When I was a small child I attended a birthday party. As my friends and family sat around a large table eating the meal, I was getting into quite a bit of a state. Not long on solid foods, I was having great trouble eating meat. No matter how much I tried chewing the stuff it just ended up a mushy grey ball in my mouth,that grew larger and larger the more I ate. Eventually,I was literally unable to stuff any more in, My cheeks bulged with a ball too large for my small oesophagus to swallow. I had to find a way out of this situation. I can't remember now exactly how I did it, but somehow I managed to extract the partly masticated meat ball from out of my mouth without my Mum seeing. The problem then was where on earth to put it ~ in my pocket? ~ on the floor? ~ or just continue holding this slimy half digested thing in the palm of my hand until I could find some way to discretely put it in a bin. Trapped on a long bench behind a table of other small party goers I couldn't leave without attracting attention. I settled for discrete disposal onto the carpet, where on later discovery I hoped there wasn't too much evidence, like incriminating teeth marks, to point the parental finger at me. It was the first time, that I can recall now, where I tried to conceal the consequences of my actions.
There have been times in the past when, half jokingly, I've used this incident as evidence that I never found meat eating palatable, that I was a born vegetarian forced by my parents into being a carnivore. Its hard to resist the temptation to rewrite our personal history to make what evolved erratically in an incoherent manner into a clear inevitable outcome. I'm attempting through writing this article to be as honest as I can be about how I became a vegetarian, whilst recognising that my experience and perceptions have altered me so I no longer see through the same eyes. So, looking again at that childhood incident, I would imagine that children have difficulty learning what to do with solid food, when they first start eating it. It doesn't slip down quite as easily as the baby food that's been chopped and boiled so any toothless person, of any age, can consume it without effort. Also, it wasn't that I disliked the flavour or texture of meat, but the practical issue of chewing and swallowing as you go. Once this issue had been conquered I was more than happy to eat meat for the next thirty years or so. That appeared then to be the natural human thing to do. Children follow their parents example, for a while at least.
|Crouch End in North London|
How did I move from enthusiastic meat eater to becoming a vegetarian? Well, it was never quite the neat upward progression, born aloft on an escalating ethical awareness and sensitivity. The prime mover appears to have been circumstances. I went to live and work in London in the April of 1980. For the first couple of years I lived in a number of shared houses, where everyone had to fight to gain access to an oven. Due to this my food consumption started to focus more on speed, and simplicity, so I ate tinned or pre-made processed food or takeaways. I lived for a while in the multi-cultural, 'alternative' district of North London called Crouch End, there I encountered both my first vegetarian whole food shop, and Doner Kebabs in Pitta bread, I became quite partial to both. Even when I moved into my first one room bedsit in East Finchley my culinary ambitions were still somewhat limited by my living conditions. I once tried making and cooking a vegetarian lasagne on the Baby Belling in my room,with its two rings and tiny tiny oven, and I can say without exaggeration it took all afternoon.
Gradually meat consumption started to decline, led by purely practical issues or cost, convenience and the limits circumstances imposed. Awareness of vegetarian ethics was in the air, through some of the people I met and was friends with. Through these I was being stirred, there was the aroma of cooking, but nothing you could consciously get your teeth into. Once your meat consumption declines your stomach adjusts to eating food that is less challenging to the digestive process. Eventually the life I lived in London became entirely whole food and mostly vegetarian, but when I went back up North to visit family, there I was still a meat eater. My past and present sat like odd incongruous bookends. I'd return to London with this uncomfortable distended feeling in my stomach, as if I'd eaten a lead balloon. Though this wasn't a pleasant sensation, physical discomfort didn't make reconciling this disharmony a priority.
The year I became a vegetarian was 1985 the year of the The Smiths second LP. The title song, Meat is Murder, is an unsubtle direct attack on meat eaters, using highly emotive sounds and imagery. Beginning with the mournful groans of cows cut across by the slaughtering sweep of a chain saw, over which Morrissey plangently sings lyrics that read like extracts from a Gothic horror novel ;~
'closer comes the screaming knife, this beautiful creature must die'
'the flesh you so fancifully fry, is not succulent tasty or kind'
'the meat in your mouth as you savour the flavour of murder'
It wasn't these sounds or words that converted me. The song was too heavily laden with manipulative melodramatic sentiment to be convincing, It places emotional guilt upon the listener, punishing, coercing and imprisoning. Nothing to suggest that not eating meat might be mutually liberating, for both beast and human. Having guilt thrust upon you from outside is very different to feeling personal remorse for your behaviour. Our reasons for adjusting that behaviour can be complex. conforming to external social or ethical pressure is only one of them. Underneath our conformity, our baser thoughts and feelings can still survive unexpressed but intact. Now you might say that's OK so long as it stops them eating meat. What I'm interested in is what actually changes peoples minds and behaviour, and what actively changed mine?
Morrissey, for all his self evident flaws,is who he is; open, honest,self-opinionated, prime narcissist, deliberately controversial, steadfastly refusing to be pigeon holed in any way. Whilst not blindly idolising, I did respect him. He represented aspects of what I wished to be, but wasn't quite able to be yet. However odd Morrissey might seem as a role model, he was standing for what he believed in, unafraid of what others might say. Something at the time I found hard to do. His spirit I wished to emulate. I began learning how to be more ethical by following in Morrissey's shadow. We can under estimate the effect a living breathing example, can have upon us. I doesn't mean they need to be perfect or heroic either, just people who are who they are, expressing what they believe through their everyday life. These sort of persons have had a more profound influence on me than any amount of confrontational agitprop,which tended to put me on the defensive. From such a position changing ones mind is very difficult
I hadn't thought deeply about personal ethics before, let alone having a choice in the food that I ate. I'd arrived where I was due to the push and pull of circumstance, including socially hanging around people who thought about such things, It might seem I suddenly had this ethical epiphany, with a pulsing caring heart implanted into it. But that would be to underestimate both the hardness of my heart before that time, and the drip drip effect of other peoples influence and example overtime. I'd always wanted what I did to matter, to transform myself and the world for the better. Somehow Morrissey's example reinvigorated my idealism, that through being frustrated had ossified into a judgemental cynicism. Becoming a vegetarian laid the ground for my encounter with Buddhism six or seven years later. There were at least three distinct turning points where things I'd previously concealed or was unaware of became fully lived in my everyday life. First,was the realisation and actualisation of being gay, the second was the realisation and actualisation of being a vegetarian, the third was the realisation and actualisation of being a Buddhist.
There is always a bit of a learning curve involved in cooking balanced vegetarian meals that are both nutritious and nice to eat. At this time I lived on my own, and making such a change to my diet was relatively easy .Living in a meat eating family where you're the only vegetarian, does not encourage ones intentions. Faced with meat being eaten in front of you daily, even the stiffest of ethical resolve may wither due to the lack of supportive conditions. Its not enough just to have the desire, there has to be a practical way to make it happen, otherwise its difficult to emotionally sustain it. I've lived in Buddhist Communities now for well over sixteen years, where being a vegetarian is de riguer. Whilst acknowledging I am fortunate, I recognise that my ethical practice is as dependent upon how favourable or unfavourable my circumstances are, as it is for everyone else. Take these conditions away, and how would even I fare?
There are members of my community who are vegan, so I eat more vegan food than Jnanasalin and I would if we were to live on our own. I still love cheese, eat the occasional egg, and I consume milk in my Flat White in a favourite cafe of a weekend. At present I'm not ready, nor frankly that interested, in taking the ethics of vegetarianism to what appear to be its logical conclusion, to become a vegan. I have to recognise that becoming a vegan still feels like more of an impoverishing decision than a liberating one. This feeling definitely carries with it an uneasy emotional background, with all the defensive reactive embellishments one might expect I find myself baulking at conforming to the perceived inevitability of an ethical logic, whilst also knowing other sentient beings die or suffer as a consequence of my desire to eat their oestrogen rich progeny, the products made from milk and wearing their tanned hides on my feet. Through doing these things I have to own my share of the responsibility for the suffering of those animals. Maybe that ethical price is one I'm still prepared to pay, and any sophisticated rationales I might construct, even here, are refined ways of saying 'I don't want to change.' Ideas, images and invocations have no power without impulse. Emotional volition is essential for change to burst forth into active full bloom.
The first, and primary Buddhist precept, is one out of which all further precepts of body, speech and mind are born. Its not a commandment, nor an unbreakable rule, its a guiding principle that is used intelligently to direct our ethical practice. It's entirely up to us how far we want to take its interpretation and apply of it to our everyday life. Precepts come in packs of twos; what we move away from and what we move towards. So there is :~ 'I undertake to abstain from taking life' on the one hand, and 'With deeds of loving kindness, I purify my body' on the other. That the 'taking of life' must be a defilement of the body is implied by 'I purify my body'. None of the precept abstentions state what their negative ethical consequence is, their defiling nature is taken for granted, the emphasis is placed decisively on the thing that needs cultivating ~ 'loving kindness'.
It's the increasingly deeper experience of 'loving kindness' that will drive change, I need to tangibly feel my current actions are 'defiling' me, not just bodily or psychologically, but spiritually. By recognising I feel unwholesome because of my actions I'm then prepared to make a profound shift in order to purify them. For the most part it's such instinctual feelings that direct us. Logic plays a role in this, but is more retrospectively applied. We think about the reasons why we've chosen to do what we've done, in response to our heart having already moved a step ahead. Should logic alone motivate us, the actions however well intentioned, will have to find themselves a heart. Logic and willpower unaffected by feeling, are barren things, capable of alienating us from the reality of our emotions and resistances. I've found through painful past experience, to be cautious in not creating inauthentic divorces between my ideals and my personal readiness to act. Our 'loving kindness' towards others is incomplete if we are passed over unloved in the process. Through the practice of not taking the life from others, it is possible, paradoxically, to take the life from ourselves. Its better to start from the position that ~ we eat what we are. Whilst I encourage my actions to move towards being more ethically skillful, I have to recognise that this side of Enlightenment they'll never be completely perfect. I am an imperfect being, living in an imperfect world. Trying to perfect the imperfectible would be foolish. Learning to live with imperfection is a harder, but a wiser practice.
'To abstain from taking life' can seem solely about the slaughter or murder of other sentient beings. In a literal sense that is true, but it's spirit is more far reaching than that. It has a broader remit to examine all the facets of our interactions to perceive where it is that we 'take life' from ourselves and from others. This may be by lying, slandering, hatefulness, craving or simply by holding views that run counter to the way life and things really are. Through our thoughts, speech and actions we can do violence to others. This reverberates through our being. so both us and the world we live in become riddled with it.
Few of us in the West are directly involved in the killing of other living beings. We consume, these days, at many removes from the production of the things that we eat, whether meat or vegetable. This doesn't absolve us from taking a degree of ethical responsibility for the killing of animals, or the ethical consequences for those that kill on our behalf. The whole meat and dairy industry exists as a result of our collective actions in eating meat, fish and dairy produce. Killing the animal you eat is traditionally the pre-eminent defiling karma. The karmic consequence becomes less tangible the further away our responsibility is from the actual slaughter. This distancing may be one reason why most people aren't vegetarian, and why I don't feel compelled to be vegan. The background consequences of my actions are not placed in front of me daily. If I fail to connect emotionally or imaginatively, it may be due to this lack of cogent experiential feeling for the consequence of what I do are. In theory at least, if an animal were to die of natural causes or through an accident, because it wasn't killed by human hand, it might be eaten free of any ethical consequence. The emphasis then, is placed on the means by which the food we eat is obtained.
In the ethical rush to not be implicated in the killing of animals, there are other ethical practices which may be overlooked,sidelined or downgraded. Our ethical relationships with animals might be squeaky clean, whilst our ethical relations with other human beings might be poor. Adopting the high ethical ground over what we eat, can publicly sanitise selfish, superior feelings and our desire to have influence over and control the actions of other human beings, that can lie beneath it. We can lose touch with cultivating 'loving kindness' towards others because they don't do what we do, they don't model themselves on us and become vegetarian or vegan. Our ethical practice can become another craving or aversion, another fixed like or dislike, another extension of ourselves, even of our self hate. Do we eat to satisfy our hunger, to survive, to feed our greedy nature, eat in order to pass time, to fill up the existential void through our mouths,? How and why we eat, is as interesting, from the point of view of practice, as what we eat
In the Buddha's time wandering Buddhist mendicants fed themselves by the begging for alms, going from door to door in a village or town asking for food. They offer up their bowl never knowing what they'd be given, all qualities and types of food mixed up in one pot. In India this would be mostly vegetarian, in other cultures this couldn't be guaranteed. The practice in receiving alms forces a mendicant to go beyond personal preference and accept cleanly, without qualms, the generosity of what they are given, from whoever it is given by. The mendicant in begging for alms shouldn't really make distinctions about who they will or wont accept alms from, they are simply to receive whatever is given. By doing this they also create an opportunity for the alms giver to go beyond there own selfish concerns and perform a generous act. However, I'd be surprised if the social obligation of alms giving was always administered or received with good grace, I'm sure many people in villages and towns would grow resentful of the seemingly never ending stream of beggars and the drain on their own perhaps limited resources. And if the picture painted in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa is to believed, mendicants could become quite adept at discerning where the wealthier areas of town were and begging for alms there, because they'd get a richer, better quality of food.
I'm not suggesting we all should take up begging for alms. It does ,however, provide an example of a different emphasis that can be made on ethical practice and food. It appears to be founded on making oneself beholden to the kindness of others, wearing down our selfishness by not pandering to likes and dislikes, challenging over weaning pride and encouraging generosity in others. A wandering mendicant is not involved in any work, let alone growing food or breeding and slaughtering animals. The ethics of what you are eating and its means of production appears less emphasised, the ethical focus being on the spiritual efficacy of having to beg for the food one eats. Ideally cultivated within the generous aura of 'loving kindness', in how the food is given and received. This is part of a broader ethical spectrum to be considered alongside the ethics of how food is produced.
Another aspect was highlighted to me recently. A group of us were in a restaurant and we all ordered vegetarian versions of items on the menu. When one friend's food arrived it turned out to contain meat. However, rather than send it back, they decided to eat it, but picked out any obvious bits of meat and put them on one side. Their concern was that in sending the food back, it would be thrown away which would be wasteful. An animal died in order to provide food that ended up being thrown away. This is doubly wasteful, of a life and of food. In our culture we rarely consider how wasteful our consumption of it is. If our food isn't exactly what we want we send it back, without a second thought for what the consequence of that action may be. In the West, in our mythical world of never ending abundance,it can be hard to see our food and water as precious resource and the necessary ecology of not being wasteful of it. At all levels of our society everyone wants to feel they have a choice in what they eat, even if you live on the street, get food from a food bank, or are a freegan raiding a supermarket's dump bins. Being able to chose is being able to freely express our sense of our selves.
Twenty first century consumerism is built on choice, and consequently if we have the money we can eat exactly what we want, when we want it. Increased choice is matched by increased alienation from the means of food production, and a tendency to become increasingly neurotic about food. Horror stories abound in the media of animal cruelty, pesticide residues, food allergies, digestive diseases and major food health scares. These turn the simple act of eating into an ethical minefield, everywhere there seems yet another new thing to be faced or avoided. We feel the oppressive weight of these choices everyday, so its not surprising if some turn a deaf ear, or simply draw a line and say this far and no further. There is some virtue in doing that, we can't make an imperfect world perfect purely through the food we consume. We end up making selected gestures to demonstrate we are doing something, but its lack of breadth and joined up coherence is a very telling trait.
To decide to give up this tyranny of personal choice is a spiritual practice, yet even doing without choice is a choice, and you might reasonably suggest just become a vegan and have done with it. However, its also important to challenge the neurotic nature of our likes and dislikes. Though being a carnivore, a vegetarian, or a vegan are ethical choices, they are also ways to express our preferences and exert control, As a vegetarian you may choose to refuse an act of generosity when someone offers you a jelly baby, because there may be animal gelatin in it, Whatever the sound ethical reasons, this does rebuff an act of generosity, an opportunity to share is denied, a connection is cut, a kind action curtailed. Putting other peoples needs before your own, can exist alongside guarding the ethical gates of what's in the food you eat. I'm well aware that I am blurring clear ethical lines of consistency here, the sort of thing most of us tends to find easier to stick with, We like black and white distinctions, not muddy debatable grey ones. I do so purely to broaden the spectrum of issues out from the narrow literalness that can sometimes dominate ethical rectitude. This may mean I decide where I place my ethical emphasis in each moment, and it being entirely possible that I may adjust it, even if this appears ethically inconsistent.
My ethical practice can drift towards rigidity and self-righteousness, a sensitively applied self-discipline turns overtime into the hard-hearted habitual sternness of an iron rod. I've found it personally useful to see my ethical practice as a conditional preference, to hold it as lightly and deftly as I can, and apply it as directly as I can in response to the exigences of the present moment. I've been consistently practising being a vegetarian now for getting on for thirty years. I've lived with vegans and eaten vegan food. I can envisage there might be circumstances where I may have to eat meat, In my current conditions I can easily eat across a spectrum of vegetarian/vegan food, but this may not always be the case, dependant upon circumstances that emphasis may be forced to shift.
I cannot artificially contrive a pure motivation, I have to accept that even my best actions usually have a rather messier mix of motives. Though they do arise out of an genuinely authentic desire to be better than I currently am. Becoming a vegan without a genuinely authentic desire to be one, could just simply be placing a tick in the Buddhist ethical correctness box. The relative cleanness of our intention is another element in whether our ethical practice will be spiritually effective. In one of the opening paragraphs of Dogen's Instructions for the Zen Cook he says this:~
"This work has always been carried out by teachers settled in the Way and by others who have aroused the Bodhisattva spirit within themselves. such a practice requires exerting all your energies. If a person entrusted with this work lacks such a spirit, then they will only endure unnecessary hardships and suffering that will have no value in their pursuit of the way."
I am not a Bodhisattva, and the Bodhisattva spirit has not arisen in me. I simply put insufficient amounts of effort and attention into making 'loving kindness' a more prevalent quality in my thoughts, speech and actions. If there were an ethical spectrum, hatred might be on the far right, and the Bodhisattva spirit definitely more left field, with 'loving kindness' being somewhere left of centre. I've placed myself facing in the right direction but not yet far enough away from negative influences to be incapable of being drawn back into them. What is important to note is that, according to Dogen's view, any endurance, any hardship, any suffering we might encounter through executing an ethical practice in our everyday work and life, will have little or no spiritual value in our pursuit of the Enlightened state, if it lacks the Bodhisattva spirit or at the very least an alive pulsing practice of 'loving kindness' at its very heart.
My ethical actions ought to be representative of me at my best, adjusted in response to any shift in the direction, quality and purity of my heart. There is a place for pre-emptive actions to challenge the ethical level I am currently set, or maybe stuck, at. Though I need to be wary of acting prematurely, beyond my heartfelt readiness for change. Sometimes I've been not sufficiently aware of how un-ready I was, and this has damaged and undermined further efforts at making progress. For an un-ready,unwilling participator any perception of having made progress might prove to be an illusory one. In my experience opportunities to move forward tend to arise in response to, and to meet, ones readiness.
I want to encourage my ethical practice in everyday life to be as diverse as it can be, avoiding settling down or becoming a one trick pony. In looking back over the early history and development of my ethical practice in regard to food, it was circumstances that provided the foundations for further changes to arise and take their place within me. Principles, precepts, practices or people appeared to emerge to meet and encapsulate what was already coming into being.
This article has been a very instructive thing for me to write, It has been based purely upon my present perceptions of what my past motivations and experience were, so in the sense of being an accurate representation it is a flawed one. I hope, nonetheless, that it has some resonance with it, and with the lives of others .