Mountain Buddha: The Origin Story
I never pictured myself as a blogger. After graduate school, most of the writing I did, when I did it, revolved around literary criticism. That was the original plan: get an MA, work as an adjunct for one, maybe two years, then apply to a Ph.D. program somewhere to finish up my education and get a tenure-track position working in the field of 16th and 17th Century British Literature—particularly Milton studies. But life happened. Two kids later (three total), a mortgage and nearly ten years on, here I am, still working several part time jobs to hold down the fort. While the work can be tenuous, with no benefits, no guarantee of how many classes I’ll get any given semester, and no pay between semesters or in the Summer, I still love what I do. It’s hard for me to picture doing anything else. I struggle and complain from time to time, but really, outside of being a travel/adventure writer, I don’t think there is anything I’d rather be doing to earn a paycheck.
I’m also an addict—currently in recovery—and that’s part of why I started this blog; writing has become a sort of outlet, a way to channel that negative energy into something positive, therapeutic. However, this is not a piece about my battle with addiction. Maybe someday I’ll write that; but I’m not ready to do it today. This piece, as the title suggests, outlines the evolution of the Mountain Buddha project and attempts to discover what Mountain Buddha stands for and what it means to be a Buddha-baller. In a way, I hope that the writing of this essay will provide me and my readers with a better understanding of what it all means.
When I posted my first piece in August of 2017 the blog was called “The First Step”. At that time the blog did not have a real identity; it was merely an outlet for me to share my story, about which I was very hesitant. I had just entered recovery and was literally– as I hiked my way toward wherever it was that I was going—taking the first steps toward wellness. I hadn’t been sober in probably twenty-five years and I was uncertain of what sobriety was supposed to look like or if I was doing it right; that sounds silly, I know, but if you’ve battled addiction or know someone who has it will make sense. I also knew then, as I know now, that “the road is long, with many a winding turn”. I therefore wanted the theme or main idea of the blog to revolve around wellness being a journey rather than a goal or destination. Lao Tzu’s quote about a journey of a thousand miles beginning with a single step resonated with me and I chose journeyofathousandmiles.blog as the web address to reflect this. Thus, the website address and the blog title worked together: even a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first (single) step. Over time the thinking on this project evolved. I came to feel the that the blog title, “The First Step”, was too prescriptive and I hoped to avoid a “you have to do it like this” tone. Like, I didn’t want readers to feel as if I was sending the message that the road to wellness begins here, in this manner, or in this particular way. If readers were going to identify with my writing and my experience it had to be on their terms, not mine.
I hit upon the name Mountain Buddha only once I took up hiking, after many years in hiatus. I realized again for the first time that the mountains were home. Then, I read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and John Krakauer’s Into the Wild. I really liked the fact that on the road or trail everyone has a trail name: Cheryl Strayed, because she had lost her way in life: Alexander Supertramp, because the adventure was grand—true, McCandless took both names from novels he loved, but they were appropriate to his purpose.
Now, according to some, your trail name ought to be bestowed upon you by other hikers. However, I have a mortgage, three children, a career (sort of), am mostly poor, and so am not able to take three, four, or five months to walk the Pacific Crest or Appalachian Trails and earn a name. (That’s a privilege I hope hikers acknowledge.) While there is nothing wrong with having a trail name such as Pickles, Creamsicle, Petal, or Stryder—all real names featured in a documentary called Six Million Steps: A Journey Inward— bestowed upon you based on some arbitrary character trait or quirk, I’m glad I was able to choose Mountain Buddha for myself. In some sense, it happened organically, in the same way that it does on the trail. The only difference is that the name evolved due to circumstances that were already meaningful to me, rather than out of which I had to make meaning. That has great value.
On the one hand, the name Mountain Buddha is a bit of a joke, and I’m nothing if not a bit of a comedian. When I ask my wife how she manages to resist my ethereal, god-like allure, her response is usually, “yeah, if that god is Buddha”. (Yes, I know the Buddha is not a god, thank you.) That being said, I also love the mountains, and the fact that this voyage began on Mt. Major in N.H. sort of just came together with the self-deprecatory humor about the fact that I’m sometimes uncomfortable with my body. Fluffy dude + body of a god + mountains = Mountain Buddha. Natural progression.
In that sense, and as the creator of Mountain Buddha, the project and I may be viewed as one and the same; but unlike a trail name, nobody calls me that. If Mountain Buddha is a persona or has agency, then it is my best self, or the self that in my mind I hope to someday become; but the spirit of Mountain Buddha does not belong to me alone: anyone can be a buddha-baller, because this project strives to achieve wellness through interacting with the outdoors, which everyone has access to.
What is a Buddha-baller?
On the blog I call followers “Buddha-ballers”. This works on a number of levels. On one level, it sounds like butter-ball, which, in New England we pronounce “buttah”, so audibly it’s closer to Buddha than to the stuff you spread on toast or put in coffee. As to the second part, a baller is a bad-ass motherfucker who knows how to run shit. And Buddha-ballers be ruh-nin’ shit. A Buddha-baller knows what they want out of life and generally has a plan to get there. It should be noted that this plan more likely includes climbing rocks or mountains than the corporate ladder. In terms of goals, making money appeals to a baller only insofar as it is a means to an end; after all, we all need food, clothing, shelter and warmth, and world travel and adventure can be expensive, so money and work are necessary evils.
Generally, Buddha-ballers are happy to spend as much time outside as possible, no matter the weather. It’s snowing? Great, get the skis, snowboard, crampons. Raining? Well, at least it’s not raining and cold. Cold rain? Could be windy too. Cold, windy and rainy? Shit, at least I’m not in the office! Buddha-ballers make the best of any situation, because it could always be worse.
In part, the term describes pretty much anyone who loves the outdoors. A Buddha-baller is the equivalent of the genus in binomial nomenclature: the family name. The group may be broken down into distinct categories or subcultures such as climbers, hikers, surfers, cyclists, skiers and snowboarders, mountain bikers, etc. Each of these groups has its own set of distinct traits. Shared traits or a set of similar characteristics glue communities and subcultures together. Those traits might include a code of dress or uniform/style (think Goth, Grunge, or Cosplay), a shared language—I’m talking colloquialisms, not necessarily a foreign or secret language—(think 80’s surfer: “gnarly”, “righteous”, “wipe-out!”), a certain type of behavior (metal heads in a mosh pit), and perhaps even a way of understanding the world (many religious groups, or even, ugh!, flat-earthers). That being said, Buddha-ballers do not always display such visible markers of identification and may even occupy or be part of more than one subculture in the outdoors community; but there are enough similarities across the spectrum to make some not-unfair generalizations.
Buddha-ballers exhibit a preference for loose-fitting, natural fiber clothing. Cargo pants and shorts are ubiquitous—though not exclusive—in the culture. The many pockets, soft, flexible material and light weight prove ideal for active lifestyles. Have you ever tried to climb, hike or paddle in jeans? Gah! Also, you never know what we’ve got in those pockets: multi-tool, check: little snack for later, probably: wallet, naturally: keys, cell phone, headphones, multi-vitamin, sport tape, sunscreen, bug spray, camera, jerky, roasted chicken leg, first-aid kit, pen, pocket-sized notebook for when inspiration strikes, check and mate! Or a backpack. Those work too. Lots of ballers keep backpacks in the car/truck/suv. Many lady-ballers tend to prefer yoga pants, or spandex/lycra-style materials when in action. Whatever we wear, we wear out of practicality and not trendiness: yoga pants because they provide the greatest degree of mobility, flexibility and comfort, and cottons and fibers that are not jeans because jeans are terrible out on the trail, hold moisture too well and don’t have enough pockets. Footwear tends to be much more variable. Sneakers or sandals are just as likely to be worn as trail shoes or hiking boots. It depends on what someone has planned for their day. Again, practicality over popularity.
Depending on whether we identify as climbers, hikers, cyclist or kayakers, the lingo varies. Climbers may use terminology such as “dirtbag”: a term of endearment used in the climbing community to denote a climber whose goal is to work as little as possible so they can climb pretty much all the time; “whipper”: taking a wicked fall, usually slamming into the wall on a climb; “flapper”—cutting the flesh on the hand in such a way and to such a degree that it hangs in a patch or a “flap”; “crux”: the hardest part of a climb; and “beta”: information relating to the climb. Beta may also be used in a negative fashion. If you hear the term or phrase beta-spray, or spraying beta, this means that one climber standing below another provides constant advice about the climb as the climber on the wall moves up the route. Hikers may use phrases such as “hiker-trash”: the hiker equivalent of a dirtbag; “gram weenie”: a hiker (usually a thru-hiker) who worries about every ounce and gram going into their pack or on their person. Gram weenies may give other hikers advice such as, “cut your toothbrush in half”, or “dehydrate sanitary wipes”, all to cut every gram they can when on the trail; and “gridiot”: the grid is a term for hiking every four-thousander in the White Mountains every month consecutively for one year—that’s 576 peaks if you’re counting. Gridiots are hikers who’ve completed the grid. Cyclists and Kayakers have their own lingo as well that include terms such as “endo”, “LSD”, “grupetto”, “boof” and “tricky-woo”. In some sense, diversity, rather than uniformity, acts as the glue in this community. We recognize each other and bond over our idiosyncrasies just as readily as we do our commonalities. Because we understand and accept the otherness of Nature, we readily accept this in other human beings as well.
Buddha-ballers are bad-ass hustlers and boss bitches with rebel attitudes. We don’t conform to the standards set by society. For instance, we recognize ideas such as beauty and gender as socially constructed ideals enforced by mainstream society and the media: skinny or tall or blonde or feminine or masculine are standards because that’s what we see on TV, in magazines and social media and we call BULL! SHIT! We do not worship at the altar of the neon screen on Sundays in the Fall. And we certainly don’t sacrifice before gods that seek to limit our freedoms and gag our first amendment rights. Our Cathedrals are mountains, canyons, forests, deserts, oceans and prairies: in a word, wildness. “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn” (John Muir). We pursue a vision of what we perceive our best selves to be. In many ways Patagonia’s mission statement (the brand, not the destination) applies to buddha-ballers: “Build the best product, do no harm”. We are the product.
I do not mean to imply that ballers lack imperfections. On the contrary, in addition to providing an essential element of happiness to individuals, nature makes us better people because it encourages self-reflection. In contemplating the magnitude of nature, we cannot help but realize the triviality of our place in it. Therefore, we strive to make meaning out of our existence; and existence only has meaning in a community of individuals. Rather than focusing on material goods or superficial imperfections, Buddha-ballers worry about other more meaningful issues. Was I kind to someone today? Was I patient? Do people around me feel appreciated? Did I take the time to try and understand where someone with a different point of view is coming from? Was I a decent fucking hooman?! The imperfections we seek to do away with are those concerned with character, not appearance. Buddha-ballers realize the struggle is real and that sometimes being decent is damn difficult.
If Buddha-ballers have a serious character flaw it might be that we seek to do too much or push too far. For instance, there are those in the Mountain Buddha community that develop risk-seeking behaviors. Earlier this year Rock and Ice Magazine published a story on climbers the community lost in 2017. They list twenty-six profiles along with brief eulogies, but this is certainly not the definitive list of all who died the world over. They’re called adventure sports for a reason and many of them are inherently dangerous. Add hubris or daring to that batter and the mix can be downright deadly.
However, taking risks with one’s life was not invented along with the category of adventure sports and in many ways taking huge risks helps us to realize our full potential as humans. Take an example from literature. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is, in part, not only a revenge narrative, but also an adventure story. It begins not with Frankenstein creating the monster in the lab, but with Walton writing to his sister in England, detailing his odyssey to discover the North Pole. Although, the first successful mission to the North Pole wouldn’t happen until nearly 100 years later. Go back a little further, to the 1660’s, and the publication of Paradise Lost, and we encounter Satan journeying to Earth. Push a little further and we encounter Dante and the nine circles of hell. Push yet further and we find Beowulf fighting demons and slaying dragons. Further still, and we encounter Homer, and further, and go back as far as we can, and we find that the oldest known piece of literature on the planet, Gilgamesh, is an adventure story. In each of these stories the character learns something about the nature and limits of the human spirit by pushing themselves to the limits of their endurance—yes, even Satan. One theory of human evolution poses that we evolved as persistence hunters: essentially, running a prey to death or exhaustion. If a three-day odyssey hunting and tracking prey isn’t an epic adventure, then I don’t know what is—ask an ultra-runner: definitely a Buddha-baller. Adventure is literally programmed in our DNA. Whatever the case may be, I would argue that outdoor sports and activities, despite their inherent risks and dangers, make us the best humans we can be; because it certainly doesn’t happen sitting on the couch.
Members of the Mountain Buddha community may or may not be spiritual; members may or may not be vegans or vegetarians; and we may or may not drive vehicles that get fifty miles to the gallon; I mean, it’s tough to get into the back country or continent-hop in a Prius. Buddha-ballers do, in general, have a reverence of and healthy respect for the environment; because in addition to understanding our capacity to do amazing things, we know that we, as a species, also destroy. Not everyone has the financial means to purchase organic, locally-sourced produce or meat (that is for the privileged); not everyone has the means to buy clothes sourced only from natural renewable materials. But, as an optimist, I like to believe that we all do at least what we can: reduce, reuse, recycle: take public transportation whenever possible or carpool: and “waste not, want not”. I write a little about this last point in another piece for this blog. We do what we can, and strive to do a little more every day. Over time, it adds up.
When I decided to create a website in the Summer of 2017 I envisioned a blog where I would share my journey toward mental and physical health. At that time, I really had no idea what that would/should look like or what form it should take. Over the past year, however, especially the past few months, the original idea seems to have taken on a life of its own. Mountain Buddha has grown from a blog about recovery and wellness into a community. At least, I think and hope so. What do you think? I’m interested in your thoughts. Let me know in the comments section.