Vegetarian Awakenings at Vipassana, Sydney

Erin O'Dwer stops doing everything normal for ten days to discover her inner self and the joy of vegetarianism.

The first meal was delicious. A simple vegetable curry served with brown rice and yogurt. I was not the only one to ask for more.

From then on, the meals became more interesting. Eggplant served with corn on the cob. Tofu steaks with lasagna. And salads with, well, just too many sprouts. But it didn’t stop me from returning for more.

Not until the end of our ten-day meditation retreat – and the end of our Noble Silence vow – was one of the volunteer kitchen hands able to recount to me the story. “The cook left after the first day,” he whispered. “Her boyfriend had a melt-down and she had to go. One of the girls in the kitchen took over. Never cooked for such a big group in her life but we reckon she all did a great job.”

Indeed she did, for more than 100 of us on the course. And not only with the main meals. Freshly-baked poppy seed cakes and banana breads awaited us at lunch each day. And with every meal, a different brew of herb tea.

As a non-vegetarian, I was somewhat daunted by the simple diet required during my ten-day retreat at the Vipassana Meditation Centre in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. But only initially. With each day that passed I grew accustomed to the tasty vegetable casseroles or lasagnas that awaited us for our main meal at 11am each day. I even looked forward to brown rice served with yogurt and stewed prunes for breakfast.

Indeed at the end of the course, with the help of my partner, fresh vegetables became the new basis of our diet. Two years – and another ten-day Vipassana course later – I am practising a meatless diet. The practice, though difficult at the beginning, has now become a joy.  I am slimmer, healthier and have more energy. I was taking in less fat and cholesterol and my digestive system felt better for it.

Even better, I have decreased my carbon footprint significantly.

This way in to Dhamma Bhumi.

The work of Gidon Eshel, a research fellow at Bard College in New York, revealed that the average American diet each year requires the production of greenhouse gases equivalent to an extra ton and a half of carbon dioxide compared with a strictly vegetarian diet.  “If you simply cut down from two burgers a week to one, you've already made a substantial difference,” Eshel says.

The International Herald Tribune reported last year that production and consumption of meat worldwide has more than tripled since 1961 and could double from now until 2050 as standards of living increase and the population doubles.

To this end, forests are being cleared for pastures, removing the trees that absorb carbon dioxide. The Food and Agriculture Organization found that livestock production accounted for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. That included the energy needed to store and transport meat as well the livestock’s own methane emissions. And it’s more than the entire global transportation sector.

If you are considering practical ways to give up meat, Insight meditation, or Vipassana as it is known, is a perfect way to start. Vipassana means to see things as they really are. It is one of India's most ancient meditation techniques and has been taught for more than 2500 years as a remedy for universal ills. In other words, Vipassana is about the art of living well.

There are Vipassana centres around the world and in every Australian state and territory. Dhamma Bhumi, just outside Blackheath two hours west of Sydney, is the oldest centre in Australia and was the second only to be founded outside India. Set on 40 acres of flowering heath and eucalypt forest, Dhamma Bhumi held its first courses in 1983 and now runs classes twice a month. There is no cost to attend the course and centres are run solely on donation.

Course requirements are daunting for most. Students must agree to stay for the entire ten days; promise to observe Noble Silence from beginning to end (this includes eye contact and communication via sign language) and abstain from spiritual activities such as yoga and prayer. There are also eight basic precepts or vows (although most students only take five) which include abstinence from alcohol and sexual activity.

Eating slowly and deliberately also became a meditation in itself. The Dhamma Bhumi’s dining room vista takes in the For us the bell tolls.Blue Mountain’s stunning cliffs and valleys, and they were my constant mealtime companions. So too the rosellas and magpies that clowned about in the eucalypt canopy. I would take my poppy seed cake and my cup of fresh mint tea and sit down to enjoy the view.

The day begins with the 4am gong, followed by private meditations. The rest of the day involves meals, rest, walks and teacher-student interviews. Some days, of course, are better than others. I shed tears. I became angry. Some days I really wanted to leave. But then the feeling would pass and I would move deeper into understanding the emotions that were arising. Daily teaching discourses were helpful in providing techniques to work through it.

Go back to the breath, the teacher would say. It was surprisingly effective every time.

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