comfortable.”

What happened to priceless?

The weekend retreat focused on compassion for all beings. So when I heard the young hippie girl, who was probably at her first Buddhist retreat (she didn’t have a mala, nor did she know how to pronounce words in Tibetan or Sanskrit), snap at the caretaker of the building we were using about having some chairs too close to her, my first thought was that she’s not catching on to this whole compassion thing.

But maybe I’m not catching onto that whole compassion thing. Throwing a difficult person into the middle of a bunch of blissed-out Buddhists on a lovely retreat in the mountains is actually a good way practice compassion. I could stay blissed out and ignore her, but isn’t that retreating from compassion?

The caretaker reminded hippie girl that everyone else had paid the same amount for the retreat, too, and she simmered but remained silent. So I did ignore hippie girl — temporarily.

Later that day, my nose wasn’t liking the cloud of incense hanging in the room, so I moved back to the bench hippie girl was leaning against and cracked open the window. She gave me a dirty look immediately.

“If you get cold, let me know,” I said, noticing she was just wearing short sleeves (winter in mountains, hello?).

“I’m cold,” she said bluntly, and swung her head back around to chant the mantra (wrong) loudly. She’d been in my ear all day.

Yeah, I know you’re cold, I thought. I narrowed the crack of the window a bit, but I was dying for fresh, non-incense-laden air. Wear a sweater next time like the rest of us, I thought as I sucked in some mountain air and let cool air sink in through the tiny crack. I glanced at a lady not four feet from hippie girl who was fanning herself and sweating. I felt bad for her, but angry with stupid hippie girl. There’s no reason to be so snotty at a retreat for compassion, I thought. Besides, dharma isn’t about being comfortable, and it isn’t about how much you pay for it. I’m sure she can get a refund on enlightenment if she’s dissatisfied, I thought.

Well, so much for blissed-out ignorance. No retreating from compassion here. I was facing it head on, because I clearly had no compassion for hippie girl, and I knew it. I was indignant for myself and anyone else who’d had to deal with unpleasant hippie girl (who can’t seem to get this whole compassion thing). It’s all hippie girl’s fault, right?

I knew it wasn’t. This is a great practice.

The last day of the retreat, hippie girl sat far from me and the windows. The lamas backed off on the incense. It was a lovely, happy day, because I remembered that while it’s nice to be up in the mountains, up in the clouds and blissed-out, unchallenged by mean people, Buddhism isn’t about being comfortable — for unpleasant hippie girls or insulted caretakers or me. It’s about being in the clouds and on the ground at the same time, and having compassion for everyone who is still stuck in ego, like me.

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