January 3, 2010

Living in a Parallel Universe.

Living in a Parallel Universe: Being a Vegetarian and Buddhist in a Christian, Meat-eating Suburb. ~ Nadia Ballas-Ruta

When I was 16, I decided to become a vegetarian.

Since I was a child, I loved animals, and had numerous pets: a duck, a few chickens, birds, fish, turtles, frogs, rabbits and a cat. Actually, I kind of liked animals more than people. With animals you knew where you stood. Their needs were basic: feed me, pet me, play with me, or just leave me alone. Human beings send mixed messages. It’s more complicated.

My mother was a Catholic-turned-atheist who then discovered Hinduism. One morning when I was 16 she shared what she had read of various Hindu teachers about how eating animal flesh was not good for our human body and soul. It made total sense. I stopped eating animal flesh (what we call “meat”) from that morning on.

That was over 20 years ago, now.

Being a vegetarian back in the 1990s wasn’t easy. In the early part of the decade, veggie burgers and other vegetarian foods were not common in supermarkets, as they are now. There was no Whole Foods in my town. So eating was a challenge but it was a choice that felt right.

For some reason or another, being a vegetarian back then did not cause that many problems. I do not know why but it probably had something to do with me not being a vegan at that time. So people never really knew I was a vegetarian because they saw me eating cheese or eggs.

However, when I became a vegan and a Buddhist, that choice totally rocked the boat for many. I often forget that not everyone in the world gets Buddhism or has the desire to be a vegan. In my personal life, I am surrounded by people who, for the most part, think like me.

Since many people in my life think like me, I often find it strange when I am out in the world and I say something like “talk about karma” or “how the Dalai Lama is the coolest dude in the world” and people look at me like I am an alien.

For example, I recently ran into an old friend of mine from high school. We were talking about what we had done in our lives since the last time we saw each other. I started talking about how Buddhism saved my life and that I lived in India and so on. She then looked at me with this perplexed thought, and asked “You mean, you are into Buddhism like Richard Gere with the beads and stuff?”

She said it in a tone that indicated that apparently Richard Gere was her equivalent of the Anti-Christ. For a brief second, I was kind of scared and had the thought that this is how witches must have felt back in Salem, Massachusetts in the 1600s. So I told her yes and her face turned into disgust. I could not believe it.

I realized that I had two choices: one was to just let it go and take the conversation in another direction. The other option was to see how far I could push the boundary. I went for pushing boundaries.

So I asked her about her thoughts on Buddhism. She simply shook her head and kept saying “I just don’t understand the beads.” As if Buddha walked around just talking about beads. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry or to do both. I took a deep breath and told her that the beads were the Buddhist equivalent of a rosary and that it is used in meditation.

She was silent and so I figured I would keep on going. I went to tell her about the life of Buddha and how he was a prince who walked away from his comfortable life and went on a spiritual journey. I explained the Four Noble truths in the simplest way possible. I am sure if the people at Cliff Notes had overheard me, they would have been impressed with my brevity.

When I was done telling her what Buddhism represented, she was silent for a moment which felt like an eternity. She then began to ask me all kinds of questions. We ended up talking for quite a while and then parted ways. It was never my intention to convert anyone, for that is not my job. I just shared what I felt and have no idea if it made any difference.

What I did learn from such an experience is that so often in life we feel lost and long for a guide. I remember my days when I was so confused and had no direction. We are constantly bombarded with all kinds of information yet we are never taught about the power of what lies within us.

Tibetan Buddhists point to their heart when they talk about their mind. That is a very powerful image. For we all have a heart but how often do we really listen to it?

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