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.
I’m by no means against someone becoming vegan. I totally respect that decision. That being said, I don’t think that it is immoral to consume animal derived products.
Is it immoral for the Wolf to hunt to Deer? I don’t think so, and I don’t think that it is at all different from Humans hunting and consuming meat.
I agree that the current state of the meat and dairy industry needs a major overhaul, but I don’t believe that going vegan is the best way to stop those practices.
We cannot, as humans, deny a part of us.
I think it’s rather absurd to apply our morality to a wolf. As humans, we have the ability of reason to consciously choose something other than what our primal urges might prompt us to do. We are not ruled by instinct alone like an animal is. Plus, it could very well be that a wolf could not subsist healthfully without animal protein/fat in his diet.
As humans living in society, we often moderate the parts of ourselves that would lead to socially unacceptable behavior. I.e., it’s not acceptable to rape in this society just because one is sexually aroused.
That’s also true of Wolf society. Wolves often curb instinctual urges to maintain pack dynamics. I think that sentience has a lot more to it than we think.
Humans are just as animal as a wolf. And I think the reverse is true as well.
Perhaps a better example would be the Bear. A bear is an omnivore. Like humans, they eat both plants and animals, they can choose what they eat just as we can. Eating meat is a part of us just like it is for a bear, you can argue that bears and wolves don’t have the moral capacity to decide for themselves, but I think that would be a gross underestimate of the animal spirit. Anyone with a pet dog can attest to this idea.
I think this is very well thought-out, Christie. And definitely, the dinner situation could have been handled better, especially since it was a Buddhist event. Even so – it seems to me that you are saying that your morality should apply to everyone, and I’m uncomfortable with that. But then, maybe that’s a good thing – it’s making me think.
Techwraith: The fact that animals kill for food does not provide support for it being morally defensible for us to do so. That argument implies the we should look to other animals for moral guidance. That’s absurd. It’s true that animals display complex social behavior, including altruism, but that does not necessarily mean they are capable of reflecting morally upon the food choices they make. And even if we determined animals to be capable of making some kind of “moral” decisions, but still choosing to eat meat, it still doesn’t mean it’s okay for us.
I’m not going to continue this particular line of discussion, however. The arguments you raise against veganism are common ones and their debates are well-documented. It’s not a good use of time to re-hash them here. If you’re curious, I can suggest a few books/resources.
That being said, I didn’t write this post to convince the general omnivore audience steadfast on eating meat. I wrote this blog post for other vegetarians who have not yet become vegan and for fellow Buddhists, who already share an agreement to uphold the precepts.
Kathleen McDade: I understand your discomfort. The use of meat and dairy/eggs is completely ingrained in our culture. We learn at a very young age to have two opposing views of animals. We are taught to love our family cat or god and stuffed animal toys, but also taught it’s okay to kill pigs, cows, etc. for food. So what I’m suggesting is that something you do everyday, without thinking much about it, is not moral. That would really bug me too. In fact, it did when I was an omnivorve. I never wanted to hear a dissenting opinion. I wasn’t ready yet.
But, I wonder, would you be as uncomfortable if I were instead telling the story of how I witness someone steal something from another and was deploring the thief’s actions? Would you refer to that as “my morality”? Probably not, because our mainstream society has determined that stealing is generally wrong (obviously there are exceptions, but those are outlying cases). So the only difference I see is that I’m stating that something the majority of our culture does is immoral.
At one point in time our mainstream culture thought that slavery of humans was acceptable. I wonder, in how many of the discussions of whether or not it should be abolished, did slave-owners and others who benefited from slaves, argue against the other side imposing their “morality.”
A similar argument arises in the gay marriage discussion. The evangelical side argues us gays are trying to impose our non-morality against them. Actually, we’re just fighting for the same human rights that they enjoy. But I don’t want to digress.
Yes, I do not think it’s right for anyone to consume animal products when it’s not necessary (which is the case nearly all of the time). I don’t argue at people while they are eating their chicken dinner. It does, however, make me sad that they are unwilling/unable to consider the harm their actions have upon other creatures, fellow humans and our planet.
That’s why I issued my challenge. Most omnivores who deride a vegan way of life have never tried it. They simply refuse to consider it as an option. I know for me, the greater issues of veganism and animals rights didn’t start to occur to be until I was already vegan. Being already vegan and realizing how feasible it actually was provided a defensive-free space for me to consider the greater animal rights issues at stake (and the environmental issues, which are secondary).
My goal is not to make people uncomfortable when talking about veganism. But I recognize that it might happen and I’m at peace with that. After all, each person is responsible for his/her discomfort. I try to make room for dialog, both here on my blog and in real life. But to anyone who feels this isn’t the case, you simply needn’t reed my blog or listen to what I have to say.
I admire you and respect your point of view – and I appreciate all that you have to say here. I would invite you to look at the precepts from another angle. What if we live the precepts not so much as principles but as skills?
The picture that comes to mind is of you and Sherri as concert violinists in a room full of kazoo players. What do you do with this terrible cacophony of kazoos? With your musical expertise, you have much to impart. Over time, you could help these folks to play much more palatable music on a variety of instruments. You might also have to endure a lot of noise! Your vegan diet is a powerful expression of the precepts and a skill you can share.
I have learned the skill of not drinking any alcohol at all. Thich Nhat Hanh also makes a strong case for taking the 5th precept to mean that no one should ever drink alcohol. However, I don’t agree with him, and I choose not to drink for other reasons. But I gladly assist anyone who wishes to delve more deeply into “not becoming intoxicated.” I don’t see Beer ‘n Blog as an affront to any principle.
Seeing the precepts as skills involves seeing how we all keep them imperfectly. Like other skills, each of us excels at some and stumbles over others. And no matter where we look, if we look deeply, we will encounter dukkha. I have only to look into this computer monitor at the wasteful and toxic process of silicon wafer production on which my livelihood depends. But as a step toward non-harming, I will have a vegan lunch today.
I’m not going to go into the veganism debate, but I do want to mention that living in community means peacably co-existing with people who might not agree with you or share your lifestyle. I get that you want everyone to do it your way and it feels very urgent. I’m wondering if you can see the cost that has to people’s needs for harmony and peace and respect. Isn’t that also part of the precepts? I think there is a balance between sharing what is important to you and running roughshod over other people’s choices – which may, actually, be more thought out than it sounds like you are assuming here.
On a more practical note, if you want people to change, telling them they are wrong isn’t a great way to start the conversation. I realize that you may not *think* you are judging people, but that is how this comes off (to me anyway). What I hear is that if I make a choice that is different than you, I haven’t thought about it and I’m wrong.
It may not be your intention to communicate that, but I challenge *you* to be curious about the impact you have on others when you talk about this issue with them. Are you respectful of their autonomy, of their history, of their thought-process, of their right to choose their own path? I think these are integral parts of non-violence.
My favorite quote on the subject is “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” What I get from that is that even if my cause is rightous and moral, if I go about advocating it in a way that is violent, then I’m not making progress. At best I’m creating a stalemate – a situation where people comply out of guilt or submission rather than alignment and growth. This causes backlash and an overall resistance to the whole idea.
Just my thoughts.
Ed: Thanks for your thoughtful post. I do think it is helpful to view the precepts as both skills and a means, rather than an ends. It’s impossible to live a pure life.
I don’t quite agree with your kazoo symphony analogy as it applies to the first precept and not consuming animal products (no one is harmed from hearing bad music, aside from irritation, so becoming more skillful is less urgent). But I see what point you’re making and it does resonate with me. In many ways I do not feel skillful with the precepts, so I look forward to continuing our discussions and continuing to learn from one another.
Thanks for letting me know you were considering the precepts (and perhaps the point of view shared on my blog) in choosing a vegan lunch. I hope it was delicious!
Emma: It’s vital that a society have conversations that make people uncomfortable because that is how change happens.
Oh I was hoping you would have a more in-depth response. Than line seems kind of hackneyed.
When I was vegan, and I challenged you and was dogmatic about it, is that what caused you to change?
It doesn’t seem like it was.
I think change happens in lots of way. I don’t think that “making people uncomfortable” is the only way, or even the best way, to create change.
Are you familiar with this diagram? I got it from LaShelle.
It suggests that when people are pushed a little out of their comfort zone, that does lead to learning. But if pushed too far, or if they sense judgment or disapproval or that you think they “should” change, it puts people outside the learning zone into the panic zone – emotional discomfort and guardedness, and that doesn’t lead to learning or connection or change.
PS You might want to install the Subscribe to Comments plugin, it makes it easier to have conversations in comments.
Emma: Sorry that you were disappointed by the brevity of my response to your comment. In practicing with Right Speech, I’m trying to be concise. However, since you have indicated you would like a more thorough response, here is one.
Clearly I’m judging people’s behavior and decision making when I say that we have a moral responsibility not to treat animals as human resources. There’s no question about that. But that’s not the same as judging the whole person. I don’t think that people who eat meat or otherwise consume animal products are bad people. But I do question the ethics of their decision.
And it’s okay for me to say that. It’s particularly okay for me to say that on my blog because everyone has a choice about when, where and how they read it. The way I talk to people about this topic in person is quite different. I tailor my speech according to context. My blog is something I particularly write for myself, so the speech in it isn’t necessarily tailored for others.
You intimate that what I’ve said in my post is dogmatic. I disagree. It’s true that there is passion behind my words because of what I feel on the subject. I make conclusions and state opinions but also present the facts from which those conclusions arise.
When I wrote my post I knew that some people would feel discomfort around it. Food is so very intimate and talking about our food choices is often difficult in and of itself. It’s even more difficult when someone challenges the ethics involved in our decisions.
The possibility of people being discomforted by what I say, or even the likelihood there of, is not sufficient reason to withhold speech. Talking about uncomfortable topics is absolutely essential for growth and change. Ultimately each person is responsible for for managing their own comfort/discomfort/panic zones.
What I can and should do when talking about topics I know to be sensitive, and possibly disagreeable, is to speak concisely and factually, to be mindful that my message is beneficial and to pick the proper timing for my message. I’ve tried to apply all these things in writing my blog post. My skills aren’t perfect in this regard, of course, but have to be practiced over time. It’s very possible I’ll look back on this post in a year and see how I could have phrased something more skillfully.
As far as why I became vegan, I’ve written about that subject on this blog before: http://www.subfictional.com/2009/05/how-i-became-vegan/.
Your letter was obviously directed to an audience of individuals who’ve already made the decision to not eat meat. Challenging that audience to forego the consumption of animal products entirely can hardly be construed as shoving someone out of their comfort zone…as attached as one might be to the taste of cheese…
That said, I think it’s safe to say that veganism as a lifestyle will not be adopted by the majority of human individuals anytime soon. Speaking from a practical standpoint regarding the treatment of animals by society, I think that harm-reduction should be the modus operandi. This includes sustainable free-range farming techniques and the humane treatment of livestock. The problem with the vegan movement is that in its placing of the moral right on complete abstention members of the vegan community cannot reasonably contribute to the improvement of existing conditions without essentially becoming enablers of immoral behavior.
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with drawing personal moral lines in the sand – and given the harm-reduction argument one could easily counter using a slavery correlation along the lines of “There’s no such thing as *better* slavery”. But to equate an action such as meat consumption which occurs so frequently in nature with something such as slavery which is entirely a human construct is tenuous at best. One cannot equate two actions simply because they personally morally despise both.
Ironically, I see a great deal of similarity between the vegan movement of the (typically) liberal left and the hard-line sexual abstinence movement of the (typically) christian right. Both are impractical as a wide-spread solutions to the problems of suffering and neglect in this world. Such impracticality, perhaps, is the very nature of all idealism.
I agree, as I suspect many vegans would, that veganism is unlikely to see wide spread adoption “anytime soon.” I would argue, however, that this has more to do with the larger problems of our food production and distribution economy than with the energy required for individuals to commit to being vegan. Were vegan options plentiful, it would be easy for the masses to make the switch. But vegan options aren’t plentiful because the corporations controlling our food supply have a vested interest in the continuation of our unhealthy food system and culture.
It simply isn’t the case that animal welfare is the more “practical” approach (over abolition of exploitation). There are numerous resources available that explain why the welfare approach is not only not morally defensible, but also not practical in that it does not produce the desired result. For a starting point you can see the FAQ here (Question #14): http://www.abolitionistapproach.com/faqs/
It is not tenuous at all to equate human slavery with animal slavery. Your argument that it is rests on the notion that it’s okay to engage in a behavior as long as it exists frequently in nature. This simply isn’t the case. Because a behavior exists in nature, among animals, does not mean that it is morally defensible for humans to engage in that behavior. We do not look to animals to determine what is moral behavior.
That you see so many similarities between the vegan/ar movement and the evangelical abstinence movement is somewhat laughable. I suppose if you only considered the very surface veneer in that both groups are adamant in their beliefs. Beyond that I see nothing but differences. The vegan/ar movement is not rooted in any religious world-view, but rather reaches its conclusions through logical, informed arguments. It also does not actively withhold information or promote mistruths. More over, as I understand it, it is not the mission of the evangelical abstinence movement to prevent suffering world-wide, per se. As far as I understand the movement once you’re married you can have as much sex and produce as many children as possible, without regard to how/if the planet can support such growth.
The similarity I find between the vegan and sexual abstinence movements is based on the idea that both movements aim to solve moral problems by refraining from a particular, arguably natural, behavior. While the moral of “no sex before marriage” is certainly part of the drive behind the abstinence movement, I think you’d find that many in the movement see abstinence as the best way to prevent what they consider the morally reprehensible act of abortion (being that most abortions occur due to unwanted pregnancy out of wedlock). The way that christian sexual abstinence advocates feel about the loss of life caused by abortion is arguably similar to the feeling vegans have about the loss of life caused by the consumption of sentient beings. In another turn for the ironic, I find it strange that these two groups are so often at odds over the right of an unborn child to live – esp. when it comes to later term abortions. But I digress…
The only issue I have with veganism is my belief that arguments regarding fundamental rights have to be made wholesale. Conditions or allowances placed alongside on any given rights argument tend to muddy the water. If one is going to say that it’s wrong to kill a sentient being for food, one must be prepared to hold onto that statement unconditionally – in much the same way that one would unconditionally hold to the immorality of slavery regardless of circumstance. Conversely, allowances for human starvation made, one must say that if it is acceptable for a human to kill a sentient non-human-being for food given an otherwise unresolvable hunger condition it’s a short leap to the conclusion that killing animals for food is a generally acceptable practice. You can, of course, maintain the hard-line so long as you are prepared to test it out on a 3 month long technology-free, grocery-store-free vacation in the woods. That, I can respect.
The wholesale right of sentient beings to not be owned or otherwise treated like “things” also raises some really interesting questions about the imprisonment of those in our society who fail to follow the rules. Is not locking a sentient being up in a cage as a ward of the state essentially treating it as property? Sure, a single difficult question does not negate the vegan responsibility to forego compassion for sentient beings – but I’ve not yet heard a vegan advocating for the release of all the long suffering caged animals we call prisoners.
So much of what we now regard as fundamental morality is artificially influenced by the technological innovations of mankind. I think responsible, practical, wholesale morality has to start with a human in the woods with no supplies and build up from there. Why? Because the most fundamental rights ought not be based on assumptions of convenience afforded by technological progress. Fundamental rights should ring true regardless of circumstance.
The vegan movement seeks to recognize that animals have a basic right to not be property, and, subsequently, that we do not have the right to treat them as resources. Therefore, in order to engage in moral behavior, vegans refrain from using animals as resources whenever possible.
The abstinence movement is not similar to the vegan movement because the primary behavior the abstinence movement seeks to change is that of pre-marital sex. Pre-marital sex in and of itself, and particular outside of any religious context, is not immoral.
You speculate that the secondary behavior that the abstinence movement wishes to curb is that of abortion. If that were the case there are far more effective means for reducing abortion. This includes proper sex education as well as the availability of health services for women, including contraception. The abstinence movement is whole-heartedly against both of these.
Your “wholesale” condition for determining the rights of animals is spurious, at best. Ethical decisions always take context into account. For example, our society generally accepts that killing another human is wrong. However, we have allowances for it in the case of self-defense.
So, it is certainly not a short leap from treating an animal as a resource in a situation where it is impossible to do otherwise (starvation, life-saving animal derived or tested medicine, etc.) to eating meat and diary and using other animal products on a regular basis when many viable alternatives exist.
Incarcerating individuals who have committed crimes is not the same thing as reverting those individuals to property status. The rights of those individuals have been limited, yes, for a length of time commensurate (presumably) with their crimes, but they are still considered as rights-bearing individuals. There are a number of rules and regulations in place within our corrections system to ensure that this is the case. I’m not well-verse in the ethical foundations of a society’s right to incarcerate, for the purposes of rehabilitation when possible, individuals who break the social contract. You can do your own research in this regard. And, I do think many vegans are concerned about the state of our corrections system and in many cases would advocate for incarcerating fewer people (I certainly do). In the United States we incarcerate more individuals than in any other country. And our rehabilitation rates are low and recidivism rates high.
I don’t make a distinction between “fundamental” morality and the morality in our current technological state. Such a distinction makes no logical sense. We can only take the context of the here and now in making our ethical decisions. Not at some hypothetical point in time that was without technology (which doesn’t really exist).
Moreover, societies with an ethical imperative of non-harming (Buddhism, Hinduism, Janism) have been around for thousands of years, long before any of the modern conveniences afforded to us via current technology.
The comments to this posting are getting way off topic. I’m not going to spend any more time responding to ill-formed arguments which are rebutted in great detail in readily available sources. As such, I’m not going to post any more comments that contain arguments against veganism. You are welcome to post those arguments on your own blog.
If you’re considering veganism and have questions and/or comments about that, please continue to submit those. I will happily respond.
Phew – you certainly work hard for veganism, Christie! I really enjoyed reading your blog – well done and thank you! I have been a Buddhist (vegetarian) for 30 years and went vegan only 3 years ago. Like you, I have become more and more passionate about it and would like to influence my own Buddhist community, the Triratna Buddhist Community, to move more towards veganism. It was while researching Buddhism and veganism on the internet that I came across your informative, inspiring blog. I really appreciated it, so thank you!
with metta, Samachitta (Triratna Buddhist Order, UK)
He is always near a sea to control system a new burning of Eva mendes nudes – he or she can’t help it, also achieve drawn to a person’s sea side!
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