Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

How to feed an ego

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For the past few weeks the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program called Ideas ran a three-part series of programs entitled Have Your Meat and Eat It Too. Themes that run through all three installments are the methods of so-called factory farming and all the distortions that large scale agricultural operations feed into the economy, the environment and the political climate of the countries in which it is practiced. There are examinations of the influence of pharmaceutical companies, chemical companies that produce artificial fertilizers and pesticides, and giant low-price retailers such as Wal-Mart and large fast-food chains such as McDonalds that force prices paid to farmers to such low levels that hardly anyone in small-scale agriculture can make a livelihood any more. Rarely have I heard the word ”unsustainable“ used so many times in a span of three hours.

Episodes two and three both have discussions of the ethical and environmental and health implications of a vegetarian diet. Suffice it to say that it is not obvious that a vegetarian diet is unambiguously indicated as the best way to stay healthy and preserve the environment, although everyone agrees that the current dietary proclivities of Americans are both unhealthy and environmentally disastrous. Unfortunately, American dietary habits are finding their ways to other parts of the world as well, making obesity one of America’s principal exports.

One of the observations that most caught my attention in these discussions was made by a woman who was a vegan for 20–30 years and eventually changed her diet to include some animal products. She observed that being a vegan is much more than deciding what to eat and what not to eat. It is also taking on an identity. It is carrying all the baggage of a persona that must be defended almost every time one picks up a fork. It is, in other words, to take on a practice that has exactly the opposite effect of what most Buddhist (and other spiritual) practices are designed to do, namely, to reduce one’s attachment to a particular identity.

And, said this former vegan, whenever one takes on an identity, one loses perspective and enters into a mentality that warps almost everything one sees, systematically refuses to look at evidence impartially, and enters into the epistemological vices of believing things for which one has insufficient evidence and not believing things despite having plenty of evidence.

Buddhists called these epistemological vices by the simple term moha, which means the state of being perplexed, confused, infatuated or fooled.

Needless to say, there is no invariable causal relationship between deciding to be a vegan and becoming incapable of thinking carefully and impartially. As long as one makes such decisions whimsically and realizes that the decision is a manifestation of sentimentality, everything is fine. It is only when one begins to think that there is something rational and righteous about the decision that one begins to get into spiritual (and philosophical) trouble.

All these observations of the vegan in recovery intrigued me, because they spoke to my own experience. In the early 1990s I became convinced that veganism was the only morally defensible diet for an environmentalist and a Buddhist dedicated to the project of reducing the suffering of the world. I entered into a year of living fanatically. I found myself welling up with disgust when I saw people put a few dribbles of milk into their afternoon tea. As for people who put a spoonful of honey on their yeast-leavened bread, I regarded them as morally equivalent to genocidal maniacs. I exaggerate for effect, of course, but I really did find myself hating the kind of self-righteous judgmentalism that entered my mentality shortly after I began to eschew all animal products from my pantry and my wardrobe. It was as though I had suddenly become a patriot or the member of some marginalized tribe fighting for ethnic survival. It was as though I had become the follower of a quaint religion that forbids marrying outside the faith and associating with out-group folk for fear of ideological contamination. (My readings of the history of Quakerism have informed me that the Society of Friends went through a long period of avoiding, as much as practicality would allow, contact with non-Friends—a decidedly unfriendly attitude.)

To some extent even insistent ideologically driven vegetarianism promotes epistemological warping, but not, in my personal experience, to the extent that ideologically driven veganism does.

One of my cultural heroes was Bhimrao Ambedkar, one of the principal architects of the constitution of India, the world’s largest democracy. Amdbedkar was born into an Indian caste that was regarded as untouchable. Despite having earned two PhD degrees from universities outside India (London School of Economics and Columbia University), Ambedkar was still treated for much of his life as a person whose presence would contaminate the purity of high-caste Hindus. Eventually attitudes changed somewhat, and Ambedkar got at least some of the recognition he deserved. One of his writings was a monograph in which he tried to discover the history of the institution of untouchability in India. His thesis is complex, but an oversimplified version of it is that Hindus and Buddhists became involved in a protracted rivalry of self-righteousness in which each religion tried to depict itself as more concerned with ethical puirity than the other. One of the many foci of attention, said Ambedkar, was diet. Over the centuries, Hindus and Buddhists tried to outdo one another by excluding more and more from their diets. The logical conclusion of this was what we now call veganism, a diet in which no animal products whatsoever are eaten, worn or used. The Untouchables, said Ambedkar, were descended from Buddhists who did not participate in the extreme Buddhist practice of veganism. In fact, they were cattle ranchers. When Buddhism disappeared from India, said Ambedkar, the formerly Buddhist cowboys were rejected by Hindu society and, unlike more educated Buddhists, were never reabsorbed into Hinduism.

Ambedkar’s theory of the history of the Untouchables is highly speculative and, like all speculative theories, questionable. That notwithstanding, the literary record of Buddhism clearly supports his claim that there were Buddhists who advocated a vegan diet so adamantly that they claimed all self-proclaimed Buddhists who did not follow a vegan diet would go to hell for aeons because of their hypocrisy. The argument was that no one who claims to be compassionate would ever eat meat, or consume milk or honey (since both of these products are stolen from the species that produce them) or wear wool (stolen from sheep) or silk (which requires the killing of silkworms). Few tracts in the history of religious literature are as fanatical as Mahāyāna Buddhist writings that insist on total avoidance of all animal products. The tone of those texts is self-righteous and contemptuous of all who make choices other than the ones advocated by the texts. That they had the potential to marginalize and denigrate meat-eating and wool-wearing people is undeniable. It is not at all a pretty picture and hardly lives up to the reputation for tolerance that Buddhists have often had in modern times.

In the early 1990s at a Canadian academic conference on Buddhist philosophy, I wrote a scathing denunciation of the fallacious argumentation found in the vegan sections of various Buddhist texts. Because I was then climbing out of my own descent into a fanatical form of veganism, I no doubt was as offensive to reason as the texts I was denouncing. I recall the moderator of the panel I was on offering an embarrassed apology to the audience for my performance. At the time, I laughed it off, but now I look back on that panel with chagrin. In trying to recover from the fanaticism of my dietary ideology, I was still participating in the very tone of intolerance that I found so objectionable.

What is especially embarrassing to me is that I became so defensive of a persona—of an ego—in the name of Buddhism, a tradition that had always made as its cardinal teaching that all we do to maintain our personas causes pain, conflict and discomfort to self and others. It is small comfort to realize that I am probably not unique in having become so zealous that I ended up exemplifying exactly the antithesis of the path I was so zealously striving to follow.

Unlike my own previous discourses on veganism (both for and then against), which were polemical diatribes, the Ideas program on meat-production and meat-eating is admirably balanced and offers the best arguments both for and against vegetarianism. The programs are exemplars of careful research and dispassionate exploration. My guess is that most listeners would emerge from them with a recognition that many of the opinions they have held on the topic before were overly simple and insufficiently nuanced.

TheIdeas program chased up a rabbit in the labyrinth of my memory. In my grandparent’s sparsely outfitted apartment, the dining room walls were bare except for a framed exemplar of the Selkirk Grace:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.

When my grandfather died, my mother gave me that framed exemplar and apologized profusely for giving me something that might offend my vegetarian sensibilities. I explained to her that the prayer was written in the 17th century, when the word “meat” was metonymic for food, in much the same way that “meal” is in current English, or “go-han” (rice) is in Japanese. So when a 17th century family sat down to have their meat, they often ate bread and ale and perhaps a piece of cheese. But that is really beside the point. The point, which I acknowledge with shame, is that my mother recognized in me the stink of possible intolerance toward those who did not follow my chosen diet.

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Thursday, June 24, 2010 at 20:50

Posted in Faith and practice

One Response

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  1. I think you are right that any identity can become a source of attachment. However some identities are also more like a raft, helping us to advance to a point where identities are not needed. In the case of veganism I think that identity is important for helping overcome ones own speciesism. Can that raft be abused? Of course. But to use that as a reason to support needless violence is not to act based on kindness. Indeed it is merely clinging to another identity, albeit one that is almost invisible because it represents a norm, ie that of someone who thinks it is ok to needlessly use animals for food and other products.

    Simon

    Sunday, September 10, 2017 at 13:58


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