I recently attended a fundraising dinner for the Heart of Wisdom Zen Temple, which will become my Buddhist community’s downtown center. We currently offer a program in Portland in a space we rent from another Zen group. We have grown sufficiently over the last couple of years such that it’s time to purchase a building of our own. During that time, we’ve produced a number of fundraising events, including classes, guest speakers and workshops. The latest of these activities was a dinner hosted by a new, hip restaurant and prepared by a well-known local chef who donated his time to our cause.
The dinner went incredibly well. The food was well-received. The decor was elegant. We raised a lot of money (an impressive amount, actually).
But as the night went on, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that the meal served was not vegan (it was vegetarian). In fact, at first my partner and I were informed that there wasn’t going to be a vegan option available at the dinner. At the last minute, the organizers we able to work something out and we were accommodated with vegan-ize versions of the meals served to everyone. For the entree, this meant risotto prepared without the cheese and butter. For dessert we received a plate of berries in syrup without the shortcake and whipped cream that accompanied everyone else’s meal.
While I appreciate the effort that went in to the preparation of the meal, and to the event as a whole, it was actually disheartening to me that we were “accommodated” in the manner that we were. There’s no reason we needed to be accommodated at all. The meal we were served could have been prepared, with marginal extra effort, entirely vegan. It simply wasn’t considered or asked for until we raised the issue (too close to the event, I suspect, for an entire vegan meal to be planned for and prepared).
Being vegan for me isn’t a strange or special diet. It’s a way of living. It’s deeply rooted in my spirituality and ethics. It’s integral to how I mindfully uphold the precepts. In fact, to me, eating meat, dairy and eggs, as well as consuming other animal products goes directly against the first three precepts (not harming, not stealing, not misusing sexuality).
So, as the meal went on, it was increasingly difficult for me to participate whole-heartedly given the dairy and eggs we were being served. Our teacher led us in two mindful eating exercises during the meal. One was to focus on an ingredient in the food in front of us and imagine the complete journey of how that ingredient came to be on our plate. I couldn’t stop thinking about the cows who provided the milk for the whipped cream. I couldn’t help but think that we’re having this meal to fund our new Zen temple and that it will be in part founded upon preventable, needless abuse and suffering.
There should always be a vegan option at these community gatherings. In fact, there is no good reason why all meals served by my Buddhist community shouldn’t be vegan. There is precedent for this. A visiting teacher recently hosted a retreat at our monastery and requested that meals be vegan. The monastery was able to provide these meals. It was simply a matter of being required to do so.
In 2007, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh directed the monasteries and practice centers of his order to become vegan, saying:
“Being vegetarian here also means that we do not consume dairy and egg products, because they are products of the meat industry.”
(You can read the entire letter on the Plum Village site.)
Yes, dairy and eggs are products of the meat industry. In terms of the suffering and abuse of animals, you cannot distinguish between meat and eggs/dairy. Dairy cows are sold for meat after they stop producing. They repeatedly give birth to calves who are stolen away from them and either slaughtered for meat or raised for further dairy production. I could go on and on, but there are better resources out there to explain horrors and unethical practices of the dairy/egg industries.
Because they cannot talk to us in language we can readily understand, it may be difficult to contemplate that animals are indeed sentient. But they are. Anyone who has cared for a companion animal knows that they experience sensation. A cow, chicken or goat is no different than your family cat or dog in this regard. Think of the last time you cringed when someone mentioning dog or cat being prepared for food in Vietnam.
Once we accept animals as sentient beings, we Buddhists must use the precepts as a guide in our relationship with animals.
The first precept of non-harming says:
“I will be mindful and reverential with all life, I will not be violent nor will I kill.
Avoid killing or harming any living being.
I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.
I shall endeavor to protect and take care of all living creatures.
Do not do harm to other beings.”
In this precept it’s obvious that we shouldn’t eat meat. Meat requires the killing of animals. But so does the consumption of dairy and eggs given the structure of our agriculture and food distribution system.
The second precept of not stealing says:
“I will respect the property of others, I will not steal.
Avoid stealing. Do not take what is not yours to take.
I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.
Live simply and frugally.”
Animals do not give us milk and eggs. We take these things from them. Under normal and typical circumstances we do not need eggs or dairy to live. They are a decadence take at the great expense and harm of other creatures.
The third precept of not misusing sexuality says:
“I will be conscious and loving in my relationships, I will not give way to lust.
Avoid sexual irresponsibility.
I undertake the precept to refrain from improper sexual activity.
Do not engage in sexual misconduct.”
This precept does not normally arise in the discussions of whether or not one should be vegan. But I think it’s essential. Dairy and egg production necessitates the abuse of the sexuality of other creatures. For example, to produce milk, cows are kept in an artificial state of pregnancy and are forced to reproduce over and over again.
On top of all the ethical reasons listed above, meat and dairy production is incredible harmful to the environment. 18% of greenhouse gasses are produced via cattle production. Every year tons and tons of grain is fed to livestock when it could be distrubuted to needy and hungry families across the globe.
Plus eating meat and dairy is just plain bad for you. The two countries with the highest dairy consumption (US and Sweden) also have the greatest occurrence of osteoporosis. Preventable cardiavascular disease acquired through the consumption of animal products is a leading cause of death and also a tremendous burden on our healthcare system.
Becoming vegan isn’t inherently difficult. It’s simply of recognizing our ingrained habits and vowing to break those habits. There’s absolutely no reason delicious, nutritious meals, including baked goods and pastries can’t be prepared without animal ingredients. Medically, there are minuscule, if any reasons why someone could not sustain a healthful vegan diet. Hypoglycemia, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, different allergies, and many other special health needs can all be supported by a vegan diet. If you don’t know how, you can find a vegan nutritionist.
The greatest obstacle to becoming vegan is that it isn’t mainstream. This means that you’ll have to explain your dietary decisions to people. You might have to refrain from eating treats at a group celebration. You will have to make choices about where you eat out. Sometimes you will be left out of a celebration.
But you know what? If everyone were vegan, or even half, none of the above problems would exist. Vegan diets would be normal and perfectly included.
So I’m issuing a challenge to my Buddhist community and beyond: Go vegan today.
That’s right, just do it. Stop eating meat, cheese, other dairy and eggs. Right now. If you need help, let me know and I’ll be more than happy to lend a hand. I’ll even cook you dinner. I’ll lend you cookbooks and send you recipes.