Thursday, April 14, 2011

Self-denial or compassion?

If people were curious about my eating habits when I was a vegetarian, then they're absolutely captivated when they find out I've "gone" vegan.

"Wait, you're a vegan? So don't eat any meat?" they ask incredulously. As if vegetarians eat meat on the weekends.

"No," I say.

This is about the time they start to shake their heads as they mentally scroll through all the meals they enjoy that contain meat: Meatloaf, Italian subs, lasagna...

"And no eggs or dairy," I add.

Their eyes bulge. "No eggs! Or Milk!" This is where they pause and consider. "Well how about cheese?"

"No." I say. "Not if it comes from an animal."

"Ahh!" They toss their hands in the air in feigned exasperation. "No pizza? Or cream cheese? How about yogurt or ice cream?"

Now I'm the one shaking his head. I'm tempted to tell them that there are non-dairy cheeses and ice cream, but know that will only lead to a mock finger down the throat, followed by an audible gag.

Then the inevitable: "I couldn't do it," they say.

Sure they could; they just choose not to.

Yesterday someone asked me, "Why would you intentionally deprive yourself of something you enjoy?"

I paused, considering a polite way of answering this. The question itself, I think, reveals a lot about personal and cultural values, not to mention unstated expectations. Most people think that you only have one shot at life, so you might as well enjoy this one while you've got it.

There's also the underlying assumption--which we as sophisticated Buddhists scoff at--that you must satisfy any desire that pops into your head. After all, what would happen if I didn't act upon my desires? I might...I don't know...melt?

And all the way beneath this is the tacit belief that, even if the world doesn't revolve around me, it sure does revolve around humans. The whole God made man in his image thing.

Most people, without questioning, believe that humanity is the center of the universe. This belief verges on a tacit religion. Even if on a rational, scientific level they understand that humanity plays only an infinitesimal role in the scope of the entire universe, their actions suggest otherwise. Your average Jack or Diane sees nothing wrong with the idea that millions of animals suffer in tiny little cages so that humans can eat or milk or get eggs from them.

But Buddhism isn't human-centered. According to Buddhism, being born as a human offers the unique opportunity of reaching enlightenment; but it doesn't privilege us to treat other species any way we please. Just take a look at the impending environmental crisis for where that type of behavior is leading the world. In fact, it only puts more responsibility on our shoulders because we as humans are capable of understanding the moral implications of our actions; whereas animals can't.

In a non-dual tradition like Zen, all things are One, so any hierarchy that poses humans above animals is purely relative.

Now back to the person's question, "Why deprive yourself of something you enjoy?"

I don't think that it's a question of self-denial or self-restraint as much as it is one of compassion. As an American, it's not like I have to choose between eating meat or starving. There are other options. In impoverished parts of the world where food is scarce, eating meat is necessary for survival. That's cool; I would never begrudge someone for eating meat or eggs to survive. But for most Americans, avoiding meat is more of a matter of inconvenience than anything else.

For instance, I heard a rumor (so please don't quote me on this) that after An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's global warming documentary, came out, an interviewer asked Gore, "If you're so interested in protecting the environment, why don't you make the biggest impact that an individual can by becoming vegetarian?" (On a purely environmental level, animal rights issues aside, the argument goes that sustaining livestock is an extremely inefficient use of resources, which could be devoted to feeding humans instead.)

Mr. Gore didn't have an answer to that, or so the rumor goes.

This shows that it's easier to get people to recycle or drive a hybrid car than it is to get them to change their day-to-day to choices like what they eat.

As I begin to study for the Precepts, the first one weighs heavy on my mind: "Promote life; do not kill." I consider all the ways that I kill, or contribute to killing, on a daily basis--my furniture is made of wood; I use paper on a daily basis. The list goes on and on. All of these are the byproducts of killing. Is there a way to avoid taking life, or harming for that matter?

Realistically speaking, living in a modernized, post-industrialized country, I don't know. But there is a way I can make a change, and for me that's not eating meat, or consuming products that I know come from exploiting animals. In other words, from an industry that I know for certain causes suffering.

Take clothing, for example. I shop at Kohls because it's cheap and convenient. If I discovered that their brand clothes exploited workers in a developing nation, I would stop buying those clothes. (However, something tells me that the more I inquire into the practices of these industries, the fewer shopping options I will have!)

But rather than to get into all this with the questioner, I just say, "I don't want to cause any more suffering in the world."

And it's the truth. Am I making a difference in the world? Well, Buddhism teaches that everything is connected, so in that sense, yes.

But even if my actions didn't make the slightest ripple, even karmically, I'd like to believe that I'd still avoid eating meat. Just because I can. Because it means living a little more compassionately. And if there's one thing this world could use a surplus of, it's compassion.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: campra.

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