A Lonely Vegan in the Sangha

I have to start getting this out of my system: I’m vegan. I’m Buddhist. And I’m awfully lonely in my Sangha.

I became vegan just over two years ago as a direct result of my starting to study and practice Buddhism. I had been a vegetarian (who made exceptions for sushi and sashimi) a few years prior to that. My reasons for being vegetarian did not have a strong ethical foundation. I stopped eating meat in order to have a healthier diet and to reduce my own environmental impact.

Now, you could say that maintaining good health and treating the planet well are ethical actions, and I suppose they are. So what I mean when I say that my vegetarianism did not have an ethical foundation is that I did not take into account the ethical problems of using and killing animals for our own pleasure and convenience. I did not consider it wrong to do these things. I did not recognize the moral personhood of my fellow beings.

Fast forward a few years.

I now study and practice Buddhism whole-heartedly. It is the foundation of my spiritual and ethical life. The more that I look at the precepts of not killing, not misusing sexuality and not stealing, the more I know from the bottom of my heart that these precepts must guide my interactions with all sentient beings, not just humans. I am a committed vegan.

Unfortunately vegans are a rarity in our sangha. Sherri and I are the only two that I know of, though I am sure there are a few others.

Now, we (the Sangha) do require that meals be vegetarian at both our Downtown practice center and at our monastery. But we do not require that meals be vegan. And, in fact, some offerings make quite heavy use of butter, eggs and cheese (as a lot of vegetarian, but not vegan food is ought to do).

At first the lack of vegan meals bothered me only a little. Mostly it was sad to be left out. Sherri and I are good about bringing vegan meals or preparing vegan treats for special occasions. But we aren’t always told ahead of time that there’s a special occasion and we aren’t always able to prepare food just for us. Last year I recall the time a few surprised our teacher (and the rest of the sangha) with special treats to celebrate the 40th anniversary of him starting Buddhist practice. We didn’t know about the occasion and no one had thought to bring something that was vegan so we couldn’t partake in the sharing of the sweets.

The trepidation and estrangement I feel around sangha isn’t so much about not being able to have a cookie when everyone else is. Rather, it’s about the ethical divide that I feel between myself and my spiritual community, especially regarding our relationship to food, all the sentient beings of the world and our interpretation of the precepts.

A great deal of our practice together revolves around a set of ethical principles, the precepts, that we are supposed to have in common. We recognize these precepts in nearly everything that we do as a group. We vow together to uphold them. And yet, there are fundamental disagreements about what these precepts mean and how we manifest them via our actions.

It is no secret that there is great debate over whether or not Buddhists are required to be vegetarian, let along vegan. Some point to ambiguity in Buddhist scriptures as ethical justification to eat meat/dairy/eggs. (For more on what the Buddha actually taught regarding this issue, I highly recommend checking out Norm Phelps’ The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animal Rights.) Many famous buddhist teachers, including the Dalai Lama, continue to eat meat, further confusing the issue.

Personally, I think that when one really examines the heart of the precepts and relinquishes their own attachments to the habits and convenience of consuming animal products, it’s very clear that to practice Buddhism one should really adhere to veganism.

However, I’m willing to accept that not all Buddhists will come to the same conclusion that I do on this matter, even if I don’t like that fact. What I take issue with is that as a community we have made a choice that is not the most compassionate one we can make. We aren’t setting the best example that we could. We have a tremendous opportunity to provide a container of shared practice that is most compassionate and we don’t. Out of habit. Or ignorance. Or something; I’m not sure of the reasons.

When this topic comes up in my practice circles, abstention from animal products is often compared to abstention from alchohol. I think this comparison is raised to indicate that while there is some prohibition against causing harm to sentient beings (as is required in the consumption of animal products) and misusing alchohol, that ultimately it’s up to the individual practitioner to determine his level of abstention from each activity.

I take great issue with this comparison. First, I do not think that occasional and moderated use of intoxicants (a definition to which many, many things can apply) is akin to the killing and/or causing suffering to an animal merely for the sake of convenience and desire. However, the validity of this comparison is immaterial to the discussion at hand.

My point in mentioning the alcohol-vegan comparison is that my Sangha has a very clear policy that no alcohol be served at community functions. I’ve never asked why this policy is in place (though I think I will now). But, I imagine that it is in place to support those who are in recovery, and to support those who take the precepts to mean that one should refrain from alcohol and other intoxicants. In any case, it’s clear that the use of alcohol is morally questionable and so we do not allow it at community events or in our residential training center.

Why, then, do we not follow the same logic with our meal choices? I can only fathom that we have yet to overcome the inertia of habit, and of living in a society that is not vegan.

This saddens me greatly and it’s becoming more and more difficult to share a meal whole-heartedly with my community.

Sherri and I try to attend the public serve at Great Vow whenever possible. We enjoy practicing at the monastery and sharing a meal with our community afterwards. However, I’m starting to dread these meals.

Some Sunday lunches are more vegan than others. Sometimes we are able to partake in the main meal (occasionally having to leave off a non-vegan condiment or topping). When the main dish cannot be made vegan, a seperate dish is placed out for the few vegans in attendance. The same procedure is followed for others who have unique nutritional requirements such as gluten-free, hypoglycemia, etc. (Once again, it hurts to have my ethical choices be relegated to another “special diet.” But I digress.)

During my most recent meal at the monastery a wave of pain and grief hit me while we were performing the meal chant. Chant cards had been handed out and as we were about to start, I looked down to see that a small bowl of food had been set aside and labeled ‘Vegan Daal.’ I immediately thought to myself, “there’s no reason, other than lack of foresight and effort, that a vegetarian daal can’t be made vegan.” Rather than feeling happy that Sherri and I had been accommodated, I felt deeply unsettled. Tears came to my eyes. After the chant I excused myself for a while and sat in the car by myself until I could regain some composure.

I felt that by being there I was saying it was okay that everyone else was eating milk and butter. But it’s not okay. Milk and butter are products stolen from a cow, a mother, for which she did not give her consent and for which she undoubtedly suffered. I felt complicity to this suffering. It’s hard for me to feel cameraderie or good will in my community under these circumstances. How can a community that is supposed to share the same values as me, or at least very similar ones, disagree on something so fundamental?

I will pause here to say that I do have compassion for my fellow non-vegan practitioners. I know that change takes time and that making the switch from omnivore or vegetarian is challenging for some. I don’t think that non-vegans are intrinsically bad people. Veganism, for me, is not about us, or you or me. It’s about the animals who suffer because the world isn’t vegan.

I have tried to direct my energy around veganism and the precepts into positive, non-judgmental education and outreach. For the most part I think I have done a good job, and will continue to engage in vegan-related advocacy projects and conversation.

But I don’t know what to do with the pain that I feel around shared Sangha meals. They are now triggering to me in a way that I find nearly debilitating. I shouldn’t have to endure panic attacks in order to partake in the community hearth.

I’m not sure what to do. Do I take a break from Sangha activities? Do I request that all meals be vegan? What do I do if the answer is ‘no’? Do I seek out another sangha, one that is vegan?

Are there any vegan buddhists out there who have worked through a similar situation with their own Sangha? What did you do?

Our meal chant has been floating through my mind while writing this post, so I’m including it here:

We reflect on the effort that brought us this food

We reflect on our virtue and practice and whether we are worthy of this offering

We regard it as essential to keep the mind free from excesses such as greed.

We regard this food as good medicine to sustain our life.

For the sake of enlightenment we now receive this food.

5 comments

  1. sean

    If it’s not a common belief within this community that you’re a part of, then it seems you have two choices: eat what they eat in order to show your apprciation for the food that they DO provide, or do not eat their food but accept that they are not vegan and lead by example in hopes that they will come to share your belief that vegan diet is the proper one.

    Especially in issues of diet and alcohol and other substances, I think a lot of religious communities do seem to provide for a lot of individual interpretation. It makes it difficult to find that perfect niche, but maybe that’s just ultimately a lesson in tolerance and greater understanding?

  2. Shodo Jishin Lee

    I am a zen priest and a vegan. I have lived in temples and in cities. Usually I’m the only vegan around. I believe what we can do as vegans is similar to what we do as buddhist practitioners and that is to do the good that we believe to be right and serve as an example by letting others see what is possible. I also drive the speed limit, don’t buy unnessesary stuff and don’t show anger. We must live with others that do these things. Be a strong quiet example. Do no harm as best you can. Watch your own mind. Practice. I hope others follow your example, but if you push the issue or turn away you will alienate yourself and possibly others. There was a time you were not a vegan, maybe no one pushed you into being one. Be happy you are now. Let others see your happy compassionate lifestyle.

  3. Bob Wallace

    All that you speak of is true not only in the sangha but with family and friends as I am sure you have experienced since awakening to veganism as a spiritual element of darma practice. I have had discussions on this issue with others through the Community at Tricycle.com of which I am a member and the creator of the group “Open Door Cafe” and two Vegan groups which are not active. You can read my home page on the web site for further information about my back ground. I am interested in creating the first on line Buddhadarma Vegan Sangha.

  4. Mat

    Hey Christie

    I am aware of a similar response in myself, generally not towards members of the Sangha (Triratna retreats are all vegan), but towards members of my family.

    Your post was a couple of years ago, so I am not sure where you’re at with it now. I have had similar feelings and responses and told myself my responses were based on ethical principles. In fact it was a multitude of things:

    1. Righteous indignation. A sense that I was right and they were wrong.

    2. Horrified anxiety: I felt pain because I perceived the pain in animals. I wanted it to stop, not for the animals sake but for my own sake.

    3. Jealousy: A part of me still wanted to eat cheese. That part of me I beat into submission with the “I am bad if I eat cheese” argument. And surprise-surprise, those around me who ate cheese, I beat them with the same stick.

    4. Associative ego. I found it curious that the people who I couldnt bear to see eating cheese were those people who I most strongly identified with. People in my ‘group’. My sangha, my family, my partner. People who I had incorporated into my ego identity and in whos actions I felt reflected on me. The passer by in the street eating a burger didnt really bother me that much.

    There were also positive reasons too. I wanted to change the world for the better. That is a noble aspiration but samsara contains suffering, life butchers its self and beings clamber over each others heads to get pleasure. That is the nature of the world. I am not justifying those sorts of action in any way, but you do need to accept that beings do that. You can change your own actions for your benefit and for the benefit of others, but you cant fix Samsara. You will never make it ok. However refined you make the world, there will always be pain and there will always be abuse.

    As a result of the first three reasons in particular, I found my relationships with other people worsened. I became disconnected. Not only did my passion and self righteousness prevent me from communicating to people my values, it actively put them off.

    If people see a vegan in contortions of pain after witnessing quite normal, every day events, or if they see them constantly whigning at the world, the very last thing they are ever going to do is consider being vegan. Why on earth would anyone want to be vegan if dinner time means running off to cry in your car? I deeply admire that level of sensitivity, but there are several factors of enlightenment that need to be developed in balance. Compassion without equanimity is too raw.

    I truly think the best thing that vegans can do is lighten up. This of course is pretty difficult because to become vegan in the first place is a pretty full on commitment. You can’t do it lightly as unfortunately it is in contradiction to your upbringing and 99% of society. Society habitually abuses life.

    The only way I found I could lighten up was to eat biscuits and not be too concerned that they contained 2% whey powder. In total, I now eat about 6 eggs a year. I happily eat up leftover slices of pizza too. If something that I want to eat contains 1% egg or something, I eat it. My diet by weight is still well within 98% non-dairy, probably more. The strictness with myself has faded, my distance from other people has gone. I can generally discuss veganism in a light hearted, unjudgmental tone and suggest the benefits of it in a clean way. I am not invested in whether people become vegan or not and so I am not trying to coerce people. This has benefits to communication. The cost of that is 6 eggs a year, and I believe that is worth it. That does cause pain to living creatures and it would be great if I could have no eggs a year and respond with equanimity, but I don’t seem to be able to, and my suspicion is that most of the vegans I know are not able to either. They hold tightly to their views: “Buddhists should be vegan” and as the Buddha said, a right view grasped tightly becomes a wrong view.

    Very emotive subject indeed. I talk like this but I am still not completely over it myself.

  5. Mary Morgan

    Christie, I too struggle with being the only vegan in any of the Buddhist sangha s here where I live. I have stopped going not because of the
    differences in food choices more how I started to notice how the diet differences affected the practice, something didn’t feel quite right so now I am a sangha of one and that is okay for now.
    I have researched what the Buddha said about diet and it is practical
    knowledge, if there is nothing else to eat, then eat meat, as in Tibet
    not too many fruits and vegetables in a barren land. The Dahli Lama
    eats meat due to his Diabetes, and it helps to control it. No doubt the
    Buddha would concur.
    I appreciate your struggle and trust you will follow what is in your heart, without judgement of the others. Perhaps you may ask why the
    meat eaters make that choice, it may shed light on more than meets the eye.
    I felt I had finally met a kindred spirit after reading your blog, thank you.
    Mary Morgan

    I