Going Vegan, Ep. 22: A Buddhist’s take on vegetarianism
I went with my friend Vicki to see Reginald Ray speak at the Vancouver Public Library. Ray is in his sixties, has a doctorate in religious studies and is currently meditation instructor in the tradition of vajrayana Buddhism (tantric). The founder of Dharma Ocean, a retreat center in Colorado, he spoke of intimacy and really “seeing” others, as well as of our need to renew our intimacy with the earth.
At the end of his talk, he asked for questions. A thin, dark-haired young woman who was sitting in front of me nudged her partner, who shrugged and motioned her to get up. She made her way up to the microphone.
She shook out her long hair and spoke in a soft voice. “What do you think about eating animal products? Don’t you think that not eating animal products is the way to become more evolved and that it is necessary for us to move forward?”
I perked up.
He paused and studied her a moment, “What do you think?”
“I have been a vegan for over ten years. And it changed my life. I felt closer to everything, more aware. And that seems to be the way to go, to be compassionate to the earth, to others.”
My friend Vicki mutters, “So judgmental.”
He took his time, “I would say that that was a very good decision for you. You got a lot of out of and it works for you. But I don’t think it works for everyone. Like me. I eat an enormous amount of animal protein. An enormous amount. For health reasons. I have this theory I was a Tibetan in my last life, and their diet is almost all animal protein, because there is nothing else. But this is where we get into trouble as people. When we find what is right for us and decide that then this must be right for everyone. Then we are not “seeing” each other.”
“Hmmm,” she said.
He looked around, “The original humans were hunter gatherers. But they hunted only what they needed. They thanked the animal for its sacrifice in feeding the people. Today the problem isn’t the eating of the animals, but the lack of responsibility in the way that it is done.” He looked back at her kindly, “Dare I say there might come a time when you are no longer a vegan.”
She shook her head emphatically, “No, no, no. My email address is “forevervegan.” I will never eat meat.”
Vicki and I hung out after the talk. “I was so glad she asked that,” I said, “so interesting to see her assume that veganism had to be the way to go.”
Vicki paused. “I hate that.”
Vicki is a soft-spoken MS physical therapist who has done a bunch of meditation retreats. She is a fellow yoga teacher; we met when she came to one of my classes and we realized that we’d gone through the same teacher training. Our yoga style is a tantric yoga tradition, which means that the point is not to transcend life, but to become a deeper, more conscious part of it.
“I went to a vegan feast at Burning Man once,” she said, “It became very clear that I had to lie as soon as I arrived.” She smiled, “I’m a terrible liar, but they were…ferocious.” She laughs, “That’s such an animalistic word to describe a vegan.”
“They are, though,” I agree. “They can be ferocious.”
“I couldn’t tell them that I wasn’t vegan. But I’m also gluten intolerant, so they were like, “Wow, you can’t have wheat, bread, or eggs, or dairy, what do you eat?” ‘ She laughs, “I didn’t know what to say, I said, oh, you know, uh, quinoa and vegetables. Lots of quinoa and vegetables.”
She pauses, “I do try to be responsible about what I eat. I eat consciously and I respect my food. But I like what Reggie said. You have to see others where they are. And be where you are.”
Vicki and Reggie got me to thinking. Is being vegan a way of resisting – in some way – the impermanence of life? After all, I don’t believe a cheetah is malicious when it takes down a zebra. Of course we have a choice and that choice involves non-violence.. but I began to wonder if eating vegetables was a way for me to avoid staring death in the face. After all, if you’re paying attention, eating an animal is a huge signpost that points straight at our own mortality.
When I ate my dinner that night, I took a moment to bow my head to my food. “Thank you,” I thought to my carrots, “for reminding me that I am part of the cycle of life. From the seed and sun and soil, you have have grown. Now you will become part of my body, dissolving and transforming – and nourishing me. So I can go forth and participate in this world. You remind me that I am a part of this cycle of impermanence. Of change. Amen. Namaste. Om.”