Get in my Buddha belly

Any place that calls itself the Sagely City of the Dharma Realm has got to be impressive. Still, when I rode my moped past the seedy motels of West Capitol Avenue and through the gates of the Buddhist monastery on Independence Day, I was amazed.

Palm trees abounded—and would one expect anything less in a peaceful oasis? Prayer flags fluttered in the air. A pond trickled coolly in the shade. White buildings with red-tiled roofs bordered everything. Overhead, a bright green banner proclaimed: “Vegetarian Foods and Culture Fair.” I—or at least my stomach—had found paradise.

The temperature topped 100 degrees, but the parking-lot attendants smiled like I was an honored guest. They pointed me toward the main hall, a white stucco building whose huge wooden doors featured carved windmills and a Don Quixote-esque knight holding a tennis racquet. Clearly, the place had another incarnation before its ascension to the Dharma Realm.

My friends and I speculated about the venue’s secret identity all afternoon. One of us actually had been there for an after-prom party in the ’80s, when it was just a hotel. Another heard rumors that movie stars had played tennis and hunted pheasant at the club in the ’40s. A surreptitious walk around the grounds revealed a swimming pool filled in with dirt to make a rectangular lawn, a decapitated windmill named for the ubiquitous Don Quixote, an unkempt par course trail with rusty chin-up bars and seemingly hundreds of guest rooms.

Inside the main hall, the country-club vibe yielded to a monastic atmosphere. One room held rows of floor cushions and an altar dominated by a life-sized gold Buddha. Books on Buddhism and vegetarianism were on sale in another. Outside in the courtyard, Chinese musicians and dancers entertained the crowd.

I lingered in the banquet room next to 16 long tables laden with platters of unfamiliar Asian vegetarian delights. Each dish had a name-tag: turnip cakes, curry dumplings, sticky rice in lotus leaf, thousand-layer wrap, mochi. The offerings went on and on, flanked by beverage stations where icy cauldrons of sweet tea and fruit drinks sweated in the heat.

When I’d first seen a flyer at Andy Nguyen’s vegetarian restaurant advertising the food fair, which hoped to “encourage peace in the world together” through nonviolent eating, I’d pictured something like a bake sale with booths in a church parking lot. This was a cruelty-free smorgasbord more extensive than any I’d seen, and everything was free.

Pictures of lusciously prepared vegetables and famous quotes on vegetarianism were projected on a nearby screen. Buddha said, “Those who eat meat extinguish their seed of great compassion, their Buddha nature.” Upon reading this, I settled into a decidedly un-Buddhist smugness as I congratulated myself for 17 years of vegetarianism.

Then instant karma got me. I’d been so distracted that I’d failed to notice the cultural program had ended and several-hundred spectators had formed long lines at both ends of the hall. I was standing right next to the food, but would be served last.

As my friends and I pushed our way to the back of the line, which terminated outside in the brutally hot noonday sun, we worried we’d find empty trays when we finally reached the tables. On the contrary, nuns with shaved heads produced abundantly filled platters from the kitchen throughout the afternoon.

It would have been impossible to sample everything, but no one could say I didn’t try. Some of the food seemed bland to my palate; the cooks shunned onions and garlic so as not to aggravate the spirit with anger or lust. They seemed to have no problem with sugar, however, and the doughy green mochi filled with sweet coconut were gooey bits of heaven. After I ate my fill, I returned to the main hall for some water and ended up with soy ice cream and pineapple pecan cake. I might have earned karma points for nonviolence that afternoon, but I definitely lost some for gluttony. Hopefully there’s room for my Buddha-esque belly in the Dharma Realm.