Bob Isaacson

Social activist and dharma teacher Bob Isaacson speaks with us today about his efforts with the organization, Dharma Voices for Animals.

Hi everyone. Welcome to the new year 2013, and episode one-hundred and fifty of The Secular Buddhist. I’d like to thank everyone for listening, joining us on FaceBook, following us on Twitter, and for participating on the Secular website’s Discussion forum. If you’re participating in our January Practice Challenge, be sure to say hi on the page we’ve set up to support you in your daily meditation.

If you find some value in this podcast, I’d like to ask you to take five minutes out of your day, head over to iTunes, and give The Secular Buddhist a positive rating and write a review. Just a few short sentences is plenty, and will help others find the same benefit you have.

Today we’re going to broaden our view of our practice of compassion to the animal realm, specifically around the topic of the foods we eat. I will admit to being an omnivore. Human beings consumed meat during our evolutionary history, it’s part of our biological makeup. But many people have been questioning whether or not we need to continue with that habit, or even if the limited resources of our little blue planet can sustain such dietary choices.

And, really, that’s the part we often gloss over: that for many of us, what we eat is a choice as it may not have been in humanity’s history. This is not always an easy choice, nor are we dictating that one must make a change. But when we make choices of any kind, we should make them wisely, with compassion and understanding. Our practice, whether one is a traditional Buddhist or more secular, is inclusive of replacing the darkness of ignorance with the light of knowledge.

Sometimes this light is a harsh one. As fair warning, on the episode page I include two video clips. One, Paul McCartney’s Glass Walls, is extremely graphic in content. Nonetheless, I encourage you to watch it, especially if you’re looking for incentive to make a transition to a less meat based diet. The second video is a more positive inspiration, and what prompted me to give up bacon. The cute little piggy save his buddy baby goat, and I make no apologies for including heartwarming content, too.

Bob Isaacson has practiced the Dharma in the Vipassana/Theravada tradition for seventeen years. He was a civil rights-human rights attorney for twenty-five years, specializing in defending people against the death penalty. Bob currently teaches the Dharma, leads two Sanghas, and leads day-long and weekend retreats in the San Diego area, having been trained in Spirit Rock’s Community Dharma Leader Program.

So, sit back, relax, and have a nice V-8.

Paul McCartney’s “Glass Walls” – Official Video


Pig Rescues Baby Goat



Web Links

Music for This Episode Courtesy of Rodrigo Rodriguez

The music heard in the middle of the podcast is from Rodrigo Rodriguez. The track used in this episode is “For Two Shakuhachi” from his CD, Traditional and Modern Pieces: Shakuhachi.

No Comments

  1. Candol on January 7, 2013 at 4:27 am

    Well I listened and I liked the talk and links a lot – although i have to say i hate watching those sorts of shocking videos about animal cruelty but i made myself watch this time which is actually motivating, even though i’m already mostly vegetarian. Thanks for sharing and thanks for doing this work.

  2. JoandeV on January 7, 2013 at 12:31 pm

    I enjoyed the talk very much. I’m fortunate in that my sons saw the video on their own and made the decision to become vegetarians. I willingly followed suit, because except for seafood I’ve never been over fond of animal flesh. Aside from their influence, the film of Sarah Palin blithely standing in front of a turkey being killed in an obviously painful manner is,perhaps, the only positive thing she’s ever done for me. I look forward to spending more time with the resources you made available.

  3. SkeptiCat on January 11, 2013 at 6:06 am

    Thank you SO MUCH for finally addressing this issue! This should be part of the dialogue in EVERY discussion on compassion. Ahimsa is not just a word or concept – it is a lifestyle and for any Buddhist to not include all animals in their metta practice is nothing less than hypocritical.

  4. JoandeV on January 11, 2013 at 11:16 am

    @SkeptiCat; Although I choose not to eat meat, I can’t agree with you that Buddhists who eat meat are hypocritical. Ahimsa can be achieved in many ways, and how that is done is a personal decision.

    Foregoing meat is difficult for many people not born to the practice. Many good Buddhists still eat meat, by choice or by medical order, and sometimes as a act of practice, as when monks accept meals with meat proffered to them by lay members of the community. It would be insulting to refuse the food and it would be wasteful of the meat itself which was provided by an animal who has already died.

  5. Ted Meissner on January 11, 2013 at 11:54 am

    I would suggest that, as Buddhists, *metta* practice of meditation does include all beings. Our *eating* habits, however, may include eating already dead animals. We get into a very slippery slope about how that counts, of course, and this was a major topic in Buddha’s time — ‘evil’ cousin Devadatta wanted all monastics to be strictly vegetarian, for example.

  6. SkeptiCat on January 11, 2013 at 11:58 am

    A Buddhist by definition is compelled to reduce suffering of all beings. It is therefore hypocrisy for a Buddhist to knowingly and willfully cause unnecessary suffering to any being. One cannot cherry-pick those to whom ahimsa is applied. It applies to all beings who are capable of suffering. This is not dogma. This is pure logic.

    Racism, sexism, and homophobia are personal decisions too, but that doesn’t mean they are to be honored and respected as morally defensible. A person may decide to kill, torture, and rape, but nobody else defends that decision unless it is done to a non-human animal. The “personal decision” argument is no more than a weak excuse to continue down the path of inflicting needless suffering on the innocent.

    There is no valid reason in modern society for anybody to eat meat or eggs/dairy. The act is purely an attachment to sensual or gastronomic pleasure. There are no good modern medical reasons, and the iron-age rules of behavior laid out for starving Asian monks and the poor that they begged from simply do not apply to the vast majority of people anymore. It certainly doesn’t apply to anybody who has the privilege of reading text on an internet forum any more than does the excuse that “Eskimos can only eat meat” is a valid rationale for why Snookie can do it.

    Bottom line, any reason given for why modern humans “must” eat meat/eggs/dairy is 100% an excuse to cause pain for their own pleasure. That is in direct conflict with the core teaching of Buddhism.

    • Dulzie Bear on January 30, 2013 at 8:55 am

      Dear SkeptiCat,

      What you say is very harsh but true. I cannot blame people for consuming meat because they have to e.g. the Himalayan Buddhists had to simply because the land could not support the growing of vegetation. But we live in a society that offers such a wide range of foods as supplement to meat.

      I used to be a huge meat eater and I would not hear anything about going off meat…it was my “right” to eat meat. In fact I do enjoy meat but i do not enjoy that fact that other sentient beings have to suffer just to satisfy my palate. I have been a vegetarian for going to 3 years now and what I have learned is that I have not had to compromise on my health or enjoyment of food at all by being a vegetarian. The prior refusal to be a vegetarian was due to my attachments to things I like and my refusal to transform my mind to accomodate other beings. I wanted spirituality and I wanted Buddhism and I wanted to make a difference…but I didn’t want to change anything. Imagine of the whole world thought like that.

      If causing harm to others is not hypocritical to being a Buddhist, then the refusal to transform our mind is definitely the anathema of Buddhism.

      Thank you for standing up.

  7. Ted Meissner on January 11, 2013 at 12:04 pm

    This is the slippery slope! A cow has died of natural causes, old age for example. A family is starving, the crop failed and has run out.

    The cow is no longer suffering, correct? We are continuing the very real suffering of the family by saying that because the dead cow is made of meat, even though it no longers suffers, they have to starve rather than eating that meat.

    Skepti, this episode has caused a change in me: I’ve not had any meat since, and am carefully considering my past willful ignorance on this topic. But I think it may be a challenge to say no meat under any circumstances, for example. Just want to clarify why I’m making that distinction, it’s not about ordering prime rib at a steak house, but the example I described above.

    Thanks for listening, and always appreciate your words here!

  8. SkeptiCat on January 11, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    And for anybody who would point the finger at me for presenting a “true Scotsman” fallacy in this thread, remember that I define a “Buddhist” as not simply one born into the culture of Buddhism, but as one who has willfully engaged in a path of spiritual development and insight as described by Gautama Buddha. It is defined by compassion more than any other trait. A Scotsman is defined by heredity and nationality and any true Scotsman would recognize the difference ;-).

    • Ted Meissner on January 11, 2013 at 12:08 pm

      *chuckle* I made a point of not going there, kinda figured you were applying a broad use for Buddhism!

  9. SkeptiCat on January 11, 2013 at 12:11 pm

    Ted, our messages have crossed in the ether. I wasn’t directing my replies specifically to you.

    Yes, the “desert-island rational” is valid, but most of us don’t face a survival situation when it comes to eating meat. I am aware of people (and know one personally) who eat roadkill as a justifiable means of acquiring meat. I think that is an outlier in the histogram of how typical people get their meals.

    I applaud your willingness to examine your food choices, Ted! If you would like any resources or assistance or personal insight into the process of becoming vegan (*gasp* I said the “V” word), please let me know!

    • Ted Meissner on January 11, 2013 at 12:31 pm

      Yep, we crossed, Skepti. And I agree, most of us are not on the desert island!

      Thanks for the offer of help, this is a habit and my biggest concern is simply forgetting some evening when I’m tired and stopping at the drive through. Happily, the January Practice Challenge is helping with my base awareness, and the BVA site has some excellent resources, too.

      Positive encouragement is always deeply appreciated, my sincere thanks.

      • SkeptiCat on January 11, 2013 at 1:42 pm

        I’ll start a “Positive encouragement and tips for compassionate eating” thread on the forum. As this topic *always* leads to heated debates in every other context, I’ll try to insist that that thread not be used for debating veganism.

  10. Ted Meissner on March 29, 2013 at 8:40 am

    “It’s just the way things are. Take a moment to consider this statement. Really think about it. We send one species to the butcher and give our love and kindness to another apparently for no reason other than because it’s the way things are. When our attitudes and behaviors towards animals are so inconsistent, and this inconsistency is so unexamined, we can safely say we have been fed absurdities. It is absurd that we eat pigs and love dogs and don’t even know why. Many of us spend long minutes in the aisle of the drugstore mulling over what toothpaste to buy. Yet most of don’t spend any time at all thinking about what species of animal we eat and why. Our choices as consumers drive an industry that kills ten billion animals per year in the United States alone. If we choose to support this industry and the best reason we can come up with is because it’s the way things are, clearly something is amiss. What could cause an entire society of people to check their thinking caps at the door–and to not even realize they’re doing so? Though this question is quite complex, the answer is quite simple: carnism.”

    ― Melanie Joy, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism: The Belief System That Enables Us to Eat Some Animals and Not Others

    • mufi on March 29, 2013 at 2:07 pm

      I prefer Hal Herzog’s take (note: he’s the author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard To Think Straight About Animals), even though it’s still a pretty tough standard to live up to nowadays. What’s more, it seems more compatible with actual, historical Buddhist practice, particularly within the Theravada and Tibetan monastic strains (putting aside all of the omnivorous householders living in Buddhist countries around the world).

      Here’s an excerpt from an essay that he wrote last year:

      My defense of meat-eating rests on the proposition that the ethical problem with consuming flesh lies in the suffering, not the killing. Indeed, if raising and eating happy animals increases life’s pleasures for both the eaters and the eaten (who, after all, would otherwise not have been born), carnivory is actually morally preferable to vegetarianism.

      This, however, means no industrial feedlots, no dank poultry grow-out houses, no animals whose genetically engineered morphology ensures a life of pain. The animals we consume should live in environments that enable them to engage in natural behaviors including play and sex. And they must be killed humanely, with no terrifying rides in open trucks to the slaughterhouse.

      My pleasure-based moral calculus also implies that eating a lot of small happy creatures is ethically preferable to eating a few large happy ones. It takes about 221 chickens to generate the amount of edible flesh in one steer. That’s a lot of happy animals.

      Bon appétit!

  11. SkeptiCat on March 29, 2013 at 10:11 pm

    Amazing how convoluted people become with logic in their attempt to make excuses for their clinging to sensual pleasures. “Humane slaughter” is not only an oxymoron, it’s a myth. To claim that it’s a pleasure to be born to die for somebody’s taste buds because otherwise they wouldn’t born at all is one of the most ludicrous concepts imaginable. If you’re not born, there’s no happy or sad to be won or lost. It’s completely outside that Venn diagram.

    Further, the environmental cost to the planet (and thus increasing suffering to everybody else) is conveniently ignored. There IS no sustainable meat production in today’s world. If one can make ludicrous excuses for how they would joyfully kill many happy animals in order to satisfy their lust for gustatory pleasure, they are still hard-pressed to come up with ANY scientifically valid excuses for how they are willfully harming the rest of the Earth environmentally. Finally, there’s their own health and the cost incurred on the rest of us while they suffer the diseases caused directly by their own gluttony.

    Keep making excuses. The rest of us are evolving.

  12. mufi on March 30, 2013 at 11:58 am

    PS: Whether one accepts or rejects Herzog’s anti-suffering principle likely depends on one’s prior commitments (emotionally, financially, etc.). We are, after all, rationalizing animals.

    What’s more, the principle is merely theoretical, and might just as well serve in a defense of a vegetarian (or even a vegan) lifestyle choice – particularly if one reflects on and/or has actually faced the practical difficulties it entails (e.g. one can only do so much to minimize the suffering of animals who are bred primarily to serve humans). If I recall correctly, philosopher Peter Singer more or less did just that (i.e. he argued for the interests of animals on the basis that, like us, they suffer).

    Nonetheless, I basically accept it as an ideal.

    And, lest we forget that this is a Buddhist forum, I recognize the Buddha’s solution (e.g. his “three-fold rule”, which permitted his monks to consume meat, but within certain guidelines) as having been a pragmatic one, based on “the existential fact that samsara-faring must involve harm to others” (source). Whether one accepts or rejects this particular solution (let alone this samsara-based framing of the problem), its pragmatism remains appealing (at least to me) even in this modern setting.

    • SkeptiCat on March 30, 2013 at 12:16 pm

      So if one prefers the pragmatic approach then why even bring up the merely theoretical and impossible scenario of perfectly humane meat production? Why not question the number of angels that can dance upon the head of a pin?

      There is nothing in Buddhism that states we should sit still and accept the status quo as acceptable. If injustices are being performed and needless suffering inflicted upon others, it is our duty to do whatever we can to end it… at last according to principles of engaged Buddhism. And if we’re not engaged, then we are simple gazing at our own navels, are we not?

  13. mufi on March 30, 2013 at 7:47 pm

    Doesn’t pragmatism assume some kind of meeting between idealism and reality (which includes one’s own weakness)? That’s my understanding of the term, anyway.

    And is Peter Singer a mere navel-gazer? Or does he instead try to use rational reflection to bring his conflicting beliefs and desires into some kind of coherence or equilibrium that he can live with?

    I’d say the latter, even though I and others whom I respect – like Herzog – have reached different conclusions than Singer has.

    Sorry if you’re unwilling or unable to extend the same charity to others.

  14. SkeptiCat on March 30, 2013 at 8:22 pm

    If you define pragmatic as a compromise of mediocrity and are willing to settle for the lowest common denominator, because that’s what you “can live with”, you are still merely making excuses to satisfy your own desires in a way that your ego can rationalize away for it’s own sake. Sorry, but the animals cannot continue to suffer while you look the other way out of convenience-of-conscience and “middle-pathing” your way to the next pig roast.

    Equilibrium…. what a hoot. You think eating meat is the middle path just because it’s the most common and that veganism is the extreme? No my friend, enslaving, torturing, and slaughtering millions of sentient beings for their taste alone is what’s extreme. Theft, assault, and sexual abuse is common too, but I don’t hear you suggesting that doing SOME of that on occasion is just fine because it’s a “meeting between idealism and reality”.

    I’m very sorry if you are unwilling or unable to extend the same charity to other species as you seem to reserve for yourself and your hedonistic ego.

    Keep making excuses. You haven’t presented anything else other than esoteric rationalization based upon a false dichotomy. I’ll take my idealism and attempts at change over your blind justifications of continued torture any day. Slavery abolitionists were just idealists. Suffragettes were just idealists. Gay rights advocates are just idealists. Anti-war protestors are just idealists.

    Damned straight, I’m an idealist. I choose to set the bar for myself and humanity a little higher than the lake of blood you prefer to wallow in, however well you scored in your debating society.

    • mufi on March 31, 2013 at 8:18 am

      Good luck with that approach, Skepticat. You’ll need it!

      • SkeptiCat on March 31, 2013 at 10:55 am

        And good luck with your version of compassion that turns a blind eye toward suffering so that you may enjoy the taste of certain foods.

  15. mufi on April 1, 2013 at 7:38 pm

    I suspect that we all turn a blind eye to some extent to the harm that we cause simply by virtue of being alive and human – particularly in the modern age. (For example, how much attention do vegans pay to the deaths and environmental damage that results from industrial-scale rearing of crops and trees for commercial purposes – to pick only an example from agriculture?)

    That said, I appreciate the service that animal welfare advocates (many of whom are omnivores) do us all in reporting the hidden impacts of our consumer habits. We need such people, if we are to stand any realistic chance of reducing the harm that we cause.

    And, while I respect the personal decision to abstain from consuming animal products, I also respect the decision to reduce such consumption (i.e. to a level that’s still greater than zero), so as to focus on a healthier, more diverse, and largely plant-based diet.

    What’s even better is if one can afford to support small family farms that choose to raise animal products in a more humane way (e.g. according to the standards of the Animal Welfare Approved program). Unfortunately, this support can put a significant strain on a household budget, but then doing the right thing isn’t necessarily cheap or easy.

    The point is: there is more than one way to approach this problem. To insist that there is only one way – in a “my way or the highway” fashion – might feel good, in an intensely emotional (and religiously zealous) way – but I believe that it is both divisive and false.

  16. SkeptiCat on April 1, 2013 at 8:29 pm

    The vast majority of crops are produced specifically for livestock consumption. If we weren’t producing them for livestock, the deaths of those wild creatures would drop dramatically. This is yet another excuse brought out by the slaughter apologists. Seriously, dude, you sound like a broken record to those of us who have actually begun to look at animals differently, no longer looking at them as something to exploit for our pleasure.

    And in case you wondered (but clearly never did the math), it’s much cheaper (and healthier and environmentally more sustainable) to make your own food from fresh plant-based sources. Animal-based products and processed foods are what is really expensive (on all three levels). My food bills are half what they were before, and that’s even buying organic produce when possible!

    There’s a big difference between animal welfare people and animal rights people. Welfare is concerned with merely reducing negative effects of the exploitation. Animal rights people are concerned with the elimination of exploitation, dropping negative effects to zero. A little less torture and some fictional smiley-faced death is still ok with the welfare crowd, as long as they get to keep stuffing their maws with the bloody body parts of another sentient being.

    There is only one solution to the UNNECESSARY suffering of animals. Stop causing it! Abstain from funding it. Abolish all exploitation of animals. There really is only one way – just like you cannot allow “just a little slavery” or “just a little rape” or “just a little murder”. Why are those actions 100% verboten when committed against people but completely allowable against other animals? That is a sick and twisted worldview that needs to go the way of how we used to treat blacks, the disabled, women, and children. This is not a question of degrees – it’s a demand for an all-out repeal of animal exploitation by humanity.

    No, a “personal decision” is only ok as long as it doesn’t affect the rights of others. You don’t have the right to your “personal decision” to rape somebody. Likewise, the milk factory doesn’t have the right to have a “personal decision” to rape the cows in order to keep them lactating. It’s not a “personal decision” whether or not you may confine, torture, and kill innocent beings, either directly or through proxy. Was this the animal’s “personal decision”? Oh, that’s right, they are just expendable resources to be folded, spindled, and mutilated, as long as they are happy some of the time. We can just scritch them on the chin and give them a little kiss between the ears right before we drive a steel bolt through their skull, and then everything will be just fine in your view. That sounds like the rationale of a sick mind to me!

    So, now you have finally resorted to minimizing the facts and logic I present by pointing out the intensity with which I argue. My facts and logic can’t be right because I’m emotional? Please! Shoot-the-messenger is probably not the best argument you can make for your basket of excuses. And then you pull out a favorite amongst the atheist crowd to REALLY minimize the message – compare it to a religion or in this case, religious zeal. Hey, now THERE’S some infallible rebuttal of logic!

    I never claimed to be the most calm one in the room regarding this topic. But rape, torture, and killing of the innocent is not a calm lazy Sunday morning topic of idle chatter like you wish it was. To those of us that actually give a rat’s ass about innocent creatures, this is WAR and when people constantly sit smugly at their computers and try to excuse institutionalized animal abuse as “normal”, it PISSES US OFF.

  17. mufi on April 2, 2013 at 9:55 am


    If we weren’t producing them for livestock, the deaths of those wild creatures would drop dramatically.

    We agree! And reduction of harm is indeed morally significant. It’s why I respect the decisions to reduce consumption of meat and other animal products – especially those raised within the industrial-scale “factory farm” system.

    But it’s also true that all agriculture (and economic development, in general) has impacts on wildlife and the environment. Simply put: Reduction is not the same as elimination.

    And it’s also true that not all land is suitable for growing crops. Some land is more suitable for pasture (e.g. raising herds on grass, rather than on grain in a feedlot). I understand if you are morally opposed to this farming practice, as well, given that the animals in question still eventually wind up in slaughterhouses. This does not trouble me, however, assuming that its living conditions from birth to death are as pleasant and as painless as possible (i.e. in a way that makes biological & psychological sense for a domesticated cow, pig, chicken, or fish).

    That, at least, is the goal of the Animal Welfare Approved program. It’s a good one, IMO. I hope that it one day becomes the norm, in concert with the aforementioned changes in diet and consumer habits.

    I never claimed to be the most calm one in the room regarding this topic.

    I apologize for my part in fanning your flames, but there is only so much that I can do on my end alone.

  18. SkeptiCat on April 2, 2013 at 10:49 am

    The key word to remember is “unnecessary” suffering. Humans do need to eat plant material and the harvesting of plant material leads to unfortunate deaths. However, it is unavoidable. Humans do not need to eat meat/dairy and so the deaths caused by plant harvesting which supports that act IS avoidable, therefore can, and should, be abolished. The land that is not suitable for growing crops would be well-suited for letting it return back to it’s natural state. Since we wouldn’t need but a small fraction of the land formerly used for livestock support, we don’t need it. In fact, replanting indigenous species to encourage a quicker return to it’s natural state would be a great way to sequester CO2 more quickly and provide local employment during the transition.

    Yes, my mere presence on this planet leads to suffering for all the creatures that must pay for my environmental footprint, whether through the environmentally-abusive mining of exotic metals for my computer and cell phone, to the bugs that hit my windshield, to the rabbit that runs out suddenly beneath my tires. These are things that I can attempt to reduce in my life, but there will always be suffering caused by each of us no matter what. I’m not ignorant to that fact. However, the number one impact I can have with an immediate result is to be vegan in both diet and lifestyle. Cows are only abused because there is a demand for their products. Eliminate the demand and you eliminate the abuse. Reduce the demand, and you reduce the abuse (but that’s a half-assed attempt at eliminating AVOIDABLE suffering, which is why I’m an abolitionist, not a reductionist). I don’t want to reduce slavery, rape, murder – I want to eliminate it. And the species that suffers is NOT the point.

    Every person that becomes vegan has just saved thousands of lives each year (not to mention 300 gallons of fresh water per pound of beef). There is a LOT you can do on your end alone.

    Mufi, I have tried hard to not use ad hominum attacks and where I have slipped in that regard, I apologize. I certainly do appeal to emotion with my phrases and rarely shy away from hyperbole if it helps drive the point home. For that expression of zeal, I don’t apologize, but where you have felt attacked, please know that it was not how I meant to behave. I’m sure you are a fine conscientious person with whom I would love to share a fair-trade organic soy-latte and discuss these things in more rational tones. The anonymity of the internet is a two-edged blade and I’m afraid I allow my blood to boil quite a bit hotter than I would if I were joining you for coffee. That same anonymity also allows others to get quite vocal in their indifference towards animals (the I-love-bacon-people I’m frequently “embattled” with on Facebook) and I’m certain that I projected their attitudes of crass non-compassion onto you. For that too, I apologize.

    In metta,

  19. mufi on April 2, 2013 at 1:11 pm


    My prior chiding notwithstanding, I probably deserve some of the moral whip-cracking that you’ve given me in this thread. If nothing else, it offers me some extra motivation to strive harder to live up to my own ideal.

    That said, I have some reservations about generalizing my own experience with strict vegetarian and vegan diets to all humans – especially to those who have a very different set of food options than I do – but even to those who have never gone a year, let alone a lifetime, without consuming animal products. Still, I admit that neither economic nor medical necessity motivated my own return to an omnivorous diet, so at least your argument works as a critique of my dietary choices.

    However, I don’t think it works as well as a critique of the model that I’ve held up here as an ideal – that is, more or less the same one that Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) strives to realize.

    Mind you, I’m not so naive as to believe that zero suffering occurs on the family farms that the AWA audits and certifies, but then that’s true of life, in general.

    IOW, sentient beings suffer, virtually by definition (not to mention Buddhist doctrine), and I assume that you don’t mean to suggest that we ought to abolish life itself (although I suppose that’s one way to interpret “the cessation of dukkha” – as extinction). Instead, I assume that you mean to suggest that the degree of suffering that occurs on these farms is still unacceptable.

    I admit that I’m somewhat biased in this regard, as I’ve actually visited some AWA-certified farms in my area (which is still fairly rural, despite its proximity to several metropolitan areas), met the farmers, pet the animals, etc. I also have neighbors who raise chickens, one of whom shares eggs with us in exchange for our taking care of them while she’s away. If these animals suffer, then I am a very poor judge of it (at least when it comes to other species, if not my own). Fortunately, the AWA standards have been reviewed by experts (e.g. animal scientists and veterinarians) who likely know the signs of animal stress better than I do.

    To the degree that even AWA fails to prevent unacceptable degrees of suffering, your argument still works. But that’s partly an empirical (as opposed to a moral-theoretical) question and partly a question of personal tolerance and sensitivity (not to mention “tribal” identity). Your mileage may vary from mine in this regard.


  20. Dana Nourie on April 22, 2013 at 5:56 pm

    Eating meat has eaten at my conscious in a big way. It’s not just the fact that many “food” animals are treated horribly and suffer in ghastly ways, but breeding animals to be food is in and of itself inviting suffering.

    It seems to me that as human beings and supposedly “intelligent” that we have option and can make a conscious decision not create suffering for animals. I know we evolved eating meat, but have we evolved to rise above our carnal instincts? Buddhism certainly posits that we can.

    Animals have to eat the way they have evolved to eat, but as human beings we can decide not to be a part of that food chain. As Buddhists who want to prevent creating suffering, I think we are obligated.

    All that said, I really, really struggle with my will power. I do love eating meat, and resisting is incredibly difficult. I am working on it, and very near to being vegetarian. I’d like to go as far as vegan, as keeping cows for dairy is obnoxiously cruel. I know I’d be appalled if someone kidnapped my daughter, gave her hormones to lactate, then milked her every few hours. To do that to a human being is unthinkable, yet why is it ok to do that to other animals? I don’t think it’s ok.

    Animals suffer. Any animal with a nervous system can suffer from physical pain, and most if not all, experience fear and frustration.

    We should be better than this. To not rise above it is to be hairless baboons.

    Wish I liked vegetables more:-)

    • mufi on April 23, 2013 at 8:27 am

      Dana: I have my own ethical struggles around food (and other consumer products, for that matter). These struggles are analogous to yours, but not identical (as you can probably tell, if you’ve already read my comments above). So, when I recommend that you check out the Animal Welfare Approved site, their cause may not resonate with you, as it does with me (or at least not with the same force).

      That said, if there is still an elephant in this room, then it probably concerns what the dharma does or does not say on the matter. Otherwise, the debate might just as well occur in a non-Buddhist forum, as it so often does.

      While I’m confident that the Buddha’s teachings are compatible with a mindfully omnivorous diet, and that the world today is not so radically different from the Buddha’s as to render those teachings irrelevant, I would agree that a plant-based diet is also compatible with them – particularly for those who can make it work (say, from both economic and nutritional standpoints).

      • SkeptiCat on April 23, 2013 at 5:36 pm

        Whether or not the dharma involves in-depth meat directives is not an elephant in the room because I don’t think any of us here treat the dharma as dogma. That being said, the universal first precept within all(?) Buddhist traditions, that we are not to cause suffering to other living creatures, is pretty clear and unambiguous (in my opinion). However, it’s still up to each of us to interpret that for ourselves, I suppose, and both of us have done just that. As a vegan in a modern, privileged, world, I find that there is not a single reason to not interpret it as complete abstention from any animal exploitation. To do so is not an inconvenience to either my health or my wallet. You clearly interpret that precept a bit differently (less suffering, as long as you can still eat baby sheep and piglets).

        I admit it – we all have to draw a line in the sand as to “permissible” suffering. I allow for the killing of insects on my windshield and you allow for the killing of highly cognizant mammals, as long as they are scratched under the chin by Kindly Farmer Brown prior to their violent death. I guess it’s a question of degrees, isn’t it?

        • mufi on April 23, 2013 at 7:13 pm

          Michael: I arrived at this omnivorous/animal-welfare ideal well before I took up an interest in the dharma, so I certainly can’t claim that the dharma dictates it to me (which is why I chose the word “compatible”). Perhaps you’re in a similar situation, only with respect to a vegan/animal-rights ideal.

          That said, you’re interpreting the first precept in a way that’s more absolute and literal than even the Buddha did (let alone the tradition that followed him for the past two & half millenia). After all, he was an omnivore! To get around that inconvenient fact, you either have to postulate some rationale about especially hard economic times in the Buddha’s day, or simply admit that you part ways with the Buddha on this subject.

          There’s no shame in the latter route, as far as I’m concerned. After all, most of us here have already parted ways with the Buddha on the subjects of literal karma & rebirth, which are arguably core Buddhist teachings. And I admit that I don’t adhere to his three-fold rule regarding meat consumption (and not just because I’m a householder, rather than a monk). Simply put: no orthodoxy here.

          As regards the former route, I just don’t see any supporting evidence – textual or otherwise. Like I said to Dana below: The Buddha ‘had the options to adopt the strict asceticism of the Jains or to institute a vegetarian diet in his own sangha, as per Devadatta’s suggestion. Instead, he chose a “middle way” – viz. the “three-fold rule.”’

          Anyway, I’m sorry that you think that it’s okay to ridicule my decision. I suppose that comes with the territory. You can never please everyone – not even your fellow dharma enthusiasts.

  21. Dana Nourie on April 23, 2013 at 1:36 pm

    Mufi, thank you for the links. I will check it out.

    I have decided to go vegetarian. I just can’t contribute to the suffering of animals anymore, and I do believe as a Buddhist practitioner that I have to look through the intellectual BSing we do to justify eating animals. Yes, we did evolve as omnivore’s, but as human beings, with options, and the ability to decide, supposedly we can rise above our past. If we can’t, we are certainly no better than other animals. I don’t think we are anyway, but some do.

    I do think times are different now concerning diet than in Buddha’s day. Buddha didn’t have so many food options available to him, and he did teach compassion for ALL animals. I just don’t believe he’d be ok with the killing of 9 billion animals for Americans alone. And I don’t feel breeding animals is compassionate, let alone raising them to eat.

    Today I went shopping and there is no meat in anything I bought. I also bought rice and soy milk to mix with the vegetarian protein powder I bought. Wow, I had no idea hemp powder was so nutritious!

    And because I’m not doing this for my own health, french fries, cookies, chocolate, pretzels, etc. is still in my diet:-) Fortunately, I do love beans, rice, and some veggies and I’ve always been a big salad eater.

    My dog Cannon will stay on his meat-based diet. I’m not thrilled about that, but a dog’s diet does need meat. Grains are not good for them.

    Eventually I hope to go vegan, but cheese is really a hard one for me. Baby steps.

    • mufi on April 23, 2013 at 2:14 pm

      Dana: I would agree that animals suffer greatly under the conditions of industrial-scale farming. I would not agree, however, that that’s the case on an AWA-certified farm – at least not to the point where I believe that it’s cruel to even consider bringing them into this world, let alone to support the small-family farmers who raise them (some of whom I’ve met). (See my last reply to SkeptiCat/Michael for more on that.)

      I also disagree about the rationale for the Buddha’s view on meat consumption. He had the options to adopt the strict asceticism of the Jains or to institute a vegetarian diet in his own sangha, as per Devadatta’s suggestion. Instead, he chose a “middle way” – viz. the “three-fold rule.”

      For me, the “middle way” (with respect to food) is not the three-fold rule, but a rather different balance between a strict vegetarian or vegan diet (both I’ve which I’ve tried) and total abandon to the marketplace. Perhaps my favorite spokesperson for this approach is Micheal Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. As far as I know, he’s not a Buddhist, but then I can say the same of Peter Singer, who is perhaps my favorite spokesperson for the approach that you’re now beginning to try.

      • mufi on April 23, 2013 at 2:19 pm

        PS: I’m smiling right now, because it just occurred to me that Michael Pollan does have three-fold saying, which is: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

  22. Dana Nourie on April 23, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    Ted, I wanted to comment on what you said about already dead animals. I don’t have a problem with people eating animals that have died naturally, or those we had to euthanize out of compassion. Heck, I’m even ok with soylant green! 🙂

    And I am for euthanasia, not just for animals but for people who desire it, as it does end suffering.

    I don’t even have problems with a family raising a few animals to eat. What I have issue with is this mass production of food animals. Society has gotten too large, and now we have to produce animals in the billions to keep us fed. That is just selfish and wrong. This is suffering on hideous scale, and I just can’t contribute to it anymore.

    If there were only a couple hundred humans, and they were hunting wild animals for their dietary needs, fine. But that is not what’s happening. Humanity is out of control.

  23. Ted Meissner on April 23, 2013 at 2:12 pm

    Good for you, Dana! It has only been challenging for me when going out with friends, I’ve decided not to subject them to my constraints at, say, sushi only restaurants and I will sometimes make exceptions under those circumstances.

    • SkeptiCat on April 23, 2013 at 5:08 pm

      The nice thing about sushi is you can always get them to make a couple rolls with exactly the ingredients YOU want. My favorite has carrots, seaweed (the long thin green crunchy type – not sure what it’s called), celery, sesame seeds and wrapped in the black paper-like algae (I don’t know the Japanese name for it either) and finally, topped with sliced avocado. Delicious! I have to be sure to tell them no fish sauce or paste inside because they always put it in everything. They don’t understand that fish (and crab) are still meat, so I have to be real clear about it.

  24. Dana Nourie on April 23, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    I haven’t eaten fish or seafood since I was about 4. I’ve always had an aversion there, so sushi is off my list. I won’t push this is my friends, just as I don’t push Buddhism or atheism, but always happy to explain my motives and serve as an example. I did find it challenging to find frozen dinners without meat. But I found some.

  25. SkeptiCat on April 23, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    Congrats, Dana! I’m SO glad to hear that you’ve taken such a big step towards compassion! I’ll extend the offer I made to Ted: if you need any help or advice or *gasp* opinions, please let me know, publicly or in private.

    I was vegetarian for a short time before I became vegan, when I learned the horrors of the milk industry. In many ways, it’s even more cruel than meat and of course it’s inextricably tied to meat. It’s actually all part of the same industry – look at any dairy operation: all the males born to keep the females lactating go to slaughter and all the females that have been used up after a few short years join them. Milk is just the beginning of the slaughterhouse conveyor belt.

    Anyway, I can understand the difficulties of taking that additional step (cheese was the last thing for me to give up as well), and I would much rather see a world full of successful vegetarians than one filled with one-time vegans who gave up entirely and went back to meat because it was too hard for them to give up cheese. That being said, most vegans I know also said they never thought they would go all the way to veganism either, but they could no longer bear the thought of the suffering they contributed to. It ate at their conscience too much. I know that’s why I took that final step pretty quickly. But baby steps are fine too, Dana, and I’m so thrilled that you are taking them.

    As for slipping up or making concessions, I would also rather see a vegan cave in for that occasional pizza than for them to never even try in the first place. Being vegan is a PROCESS of reducing animal exploitation and suffering as much as possible, not a supernatural ability to to achieve absolute perfection in every aspect of one’s life. For example, I still drive a car which kills and maims countless insects on the windshield. I truly feel bad, but it’s inevitable if I want to travel beyond where my feet will take me. The only way to be perfectly vegan (if even possible at all) would be to live a completely self-sustainable life as a hermit, getting everything I need from the land upon which I live (no electronics even), and examining every footstep an inch deep into the soil to avoid crushing something which lives there. Any infestation of bedbugs or lice would have to be tolerated rather than eliminated. I suppose it’s possible to live like that, but it’s certainly not realistic – not for very many of us anyway. I couldn’t even imagine being a Jainist (but then most people couldn’t even imagine being vegan, despite the fact I find it easier than I expected it to be).

    Thanks again for taking the awesome step you’ve taken! You have joined the millions of us who think of meat as the new tobacco! And to paraphrase Franz Kafka, you can now actually look at animals in peace because you no longer eat them. :-))

  26. Dana Nourie on April 23, 2013 at 5:14 pm

    Thank you, Skepticat! It is really nice to get such wonderful encouragement. I’m getting a lot of support from friends, and I know my family will be as well, even if they don’t follow. I suspect my daughter isn’t far behind me though:-)

    I bought hemp powder today, and wow that stuff is loaded with nutrients, fiber, and protein. Just put it in a shake with a banana, strawberries, OJ, and rice milk. Yummy. A little gritty but delicious. Mufi, that is what I meant when I said Buddha didn’t have as many options. He could have followed the Jains, but I mean he didn’t have an entire grocery store to choose his meals from.

    My conscious will feel better. I can’t fool myself anymore about the animal food industry. I know this is a growing trend to treat animals better on farms, feed cows grass instead of corn, and allow chickens to run around. Smaller family farms are coming back, and even small farms in cities. But, still, that is just not enough for me. I have a lot of food options, protein boosters that are plant based, etc. so I really don’t want animals dying for my survival.

    When I saw that the US consumes 9 billion animals, it was just too much for me. And, yeah, you are right about the milk industry. If they locked up my daughter, gave her hormones to make her lactate, then milked her all day I’d go out of my friggin’ mind! That is no life for a cow either.

    Do you find egg substitutes work for baking? They do make a difference in food consistency, but I was hoping vegans have worked that out. I have a few left in the frig, will use those, then buy no more. I saw how chicken laying hens were kept, and it absolutely broke my heart.

    Seems like we could clone eggs. I’d be ok with cloning eggs for consumption, but who knows what problems might be in that. Better than keeping chickens to do that.

    • SkeptiCat on April 23, 2013 at 6:04 pm

      One of the health benefits of veganism (and vegetarianism) is that you are no longer acidifying your body (and thus leeching calcium from your bones) because you are no longer getting too much protein! Carnists eat WAY more protein than is good for them, so don’t feel that you’ll need to load up on it to keep up with your old ways. You will get plenty of protein in your plant-based foods. Between my normal diet which includes beans, almond/soy milk, peanut butter, and grains, I don’t even think about protein supplementation and my blood tests confirm it. Calcium supplementation is also not required for vegans, as dairy also leeches it from our bodies and if we no longer eat dairy, the plant sources of calcium can keep up with our needs.

      The only supplementation I take is B-12, which is created by bacteria (animal flesh has it because they eat the bacteria). If I was living directly off the land and eating more dirt like my ancestors, I probably wouldn’t need those supplements either. I mostly get it from nutritional yeast, but also as dots or liquid.

      Chickens bred for egg production are sorted when just a few days old. Males are sent into a shredder (yes, alive) or are dumped by the thousands into dumpsters where they are crushed or suffocate. Again, eggs may be more cruel than meat. Some of my favorite egg substitutes are AWESOME because they actually make the final dish better. Use apple sauce instead of eggs when baking, for instance, and your muffins will be moist and SO delicious! There are so many natural whole-food egg substitutions that work really well – I don’t know about any processed versions as I don’t eat much processed food.

      Similarly, I consider the fake meats and vegan cheeses to be a stepping stone for those who crave it, but I really don’t find it all that necessary. My mother and mother-in-law both insist on cooking tofurkeys for me on holidays, because no matter how often I tell them that I’ll fill up just fine on lots of vegetables, they still think I need an analogue for the corpse that sit on their table. Oh well, I eat it and am thankful that they go out of their way to “accommodate” me.

      Milk chocolate… that’s as hard as cheese to give up… I keep a carton of chocolate almond milk handy for when I get cravings that just won’t let go. 🙂

  27. timo on September 12, 2013 at 12:43 am

    For accuracy, I must point out that humans by biological nature are not omnivores, and eating other animals is therefore a choice. See this detailed article for a full explanation We may have eaten animal flesh during our history and we now drink the milk from another species meant for the babies of that species well beyond the weaning age from our mother’s milk but that doesn’t mean we should continue the practice and in fact it’s better for our heath, the environment, and of course the animals who are the victims of exploitative industries that we do not.I also recommend this webpage that explains how who we eat is driven by deeply entrenched cultural belief systems and for a great presentation on the subject this video here (The Psychology of Eating Meat by Melanie Joy)

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