My experiences as a vegetarian have certainly brought their share of discomfort and joy – and through both of these, many revelations.
It may be argued that in present-day America, a wholesome diet of fruits, vegetables, oils, grains, spices, and supplements, is more diverse, affordable, and available than ever. If one feels short on creativity, means, or even enthusiastic support – the internet has provided free content in all these arenas, and to every taste, lifestyle, and spending plan.
Oddly, one topic that rarely comes up, is that of our personal and cultural addictions to meat. We claim we choose meat and that we could easily forgo it. We cling to arguments that assuage our sense of unease, in an attempt to experience meat-eating as a personally agreeable choice.
But for many if not most of us, we are addicted. In fact, the Western world is not only addicted to meat, it is culturally set in opposition to a meat-less lifestyle in almost every way one can imagine (the Eastern world probably is too). Since eschewing meat I’ve been astonished to discover how very much of it others eat (even and maybe even especially those who claim they hardly take any), how much they talk about it, how they assume everyone else eats it, how willing they are to find it at the cheapest prices, how reluctant they are to look at unedited footage of how it is provided – and how difficult is to avoid meat if one needs to eat while outside the home.
One of the most helpful resources I’ve come across is not one of today’s vegetarian blogs, or an internet forum – but rather the writings of a vegetarian almost exactly 200 years older than I. Food of Bodhisattvas: Buddhist Teachings on Abstaining from Meat, based on the writings of Shabkar Natshok Rangdrol, is fast becoming a beloved and influential tome in my walk. The book delves deeper into Tibetan Buddhism than an average reader might enjoy, but nevertheless a great deal of the content is relatable. Put simply: there is no argument in favor of meat-eating, however sophisticated or “new”, that this monk, long dead, did not anticipate or contend with!
Now, I believe when we allow addictions to recede in a spirit of lovingkindness, we open up to more joy, health, vigor, compassion, humor, and ease. If one believes we “detox” from substances we no longer ingest – like alcohol, sugar, tobacco, caffeine – or in the case of meat, the many harmful compounds and carcinogens meat carries – it is possible that over time my brain, my very mind along with my body, will undergo subtle or profound changes.
It already feels as if this is happening. I’ve always loved animals, or thought I did: but this love has been changing. Soon after committing to vegetarianism, a line from Food of Boddhisattvas struck me with profundity:
“To a large extent, the humane treatment of domestic animals, where it exists in the modern world, is dictated by sentimentality and curtailed by financial considerations; it is not based on the understanding that animals are living beings endowed with minds and feelings, whose predicament in samsara is essentially no different from our own.” [emphasis mine]
That word – “sentimentality” – hit home. It is difficult to take a deep, invested look at what my “love” of animals really has been. But I can’t be too hard on myself in this account. I was brought up in an exploitive culture – a culture that exploits animals, other countries and other peoples and all environments – and brought up in a family that ate meat and consumed animal products without so much as one discussion on the ethics of this behavior. Indeed, I remember at age twelve or so arguing with my parents on the topic of vegetarianism. Their attitudes were ones of amusement; my passion for these animals’ lives and suffering was merely a pre-pubescent fad.
If we’re honest, very few of us feel at ease with how we exploit animals, and how we’ve come to rely on their suffering and death for our own comfort. We contort our logic (or try not to exercise it) and we attempt to anesthetize our sense of wrongdoing. It is really wonderful when a compassionate voice reveals our inconsistencies for what they are – and helps us step onto a new path.
As a Buddhist, it is not required that I be perfect in my walk – merely that I get started, in whatever way I can. Even the smallest change, when embarked upon in earnestness and with a desire to lessen suffering, is a profound and beautiful thing.
Since letting go of meat, and eating other foods, I have found myself holding animal life in a different place in my heart and mind. I have found myself connecting with the abovementioned “domestic animals” in a more profound – and yes, less sentimental – way. My relationship with wild animals, and with animals raised for slaughter, is also changing. Is this a chemical result of my dietary change? Is this a spiritual shift? Is this a coincidence, or confirmation bias perhaps?
Whatever it is, I have welcomed the experience. Though not without hardship – Shabkar can speak to that, having lived without meat in harder circumstances that anyone reading here now – it is a change that feels welcome.
And finally: it is helpful to have a sense of humor and yes, a bit of irreverence. The truth is, vegetarianism is just another step for me, in my desire to cause less harm – to the environment, to other living beings, to my body, and to my spirit, and to bring more joy to those same entities. I don’t need to take up criticism: that I am unrealistic, or at risk – or my personal favorite, that if I seek to do less harm in this way that I must be called to task to address all injustices, and immediately so. I have entertained those direct and indirect criticisms enough; I can let them go. I can “know in my knowing place” (as a friend says), that this is a good path. I can be glad I am here, and excited to see what the future holds.