TL;DR: I apologize if I should have offended some of you. Ultimately developing real compassion is more important than being vegetarian or vegan. But I don’t think they have to be mutually exclusive. And I also apologize for the ridiculously long post.
I sincerely apologize, if I have given offence to some of you.
I think Mat was certainly right to point out early on in this threat that unity is of paramount importance in the practice of the Dhamma. I have to admit that it took me some time to really appreciate that friendship is not only “half of the holy life” and that you cannot practice this path all on your own.
But I understand that now, or at least better, and therefore - in the spirit of cordiality - I’d like to offer some words of reconciliation.
And I would like to do that by taking up some of the arguments that have been brought forth against the vegetarian or vegan choice and argue in their favour. Possibly with a personal note to really emphasize my sincerity.
First of all I would like to pick and important point that Mat has made, namely that by ending your own cylce of rebirth eventually you will relieve countless beings of the suffering you would otherwise cause.
Sure, in this particular life you may be a smart and educated vegan. But as the science of the last decades has shown, even your intelligence maybe influenced to a large degree by your genetics. So even if you have made enough good karma to be reborn in the human realm, you might lack the faculties which would otherwise allow you to make good progress on the path. It’s hard enough to develop an understanding of the Dhamma when you’re somewhat intelligent. But what if you lack that intellgence?
And apart from that your next rebirth might not even afford you the posibility to continue your vegetarian or vegan efforts, however well intentioned they might have been in this life. You may simply be reborn into a region of the world where survival is not possible without hunting or fishing. On a side note it’s worth pointing out that even in the USA there are still a lot of people who rely on hunting because they just have very little money.
And all this is still very much on the optimistic side.
To weave in another argument: If your main focus in this live is to passionately or even fanatically work for the alleviation and ending of animal suffering, then the deeper emotional residue of that may just be that passion and fanaticism. So in your next life this deeper emotional residue may reassert itself but in a different form. Maybe you are reborn into a family of political extremists or religious fundametalists. In that case your passion and fanaticism might suddenly find an outlet that can quickly generate a lot of suffering for yourself and others. And it might take you decades or your whole life to realize the damage you have done. If ever your realize it.
Personally I have experienced as a teenager that you can become very passionate about a certain cause, let’s say a political one. But even if you outgrow that particular cause, you still may retain the deeper emotional habit for a long time. You just want to keep feeling passionate about something.
And yes, you might even want keep that feeling of righteous indignation going. Because it feels very rewarding when you have a “good reason” for feeling angry.
So if passion and fanaticism is what you focus on in this life then that’s what you will take with you to the next life.
And again, that’s actually still very much on the optimistic side. But this human realm is so volatile that even with the best efforts in this life you may still end up in horrific conditions in the next one.
I had a friend once, who was very gifted. As a teenager he had taught himself to play the piano, and that was just one expression of his talent. He had immigrated to our country at a young age though, and due to financial pressure his family was forced to live in a very precarious area of the city. He went to a mediocre public school that was not able to foster his talent, and soon he also got into contact with the wrong people. He got into drugs early on and eventually ended up in a psychiatry.
I first met him a couple of years later. We had a lose friendship over a couple of years and he never quite managed to create stability and clarity in his life. However we both started to become curious about Buddhism. So he was one of the first people I could share this interest with. And early on he developed a better understanding of the teachings than I did. I still remember when we were fighting about a certain subject, and he told me that his main focus was not to make lots of good karma but to reach “parinibbana”. At that time I hadn’t heard that particular term before, and years later I looked back and was quite astonished that he had so quickly understood what actual goal and purpose of the Buddha’s teaching is.
And a little later he even got into a long term relationship that over the course of ten years helped him to really stabilize his life. On the edges it always seemed a little shaky, but overall it looked like he had the worst behind him.
But then his girlfriend broke up with him. And that sent him into a downward spiral from which he did not recover. The last time I saw him he clearly had started to take various kind of drugs again. He was talking delirious nonsense, and he offered me his german translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. He basically said that Buddhism had made his life only more depressing and difficult. I didn’t accept the gift, because I didn’t want the books to remind me of him his current state. Especially not these books. He didn’t actually behave threatening that day, but I still was afraid of him. He really had lost his mind, and I wasn’t sure anymore of what he was capable of. I had never seen him like this before.
That was the last time I saw him. Two years later I learned what he was capable of - from a major german news magazine.
I do not want to go into any details. I think that would be inappropriate. And I am not entirely sure if writing about this here is appropriate anyway. But let me say this at least: As far as I know the Buddha’s teachings - for this life he has forfeited any possibility of reaching final liberation.
I think most of you will understand what I am alluding to.
Sometimes people say: “It’s too good to be true.”
Well, in this case I often think: “It’s too bad to be true.”
But it is true. It is a true story. I didn’t embellish it. I think I might even be able to find the news article online.
For me personally it is a stark reminder of how close you can get to the Buddha’s teachings without really understanding them.
And that is the reason why I have told the story.
I wanted to show - instead of just tell and proclaim - that I have a very good idea of how you can totally miss the deeper meaning of the Dhamma even if you have developed a good theoretic understanding. And even if you have considerably good conditions for developing the practice.
Actually the better my understanding of the Dhamma gets the more frightening it becomes to contemplate how many right conditions have come together to allow this kind of progress.
And therefore I completely agree that becoming a vegetarian or a vegan can definitely turn into a pitfall on the Buddhist path.
Very much in the same way as a Bodhisattva vow.
And it’s actually quite relieving to know that I have come to a place where probably everybody knows what I mean with that last sentence.
To contrast the story of my friend I would like to say that personally I had some serious difficulties in my life, but all in all there were so many positive, wholesome and fortunate events and influences, that I really consider myself to be very lucky.
What I mean is that even without the Buddha’s teaching I still would have lots of oppotunities to build a happy life for myself and others.
Nonetheless I truly consider the Dhamma the greatest gift ot all. Nothing has changed my life more than that. Nothing has had a more positive influence on my life.
Especially since I have found friends and teachers who helped me to really get to a deeper understanding of the Dhamma.
The Noble Eightfold Path alone - it took me years to really understand: “Oh, that is the map! That’s what I need to do!” And what a difference that made - not only in my practice - but in my whole life!
I still remember that years ago I saw my first video of Ajahn Brahm on Youtube. I didn’t like it at all. I thought: “This fat, ugly westerner - what does he know? He can’t know anything about Buddhism - he’s not even asian!”
A little later I talked to some of my friends about him, and they told me that his teachings are actually quite good. So with some internal grumbling I decided to watch some more videos of him. And they were actually not that bad.
Now, I think around 2014 a friend of mine went to Australia to vistit Bodhinyana Monastery. He brought back tons of mp3s with talks from Ajahn Brahm, Bhante Sujato and others.
So I started to listen.
First I listened to a dhamma talk once in a while. Then more regularly. And eventually every day. And then I listened to two dhamma talks. Sometimes more. More and more I listened to the dhamma talk, and I listened to them over and over and over again. I have to admit that by now I have listened so often to some of the talks that I just can’t bear it anymore. I mean some of the jokes really get old after a while.
But I also found the dhamma talks of other teachers, like Bhikkhu Bodhi for example.
At this point in my life the Dhamma has become such an integral part of my life that it becomes just too painful when I leave the warm comfort of the teachings for too long.
This is also difficult to a certain degree, because for quite some time now all the old comforts are not working as well as they used to.
The german mystic Meister Eckhart once said - and I am paraphrasing: “What you once hunted now hunts you, and what you once fled now flees you.” And I think what he meant is that if you have reached a certain point of spiritual development, you cannot really turn back anymore.
I don’t mean streamentry. I just mean that through your practice you were able to taste a certain kind of happiness that you will never forget anymore. I can be as short as a couple of minutes during a ten-day-retreat. But these couple of minutes are enough. You will never forget that experience. You will never forget that taste. It may take you years to get back even in to the vicinity of that experience. But you will never forget it.
And everything that happens in the meantime - well, it may be great fun, it may be beautiful, it may be moving, it may be meaningful - but however pleasant it may be, there is this voice in the back of your head that says: “It’s still not quite like this one experience I had back then.”
I wanted to share this too, to illustrate how important the Dhamma is in my own life, and that I really understand how precious it is.
And therefore I think I can understand, at least to a degree, how precious and important the Dhamma is to you.
And therefore I also understand the need to clearly differentiate the Dhamma from things which are simply not a part of the Dhamma. However wholesome and well-intended they may be.
And I also understand that eventually the Dhamma aims at an incredibly subtle mental development. And you cannot simply pick and choose what you like from the instructions. And you also cannot simply add something from the outside, just because you like it.
This post has become ridiculously long.
Forgive me, if have strained your patience.
I hope all these words are worth the points I was trying to make.
I like to end this post with this:
Compassion lies at the heart of the Dhamma practice.
But it has to be real compassion.
It really has to be felt deeply and sincerely in the heart.
And developing that real, deep and sincere feeling of compassion is certainly more important than being a vegetarian or a vegan.
And not just for successfully practicing the path, but also for living in a peaceful society.
Being a vegetarian or vegan is not a substitute for developing that compassion.
And yes, there are vegetarians and vegans who seem to be rather arrogant. And their compassion doesn’t seem to extend towards people a lot.
Me personally, I became a vegetarian in 2006.
Around 2009 I made my first attempt to become a vegan. I lived as a vegan for almost an entire year.
But I stopped being a vegan exactly because I could sense that I was developing a certain moral superiority. I could sense that I was developing a certain “vegan arrogance”, and I could sense that I was losing touch with my friends and family.
So I reverted to being a vegetarian again.
But over the years I learned more and more about the animal industry and eventually I said to myself: “No, I just cannot in good conscience be part of this anymore.” So in 2012 I became a vegan again.
I decided that it must be possible to be vegan without being arrogant, judgemental or self-righteous.
And of course that is not always easy. Sometimes it’s not easy to feel outraged about certain things.
But all in all it is much easier to live as a vegan than many people think. As I said, it doesn’t feel like a great sacrifice, and it doesn’t feel like asceticism.
To be honest, being vegan has made me happy every single day during the last seven years.
Because with every single meal I prioritize compassion over taste.
With every single meal comes this short moment where I remember: “Yes, I eat like this, because I want to spare animals from suffering and death.”
And that makes me happy.
And before your fingers rush to the keyboard: Yes, I know that a vegan diet is not completely free from the suffering and death of animals.
I know it.
But whenever I see a cow, or a sheep, or a goat, or a pig or a chicken - whenever I see a typical farm animal - I know this animal will not suffer and die because of me.
And I personally could develop a much deeper empathy and compassion for animals this way.
Because I can really let them live their life. I can fully respect their whole integrity as a living being. I can fully respect their innate moral value.
“That light that is sparkling in your eyes - I will not harm that.”
And there is no ulterior motive behind that anymore.
I can simply let them be.
And I feel that in this way my veganism is deeply connected to real, actual compassion.
Again: It’s a ridiculously long post.
Forgive me if I have made excessive demands on your patience.
It was all written in the spirit of cordiality and reconciliation, and with the hope to overcome whatever divisiveness may have arisen as a result of this subject.