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More ethics and veg*anism

January 6, 2010

The topic of vegetarianism and Buddhism came up again in an open thread over at Sweep the dust, Push the dirt. Since I have some trouble with conciseness, wrapping words around thoughts, I thought I’d respond with a post.

Another reason for a separate post? I am aware that my thinking on this topic, among so many others, is not completely based in Buddhist thinking but also on Tutelo/Cherokee ways of looking at things. (That’s my background. I imagine that it would be hard for most of the other people responding not to retain thinking based on their own cultural upbringing!) The two approaches agree in a lot of ways, but they are sufficiently different that it seemed a bit inappropriate to go off, at length, on a “this is my understanding of a Cherokee approach” in a Buddhist forum. 🙂

I would still like to get around to doing at least one post on how I see these seemingly different approaches working together. Given how easily each has combined with others, historically, it’s not as weird and New Agey as it may sound.

Back to the subject at hand! I have written a couple of other posts here, based on my understanding at the time: Reconsidering some choices and “Wild animals”, ethics, and veg*anism. Both of them rely more heavily on Native thinking, with hefty doses of very compatible Right Livelihood thrown in.

My main concerns about eating meat, as the animals are currently raised? I aim to do as little harm as possible, and the farming industry as it operates now does one hell of a lot of harm. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of animals raised to end up in little packages in your local supermarket. The same goes for dairy and caged egg production. Responsibly and respectfully hunted or fished wild animals are a very different matter, as can be animals not kept in stressfully captive conditions.

Another major conflict is that I am not entirely sure I should be eating anything I would not feel comfortable killing myself. The “didn’t kill it personally, it wasn’t slaughtered specifically for me” thing does not relieve that conflict. I am very aware that the animals in question are living beings with their own goals, which would not seem to include having chunks of their bodies end up on my plate. Real animals are not like Charlie the Tuna, who always kinda creeped me out. I haven’t been eating more fish lately because I consider them less “real”, BTW, but because sustainably caught wild fish are the easiest reasonable option in my current situation!

A related factor, very important to me now (From the “Wild Animals”… post):

As Bruce Johansen points out, “Western texts still assume that Haudenosaunee preserve animals must have been wild, but as John Heckewelder recorded, many of the forest animals were ‘tame’ (Heckewelder 1820, 192). The Haudenosaunee did not pen their animals–they regarded the demoralized farm animals of the Europeans as prisoners–but instead allowed them to run free in the forests until they were needed.” He presents some other concise information on how this worked in the Eastern Woodlands in general. It’s a good example of how differently “wild” and “tame” worked, not to mention the levels of respect involved. The animals were no less deserving of respect because humans might eventually need to eat them to stay alive, and were assumed to have an existence independent of human wants and needs.

We’re all interconnected*. If we’re motivated by the Three Poisons–greed, anger, and ignorance–we can lose sight of this, or willfully disregard it, in search of what we think we want. In this case, that might be a nice juicy steak, regardless of the consequences. That way lies wétiko–cannibal psychosis–in which our fellow creatures (humans included) and our surroundings only exist to us as they can be owned and consumed. It’s unfortunately easy to see this kind of thing playing out.

In this context, I can’t help but think of an observation from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace Is Every Step:

In their daily lives, they may have eaten their bread in forgetfulness, so the bread was not bread at all; it was a ghost. In our daily lives, we may see the people around us, but if we lack mindfulness, they are just phantoms, not real people, and we ourselves are also ghosts. Practicing mindfulness enables us to become a real person. When we are a real person, we see real people around us, and life is present in all its richness.

So far, I’ve pretty well summed up the previous posts. What hasn’t been stressed enough so far is balance–the Middle Way, duyukta, however you want to describe it.

I’ve had a lot of lessons to learn about this, no doubt with many more to come.

Barbara O’Brien expressed one point very well:

Buddhism discourages fanatical perfectionism. The Buddha taught his followers to find a middle way between extreme practices and opinions. For this reason, Buddhists who do practice vegetarianism are discouraged from becoming fanatically attached to it.

A Buddhist practices metta, which is loving kindness to all beings without selfish attachment. Buddhist refrain from eating meat out of loving kindness for living animals, not because there is something unwholesome or corrupt about an animal’s body. In other words, the meat itself is not the point, and under some circumstances compassion might cause a Buddhist to break the rules.

For a few years straddling high school and college, I was vegan, running full tilt toward orthorexia. At that point, I was also a person who wouldn’t eat Grandma’s pork chops. At least I stopped short of getting preachy about other people’s eating habits, still recognizing that as a personal choice. My approach was still dangerously unbalanced, and I know it. And, yes, at the time, I considered this a logical extension of Buddhist thinking.

As Amanda pointed out in her post on orthorexia:

A lot of people also start to feel superior to, and look down their nose at, people with less restricted diets. They say that either those people aren’t as committed spiritually, or are throwing their health away, or aren’t committed enough to their values. I’ve received more than one impassioned lecture from people who insist if I don’t do such-and-such a diet then I only have myself to blame if (insert horrible thing and/or health problem here) happens to me People can become evangelical about diets…

People also substitute dieting for political or spiritual action. They feel more pure, on both political and spiritual levels, if they adhere to exactly the right diet.

This kind of thing came up recently in the Right Lifestyle, or Right Livelihood? post. It’s far too easy to lose balance and cling to certain ideas–consigning people who don’t do as you would like to your own “Less Virtuous ‘Others’” category. Trying to impose your will over other people is still not right; everybody has to decide for themselves. Starting out with good intentions, it’s too easy to substitute this perfectionistic lack of brakes for real mindfulness and compassion, and circle right back around into the same (comfortable) kind of oppositional dualism you don’t consciously want.

I should also add that it’s too easy to fall into “Good Body” asceticism–BTDT too–and old Siddhartha had plenty to say about how much that kind of thing is liable to help you in the long run.

Last night, I ran across another piece from Barbara O’Brien which seemed very applicable here, Beyond Right and Wrong. Balance is key.

Besides my ethical ideas having changed somewhat in the ten years since I was last vegetarian, I have been trying hard to maintain some balance with it.

While I would prefer not to eat many animal products, sometimes circumstances make that less than practical. Especially if I want to avoid the craziness of orthorexia when out and about, since I also have health-based dietary needs these days (celiac and diabetes). Sometimes it’s most practical to eat a salad with fish, since my health is also important. Sometimes my body tells me it needs the kind of concentrated energy available from animal products; this has been happening more frequently since my blood sugar has been running high and probably doubling energy needs. Sometimes other people offer me meat in situations where it would be horribly rude to refuse.

The important part here? These things happen. There’s no need to create unnecessary conflict and suffering in any of these situations by clinging to constructed ideals, uninformed by other things that are going on. Guilt does not help. Sometimes it’s best to choose the least objectionable option if possible–e.g., responsibly caught wild fish–and get on with living. Metta and karuna apply to ourselves, too.

I’ll bring this to a close with a link to one excellent and highly relevant quote from Jack Forbes, in the Religion, ethics, and critical thinking post. The short version:

If we tromp on a bug, that is our religion; if we cheat at cards, that is our religion; if we dream of being famous, that is our religion; if we gossip maliciously, that is our religion; if we are rude and aggressive, that is our religion. All that we do, and are, is our religion.


* Including plants, rocks, etc.; judging relative levels of harm is necessary, in order to do as little as possible! Recognizing this, trying to stay mindful, and having some respect means a lot, and should shape behavior accordingly.

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