nope, not all buddhists are vegan: the struggle between compassion & attachment

A young Tenzin Ösel Hita, from the FPMT photo galleries.

I am not Buddhist. I do not align myself to any belief system—I was brought up to question belief as it is quite often the death of thought. If you know an answer (or the answer), why keep looking and learning, right?

However, Tom is Buddhist. In fact, he’s the Director of Education for FPMT, the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition. The funny part of this is that he’s said I’m more Buddhist than a lot of the people he comes in contact with through the organization. That’s right, in spite of the fact that I recite no mantras, make no offerings, and do not practice formal meditation, I do seem to accidentally think, speak, and act with truth, compassion, and positivity. Huh.

One aspect of a compassionate life that just seems like a gimme is veganism. I totally get it that long ago, in sparsely populated regions, animals were raised in very humane ways, were not artificially inseminated, were not forced to live in filthy, confined spaces… The world’s early religions were not born in our modern society, so their texts and traditions do not reflect the reality we live with today. Interestingly, when I saw the Dalai Lama last month, he spoke to this, recognizing a changing reality and pushing one’s thinking to reflect that. He also spoke of ecology and our duty to preserve our world for future generations. All signs point to veganism, no?

As part of the Dalai Lama’s visit, FPMT had a big ol’ meeting, so the board members, other lamas, associated publishers, and longtime friends of the foundation also came to town. Oddly, it was a novelty to encounter a vegan among these folks. The two confirmed vegans were older men, and they were just as excited to learn Tom and I were vegan. Don’t get me wrong, we aren’t persecuted or anything in this crowd, and we all sat together at meals and shared vegan cookies.

I find it hopeful that there was a bit of talk throughout the visit, both in and outside of official meetings/talks about how the foundation should be encouraging Buddhists (and the Buddha-curious) to go vegan. FPMT does have the Animal Liberation Fund as part of its charitable projects, in an effort to illustrate animals are still sentient beings with feeling and inherent value. Tom’s office strives to ensure all their provided meals are vegan, and the two vegans of 10-ish in-house staffers are pushing for a vegan office kitchen—small scale, to be sure, but it’s walking the walk.

FPMT’s Mandala magazine just published a piece from FPMT fixture (he’s held several positions there and currently heads the Wisdom Archive) Nick Ribush about his path to vegansim, which danced around a bit on his Buddhist path. I love the perspective he has, having spent so much of his life in the organization—and has no reservation questioning the foundation leaders about why they don’t officially promote veganism. There’s politics involved, to be sure, in that they don’t want to turn folks away from the Buddhist path with the scary V-word, but also, Buddhism allows acceptance and workarounds for meat eating. Nick mentions that there are mantras you can recite to “bless and benefit the dead animal.” Not acceptable in my proverbial book, but it’s a helpful explanation.

I do hope that Mandala readers take Nick’s story to heart and start to examine their attachment to animal products, from meat to eggs, to wool, to test subjects. A piece like this in such a publication is really meant to inspire that first baby step, to initiate the internal examination. Nick’s reflections on his path are likely pretty easy to relate to and could illuminate that vegan path for readers.

If you’re part of a spiritual/religious circle—Buddhist or not—how do you reconcile your tradition’s failure to extend compassion to nonhuman beings? And how do you push for change?

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