Latina, vegan and Buddhist?: my journey into Buddhism

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I was raised Baptist. It was an interesting upbringing, now that I look back on that time in my childhood. People waiting for the Holy Spirit to enter them, others speaking in Tongues and me, with my little yellow tambourine, grooving to the praise music. I loved going, mostly because of the tambourine and praise music. I loved to sing, I still do, and so I always wished that there was no sermon but just a couple of hours of singing. I enjoyed church as much as any child would.

And then, as I got older, I realized that going to church just wasn’t as fulfilling as it used to be. I had never felt the Holy Spirit, I never spoke in Tongues and God never answered any of my prayers. By the time I was in high school, I really fell off the Christian bandwagon and tried to stop going to church. That was difficult since my mom was devoutly Christian and went to church every Sunday. So I kept going and still enjoyed the community that I had built in my time there, the friends that I had made and even the idea of being Christian; the compassionate, non-judgmental aspect of being Christian. But I wasn’t seeing that being put into practice. Granted, I was a teenager at this point and I think that most teenagers are judgmental so looking back, I’m not sure what I expected. But none the less, I was turned even more off to the idea of Christianity. But the major turning point was actually my brother.

My brother, during this time, had started getting into trouble, skipping school and not coming home for days on end. I saw how much my mother suffered during that time, praying to God that He would help my brother. Her prayers weren’t answered. I saw the powerlessness of my mother during that time, the lack of help from the church and just a sense of hopelessness that nothing could save my brother. I never wanted to feel that way, waiting for some invisible being to come save me from whatever fate had in store for me. I wanted to be in control of my life, not wait for destiny to take what it wanted from me. That’s when I started looking into other schools of faith and I came across Buddhism.

On a side note: My brother is great now! He has 3 of the cutest kids that have ever lived, a wonderful partner and 2 smart and beautiful step-children.

Dipping My Toe in the Buddhist Pool

I actually don’t quite remember when I first heard about Buddhism. I always remember it being in a world religions course that I took one of my first couple of semesters in community college, but I honestly don’t know. But I do remember buying a Buddhism for Dummies book which was totally confusing, overwhelming, and so different than my Christian upbringing that I totally thought that it was Satan pushing me toward this pagan belief system and God testing my faith, that’s how deep I had internalized that evangelical crap. So I closed that book and went Godless for a couple of years. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in a high power, I so wanted there to be someone all-powerful looking out for me, this little gal in this big, scary world. But I didn’t believe that He was this vengeful, punishing God that rained down brimstone and fire if you had questions or even doubts. I just believed in Him without going to church. I stayed that way until I moved to San Francisco when I was 24.

Going Back to Old Habits

When I moved to San Francisco in 2008, I didn’t know a soul. I moved up to the Bay Area from Fontana, CA to go to school. And I wanted to get away and experience something new without having to move too far away from my comfort zone. But moving where you don’t know anyone is tough and so you fall back into habits to find people that you can connect with and a group to belong to. My fall back was religion, specifically Christianity. So I found a group on campus that not only spoke in a language that I was familiar with, Christ, but also did community work and volunteering, which was super important to me. I enjoyed the community of people, as people. I enjoyed the already built community of people that it gave me but honestly, the Christian part of it was really unfulfilling. It could have been the same group of people coming together to talk about sandwich-making techniques and I would have enjoyed it just as much.

It was in this moment that I realized that I was looking for community and not faith. So, I started volunteering and getting to know the people in my classes and towards the end of my college years, I had made a great group of friends. People that I connected with, whose company I enjoyed and just people who I had a good time with, even when most of that time was spent going over Organic Chemistry notes at midnight in a 24 hour Starbucks. I still talk to some of those folks and some are even followers of this blog (Hi Friends!). And I felt fulfilled…until I didn’t.

Jumping Head First into the Buddhist Pool

Fast forward to Thanksgiving of 2015, when that feeling of unfulfillment started creeping back in. I wasn’t sure what it was. I had, and still have, a wonderful partner, a supportive family and a job that was helping me fulfill my want to create a more just world. And yet, there was a something off. Granted, I was going through a time of transition, and still am, and so that had me in a bit of a limbo and I hate being in limbo. Limbo is not my friend. It makes me feel out of control and I don’t like that feeling. So when I feel out of control, I like to try to take extra control over other parts of my life. I started focusing on my vegan diet, cooking and experimenting in the kitchen. I took extra control of my work, holding myself extra accountable and making sure to hit every goal, no matter how minute. That never really works for me because I end up being more about the details and details are never ending. Everything can be made more perfect. And so because of all the obsession with control, I was losing more control. This is usually when I start going back to church, start reaching out to God again and yet, I already knew what the results would be. Fake faith, unfulfilled needs in the long-term. So I decided to follow a different path. The worst thing that could happen is I ended up where I always did: short-term fulfillment until the next rocky path.

I reached out to a friend, who I knew was a practicing Buddhist. Actually, she’s the only person I knew at the time that was. She was kind enough to chat with me and connect me with folks from a local Buddhist community here in Oakland. I should also state that this was not the first time I had contacted this friend about her practice. We’d talked before but again, that Baptist indoctrination really scared me and I didn’t  follow through. Within a couple of hours, I was chatting with a person from the local community center and setting up a time to meet with her and talk  more about the Buddhist practice.

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What Nichiren Buddhists chant, morning and evening.

Getting Down With Buddhism as a Former Baptist

I started learning more about the Nichiren sect of Buddhism and I liked what I learned. I started chanting and building community; all of the things that I used to do when I was Christian with one difference: I felt fulfilled. I felt that this particular belief system aligned with my ideological beliefs as well. That it takes faith and action to create change, not only in your life but also in the world. And people didn’t look at me weird when I said that I was vegan. They understood because part of the belief is that suffering should not be tolerated and that to make another suffer is against the belief of world peace.

The other thing that I liked about my experience was that a lot of folks came from different backgrounds. There was a diverse group of black folks, latinos, white, trans, queer, jewish, baptist, catholic. It was wonderful to see the different kinds of folks, all in one room, building community together in the name of world peace. The latina side of me was ecstatic. Lots of POC to build a Buddhist community with. I felt like I had found a place to belong. Where I didn’t have to hide my social justice side from my faith side and from my scientific side. They all came together, in harmony, in this place called Buddhism.

I’ve been attending meetings, I’ve been chanting and learning since my first meeting back in November 2015, and up until the point I have only seen positive changes in my attitude, my confidence and in the direction of my life. Even though I’m still in a state of limbo, I feel more in control of my life. My circumstances haven’t changed but my perspective has. I see the light at the end of the limbo tunnel and I’m actually looking forward to what it holds. I look forward to building more community, chanting my worries away and enjoying more of what makes life worthwhile.

For more on Nichiren Buddhism visit: http://www.sgi-usa.org

P.S. There are some folks who call the SGI, or Nichiren Buddhism, a cult. It scared me at first but honestly, I’ve only met wonderfully supportive people and have felt no cult-ish vibe. Though I think a lot of religions feel cult-ish at times. BUT if you see me about to drink the Kool-Aid, slap it out of my hand.