I have recently taken an interest in Buddhism, so decided to learn more by going to a festival called Buddhafest. I expected this to be a place bursting with (partially) enlightened Buddhists with whom I could chat into the night about life and philosophy. With a name like Buddhafest, I expected to find a field of Buddhists, but as it turns out, Buddhafest is about as authentically Buddhist as the average Buddha bar, or even Budapest. Somewhere along the way the word ‘Buddhist’ seems to have become confused with ‘overly spiritual extreme eco-warrior. The majority of the festival space was taken up with holistic workshops and environmental talks offered by people with names such as ‘Celestial-one’ and ‘Ruby-Skygazer’. The actual Buddhists (of which there were about three) were positioned in the far corner, strangely out of sight, and sadly, downwind from the toilets.
Despite the lack of official Buddhism, the opening ceremony of the festival included a cult-like attempt at a Buddhist ceremony. The climactic finale of this strange experience came with the revealing (by removal of a large, stained bedsheet) of a giant mass produced plastic Buddha adorned in Christmas fairy lights. At the same time, people dressed in cheesecloth chanted ‘Om Shanti om’ whilst randomly smiling at each other with the kind of crazed acceptance you’d only see in a Victorian psychiatric unit.
By the end of this mass initiation, I was certain that I had accidentally joined a cult, and felt apprehensive about integrating myself. I therefore hid in my tent for a couple of hours to acclimatise myself and calm down. As I sat there, secretly munching on my contraband beef jerky, I could not help but overhear the conversations around me. One of these was a greeting between two friends. On being asked “How are you, what have you been up to?”, the other responded “Wonderful man, I have been really busy spreading positive vibrations. My chakras are wide open. It must be to do with Jupiter crossing mercury. I can’t wait to see what the universe has in store for me”. This was welcomed with a “Ohhh yeah… Mmm… That really resonates man”. The most worrying part of this interaction was that they appeared to be completely sober. Buddhafest folk are friendly in that special way that people are friendly when they are coming up on acid; all of their speech and body movements are exaggerated and occur in slow motion, or as if they are underwater.
Buddhafest took place about five hours drive from Brighton, in the middle of the Dorset countryside. This seemed quite odd, as nearly everyone there was from Brighton. In fact I think that nearly every true Brightonian might have been there. On realising this, I imagined my hometown, deserted apart from office workers and tourists, all wandering the streets wondering where the smell of Nag Champa had gone. Maybe they’d open a few more gastropubs in everyone’s absence. It also seemed quite ironic that in this festival, devoted to saving the planet and minimising pollution, that about 3000 of us, all from Brighton, decided to drive 200 miles to the Dorset countryside for a big meeting about using less petrol.
I expected there to be a hippy vibe at Buddhafest, so I made sure to pack clothes that I thought would make me blend in. With flowy skirts and oversized Alladin trousers at the ready, I thought I was safe. However, there seems to be a level of hippy that I wasn’t aware of, even though I live in Brighton. There also seems to be a dress code, which requires all clothing to be entirely made of hemp, lama wool, or recycled rubbish. The bohemian clothing in my wardrobe did not adhere to these rules. I may as well have been wearing a suit and tie, as I stood out like chairman Mao at a human rights protest. I would have been better off ditching the ‘Boho’ in favour of ‘Hobo’. To compensate, I purchased a headdress of plastic flowers with which to adorn myself. I noticed a few nudists walking around, and briefly considered the option of simply removing my all of my own clothes, but decided against it.
We were quite lucky to have hot weather during our stay, with the sun shining its celestial beams onto our happy cult. Unfortunately, the rising heat meant that I needed several rounds of therapy to combat the trauma I suffered from using, or indeed merely witnessing, the toilet facilities. Being a vegan festival, the only food options consisted of beans, pulses, and chickpeas (or a tasteless brown concoction of all three). As time went on it was clear that a strict diet of these main ingredients was enough to turn anyone is bowels into a gurgling, flatulent mess. By day 4, even the most hardened vegan had been turned into a sweating and squitting wreck of a human shell at risk of dysentery. Being an eco-haven, the only facilities were compost toilets… ths meant that there were only some delicate wood shavings as a barrier between the wrath of one toilet user’s derriere and the next visitor. Waiting in the toilet queue whilst downwind was worse than waiting for execution on death row. The ladies urinal was no better. It resembled a cattle feeding station, requiring women to squat with their feet on either side of a long metal trough and aim at the middle, with no regard of who might be looking at this barbaric lack of dignity unfold.
The only available shower was a cold water hose at one end of the field helpfully held by a naked man with a beard like Gandalf and a smile like the Cheshire cat, things got rather fruity. Workshops in any of the smaller tents, or any requiring movement, required high doses of anti-emetics. One example of this was my experience of laughter yoga. I had never previously realised how much heat is given off by a person when they laugh hysterically. At the end of the laughter yoga session, we were required to lie on the floor in a crisis cross pile, each with our head on a fellow festival goers tummy, like a human woven basket. This was the ‘freestyle’ part of the workshop where laughter flows naturally in waves as everyone gets the giggles. With each laughter wave came a tsunami of heat from the people surrounding me, along with a near suffocating hot body odour from the nearest armpits. It was so strong that I could taste it. It tasted like a vegetable curry that had been left in the sun for several days. Whilst I applaud everyone who defies media body image ideals, on this occasion I felt the strong urge to find a hedge trimmer and attend to everyone’s armpit hair as I was certain that much of the noxious stench was being contained – and emitted – from these unwashed masses of human foliage. When the vomit reached my throat, I departed from the human basket and escaped for air.
How and why did Buddhism become so synonymous with eco-warriors? Did Buddha preach about the perils of using plastic bags?! It seems people need to be reminded that attending a yoga class does not make them a Buddhist. There seems to be a strange irony about vehemently rejecting oppressive religious dogma only to replace the word ‘god’ with ‘the universe’…and openly preach the same message, only with slightly different words and a fixed smug expression. Likewise, recreating symbols of non-materialism in mass-produced plastic and selling them for a profit seems to me, to miss the point. So, I trundled back home, no more enlightened than when I left, but looking forward to the most liberating shower I’d ever have in my life.