About five years ago, on a rainy Wednesday evening, I drove to the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center outside of Boston to take the Buddhist Refuges and Precepts, an age-old ceremony that is about as close as one comes to a Buddhist declaration of faith. The teacher that night, Larry Rosenberg, is a well-respected insight meditation teacher. Insight meditation, also known as Vipassana meditation, is believed to be the original form of meditation taught by the Buddha to his monks and lay followers. The first thing Larry said to us in the elegant upper floor of the center that serves as its meditation hall, was “I don’t care if you take the precepts or not.” Tough love, then. We sat in meditation for a half-hour. There was about fifty of us there. Larry told a few stories, the most notable one about his strenuous hike up a mountain in South Korea to see the most beautiful Buddha statue in the world, only to find the altar empty when he opened the doors of the hilltop shrine. His guide had tricked him, you see. The most beautiful Buddha in the world was actually within the sweat and heat of his hike up the mountain, and couldn’t be found on any altar or contained in any shrine. After the stories, we took the vows. The Three Refuges, or Three Jewels are: taking refuge in the Buddha (teacher), taking refuge in the Dharma (teaching) and taking refuge in the Sangha (community of practitioners). Then came the harder part, the Five Precepts:
“I undertake the precept to refrain from killing living creatures and to practice compassionate action.”
“I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given and to practice generosity.”
“I undertake the precept to refrain from using sexual energies unwisely or uncaringly and to practice responsibility in all my relationships.”
“I undertake the precept to refrain from harmful speech and to practice kind speech.”
“I undertake the precept to refrain from the misuse of alcohol and drugs and to practice caring for my body and mind.”
We recited these to ourselves and more importantly, to each other. We had a delicious, deep red pomegranate tea served out of a big pot in the dining room on the first floor. There was fellowship. Then I bowed to my fellow Buddhists and drove back to Maine in the rain. So far, so good. But as soon as I got home, about two and a half hours later, I distinctly remember walking into my kitchen and making a roast beef sandwich and cracking open a beer. Already I had broken two of the precepts I had just taken. Not using skillful means, as the Buddha would say.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am always trying wacky diets. I’ve been a “I’m never going back to eating meat ever again” vegetarian about twenty times in my life. I was vegan for a month about two years ago during Lent. You’ve seen me standing on the sidewalk eating beans out of a can. You laughed when I brought vegan cheese to a barbeque. That’s OK. I am going to try, starting tomorrow, to remember the precepts I took in Cambridge. I’m going to try to be a vegetarian for a whole year. I’m going to try to refrain from killing living creatures. There’s enough suffering in the world already. I don’t need to add any more. Tomorrow is my sister’s birthday, so it will be an easy date to remember come my meatless anniversary. You will laugh at me, and I can take it. But please support me. You can eat pork buns until you start oinking. I won’t judge you because I’ve been in my own pork bun hell. I won’t tell you that 99.9% of animals raised for meat have been tortured because you know that already. You can make the case for ethical meat and I’ll nod politely. But I really have to try something new here. My jeans don’t fit. I lose my breath when I bend over to tie my shoes. My karma ran over my hot dogma. The Buddha is watching me, and he’s shaking his head.