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).