In my previous conversations with Samacitta and Bodhipaksa, they both made it clear to me that their practice of veganism was integral to their Buddhist practice. So should we, as Buddhists, be trying to influence others to become vegetarian and/or vegan?
“The short answer to that is yes!” was Bodhipaksa’s reply. But how do we try to influence the eating habits of others without becoming self-righteous and dogmatic? He suggested empathy as one way of combatting self-righteousness: “We need to remember that we were meat-eaters at some point, and also that being a Buddhist vegetarian is something that we do because we want to be more compassionate, it’s not something that makes us better than other people or that gives us a special status. I think we are dogmatic when we become attached to our habits, when we understand them as a core part of our identity. So we need to make sure that we’re not getting attached to the idea of vegetarianism at the same time as being completely committed to it as a practice.”
But what if our commitment to vegetarianism isn’t shared by our close family and friends? Eating food together is such a basic and important way of expressing friendship that becoming vegetarian or vegan in a community of meat-eaters can be an isolating experience. “It doesn’t have to be, though,” Bodhipaksa suggests. “Say you’re sitting down for Christmas dinner with your family. You could focus on the fact that you’re eating a nut roast and they’re eating a turkey or you could focus on the fact that you’re all sitting round a table with the opportunity to communicate and celebrate together.” A useful piece of advice, I thought: focus on what you’ve got in common rather than what divides you.
I asked Samacitta a similar question: Is it possible to have deep, satisfying relationships with people who aren’t vegan? “I think it depends on whether there is mutual respect there”, she replied, “whether or not your non-vegan family and friends are willing to support you in your ethical practice. If your social circle is constantly challenging you for being vegan, you’re going to need a lot of strength of character to stick to your guns and follow your commitment. Sometimes those relationships are worth letting go.”
Samacitta was clearly passionate about the vegan cause. Did she think it was ever useful to be angry? “That’s an interesting question! It can give you a bit of a push, but I think it only works if you can refine the anger into something more useful. The Buddha said, ‘If you speak and act with an impure mind, suffering will follow.’ So trying to convince people to become vegan in an obnoxious or angry way is probably not going to have the desired effect. In fact sometimes the circumstances can call for not making too much of a fuss. If I’m with my 91-year old father, for example, I’m not going to shove veganism down his throat or try to convert him. I think it’s always worth considering whether making a fuss will actually have a positive effect. Sometimes it’s useful to be vocal about veganism, and sometimes it’s not.”
Samacitta is definitely vocal about veganism in her article, Buddhism on a Plate. In this piece, written originally for Triratna Order members, she argues that “it is desirable for all Buddhists to move in the direction of veganism.” She elaborated on this statement in our interview: “Being more in harmony with all that lives isn’t just a pleasant add-on to Buddhist practice. It’s fundamental.” I asked her if she would go as far as saying that a Buddhist who isn’t vegan isn’t a true Buddhist at all. “No, I wouldn’t go as far as saying that”, she replied, “because being a Buddhist is about committing yourself to change, and everybody has a different starting point. But if someone who declares themselves to be a Buddhist won’t even consider veganism simply because they enjoy consuming animal products and don’t wish to give them up, then I think that’s just paying lip service to being a Buddhist.”
I asked Bodhipaksa a similar question: Is a Buddhist non-vegetarian a contradiction in terms? “No, I don’t think it’s as straightforward as that,” he replied, “because being a Buddhist doesn’t automatically make you perfect. However I do think there is a contradiction there because the Buddha definitely taught a path of compassion and empathy, and that compassion and empathy wasn’t just limited to human beings.”
I noticed that Samacitta and Bodhipaksa emphasised compassion in many of their responses to my questions. As Buddhists, we aim to cultivate loving-kindness towards all humans, all animals, all living beings, whether strong or weak, seemingly deserving or undeserving. There are no exceptions; no exceptions whatsoever. And not only is the first precept all-encompassing, but it is also open-ended: whether non-vegetarian, vegetarian or vegan, we can always become more aware, more compassionate. It is this, I think, which characterises the Buddhist approach to vegetarianism and what makes the Buddha’s message so inspiring and also so deeply radical.
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