Tag: Zen Buddhism

Veganism Isn’t a Buddhist Teaching (Yet)

I’ve written here before about my struggles being a vegan in a non-vegan sangha. It’s been so painful of a process that I’ve taken several months off of sanga activities, including weekly group meditation. Recently I’ve had a breakthough on the subject that I wanted to share.

What I realized, and it seems so simple to me as I’m writing this, is that veganism isn’t actually a Buddhist teaching. At least not directly.

For me, veganism and spiritual practice are inexorably linked. I came to veganism because for the five precepts. I took it to heart the they should apply to all sentient beings, animals and humans alike. For me, the link is clear and obvious: skillful application of the precepts necessitates being vegan. And I think in a sense, I’ve really been holding it against my fellow practitioners for not having this same view.

Here’s the thing, though: Veganism as a concept is in its infancy. It’s less than a hundred years old. Buddhism is over two thousand years old. Talking about veganism in the context of human life as it was 2500 years ago doesn’t make a lot of sense. It particularly doesn’t make a lot of sense as differentiated from vegetarianism, for which there is conflicting directives about within the Buddhist cannon (in so much as there isn’t an overwhelming agreement that there is evidence that vegetarianism was mandated by the Buddha).

Today, however, 56 billion (land) animals a year are breed and killed for use as food. This number doesn’t include the scores of marine life we also kill for food, and animals we kill for clothing, lab experiments, etc. The animal products we consume as food are not required to thrive, but consumed for pleasure and convenience. Unfortunately for us, this pleasure and convenience is also killing us (read Eat to Live and the China Study if you are unclear about this).

It is important to distinguish strict vegetarianism (vegan) from non-strict vegetarianism now (as opposed to during the Buddha’s time) because the way we treat animals today is nothing like how animals were treated when the Buddha was alive. Under our system of industrialized animal agriculture, meat, cheese, eggs and other animal products are indistinguishable from one another in terms of the amount of suffering they inflict. I firmly believe that if the Buddha were around today, he would teach veganism. Some Buddhist teachers, like Thich Nhat Hanh, already have switched to being vegan and are encouraging their students to do likewise.

However, Buddhism can’t be separated from the cultures in which it is practiced. In reality, a great number of Buddhists are vegetarians, but many are not and even fewer are vegan. And this has been the case for a very long time. Some Buddhist traditions, like Chan, are more vegetarian-leaning than others. Practitioners in my lineage (Zen) are particularly known for being omnivores.

My point is that I can’t really expect anything more from my Sangha, including my teachers, than what is clear and present in Buddhist teachings and traditions. And, unfortunately, veganism isn’t one of those things. What I now understand is that a practitioner can be wise, compassionate, and mindful and be an omnivore as well.

Am I still saddened that I don’t know a lot of Buddhist teachers who are vegan? Yes, I am. Do I wish more Buddhist practitioners would include all sentient beings in their skillful application of the precepts and thereby practice veganism? Yes, I do. Do I think that people, Buddhist and otherwise could be even more compassionate by practicing veganism? Yes. But I no longer expect this simply because someone is Buddhist. And I feel less anger and resentment towards Buddhists who are not vegan.

But I have also recognized that because veganism is at the foundation of my spiritual life, I need a spiritual guide who is herself vegan. So, I will continue my search for one. In the meantime, I feel better at the idea of practicing again with my mostly non-vegan sangha. Though, I think I will still avoid shared meals (particularly ones of celebration).

I do think that Western Buddhism, as young a veganism itself, has a tremendous opportunity to bring greater compassion to the world through veganism. I look forward to spreading vegan education to my sangha members (far and near, Buddhist and otherwise).

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.

My Practice is Following the Breath in My Body

One of the ways to start sanzen (private interview with the teacher) is to state what your zazen practice is. There are several techniques one can employ during zazen. Your teacher will often suggest a particular technique based on what she knows about you and the state of your Zen practice. Some of the most common zazen methods are: opening awareness to sound, performing body scans, doing metta (loving-kindness), and following the breath in the body. My practice is the latter-most technique: I follow my breath in my body.

When I sit down to meditate, I first work to find a comfortable position. Usually I sit on a zafu (round cushion) in Burmese style: legs crossed in front of me, but both flat on the floor. At times I will also sit in half-lotus position, but I find that harder to do for longer periods of time. I check that my posture is upright, but not stiff. I make sure I can breathe freely, that my stomach is unencumbered and can move easily as my diaphragm expands and contracts with each breath. Then start to breath deeply and deliberately. I try to maintain my attention with my breath as it moves through my body. I notice how my ribs expand as I breathe in, starting with the top most ribs and extending towards the bottom-most ones. I notice how my stomach expands and moves outward. I notice how my arms move outward ever so slightly. And then I do the same in reverse as I follow the breath as it leaves my body. I note, without judgment, any tight spots in the path of my breath. Sometimes I find that my breath is shallow and difficult as if I simply can’t get oxygen to the bottom of my lungs. Sometimes my chest grows heavy and starts to burn. Other times I feel like the air itself: light, almost as if I could float right off the the zafu.

While I’m doing this I try to think of nothing else but the sensations of the present. If I notice my mind wander, I try to simply notice this wandering and once again return my attention back to the sensations of breath in my body. I do this over and over again and without judgment. Okay, sometimes I have judgment about how well or poorly I’m doing zazen. But then I notice this too and return my focus to my breath.

My ability to concentrate in this manner varies. At times my mind wanders incessantly and I will be lucky if I am able to count three breaths before I start revising my todo lists, having practice conversations in my head, or working out a programming problem. Or sometimes I realize the monkey-mind has been running wild for who-knows-how-many minutes and I’ve not even been aware of it. But every now and then I will have several moments of sustained concentration, of simply being present to my life.

It sounds so easy, yet anyone who has tried it knows how truly difficult it is to just sit with yourself and breathe. It sounds so simple, and yet the depths of this technique I feel I’m only beginning to experience.

2010 Goals

Yes, it’s the obligatory “resolutions” post. These are not in any particular order.

Do Zazen (Meditate) Everyday

Finding, or rather making the time to sit is a real challenge for me. Particularly after I haven’t sat for a while. My monkey mind generates a thousand different reasons why I can’t sit still with myself for a few minute. So, rather than concentrating on the length of the zazen, I’m going to concentrate on making sure that I do zazen every day, regardless of the duration. Currently I’m sitting 10 minutes in the morning and 10 in the afternoon (aside from the time I sit with my sangha).

Attend a Sesshin

Attending a sesshin (multi-day silent retreat) was a goal for 2009 that I didn’t accomplish. I did, however, establish a retreat practice by attening a workshop and a Beginner’s Mind retreat (sesshin-lite). But this is the year I will go to sesshin for the first time. Actually, I think it’s how I’ll be celebrating my 30th birthday. Right now, the Loving-Kindness (Metta) Sesshin is the week of my birthday. If you had told me a few years ago that I’d be considering spending such an “important” birthday in silent retreat, I would have said you were nuts. But, Metta practice is something I’m very interested in (and haven’t had a lot of experience with). And, giving myself the space/time for such deep practice seems like an awesome way to celebrate my birthday.

Establish a Writing Practice

Last year I had more blog entries than I ever have before, but they were sporadic at best. My personal journal entries are even fewer and farther between. So this year, I will try to blog more, journal more and even play around again with some creative writing.

Maintain a Yoga Practice

My yoga practice dropped off substantially last year, firstly due to illness and then because the studio that I’d been going to closed. However, during the last week of the year I went to two yoga classes and was amazed at how quickly I felt its positive effects. When I’m doing yoga regularly, I eat better, I sleep better, I have fewer digestive issues, I feel more connected to my body. And it helps incredibly with zazen. So my goal is to go to 2-3 yoga classes a week and work on doing postures at home.

Improve the Garden

Last year’s garden attempt was shotgun at best. That’s okay. I’d been sick and moved in after the start of planting season. There was definitely an up hill battle to fight to even get the back yard in shape to plant anything. This year I want to grow more winter squash, trellis/cage the tomatoes and cucumbers properly, install some kind of irrigation system to make daily watering easier and more efficient, plant cover crops and actually record what we plant.

Make a Significant Contribution to the Portland Tech Community

I’m not attached to a particular way of contributing to the PDX tech community, though I do have a couple of ideas in the works.

Learn New Things

In my 2009 goals, I was pretty specific about some of the things I wanted to learn. (Ahem, three new programming languages? What was I thinking?) So this year, I’m making this goal very broad and giving myself flexibility to explore and change what I’m working on. Some things that I’m interested in now that could fall under this goal: Working on the Blue Beast (my ’72 Toyota Corona), origami, woodworking and programming.

Stay Out of Debt

Last year, I paid off all of my debt except for my federal student loan. This year, I plan to keep it paid off.

Precept 5: I Vow Not to Misuse Drugs or Alcohol, But to Keep the Mind Clear

In preparation for receiving the precepts next week, I’ve been writing about what each precept means to me. This is the sixth post in series of six about the Five Grave Precepts. You might want to read the introductory post if you haven’t already.

Buddhists tend to have great disagreement about this precept. Some view it as rigid prohibition against consuming drugs and alcohol. Some view it not as a prohibition against a particular substance, but rather a proscription of clouding the mind with any intoxicant.

I am in the latter camp. Considering one’s intake of drugs and alcohol are very important in regards to this precept. Lots of people use alcohol and drugs (both illicit and prescribed) to muddle their minds and their experience of the present moment. Many use drugs for the specific purpose of turning away from their present suffering. And, of course, many are incapable of engaging alcohol or drugs without abusing them. For these people, I think interpreting this precept as a prohibition makes sense.

But many things can be used to cloud the mind, not just drugs: sex, eating, shopping, exercise, video games, gambling etc. Pretty much any activity can be utilized to distract the mind away from the truth of now.

Personally, I’m uncomfortable viewing this precept as an outright prohibition against drugs because of our culture’s views about drugs. We have a history of biased, irrational thinking about drugs and have allowed special interests to dictate policy regarding the legality of substances that humans have been using in positive contexts (for healing and spiritual growth) for thousands of years. I don’t think it makes sense to discount these substances simply because our culture has labeled them as illegal. Marijuana is a good example. For many, it offers better pain management than opiates and without the major side effects of those powerful narcotics. I think it is possible to use drugs (and, to a lesser extent alcohol) responsibly and without clouding the mind.

Because intoxicants are not limited to drugs and alcohol, and because normal activities like sex and eating can be used as intoxicants, I think this precept is much more about mindfulness is our substance/activity use. It’s about about being mindful regarding my intentions and of how a particular substance or activity affects my mind-body state mind-body. Is what I’m doing clouding my mind? Is it taking me away from the present moment? Am I engaging in this activity to escape? Am I avoiding unpleasant emotion?

Sometimes we can’t avoid clouding the mind. If we need a surgery, we are likely to be given strong narcotics that will change our state of mind. When we are sick, we are often clouded in our thinking. It’s in these cases where examining intention becomes important.

One would hope that our bodies get sick as part of the natural course of events and not because we have made ourselves sick. We hope that we take narcotics in order to enable our bodies to endure a procedure and heal. Then again, we know that this is not the case for all people. The death of Michael Jackson comes to mind here.

For the most part, I’ve been very cautious and metered in my use of drugs and alcohol. But looking back, there have been times where I have abused both substances. Back when I was going to Burning Man every year, and still very into taking substances to enhance my experience there, I recall someone saying to me that they didn’t need to takes drugs anymore, that they could get to these higher states of mind all on their own. At the time, I thought that notion very silly. That person was just old and boring (how embarrassing it is to think about this).

But now I realize what the person was saying is true. The closeness that I wanted to feel, the dropping of barriers, the union with something bigger than myself. Those are all things that I’m learning how to find on my own, without the aid of a drug. It’s pretty powerful to recognize that I can do this all on my own, and do it with a clear mind and a clear heart.