Triple Feature Friday!
Well we don’t want you to get too hungry over the weekend, so today we’re stocking up. Three lovely contributions on the dharma of food justice.
The first comes from our friend and engaged Buddhist sangha member Seth Josephson, offering a thoughtful invitation to consider abstaining from eating animal products. Thank you for being with us, Seth! Sangha members reading from the home page, don’t forget to click “Read More” to view the entire article, and please feel welcome to ask questions and share comments below. It’s a beautiful day to be with you; thank you for reading!~ Katie for Turning Wheel
Eating with Reverent Care: Buddhist Vegan Practice
“Suffusing love over the entire world: Above, below, and all around, without limit.” Metta Sutta
We all already know that those with different kinds of bodies and different kinds of consciousness can be the objects of our affection. When we play fetch with our dogs or scratch our cats behind the ears we participate in a relationship of mutual care. This care can also guide our food choices. Please, when you’re ready, leave the meat, dairy, and eggs off your plate. In so doing, your heart may become more open, more able to contain all those who suffer, and all who feel joy. Who qualifies for our compassion? Can we include non-human animals in our heart?
We cannot be perfect. On summer days such as this one, so many tiny ants fill my kitchen that I cannot seem to avoid washing a few of these sisters down the drain. In the fields, the plows cut the worms as they make a place to plant seeds which will grow into our nourishment. I wash tiny aphids off a head of kale before I chop it for my salad. We cannot end all killing, but we can try. I keep the precept of non-killing as a North Star to guide me into the life I want, a life of everyday reverence for my companions on this Earth.
“Innumerable labors brought us this food. May we know how it comes to us…” Soto Zen Meal Verse
The suffering in the world is immense, but we are not helpless to make a change. To become aware of our food and to eat in accord with our hearts – it is perhaps the simplest way to bring loving kindness to the everyday. We can save lives with every meal, if we choose our food with consciousness. Our bodies can become gardens instead of graveyards – engines of joy.
Eating a plant based diet, the benefits are large. To eat less meat, dairy, and eggs can help reduce damage to the Earth. It can improve our health, and improve the health of others. We can help end the suffering of those without a voice to speak for themselves.
Shakyamuni Buddha did not require vegetarianism of his renunciant disciples. In some accounts, vegetarianism was one of the austerities advocated by the over-confidant Devadatta as a bid to divide the Sangha. The Pali Suttas depict the Buddha cutting a middle path between compassion and acceptance. For him, it was more important that nuns and monks receive what was given to them by the lay community than that they keep a strict diet of abstinence. Eating was a practice in equanimity. The monks and nuns were to eat the leftovers of the lay community and not discriminate on the basis of different dietary practices.
In the Pali scriptures, meat eating was not prohibited for lay people. Rather, with the first precept, they were called to practice non-killing. In addition, taking part in the commerce of meat was considered a violation of the principle of “right livelihood.”
But we should not overlook how compassion for animals was present in dietary considerations, even for the monks. The early bhikkhus and bhikkunis were to eat offerings that contained meat only as long as they met the conditions of “three fold purity.” All three folds amounted to one thing: meat should not be eaten if there is any indication that the animal was killed specifically for them. It is now rare for any animal to be killed for any one particular meal – should that mean all meat is acceptable and “pure?” In the US and other industrialized countries, an animal body is distributed in various forms for various markets. Today, does the purchase of meat avoid killing or, just as one who hires a hit-man is still guilty of murder, does the first precept call us to give up also the purchase of meat? The most significant act of violence in our hands is not the killing the but the way we spend our money. How can we kill, or pay for the killing of another being, if we have other easily available options?
Some later Mahayana texts, such as the Lankavatara Sutra, explicitly forbad the eating of meat as incompatible with the cultivation of loving-kindness. Arguably this change of diet occurred at a time when Mahayana monastic communities were no longer receiving donations of food but instead were receiving donations of money. Food became a choice to make wisely rather than a gift to accept with equanimity. Most monastic communities in China and Vietnam are vegetarian, and there is a beautiful tradition of “temple cuisine” in Japan, known as shōjin ryōri, which is completely vegan.
Most Tibetan monasteries serve meat in part because not many fresh vegetables are available at such high altitudes. In order to minimize the number of animals slaughtered, yaks became the primary meat source. 18th century Tibetan teacher, Shabkar, renounced meat even though it left him nutritionally deficient in a land with little access to fresh produce – a price he was willing to pay. The 14th Dalai Lama has more recently become a vegetarian (when he is not dependent on alms) and at the beginning of 2007 the 17th Karmapa (head of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism) publicly discouraged meat eating, saying that, as a result of the importation of Chinese goods, even in Tibet, eating meat is no longer necessary.
“All tremble at violence, All fear death. Seeing others as being like yourself, Do not kill or cause others to kill.” Dhammapada
Still, it is not the interpretation of Sutras or the advice of wise teachers that have lead me to be sensitive to those who suffered to make my meal. It has been primarily my own introspection. I know, in an immediate and somewhat inexplicable way, that eating something that once lived and breathed, cried and played, is wrong (for me). And with what I now know about the conditions of egg and dairy production, I can no longer buy animal products for my own consumption.
A second generation Buddhist, we rarely had meat in the house growing up. About nine years ago, I felt I had to go further to be truly consistent. I learned more about my food and could no longer continue to eat dairy and eggs from our local animal rights organizations, Mercy For Animals. After a time, even cheese – which I had enjoyed most of all – began to look different to me. It transformed from a tasty addition to a sandwich, or an essential pizza topping, into the product of a violent act: the forced extraction of a mother’s milk, stolen from her and from her children. Watching my partner nursing our new baby in front of me, it seemed wrong to drink the nourishment meant for another mother’s child.
More than that, I began to see all dairy products as the end result of an entire industry of violence. For milk to flow, the cow must give birth to a calf. Pregnancies are induced by artificial insemination, often on what the industry calls a “rape rack.” The young cow is made pregnant as early as possible so that milk production can begin. Male calves are taken from their mothers after just a day or two and sent to veal crates. Millions of dairy cows every year are marched into slaughterhouses after their short period of peek productivity ends (usually when they are just five or six years old). Beyond the direct effect on animals are the environmental consequences. Clearing land for cattle is one of the primary causes of rain forest destruction. According to a UN study, animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gasses than all transportation combined.
The story of factory farm eggs is even more tragic. The world in which egg laying chickens live their short lives resembles a terrifying hell realm: beaks seared off without anesthetic, bodies crammed into tiny “battery cages,” infection and disease running rampant and no veterinary care given. Even the best “free range,” organic, egg implies at least two acts of killing. First there is the death of all the surplus male chicks at the hatchery by the cheapest means possible (often simply dumped in trash bags to starve or be suffocated under the bodies of their baby brothers). Then there is the death of the hen herself after her peek laying period is over, usually at about a year. She dies to be made into lower grade meat products or is simply disposed of.
As horrific as these images are, being vegan is an act of love and as such, it is accompanied by joy. How glad I am to be done with all that killing! Every time I choose a vegan meal over one with animal products, I know I am making the right choice; I am keeping the Bodhisattva vow, I am keeping my precepts. Further, it allows me to more honestly love all animals I may encounter. “Don’t worry, I’m vegan,” I find myself telling animals who cannot fully understand, “you have nothing to fear from me.”
In principle, vegan food should be cheaper because it takes less money to produce. In the the English Civil War many, such as the Levellers, became vegetarian in solidarity with the poor. Today subsidies support animal agriculture and factory farms have “externalized” their costs on to the Earth, in order for the cost of a hamburger to be quite low. At the same time, the simple skill of soaking beans or making a lentil soup has been lost. As a result, there are many who feel they cannot afford to become vegan.
Growing up vegetarian, our children came over time to the awareness that other people eat meat. It is natural for children to love animals and often painful when they learn that Mary’s little lamb is on the dinner table. Vegetarian children avoid this cognitive dissonance but are often shocked to discover the food practices of others. Our neighbors eat meat, does that mean they might eat our cat? I explained that people don’t usually eat the kinds of animals they keep as pets. Could our neighbor friends just go to a farm and eat a pig right there? They could but usually people do not see or get to know the animals they eat. They prefer to keep the violence of killing far from view.
When Ruth was still a baby and we were trying out the vegan diet, we discovered an unfilled niche in our community. As it happens, my partner has a real love and talent for dessert baking. It didn’t take long for her to experiment and master the more challenging art of making all her favorite things vegan. Most bread is already made without animal products, but cookies, muffins, and cakes can be made with surprisingly good results using non-hydrogenated margarine to replace the butter and a combination of ground flax seeds and silken tofu to replace the binding and moistening properties of eggs. First my partner began in our home kitchen making a few kinds of vegan cookies for sale at the local cooperative grocery. Slowly she expanded and now her bakery has its own space, employs a staff of fourteen, and is transitioning to a worker-owned cooperative.
Amazingly, most of the recipes she developed have turned out better than their non-vegan counterparts, and the success of the business attests to that. I feel good knowing that every time someone chooses our cookie, muffin, or cupcake over something else, there is a little less money going to fund the mistreatment of animals and a little more going to organic farmers.
It seems as if there is a growing movement of people interested in keeping a nonviolent diet. I am often surprised at the diversity of vegans I meet – young and old, queer and straight, of all ethnic backgrounds. People seem less and less surprised with what I order at restaurants and many places even have straightforward vegan options. My partner’s business is the only vegan bakery in our city but there are now many in the US and other parts of the world. Within the Buddhist community too there seems to be growing awareness, but there is still much work to be done in spreading accurate information and connecting it to compassionate practice.
The ancient Metta Sutta, has a line that I return to again and again: “Even as a mother, at risk of her life, watches over and protects her only child, so with a boundless mind should one cherish all living beings.” This is a tall order to live up to. In my moments of self-righteousness I can notice how far I still am from that ideal. The small sacrifices I make to keep a vegan diet, are far from the sacrifice a mother or father makes for his or her own children. In the poem “Bodhisattva’s Vow,” 17th century Zen teacher, Torei Zenji, wrote that as they saw deeply into the nature of reality, “our ancestors gave reverent care to animals, birds, and all beings.” Insofar as I can be mindful of what I am eating, what I am wearing, and all things around me, I can act spontaneously in a way that will bring benefit to everyone, all animals, human and non-human. Every meal can be an opportunity to give reverent care, to renew my vow for all beings.
Seth Josephson teaches comparative religion and is doing Ph.D. work in contemporary Buddhist and Hindu social movements, cultural theory, sexuality studies, post humanism and many other interconnecting topics at
the Comparative Studies Department at Ohio State University. He is the co-founder of the Buddhist Network of Central Ohio, and hosts workshops and a monthly meditation at the It Looks Like It’s Open Studio. He does his best to model mindfulness for his three inspiring children and eats too many cookies at his partner’s vegan desert bakery which is currently transitioning to a worker owned cooperative.