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I’m thinking of becoming a Buddhist but there aren’t any Buddhist centers near me and I can’t be vegetarian. Does it matter?
Learning about Buddhism is easy to do, whether or not you live near a Buddhist center or have a specific teacher. Amazon lists over 10,000 books on Buddhism—classic texts to contemporary commentaries—in English. Then there’s the Internet. If you type “Buddhism” into the YouTube search box, thousands of videos — teachings from all Buddhist traditions — pop up instantly. There are also many online courses that you can enroll in. For example, Sravasti Abbey has the Sravasti Abbey Friends Education (SAFE) online courses and you may want to look into.
However, the great volume of material doesn’t mean that all of it is reliable or that the people who teach it are good role models for you. A good place to start, therefore, is with H.H. the Dalai Lama’s books. Choose some that contain the foundation teachings or specific topics that interest you.
Becoming a Buddhist, on the other hand, requires more than reading Buddhist books or watching videos. “Becoming a Buddhist” means studying the Buddha’s basic teachings, thinking about them, and testing them with your own experience. When, you have a clear understanding and are ready to turn to the Three Jewels—the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha—as your refuge in the face of life’s challenges and joys, then you are ready to become a Buddhist
Living near a center
Buddha and his subsequent commentators talk about the importance of relying on a spiritual mentor to progress along the path. We need a teacher to learn to drive, and we need instruction in the skills necessary for our profession. In the same way, we need teachers to support our understanding and growth on the Buddhist path. So while it isn’t necessary to live near a Buddhist center, initially you should receive teachings from several different teachers until you find someone whose way of teaching speaks to you and whose behavior and practice embody the Buddha’s teachings. Then, make a personal connection with that teacher. It may involve traveling to go to a retreat once a year to hear teachings directly from that person and receive practice instructions.
Your practice will also benefit tremendously from studying with and interacting with other Buddhists. We learn a lot from discussing the Dharma with our spiritual friends, and they can help us stay on the path when our minds start to wander. Check around and see if there are other Buddhists in your town with whom you can practice.
Practicing Buddhism begins with cleaning up our ethical conduct. In this verse recorded in the Dhammapada, the Buddha tells us:
Do not commit any nonvirtuous action.
Perform only virtuous actions.
Subdue your mind completely.
This is the teaching of the Buddha.
When we take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, we can also take one or all five of the lay precepts that guide our behavior away from nonvirtue and help us develop habits of body, speech, and mind that are virtuous in nature.
The first precept is to refrain from killing. Most important is to refrain from killing a human being, but the precept covers all animals, even insects. Out of respect for the lives of living beings, many Buddhists become vegetarian. However, the Buddha did not require his disciples to refrain from eating meat. The principal instruction was not to eat meat from animals that you killed yourself or that you asked someone to kill for you or that you know someone else killed to give to you (even though you didn’t ask for it).
You might enjoy this article by Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh as he explains the preciousness of life and keeping the first precept to refrain from killing.
For more resources, you can check out the website of my teacher, Ven. Thubten Chodron, at ThubtenChodron.org or visit the Sravasti Abbey YouTube Channel. Wishing all success on your journey in Buddhism.