Filed in Work, Community

White Trash Buddhist

Do you have to break the bank to break into the upper middle way? A Kentucky native shows us what practice looks like on minimum wage.Brent R. Oliver

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I am forever in debt to the handful of teachers, writers, and thinkers who introduced me to Buddhist practice, provide constant inspiration, and continue to shape my knowledge of this path.

Actually, I’m just forever in debt.

Every time I get in my 12-year-old car and rattle away to the nearest retreat center, I’m reminded that I’m a poor white trash Buddhist. It’s a good thing none of those luminaries will ever try to collect, since I can’t even afford the practice as it is. That’s a shame, because the dharma saved my life.

Once a miserable creature, I was crushed by depression and pursuing self-destruction with a level of dedication that would have made even Fight Club’s Tyler Durden cringe. When I came across a little book on Buddhism, I scoffed. It wasn’t an ordinary scoff, either. It was the abrasive, well-practiced derision of the outspoken skeptic. I bought the book because I was skeptical of even my own mockery.

Just a few chapters in, I understood that I’d always been a Buddhist. After the briefest descriptions of aniccadukkha, and anatta, I felt their truths ring in my bones. These teachings didn’t just make sense; they described an innate philosophy I’d always possessed but couldn’t articulate.

This was 1998, before I had that newfangled Internet, so my search for a dharma group was confined to the listings in the back of Tricycle. I practiced as well as I could on my own, which was not very diligently. When I found a local Shambhala center, I signed right the hell up. I was ecstatic. Buddhism! In my town! I was going to fling myself at the dusty brown feet of an old Tibetan master, posthaste.

But when I showed up at the center, I made a baffling discovery: it was infested with upper-middle-class white people. I glanced around furtively for the maroon-robed saint I was sure must be nearby but found no such person. I considered slowly backing out of the room and slinking away, but it seemed rude.

So I stayed. For five years. I never officially joined, because I couldn’t pay. The membership fees were beyond my means. Thanks to some kind administrators, I was able to attend several programs. I even managed to live at one of Shambhala’s retreat centers in Vermont for two months.

There were two main groups of dedicated practitioners at the center: You had your older, upper-middle-class folks with professions, vacation time, and plenty of disposable income. Then you had your young people—generally of the same class—with no real jobs, who were content to live there in temporary poverty as long as the accommodations came with a spiritual teacher, vegetarian meals, and an honest shot at enlightenment.

The Shambhala retreat center was staffed by the latter and attended by the former. I was on the work-study crew, which meant laboring in the kitchen in exchange for room, board, and access to a large room full of cushions . . .

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