Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Enriching ourselves through other cultures.

In my last post I announced my recent engagement to my sweetheart of almost four years. We met in grad school, and we are doing the long distance thing while he does his postdoc and I finish my Ph.D. We are from different cultures, so we have had a lot of discussions about making sure we respect one another, and each others beliefs.

Recently (in fact, on the eve of our engagement) our parents had the opportunity to meet one another, and I finally got to meet his parents for the first time. Of course the thought of this was quite nerve wracking to me, because I wanted to make a good impression on the people that are so important to my future husband. But I reasoned that anyone who had raised someone as wonderful as my fiance must be just as kind, fair, and thoughtful as he is.

And I was right! Not only did our parents get along well, but my fiance, his parents, and I had a wonderful week together. Before my parents left on their several hours drive home, my Mom said something that touched all our hearts.  

She spoke about different cultures, and that when you meet someone from another part of the world and invite them into your life, everyone becomes enriched by the relationship. We deepen our understanding of others, and learn so much more than if we just stayed in our little area of the world. She hoped that all of us could learn from and grow with one another.
That being said, sometimes the lessons learned can be difficult ones, as we grasp on to aspects of our upbringing that we suddenly realize our partner has no appreciation for. These can be rude awakenings, and if not handled properly can become the basis of bitter disagreements. This calls for a good dose of mindfulness, and compassion towards our partner and their family. As everyone agreed, we should make sure we give each other a lot of slack, and show tolerance for one another as we journey through our relationship.

As I look at the kindness and love my fiance has always shown me, I have confidence that we can do just that.

On a Personal Note: A Special Announcement!

As a break from all the posts about concepts, traditions, and ideas, I have an announcement to make. On October 10th, 2010, my boyfriend of almost four years proposed to me! This of course has made me really happy, and we both look forward to planning our wedding and the life we will build together.

So don't be surprised if the next few posts will relate to weddings, and the Buddhist perspective of marriage and family. I have a lot to learn about the topic as a whole, Buddhist or no. But I plan to post as I learn, which will be both fun and exciting.

Stay tuned!

A Tale of Two Vegans

I have had very little experience with vegans and the vegan lifestyle, so I thought I would discuss just two personal experiences with vegans. I have no idea if these are common or representative experiences, that's for you to comment upon! But they were interesting nonetheless.

A few months ago, I accidentally- and quite awkwardly- found out that a woman I met at a conference was vegan. Two nights before, a lab colleague of mine finished an eating challenge, where two hamburgers, two hot dogs (all covered with chili, relish, etc), and a basket of fries had to be consumed. My colleague not only did that, but also ate a full meal of a burger and fries beforehand! While I was recounting this impressive story to my new friends, I saw the woman turn almost green in color. Later I heard her say to someone else in the group that she was vegan. Whoops! No wonder she had looked like she was going to be ill after I had described all that carnage!

Several people in our group, including myself, were curious about her choice, and were surprised to find that her reason was for sustainability. I was expecting the animal rights angle, and this view was new to me. It was also appealing, since it represented a kind of mindful eating from a local and global perspective. Cool.

But as we ate dinner, I glanced at her from time to time, and as others were enjoying their (mostly vegetarian) meals, she looked almost bitter as she ate her small bowl of lentil soup with idlis. I couldn't tell if she did not like her food or if she was judging others at the table as she gazed at their sumptuous meals, laden with butter and paneer. For her sake, I hope it was just that she had previously eaten a better version of lentil soup.

As for my second example, I was speaking to the post-doc in our lab a few weeks ago, and he explained another idea that was new to me. A couple he knows eats mostly vegan food, but with a twist- They do eat meat, and when they do, they eat animals that they have hunted/raised, killed, and processed themselves. Interesting. Another form of sustainable eating, but not so restrictive. A modern 'middle way', taking from the skills and traditions of our early ancestors of 'eating to live'. Of course I don't know these people personally, and as in the example above, have no idea of whether or not they judge other people for their dietary choices, but just as I like the idea above, I like this one too.

But ideas are only ideas, and the other major parts of the equation are the people that carry them out, and the attitudes with which they do so. If nothing else, I really admire the people I have discussed in this post for their willpower. But I just hope that they can apply their ideas in a way that is beneficial to them and others, without replacing one type of conflict, such as exploitation of land, with conflict at the dinner table. The truth is, we cannot control the actions and attitudes of those around us. All we can do is lead by example.

To end, I would like to post a link to an article written by the Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh about mindful eating. Enjoy!

May all beings be happy! Have a wonderful day!

Confessions of a Buddhist omnivore, abbreviated

So in my last post I wrote a lot more than I thought I would about food, attachment to food, vegetarianism, and attachment to that concept. Here is a very abbreviated version to more efficiently discuss the heart of the issue.

Okay, so I (and many other people) love food. I like eating meat from time to time, but have followed a mostly vegetarian diet for the last few years. I try to see food as something that helps nourish us, plain and simple. Food is the essence of the earth, plants, animals, sunshine, and the effort of people who have harvested, processed, transported, sold and cooked it for us. It is impermanent, and becomes part of us when we consume it. Be aware of attachment to concepts and certain types of food, whatever your dietary preference. Treat every meal as an experience, and as an opportunity to develop spiritually. How wonderful it is, to have this opportunity in front of us- several times each day! 

Here are my basic, humble guidelines. I am not yet perfect in following them, but have improved over the past few months.

In my life, I try to:
Be joyful while eating
Eat slowly
Eat mindfully, without distractions
Eat mostly vegetarian food, without becoming attached to the concept of vegetarianism
Eat food that has been cultivated or raised in a sustainable way. 
Be grateful for any food that is provided to me. Saying the prayer below before I eat helps.

Earth, fire, water, air and space
combined to make these foods.
Numerous beings live and labored
so that we may eat.
Let us nourish ourselves,
so that we may nourish life.

May all beings be happy!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Confessions of a Buddhist omnivore

In my last post I discussed one misconception* that people may have about practicing Buddhists- that they are all vegetarians. I am of course living proof that this is not the case, and as a Buddhist omnivore, am definitely not alone.

So why do I choose to partake in the flesh of animals? Well, an obvious reason is that, meat, when it is cooked and prepared well, is very tasty! Indeed Buddhists all over the world enjoy delicacies that have been in their cultures for many years, prepared from fish, chicken, eggs, lamb, goat, beef, and pork.

But I am sure that to any reader this is not a satisfying answer. After all, attachment to taste and delicious food are just grasping sensual desires, right?

To approach the topic more seriously, I have practical reasons for not being a strict vegetarian. However, let it be noted that I actually do love vegetarian food, which is what makes up the vast majority of my diet. If I eat meat at a restaurant, it will most likely be seafood or chicken, with the sparingly ordered beef taco, burger or steak. That being said, my Mom recently made a really good point. She also enjoys vegetarian food, but also is firm in her belief of eating a balanced diet. She has observed that in some cases, it might be better to order a lean, high quality, and very small cut of meat, than a huge 'vegetarian' pasta dish drowning in a creamy sauce laden with saturated fat. Sure, you can order such a dish with the sauce on the side, or get a pasta dish with plain pomodoro sauce, but then, why go out for dinner? It is a personal choice.

As for my upbringing, I grew up in a Christian household, and as I may have mentioned before, hold no animosity towards those traditions. Christmas and Easter are very special times of the year, where families get together and spend time with one another. Some of that time is spent sharing a wonderful meal, prepared with lots of love, care- and hard work! I believe it would be ungrateful to waste any food that had been so lovingly prepared just because it came from an animal.

Okay, so I have still continued to talk about eating, which, pardon me, is something I love to do, so get over it :) But I do have spiritual and intellectual reasons for being open to all kinds of food.

First of all, we can easily picture someone who must eat meat every day as very attached to sensual pleasures associated with eating. They are so attached to the food that if they were for some reason not able to have it, they might become upset or even angry. We would shake our heads and feel sorry for that person for having such a narrow view.

But I have a counter point to this argument- couldn't we replace the ravenous meat-eater with a sanctimonious vegetarian? Indeed, that type of person would be just as upset if their preferred food were also no longer available, and they would have compounded their suffering due to attachment with suffering due to aversion.

In short, the key is non-attachment and a Middle Way approach. I think from a sustainability standpoint, someone who chooses to be a vegetarian is doing something very beneficial. But if that person were to sneer and judge others for the food they eat, they negate any good they generate for our ecosystem by creating hostility at the dinner table. I am by no means equating or even comparing myself to a Buddhist monk or nun, but I do like to take a page from their playbook, in that they are grateful for any food that is given to them. Linguistically, the root of the word Bhikkhu and Bikkhuni (monk and nun) is 'to beg'. In exchange for nourishment through food, a traveling monk would help nourish the community around them through their teachings. Let's remember that food is special, and that we should just be grateful for being able to eat it. 

But speaking honestly from a spiritual development standpoint, I have only begun to quell my sensual desires for food. After all, if I were to truly live by a monk's rules, there would be no ordering a beautiful burger and salivating as I smelled the aroma of it cooking on a grill. But as we know, everything is impermanent. Be happy for the food you eat, and try to learn from the experience of each meal and the many sensations it generates. I eat mostly vegetarian food, but switch it up from time to time. I am open to the possibility that I could someday become a vegetarian, but also to the fact that everything is changing, and that we cannot control the world around us.

I hope this 'little' article was helpful. May all beings be happy!

*This is part of my little series of misconceptions that some people may have about Buddhism and Buddhists in general.

Are all Buddhists vegetarian?

No. In fact, many Buddhists, including myself, eat meat from time to time. The Dalai Lama, who despite his exile, is the political leader of the Tibetan people, eats meat, which I have read is for health reasons. Finally, even the Buddha himself ate meat, although his death at age 80 has by some scholars been attributed to food poisoning, but this remains controversial. The main concern during the Buddha's time was that slaughtering animals in order to provide monks with a special meal was equated to animal sacrifice, which the Buddha was against. Therefore, any meat that was provided to a monk begging for alms must not be from an animal that was killed specifically for that purpose. This of course meshes well with the First Moral Precept, that one should not kill, nor encourage others to do so.

Since there are many more details about this issue, and I am by no means a Buddhist scholar, I will leave the rest of the explanation to the following article and Wikipedia.

I hope this helps. For more information about my personal perspective on vegetarianism (which has been influenced by Buddhist concepts) stay tuned for my next post.