Cows at Pt. Reyes, taken by Dana Nourie

Cows at Pt. Reyes, taken by Dana Nourie

I’m struggling with aversion. In recent years, I’ve become really bothered by how humanity has just taken over the planet without regard to habitats, and the needs of other animals. I’ve noticed this more  because of my photography hobby, where I get out to take nature photos and pix of animals. A few years ago, I went to Pt. Reyes, and stopped on the side of the road to take pictures of the cows. Cows are animals I usually ignore because we have so many of them here in California. But I’d never seen so many cows as there were at Pt. Reyes, and I was curious.

What struck me right away was that I wasn’t the only one who was curious. The cows started moving towards me. Not one or two but all of them! I was a bit dismayed by the tags on their ears, and the branding on their backends. Then as they came right to the fence, staring at me, I backed away, and crossed the road to the other side where there were more cows. They did the same, and while I was taking their pictures, the cows behind me started mooing at me. When I went back to them, the other behind me mooed.

Ever since I have paid more attention to the “food” animals, the market in general, and I’ve had growing discomfort with eating meat. I know humans evolved eating plants and animals. But what humanity loves to brag about is the fact that we have this big brain, intelligence, and the ability to make decisions. Many people seem to think we can overcome much of our evolution, our violent instincts, our territorialsm, our caveman behavior. So, why hang on to a meat diet when animals are having to suffer and die for our benefit?

I admit, I like meat, and I like it a lot. It’s been a part of my diet all of my life, something I’ve just accepted without giving much thought to it. But in recent years, as my practice has helped develop mindfulness, I’ve come to question how meat is produced, and how the animals are treated. Buying it in sanitary cellophane wrap did a lot to remove me mentally as to where the beef was coming from. Staring these animals right in the face was quite another matter.

In the US, we find it appalling to eat dogs. They’re our pets. Yet, pig and cow brains are very similar to dog brains. In other words, cognitively they are equal. You can train a pig like you can dog, and cows can follow some commands. Even so I’ve never understood why people are more comfortable eating stupid animals. ALL animals have nervous systems, and therefore feel pain. They also all experience fear. All animals can and do suffer.

I’ve seen a few videos that showed how cows, chickens, and pigs are abused/tortured, and it upset me so much I couldn’t eat anything for a few days. Later, I came across articles, and have watched the movement towards treating “food” animals better. Now there is free range chicken, or sort of. I had bought a carton of eggs thinking that was the case, until I saw on the package where it said, “Chickens that have space to stretch, groom, perch, and nest.” That does not say walk and run around! When I saw a picture of pigs, forced to live in a metal wrack that kept them pressed together and unable to move for their entire lives, I could no longer eat bacon.

While there is a trend to treat these animals better, I can’t live with the fact that we are breeding them, keeping them captive, and then killing them for food. Milk, cheese, and eggs don’t paint a better picture. If my daughter were kidnapped, given hormones to force her to lactate, then milked periodically throughout every day, I’d go out of my mind. When I think of this happening to cows, I don’t feel much better.

I decided it’s time for me to turn to a vegetarian diet, with the long term goal of becoming full on vegan. I don’t want animals suffering and killed on my behalf. Over 9 billion animals are killed in the US alone for human consumption. As a secular Buddhist, I just can’t ignore the suffering my diet has been creating for animals. I’ve heard the arguments and concluded that is just a lot of intellectualizing to justify harming animals.

There has been a lot of discussion about this in regard to a few podcasts and articles here on SBA. Some argue that Buddha ate meat, that as long as the animals are being treated well while they’re alive, then no harm is done. As a secular Buddhist I don’t look to Buddha, the man, to gauge my behavior, and I don’t follow dogma. So, just because Buddha did something doesn’t mean I will too. However, I do look to the practice itself and Buddhist teachings and practice in general. Buddhism IS focused on lessening suffering. Buddhism is based on compassion and ethics. Whether or not Buddha made the decision to accept meat he was offered only goes so far. His teachings emphasized non-harm, not killing, and ending suffering. Buddhism is the religion of compassion and no harm. My own practice has been one of non-harm and ethics because I agree with that, because I see how it lessens suffering.  I can not excuse eating meat at the cost of animal suffering and loss in myself at all any more.

As my children were growing, they understood that if they saw a spider in the house, they were to come get me and not to kill it. I’ve kept a plastic cup and index card handy, so I can maneuver the spider into the cup, cover it with the card, and take the spider outside to a nearby bush or tree. We are all happier with the spider outside. If I’m not willing to kill a spider, I don’t feel it makes sense to allow cows, chickens, and pigs to die for my sake, especially since I have so many other options for food.

The meat diet will continue to be a source of controversy. The vegetarian and vegan diet and the outcry for animal welfare is fairly new. I know there have been some vegans going way back in history, but they weren’t a vocal bunch. But just as we speak up for abused children who can’t defend themselves, those of us who see other animals as deserving to go unharmed and killed, feel as justified in speaking up for them. Shouldn’t engaged Buddhism be about speaking for those who can’t? Shouldn’t it focus on lessening suffering, including for other animals?

I do make the claim this is a Buddhist issue. It’s not a Buddhist rule. Our diets are not something to change because Buddha said, but I do think Buddhism naturally asks us to question these kinds of moral issues and circumstances that include a lot of suffering. Buying from farms that guarantee compassionate behavior towards animals, and painless killing, may be enough for you. I’d rather see you put your money there over the industrial throwing live chickens in grinders kind of places. But I think we can do even more.

For myself, I have lessened some of my own suffering by lifting the heavy weight of guilt by deciding not to eat meat, and by moving toward a vegan diet. I feel my aversion for humanity lift, just ever so slightly, as I get encouragement from other vegans and vegetarians. I’m doing my best to not create more suffering through my dietary desires.

No Comments

  1. Lyman Reed on April 24, 2013 at 10:13 am

    Um, Dana… get out of my head! 🙂

    The issues you’ve brought up in this fantastic post are ones that I’m currently struggling with myself. To tell the truth, I even question the first precept, to “not take life.” It’s impossible to live as a human being and not kill, so I’ve modified it for myself to not take life intentionally and/or unnecessarily. The more I learn about how food is produced where I live (Cali, USA also) is becoming more and more unacceptable to me.

    Thank you for taking the time to write this and put it out there. It may help to continue to push me in what I think is the right direction for me.

  2. mufi on April 24, 2013 at 11:02 am

    Buying from farms that guarantee compassionate behavior towards animals, and painless killing, may be enough for you. I’d rather see you put your money there over the industrial throwing live chickens in grinders kind of places. But I think we can do even more.

    In case anyone is unaware that such farms exist, check out the Animal Welfare Approved site:

    If by “doing more” one means abstaining completely from consuming all animal products – no matter how compassionately the animals in question were raised – then there’s not only the practical question of can one do more. There’s also the moral question of should one do more.

    To my mind, at least, the practical question is settled by economic and nutritional considerations, which may vary according to individual and society.

    The moral question, however, seems like the real area of interest & controversy here, and that still seems rather open to me – even within Buddhist tradition (e.g. see here). One can, of course, resort to arguments from outside the tradition, but the point stands that Buddhism alone doesn’t settle the matter.

  3. Mike Robinson on April 24, 2013 at 11:28 am

    First post, after listening to the podcast for almost a year. Hello everyone.

    Really interesting post, Dana, but what are we killing? Do we, and animals have souls, or are our and their lives an indivisible part of the process that started with the Big Bang? After all, current scientific theory would suggest that our atoms have been around since the dawn of that time, and have since then burnt brightly in stars, been scattered across the universe in the supernovas of their deaths, been part of microbes, fish, dinosaurs and the Buddha, as well as clouds and trees and flowers, constantly recycled. Is it a form of delusion to be uncomfortable with being what the universe has made us? It feels right to me to eat animals, and also raise them respectfully. I also save the various little ones the cats delight in catching whenever I can (mice, voles, shrews, slow worms and even bats).

  4. Billy on April 24, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    Thanks for writing about this Dana. I became vegan at the beginning of this year in commitment of living to my own ideals and also to practice compassionate living.

    I highly recommend the book “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer. It lays out the animal abuse and ethics, as well as cultural implications of being vegetarian. Choosing to abstain from meat is more than just saving animals, it is going against cultural norms and he has some great insights about choosing to not eat animals.

    There are other considerations to eating meat, such as it’s negative environmental impact and the overuse of antibiotics (which I am most concerned about).

    Mike – While I understand your view and shared it for much of my life, if it interests you, I recommend you look into how the animals you eat are actually treated. Even the best treated animals at the end of the day are not treated respectfully because of how the factory farming industry has forced farming into certain methods. An example in the book above is a farmer that wants to have this cows slaughtered in a compassionate manner but can’t find a slaughterhouse that will treat his animals well because all slaughterhouses are owned by large corporations or have bought/shutdown all the smaller slaughterhouses. Even if one wants to compassionately treat the animals eat, the system we have supported as meat eaters has moved to a point where it is almost impossible for farmers to do so.

    • mufi on April 24, 2013 at 12:44 pm

      Even the best treated animals at the end of the day are not treated respectfully because of how the factory farming industry has forced farming into certain methods.

      The “best treated [livestock] animals” are raised by small family farmers, not by the “factory farming industry.”

      There’s no guarantee that small family farmers treat their livestock compassionately, of course, but that’s why we have humane certification organizations like the Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) – to help improve the odds that they are. They deserve our support, IMO.

  5. Michael on April 24, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    Beautiful post Dana. There comes a time when many of us finally see what’s going on and can no longer accept it. Mindfulness means taking a look at what’s happening around us, what we’re being told, what we’re being sold by those entities only concerned with their own profits, and certainly not just doing what we do because “it’s always been done that way.”

    Regardless of what the Buddha did or did not do (reminds me of “What would Jesus do!”) there’s no question that compassion and helping others to avoid suffering regardless of their place in the hierarchy (or molecular structure) is part of the Dharma. Secular Buddhism is still Buddhism. We can approach this issue from the standpoint of not supporting the suffering of animals, the destructive effects that livestock production has on our world, or just the plain fact that it’s not all that healthy to eat and drink animal products.

    We’re not all at the same place on the Dharma path, but as long as we honestly want to walk it and are willing to mindfully consider all that we find, we’ll make progress and do our part of help this world be a little bit better place for us and those with whom we share it.

    Thank you.

  6. Miyo Wratten on April 24, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    Great article Dana! Some aspects of the food industry have come to my attention over the last few years that have really got me thinking much more about where food comes from, and what exactly we are putting in our bodies.

    I guess part of ‘being Buddhist’ really is paying attention to what is there, and not just noticing it, but also acting on it accordingly. How does what we choose to eat, where we choose to buy our food, affect everyone and everything else around us?

    Your article also touches on something I’ve been feeling is too true lately: Our society lacks a fundamental respect for life. Not just human life, but all life. We take it all for granted because it’s all so mass-produced. Literally. We also take life without actually doing the ‘messy’ part of the work ourselves — how many of us have looked into the eyes of cattle as it is slaughtered? Not many. So, what gives us the right to then consume that meat?

    I always think about that scene in Avatar, where the female alien says a little prayer of thanks to the slaughtered animal to show her respect. I’m not one for rituals, by any means, but that contrast between herself and the human standing next to her, dumbfounded, really touched me.

    Thanks for bringing all this to light, Dana!

  7. mufi on April 25, 2013 at 5:56 am

    This topic reminded me of journalist/author Michael Pollan’s chapter on food ethics in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which was based on an earlier article that he wrote for the NYT Magazine. That article is now available online.

    I hardly expect everyone to agree with everything that Pollan writes (I don’t), but I highly recommend this article!

  8. GatelessGate on May 2, 2013 at 10:23 am

    While I appreciate the ideal of non-harming, I don’t agree that consuming vegetable products is non-harming compared to consuming animal products. Who are we to judge the value of one form of life over another? Is there really a moral difference between a grain of barley and a chicken egg?

    What items of food that nourish the human body are there that were not once alive? None that I can think of. The simple biological fact is that living creatures of all types consume other living creatures, or the remnants of them, to survive. Try raising a plant in pure sand, without any form of compost or nutrient to sustain it.

    That is not to say that the deplorable treatment of food animals by factory farms is acceptable. Neither, however, is tinkering with the genetic makeup of food plants so that they are rendered immune to broad spectrum weed killers. It makes sense to me to avoid products from such sources and discourage those practices. We can vote with our feet and our money for more ethical food production.

    In the end though, I think it’s simply not possible to be completely non-harming and live in a body.

  9. Dana Nourie on May 2, 2013 at 11:23 am

    I don’t agree that plants suffer. They don’t have a nervous system or brain, hence no way to have the self awareness that allows an animals to know when it’s in pain, injured, or dying.

    I do agree that we can’t live without causing some degree of suffering to others. But not eating meat is a conscious way of avoiding inflicting suffering on animals, at least not supporting the meat market.

    I know I inadvertently step insects, that the planets I eat, no doubt, kill a lot of insects, etc. I try to minimize this by buying organic veggies where pesticides are minimized or not used.

    I don’t believe we can end suffering as long as there is animal life. I do believe we can minimize it through conscious effort, as we have more options now than we used to, we are contributing to public awareness about horrible cruelty to animals, and many of us choose to go farther by not eating animals.

  10. mufi on May 2, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    GatelessGate: I’m with Dana on this one. If our main concern here is the suffering that we cause in other sentient creatures (as I have argued that it should be), then why would I worry about a plant? While I’m aware of some kooky claims that plants are sentient, suffice it to say that I reject them. No complex nervous system? No sentience. Next!

    But what about animals with rudimentary nervous systems (let alone those who have them while alive, but are already dead)? In other words, where’s the moral line? As biologist/psychologist Hal Herzog put it:

    Princeton’s Peter Singer, famously drew his moral line “somewhere between the shrimp and the oyster.” I have a somewhat lower bar and would allow ethical meat eaters to chow down on invertebrates such as mealworms, grubs, earthworms, mollusks (with the exception of cephalopods), jelly fish (I have eaten them—not great), ants, termites, and crickets, which, when fried, make excellent tacos.

    No thanks, but then I refuse to suffer the ants that infest my home this time every year.

    I’ve already shared my thoughts above regarding the ethics of eating livestock animals that (as best we can tell) have been humanely raised & slaughtered/euthanized. So ’nuff said there.

    My guess is that a simple reading of the first precept – which plainly suggests the idea that the problem is not suffering, but rather killing – has been the cause of a lot of confusion and strife among Buddhists. I don’t expect this problem to just go away – not even among Secular Buddhists, as each of us bring our own personal baggage with us into the sangha.

  11. Dana Nourie on May 2, 2013 at 12:49 pm

    I agree, Mufi, except on the seafood. As a former diver, I have great appreciation for the sea critters. Octopi are way smarter than you might expect. They can open bottles, rearrange stuff in their “homes”, etc.and one at the Monterey Bay aquarium snuck out of his enclosure nightly to go in the other tanks and feast!

    Oysters, clams, etc, while may not have any smarts, do have primitive nervous systems. Jellies have the oldest nervous systems known. I don’t think any of these animals have smarts, and they may not be aware of suffering, but they are super important to the ecosystems of our oceans, which also drive our climate.

    Shellfish are suffering right now, in that our oceans are becoming too acidic, dissolving their shells. So what? Well, shell formation is important in locking up carbon dioxide, as do certain rocks in the ocean floor.

    I also have serious objections to eating wildlife because we can not encourage them to breed more just to satisfy our appetites, and breeding of these animals has had minimal success.

    Our oceans are in serious crisis. Please don’t eat the sea critters.

    I have had a pact with them. I don’t eat them and they don’t eat me:-) It seemed to work through my dive expeditions.

    • mufi on May 2, 2013 at 1:45 pm

      Dana: I’m only going by what Herzog says – namely, that these invertebrate species are “probably incapable of experiencing significant suffering.” (source) Of course, that’s only a well-educated guess by someone with relevant expertise, but then a similar argument would apply to plants, as well, were we challenged on the idea that plants are insentient. I would not ask someone to take my word for it. Instead, I would point him/her in the direction of some relevant expert(s) and/or research.

      Still, granting that Herzog’s list could perhaps use some tweaking, I think you get the basic idea here.

      What’s more, if I’m being really strict and consistent with regards to this “no-to-low suffering” principle, then I should only eat those creatures (sea or land) that meet one or more of these criteria: (1) they are already dead (e.g. road kill or euthanized pets); (2) they have rudimentary nervous systems (e.g. invertebrates); and/or (3) they led happy lives (e.g. humanely raised & slaughtered livestock).

      Given how difficult & complicated this “ethical omnivore” lifestyle can get, I can readily appreciate why someone who’s conscientious would throw their hands up in the air and go veggie-all-the-way. I’ve done that before, and may eventually do it again, but for now at least I think I’ll just keep muddling through with this practice (which is still overwhelmingly plant-based, btw) – compromises, inconsistencies & all.

      • mufi on May 2, 2013 at 2:14 pm

        PS: On a more pointed (but also more Buddhist) note, this interpretation of the dharma seems worth sharing here:

        Buddhism discourages fanatical perfectionism. The Buddha taught his followers to find a middle way between extreme practices and opinions. For this reason, Buddhists who do practice vegetarianism are discouraged from becoming fanatically attached to it.

        A Buddhist practices metta, which is loving kindness to all beings without selfish attachment. Buddhist refrain from eating meat out of loving kindness for living animals, not because there is something unwholesome or corrupt about an animal’s body. In other words, the meat itself is not the point, and under some circumstances compassion might cause a Buddhist to break the rules.

        For example, let’s say you visit your elderly grandmother, whom you have not seen for a long time. You arrive at her home and find that she has cooked what had been your favorite dish when you were a child — stuffed pork chops. She doesn’t do much cooking any more, because her elderly body doesn’t move around the kitchen so well. But it is the dearest wish of her heart to give you something special and watch you dig into those stuffed pork chops the way you used to. She has been looking forward to this for weeks.

        I say that if you hesitate to eat those pork chops for even a second, you are no Buddhist.


        • David Chou on August 2, 2013 at 2:44 am

          Odd, your Barbara O’Brien…she’s in effect advocating placating someone’s ego at the expense of educating people on animal suffering.

          I have problems with such interpretations of Right Speech and Right Action, where not hurting someone’s ego-based feelings is preferred under practically all circumstances. I’d imagined that a secular Buddhism would be more “flexible” on these matters.

  12. Dana Nourie on May 2, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    Yup, totally understand, Mufi! From a suffering along perspective, you probably not be concerned with causing suffering for them.

    Now, however, as we learn more about how interdependent all systems are, if we are going to take from a system in large numbers, we have to be “mindful” of how we are affecting the environment.

    Keeping an eye on how we create suffering has gotten more complex as we learn more about how plants and animals support environments.

    But, yeah, I get ya.

    • mufi on May 2, 2013 at 4:56 pm

      Agreed. But then, on a similar basis, we’re likely to run into critiques of conventional plant farming – including what some critics (like Michael Pollan) call “Big Organic” – which is quite hard on wildlife, the soil, and the water tables.

      A mindful approach to eating (or consumption, in general) takes all of these “karmic” impacts into account.

  13. Dana Nourie on May 2, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    Agreed! And as secular Buddhists, mindfulness includes all of our daily life, even our eating habits: what we eat, what we buy to eat, and who we buy from.

    No one said this path was easy!

    I realize the Pali Canon does not cover these issues. One could argue weakly that the Buddha never said we couldn’t eat meat, that we needed to be mindful of farming practices.

    However, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t fall under the Buddhist umbrella, because the bottom line in Buddhism is to reduce suffering and to be mindful of all our interactions in the world. The last bit is what makes all of this a Buddhist issue. The practice itself of mindfulness, awareness, and compassion all demand that we look at these kinds of issues. The point of this practice is to overcome ignorance.

    Well, we are ignorant know more to how using animals for food is creating more suffering, or how farming practices are ruining the environment, which in the long run can increase suffering.

    I just don’t see how this is not a Buddhist issue that we need to fold into our practice.

    • mufi on May 2, 2013 at 6:26 pm

      I just don’t see how this is not a Buddhist issue that we need to fold into our practice.

      Oh, it is! It’s just not uniquely Buddhist issue. As Michael Pollan put it:

      The notion that only in modern times have people grown uneasy about killing animals is a flattering conceit. Taking a life is momentous, and people have been working to justify the slaughter of animals for thousands of years. Religion and especially ritual has played a crucial part in helping us reckon the moral costs. Native Americans and other hunter-gathers would give thanks to their prey for giving up its life so the eater might live (sort of like saying grace). Many cultures have offered sacrificial animals to the gods, perhaps as a way to convince themselves that it was the gods’ desires that demanded the slaughter, not their own. In ancient Greece, the priests responsible for the slaughter (priests!–now we entrust the job to minimum-wage workers) would sprinkle holy water on the sacrificial animal’s brow. The beast would promptly shake its head, and this was taken as a sign of assent. Slaughter doesn’t necessarily preclude respect. For all these people, it was the ceremony that allowed them to look, then to eat.


      More to the point, long before I ever wandered into Buddhist forums like these, I was having conversations that were substantially very similar. The only real differences are the occasional references to Buddhist texts and traditions.

  14. GatelessGate on May 3, 2013 at 9:41 am

    Personally, I come from the point of view that life is life. I don’t know that our present level of knowledge about the nature of various forms of life on our own planet is sufficient for us to judge what feels pain or suffering and what does not, much less other forms of life in the universe that we might not recognize yet.

    My thinking is that we should be careful consumers, causing as little harm as possible in the process of maintaining our bodies in a healthy manner. Each of us should examine our conscience and make our own decisions based on our circumstances.

    • mufi on May 5, 2013 at 7:55 am

      GG: My thinking is that we should be careful consumers, causing as little harm as possible…

      Agreed, bearing in mind that consumption itself can be viewed as a kind of “harm”, in that it takes in energy and materials from the environment, processes it, and outputs in a form that might not sit so well with other organisms (or at least not with the ones that we prefer).

      So, yeah, reducing our ecological footprints seems like a more realistic goal than eliminating them completely – assuming that we wish to go on living ourselves.

      …life is life. I don’t know that our present level of knowledge about the nature of various forms of life on our own planet is sufficient for us to judge what feels pain or suffering and what does not…

      If you mean to suggest that your life is no more valuable than the life of, say, a lettuce plant, then I beg to differ with you.

      Granted, I’m biased, and my opinion in this matter is inherently subjective. Were I to feign objectivity on the matter (or ignore for the moment the ethical implications), then I suppose that I would have to agree that “life is life”, but that would be disingenuous of me.

      Which view is more Buddhist? Yours or mine?

      Well, if it so happens that yours proves to be the “winner” in this regard, then I say: So much the worse for Buddhism.

      • GatelessGate on May 6, 2013 at 5:41 am

        I appreciate your reply and your thoughtful comments, Mufi.

        I don’t think there’s any absolute right or wrong in any of this, or in most things, for that matter. Everyone has views, and for each of us they arise out of causes and conditions unique to our being, so it makes a lot of sense to me that they will differ from person to person. Everyone is entitled to their own… the purpose of discourse, I believe, is to provide respectful challenges to the way we think so that we can re-examine the conclusions we have drawn and see if they still make sense to us.

        I certainly don’t intend for there to be a “winner”, one way or another. I’m just presenting my view. We must eat to live (as you’ve noted), and the things we eat are other life forms, or the products of other life forms (thinking of milk, specifically). This is inescapable. So, each one of us must examine our eating habits and decide how to conduct ourselves in a way that we find to be skillful and beneficial, based on our circumstances. For some that entails a vegan diet, and that’s fine. I simply challenged the notion that the consumption of plants is “non-harming”.

        I would ask you though, as I’m curious, how you are placing a value on my life and that of a lettuce plant, if you’re willing to expand on that thought. I’m not saying that I disagree, but I’m interested in your thought process on the matter.

        • mufi on May 6, 2013 at 6:30 am

          GG: Thanks for responding in the same spirit that I intended (i.e. not so much adversarial, as curious and earnest).

          Since we agree on the “non-harming” part, I’ll just quickly address your question to me:

          …how you are placing a value on my life and that of a lettuce plant,…

          I was sort of hoping that my “Granted, I’m biased, and my opinion in this matter is inherently subjective” clause would exempt me from this kind of question. I can probably do no better than to reword it, or by stating explicitly that I am not working with any conscious rules or criteria when I say that I value your life more than that of a lettuce plant. Call it “instinct”, “intuition”, or what-have-you. I suppose that it’s just how I’m wired.

          Now, if I want to sound fancier, maybe I’ll quote a Western philosopher of the sentimentalist/instrumentalist counter-tradition, such as Hume, who famously wrote that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” In other words, my evaluation of the lives of fellow humans – relative to that of the lives of lettuce plants – is in all likelihood prior to whatever rational explanation (or rationalization) that I might attempt to offer. I could go even further and refer to neuroscientists, like Antonio Damasio, whose research on the intertwining of emotional and rational processes in the human brain seem to bear out (to a large extent) Hume’s insight here.

          Anyway, it’s one thing to attempt to explain how one arrives at a particular value (in a scientific sense), and quite another to justify it (in a philosophical sense).

          Suffice it to say that I’m less concerned about justifying the salad that I ate yesterday than I am about justifying the hot dog that I ate along with it. Why? My best guess is that it has something to do with sentience – that is, I have far more reason to believe that the animal, whose meat ended up on my plate, might have suffered than I have reason to believe the same about the lettuce plant, whose leaves ended up on my plate.

          And suffering, to my mind, is a morally significant property – more so than killing – although our reactions to killing may vary, causing us to suffer more in some cases, rather than in others – in which case, we’re back to the suffering criterion.

          • GatelessGate on May 6, 2013 at 7:23 am

            That’s an excellent, and thoughtful response. Thank you very much.

          • mufi on May 6, 2013 at 8:26 am

            GG: Glad you liked it.

            One more thing: It occurs to me that I also tend to embrace a kind of prototype theory, in which “some members of a category are more central than others”, in this case with regards to ethics. In other words, I’d say that those organisms who possess the traits that are characteristic of moral agency are more central to my way of thinking about ethics than those who do not possess them.

            That’s a more rationalistic way of framing the issue, one in which you and I (along with most humans) would fall within the center, whereas a lettuce plant would fall near the periphery, not far away from rocks, and a well-trained canine or ape would fall somewhere in the middle.

            But I also recognize this as a pretty hard-nosed way of looking at the world, insofar as it turns a blind eye and a tin ear towards the experiences that we share with other sentient beings, who for whatever reason don’t make the moral-agency cut.

            So, while I do see moral agency as a morally significant criterion, I also feel a strong urge to soften it with compassion – thus, the other morally significant criterion that I emphasized above: suffering – which the dharma also happens to emphasize – albeit, alongside the precept that we abstain from killing, which I find much harder to swallow (except when translated back into terms of suffering).

          • GatelessGate on May 6, 2013 at 11:46 am

            Well Mufi, that leads into the question of how well we’re translating Pali these days, and what was actually meant vs. what was said, and how much of “Thus have I heard” is as accurate as purported. Which is one reason why, I think, we are advised to try all these things our for ourselves and see which ring true.

          • mufi on May 6, 2013 at 12:04 pm

            GG: That’s true, which entails the implicit disclaimer that, whenever I declare “what the dharma says about X”, I really mean “what my current understanding of the dharma says about X, based on the scholarly sources that I trust.”

            On that note, I recommend Ted’s latest podcast interview with B. Sujato, particularly the part about the authenticity of the Canon.

          • mufi on May 6, 2013 at 1:45 pm

            PS: Perhaps I should add that, even assuming that the Buddha understood “sentient being” (“satta” or “sattva”) differently than you or I do, I like to think that we can improve upon that understanding, using the tools of modern science and philosophy (or “sci-phi”). That’s largely why I cited a modern scientist (Hal Herzog) above as a relevant expert on the matter. Of course, other relevant experts may disagree, but their arguments are likely to take the form of inferences from sources of information (e.g. research literature in modern biology & psychology) that were unavailable – or even inconceivable – in the Buddha’s time.

  15. chuck13 on May 3, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    There are numerous reasons why I eat a vegan diet. Some of them involve ethics, some of them involve compassion, some of them involve nutrition. On some of these issues, I may be wrong, but from my own investigations into the subject I find it to be the best path for me. A) Since I switched to a plant based primarily whole foods diet I feel better. Much better. Physically. B) Since I switched to a plant based primarily whole foods diet I feel better. Much Better. Spiritually. That’s enough for me to roll with it. Whether or not we attach our diet to our definition of Buddhism is a personal issue. What’s a Buddhist? From my experience the answer to that question varies from person to person. And if our precepts are to be directed “inward”, then we have to make those determinations ourselves. What would the Buddha do? We are the Buddha. If I could recommend a film for any of you are “on the fence”, try Forks Over Knives. It’s well made, not preachy, and lays down some pretty hard science for at least contemplating a plant based life. Gassho.

  16. Dana Nourie on May 6, 2013 at 8:48 pm

    For me it’s a matter of knowing that if I eat meat, some animal has had to die on my behalf and that I contributing to suffering. That was bothering my conscious to the point of my having to stop eating animals.

    While I know my not eating meat anymore isn’t going to have a big impact, I at least know I am not personally contributing to the suffering of animals. I also know that I am joining many other vegetarians and vegans, and that the number of us is going. At first it makes no difference. Then it may have saved a cow, or a pig or a chicken. At the least, the meat industry is not getting our $$. Over time, this will have impact, just as my buying an electric car is having impact on the fossil fuel industry.

    We can go back and forth about whether or not it’s moral or unethical to partake in the meat market, or whether or not Buddha would agree. For me personally, I can not add consciously to the suffering of animals. I know I do so unwittingly in ways that I can’t help, such as driving through bugs, walking on unseen ones, etc.

    Killing an animal to eat it causes suffering. Raising animals in horrid conditions causes inexcusable suffering.

    I’m not saying those of you who choose to eat meat are “wrong”. We each decide personally what is moral for ourselves. But for me, I see how the meat market creates suffering and I just can’t do it any longer.

    I do hope others will think about it more. Read about how food animals are treated, and understand that anything with a nervous system feels pain. That is one of the primary purposes of a nervous system so animals don’t stupidly kill themselves. Only those with self awareness worsen that pain with thoughts and stories. But animals do indeed suffer from pain.

    My mindfulness practice has made me hyper alert to the suffering of the world, animals included, and my long time interest in biology has provided me with the education to know the difference between the suffering of a pig and the lack of suffering with lettuce and beans.

    I am grateful that we can have this discussion, and I’m noticing how civil and respectful all of you are being. It truly is appreciated. I thank all of you for that.

    BTW, I am not telling my grown children they should not eat meat. I have never been one to press my beliefs on them. I do, however, try to set an example for them, and in doing that I find they often follow suit. As they ask questions, I explain my point of view.

    So to you meat eaters, I am grateful that you have been willing to read my article and engage in discussion.

    • mufi on May 7, 2013 at 6:36 am

      Dana: Killing an animal to eat it causes suffering.

      Euthanasia causes animals to suffer? Not if it’s done properly.

      Raising animals in horrid conditions causes inexcusable suffering.

      So make sure you only buy meat from animals that were raised under humane conditions – “humane” by the standards of a cow, pig, chicken, etc., as best we can tell from experts in animal science and veterinary practice.

      Again, I recommend the Animal Welfare Approved site to get a sense of how all this can – and actually is – done. Indeed, I would go so far to say that the animals under their supervision probably lead happier lives than most humans!

      Or you can keep attacking the worst (and, admittedly, most common) practices. That’s fine, but it still doesn’t lead inexorably to your conclusion about eating meat in principle.

      • chuck13 on May 7, 2013 at 7:20 am

        We have to decide on our own what we view as humane or cruel. Some might argue that it’s not possible to breed, raise, enclose, lead to slaughter, and then ultimately kill an animal humanely. But again, that’s an individual dilemma to solve. For me, it’s simply not necessary to kill in order to sustain my life. I get more than enough protein and I’m able to supplement complex vitamins without using animal sources. I feel better all around and I’ve seen positive results in my health, mentally and physically. It could be psychosomatic, but from the research I’ve done I really feel it’s due to the fact that eating animals causes harm to the body and mind. I don’t believe it matters much how the animal was raised or killed to the end result. But again, we have to come to our own conclusions and deal with these problems ourselves. It’s not even something I generally discuss unless of course a discussion is being had already. Peace to you all, and may all sentient beings be free from suffering.

        • chuck13 on May 7, 2013 at 7:32 am

          Dana: Killing an animal to eat it causes suffering.

          mufi: Euthanasia causes animals to suffer? Not if it’s done properly

          One more thing we need to remember is that we’re not just killing an animal to eat it. We’re breeding it, feeding it, and raising it in a controlled environment for the sole purpose of killing it to eat it. The lives of these animals would not exist if it wasn’t industry and profit. If we’re going to be mindful of our meal, knowing that it didn’t just arrive on the plate, we need to have clarity on the entire process. That process includes more than just killing. Maybe being impregnated over and over again, giving birth, and having your off spring taken from you immediately is cruelty in and of itself. It’s at least something to contemplate.

          • mufi on May 7, 2013 at 7:58 am

            chuck: Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) has rules about weaning. For example, under Beef Cattle and Calves Standards: Weaning calves at less than six months of age is prohibited.

            Look, there isn’t space to reproduce all of this info here, and I can claim only a concerned consumer’s level of knowledge on the topic myself.

            What’s more, if you’re really determined to find something not to like on the AWA site – or on other sites related to developing & certifying animal welfare standards for farmers (AWA is the only one that I’m familiar with) – then I have little doubt that you’ll find what you’re looking for. (Personal experience advises me to never again underestimate the power of motivated reasoning.)

            But I think you do a disservice by ignoring this kind of work.

          • chuck13 on May 7, 2013 at 8:09 am

            mufi: But I think you do a disservice by ignoring this kind of work.

            I don’t ignore it. I also encourage those who do eat meat or other animal products to do so with as much compassion as possible. Seek out local farmers, etc.. What I said is that “one could argue..”

            It depends on our own definition of cruelty, not the AWA’s. It truly is an individual decision. I don’t go around screaming at people, showing them pictures of slaughterhouses, protesting at McDonalds, etc… Shouting at people and telling them they’re wrong isn’t going to get anyone to start eating raw cashew butter.

          • mufi on May 7, 2013 at 8:29 am

            chuck: I appreciate the gentle tone.

            It helps that I’ve actually visited several AWA-certified farms in my area and observed how the animals live. And while they always appear happy enough to me, such limited experience as mine is not enough to go on. It’s a lot more reassuring, I think, to know that “scientists, veterinarians, researchers, and farmers across the globe” collaborate on these standards, based on the premise that “animals must be able to behave naturally and be in a state of physical and psychological well-being.”

            Your mileage may vary – say, depending upon your personal feelings about raising & slaughtering animals for food, even under humane conditions – but I’m happy to defend this kind of work against what I see as a basically fallacious argument (see false dilemma) for vegetarianism.

          • chuck13 on May 7, 2013 at 8:45 am

            It really is a personal matter and I’ve always seen it that way. I think we’re treading dangerous ground trying to turn it into an issue of “dharma”. The fact is, most practicing Buddhists, secular or otherwise, are not vegans or even vegetarians. Generally, that’s a monastic vow and in most cultures no really practiced by lay people. Generally speaking of course.

            I think more important to dharma practice is not forcing our views on others. So, I really don’t concern myself with what other people eat or wear. All I can do is come to my own understanding and choose the path that is right for me.

            I do think friendly debate is helpful though. It means we’re contemplating things, pondering, thinking, and looking deeply. That’s a positive practice for us no matter which side of the debate we’re on.

        • mufi on May 7, 2013 at 7:42 am

          chuck: The health/nutrition question is an interesting one, although – like the environmental-impact question – it complicates the moral/ethical discussion that Dana’s essay kicked off, so I’ve mostly avoided it.

          Suffice it to say that my doctor tells me that I’m in excellent health, I feel great, and I don’t recall feeling any better during the period that I practiced a vegan diet.

          On the contrary, if I consider other (psycho-social) health factors, then what I recall most from my vegan period is a lot of anxiety and strife surrounding food decisions. The ethical-omnivorous diet that I practice and advocate now is not entirely immune to those effects (after all, most folks I know don’t seem to think much about food ethics), but it’s a matter of degree rather than of kind.

          Of course, there may be other confounding factors that I’m not considering right now, but such are the trappings of anecdotes like these.

          • chuck13 on May 7, 2013 at 8:00 am

            All valid points. I know some people on vegan diets that are very unhealthy. I also know people who get themselves all worked up about it and take it to an extreme, causing anxiety and most likely high blood pressure.

            I haven’t experienced any of that. I also take pretty good care of myself. I work out daily, eat a very healthy diet, and I don’t allow myself to get worked up about any of it. If for instance I order out and I discover cheese in my meal, I just eat it. I don’t freak out or feel bad. I also don’t throw it away. I feel that’s an even worse offense. It rarely happens anyway, but I’m just using it as an example of how I don’t get worked up about it.

            All we can do is our best. Our minds will change again and again on issues like these. I didn’t always eat a plant based diet and to this day it’s not something I would advocate for everyone.

            What I do encourage is that whatever your diet, be aware. Be mindful of the entire process. I think that alone is a positive step towards a balanced life. Whatever you’re eating or not eating.

    • GatelessGate on May 7, 2013 at 10:47 am

      I am also appreciative of the thoughtful and civil nature of this discussion. Thanks to all!

  17. Dana Nourie on May 7, 2013 at 8:34 am


    I’ve read through this site carefully. While I do see this as a step in the right direction, I have issues with the following:

    * I have not seen these labels in the grocery store, so finding beef with this certification may be difficult for most people. That will change over time, but I’m in a big city and not seeing them. Maybe online.
    * Many people eat meat when going out. I don’t know of any restaurants in my area that say they are getting their beef from animal welfare approved farms. Restaurants and fast foods are likely some of the biggest purchasers of meat.
    * It states that cattle can not be killed for meat until after 4 months of age. Well, 5 months is not very old either.
    * While they do prohibit branding, thank goodness, they do still allow tattooing and ear tagging. That hurts. Compared to branding, not as much, but I was really bothered by the ear tags. I have a tattoo. It hurt. I understand their need to identify cattle, but this bothers me.
    * Castration by use of rings, etc is ok, as long as the cattle are under a certain age. Ack, that still has to hurt. My dog is fixed, but this was under surgery conditions. He was out cold.
    * Artificial insemination is used. I object to bringing animals into the world as food. If there isn’t enough to go around for people . . . maybe there are too many people. I also object to breeding animals, as there is no suffering non-existence.
    * I’m bothered by the specific lack of “ranging” area noted. They say they have to have ranging area, except those that are excluded. It doesn’t say how big the area, only that there must be some vegetation.

    I could go on for each animal. Again, I think this is much better than most farms in the meat industry. However, for myself, I object to animals being bred for food because they wouldn’t even exist otherwise, and I object to us artificially inseminating animals for our own greed. My dog is adopted. I won’t by from dog breeders, and thankfully my family and friends are like minded. I don’t agree with dog breeding for many reasons similar to breeding animals for food.

    The suffering is lessened a good deal by these farming methods, but they are still forced into situations that they wouldn’t be if we didn’t want to eat them. I’d rather people go with this if they eat meat, but it’s going to be a long time before all stores are carrying it and maybe never until restaurants and fast foods are. Probably there are places online where people can buy meat with those approved labels, and I encourage meat eaters to do just that. But for myself, this is not enough.

    I do really appreciate the information, and that there is movement to lessening the suffering of farm animals. This is better than regular meat, vegetarian is better still, and vegan is best of all. IMHO:-)

    • mufi on May 7, 2013 at 9:43 am

      Dana: Thanks for engaging with the literature and acknowledging that there’s a middle ground (or way?) between vegetarianism (let alone veganism) and complete abandon to the factory-farm system.

      I recognize availability as a problem. It seems to be less of one for me, but that’s probably related to where I live (i.e. in a rural setting populated with plenty of hippy locavore types). In fact, the nation’s first AWA-certified restaurant is located within 20 mi. of my home. But let’s put that aside for now and focus on the other items of your list, which seems custom-tailored to raise doubts about whether the program is even humane enough to begin with.

      Firstly, I would describe the ranges that I’ve seen with my own eyes on AWA-certified farms as “sweeping”, but I’m no expert. So, more to the point, the rules for pasture access – such as “Range areas should be used in rotation” and “The amount of outdoor area must be such that the health and welfare of the animals and pasture quality is maintained” – seem worded in a way that allows inspectors and farmers some discretion in the matter. I don’t see that as necessarily a problem, and it seems overly cynical to assume that it is.

      Secondly, you seem to place the “hedonic” bar higher than I would even for us humans! Bearing in mind that sensitivities may vary according to species and body part, even where some short-term pain is entailed by a particular operation, it nonetheless seems consistent with the AWA’s goal that animals be kept “in a state of physical and psychological well-being” if it prevents greater harm in the long term. It might not be obvious to you or me how castration and ear-tagging, for example, meet that criterion, but my money’s on the expert panel that agreed to permit those practices.

      Lastly, this isn’t the first time that I’ve detected a hint of nihilism in your words about bringing new life into this world. In this case, when you say “I also object to breeding animals, as there is no suffering non-existence”, I find myself asking: Is there no potential for joy in existence, too – even for livestock animals?

      Heck, in response to Michael Pollan’s description of a small family farm – in which he stated that “In the same way that we can probably recognize animal suffering when we see it, animal happiness is unmistakable, too, and here I was seeing it in abundance.” – even animal-rights advocate Peter Singer admitted that “it is better for these animals to have lived and died than not to have lived at all” (see here for context).

      I agree with Singer on this one (not to mention with Pollan, whom I’ve recommended here before). Yet, based on your words, I’m not so sure that you would.

      • mufi on May 7, 2013 at 11:44 am

        PS: This just in:

        Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) is now accredited by the International Standards Organization (ISO). This is the only program in the U.S. certified by ISO that audits and certifies sustainable family farms according to the highest welfare standards. This accreditation establishes that farmers, retailers and consumers can have complete confidence in the quality, consistency and transparency offered by the Animal Welfare Approved program…The ISO 65 certification positions AWA as an industry leader because it demonstrates that AWA’s standards for animal welfare, pasture-based farming, and sustainability are being delivered consistently and professionally across every farm and ranch in the program.


        Are you feeling the metta? 🙂

  18. Dana Nourie on May 7, 2013 at 12:49 pm

    Mufi, yes, I have no doubt there is animal happiness too. Emotions evolved before people did:-) And anyone who owns a dog knows they express delight and joy, anger and sadness, etc.

    And, yes, I lean into nihilism. I do feel non-existence is preferable over existence. I also realize I’m in the minority with this one. No, I’m not depressed, and yes, I enjoy my life thoroughly. But this is a whole ‘nuther topic! So, I’m never going to be ok with the breeding of animals for food, the breeding of dogs or other pets, and I wish I had known what I know now before I’d had children. But I absolutely adore and enjoy the wonderful people my kids grew to be:-)

    I am glad that farmers and consumers are trying to lessen the suffering of animals in substantial ways! But they still aren’t getting my $$$.

    • mufi on May 7, 2013 at 1:39 pm

      Dana: By all means, keep your $$$ (and give it to agribusiness, instead, so long as it raises plants :-)).

      I just want to emphasize that I do not share such a nihilistic view, and I do still find meaning and value in breeding life – however short that life may be.

      • Dana Nourie on May 7, 2013 at 1:51 pm

        Yup, I hear ya, Mufi! And I do give to agribusiness, forest conservation, etc.

  19. chuck13 on May 7, 2013 at 1:03 pm

    This is always such a passionate topic. I’ve always been fascinated by the level of passion evoked by the meat eating side of the debate. Long before I became vegetarian I used to tell people that I was. I just found it interesting how heated some people became about it. I wouldn’t attack them for eating meat, I would just say I don’t eat meat and 7 out of 10 times they would become very defensive. Which was odd to me, because I don’t see it as something to be passionate about. It’s just the norm really. I understand the passion from the other side, the empathy for animals, etc.. but why be passionate about eating meat? Maybe some people just like to argue. It’s funny because now that my diet is truly animal free, I don’t tend to talk about it much. Maybe that’s from my Buddhist practice. I guess I don’t identify myself by my actions or non-actions. “I” am not “a vegan”. That would be defining myself as what I eat.
    Anyway this has been a good conversation. I do see both sides of the debate and I respect all of your opinions.

    • mufi on May 7, 2013 at 1:32 pm

      chuck: Given the context (viz. a morally charged essay, provocatively entitled “Out of the Food Chain to Compassion”, about a decision to embrace a vegan diet), is it really so surprising that at least one omnivore would defend his/her dietary choice?

      As for your question, “why be passionate about eating meat?”, why be passionate about anything? Presumably, because it feels right.

      Besides, as I see it, I’m not only defending a particular dietary preference. I’m also defending an economic preference – one based around small family farms, which I not only deem moral, but also beautiful.

      Anyway, I hope this quick reply helps to relieve some of the perplexity that you’ve expressed.

      • chuck13 on May 7, 2013 at 1:58 pm

        I understand the reason you are on the defense in this context. The article was a bit charged, even if I agree with the overall theme. That wasn’t really the root cause of my “perplexity”. If someone actually challenges your ethical standards it’s only natural to say “hey wait a minute!” I get that. I can see how you might see this article as doing just that, challenging your standards.

        I was talking in more general terms of the overall debate of vegetarianism vs. omnivorousness eating. To some people it would seem that my simply stating “I don’t eat meat” is the same challenge to their own morals. That’s where I become perplexed. Or really, it’s more of a fascination than a perplexity.

        • mufi on May 7, 2013 at 2:08 pm

          chuck: Thanks for that acknowledgement.

          The words “I don’t eat meat” do not necessarily convey a challenge to an omnivore’s standards, if nothing else is said on the matter. But it’s suggestive that one might be coming this way soon!

          • chuck13 on May 7, 2013 at 3:27 pm

            I don’t think it conveys a challenge at all. Yet usually when I say “No thanks, I don’t eat meat” It is followed by “Why not?” Or “You have to eat meat.” or “Do you eat chicken?” or “where do you get your protein?” And no matter what I answer, it’s wrong. But the alternative would be to take the burger and shut up, and I don’t want the burger. I also get the “Well god put animals here….” argument from time to time. That one really opens up a can of worms. Especially if I say “I don’t believe in her, but if I did, I don’t think she intended us to turn them into an industry and eat them three times a day.” that really upsets people. Of course at that point I’m asking for it. Really they should have just let me take the salad and left it at that. Then we could have had a much more comfortable picnic. Of course it probably would have gone to hell when I had to turn down the ranch dressing, that one sends people through the roof. I guess there’s no way out of it. Maybe I just wont go to the picnic next time.

          • mufi on May 7, 2013 at 4:11 pm

            chuck: I don’t think it conveys a challenge at all.

            Obviously, not in any deductive-logical sense. But for anyone like myself, who has experience arguing with animal rights activists over the ethics of eating meat and/or livestock farming, the mental association is well established, nonetheless.

            Of course, brains make mistakes all the time, which seems a good reason to cultivate equanimity (thank you, Buddha!).

            But if all you’re looking for is an explanation (as opposed to a justification) of such behavior, then consider that perhaps it’s an outcome of prior conditioning (Pavlovian style) or a kind of heuristic (if he says A, then B is likely to follow, so head him off with C).

          • chuck13 on May 7, 2013 at 5:08 pm

            It could be just that. Or it could be that people sometimes just feel threatened by difference. As if it really is a challenge to their understanding of what’s right. It could be seen as an attack on core beliefs, which always presents problems for people. Who knows? Anyway, I avoid the conversation as much as possible, unless it comes up, then I try to engage without being judgmental. Because I really don’t judge anyone for their own moral or ethical choices. My reasons for not eating meat are my own, and they’re for me, not for you. Although, I do contribute to the killing. I too own a dog, and several cats. None of which are vegan or even remotely vegetarian.

  20. Dana Nourie on May 7, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    chuck, you bring up a good point. Defensiveness. There is attachment to self in there, and not sure what else. I have been surprised at how people become uncomfortable with me when I say I don’t drink any type of alcohol. Immediately I’m asked why not???? When I answer because I’m from an family of alcoholics so I have an intense aversion to it, I’m afraid they don’t feel any more comfortable. But it’s the truth, and I see no reason to candy coat it.

    I’m now getting that bit with passing on meat dishes, and asking for vegetarian meals. Why not???? I’m trying to keep the focus on myself, as I do with alcohol, so they don’t feel I’m pushing my views on them. I just say, because I don’t want animals to die on my behalf. I get that same uncomfortable expression as with the alcohol reasons.

    I try hard not to attack people in both these cases, yet they are still defensive. I get this weird stumbling of, Well I just drink every now and then, blah, blah, or We evolved to eat meat so I don’t think it matters. I try not to get engaged in these conversations, unless I’m sure they really want my view, but it seems like the very people who are most defensive inevitably are the ones who throw a battery of questions at me.

    I’m fairly used to this, though, as I’ve been saying since I was 10, I don’t believe in god. Same thing as with the alcohol or meat. Why not????

    Maybe some people are just surprised not everyone thinks they way they do and it unsettles them. We do like to be around like-minded people. But defensiveness is an interesting reaction.

    • GatelessGate on May 8, 2013 at 3:37 am

      Being the evolutionist that I am, I would imagine that our historical tribal nature also plays into the defensive reaction. Humans are very prone to the us/them mindset, and anyone who is not “us” is suspect. Of course, throughout most of our history as living organisms, that has been a useful survival strategy. Generally speaking, people from other tribal units were more likely to pose a threat than people from our own.

      Aside from a few shrinking populations in remote areas, this situation has disappeared in the modern world, but evolution is a slow process. The reactions and tendencies our ancestors developed over millions of years are not going to disappear in a few hundred, or even a few thousand. So, we get to deal with them in our daily lives. For those of us who are practicing mindfulness, there is an opportunity to observe and override these tendencies. Those who are living from their reactive minds miss out on that opportunity.

      Just a thought… because I also see the defensiveness in other people, usually in regards to my Buddhist practice, which is a pretty rare thing here in the middle of the bible belt.

      • mufi on May 8, 2013 at 4:43 am

        Well said, GG.

        Having abandoned various family customs over the years (if only temporarily, during a youthful experimental phase), I can attest to the strong, negative reactions one can get from such “betrayals to one’s tribe.”

        Oh, and try abandoning a religious or political ideology and see what kind of reaction one gets!

        Meat and alcohol are not special in this regard. They are just two examples of tribal symbols.

      • chuck13 on May 8, 2013 at 6:39 am

        Yeah, I get it on all fronts. I don’t eat meat, I’m covered in tattoos, I’m a Buddhist, I sing punk rock music, I get a little bit of something from all of the tribes. Even the Buddhists. Oh, and the gym, forget about the gym. Sure there have been vegan bodybuilders forever, quite a few high profile ones at that. The guys in the gym will stop working out completely just to yell at me for hours on how I’m not getting enough protein, how I’ll never be able to lift as much as them, on and on and on. Oh well. All of life is our teacher.

        • mufi on May 8, 2013 at 6:52 am

          Thanks for sharing that, chuck.

          This side topic got me asking: What’s the status of loyalty in Buddhist ethics?

          For another thread, I suppose.

          • chuck13 on May 8, 2013 at 7:05 am

            That sounds like a fun road to go down. You start the conversation and I’ll gladly join in. It should prove to be an interesting discussion.

  21. Dana Nourie on May 7, 2013 at 5:33 pm

    Yeah, I still have Cannon on a meat kibble diet. From all I’ve read about dogs, they really need meat in their diet. Oddly, Cannon is super allergic to any beef products. It goes right through him in a bad way. So, his kibble is turkey and chicken with sweet potato. I’m not happy about that. I’d like him to be vegetarian, but so far it seems dogs need the meat. I’m researching more though.

    • chuck13 on May 7, 2013 at 6:51 pm

      Actually it’s cats that have to have meat. Dogs can eat a vegan diet. The oldest living dog on record (29 years old) ate a strict diet of brown rice and lentils it’s entire life. There are tons of vegan dogs. But I don’t think my dog wants to be a vegan. Even if he is a pitbull/bodhisattvah mix.

  22. Dana Nourie on May 7, 2013 at 7:29 pm

    “pitbull/bodhisattvah mix” LOL, that was funny!

    • chuck13 on May 8, 2013 at 6:40 am

      That’s what he is. He’s full of love and compassion, a real teacher for me to learn from.

  23. Miyo Wratten on May 8, 2013 at 2:34 am

    Chuck, I also agree with the defensiveness. Just this past week, my mother-in-law’s retort to the fact that I was eating veggie burgers for dinner instead of the hamburgers my husband had made us was a very huffy “Well, I like food with FLAVOR in it!” I had to just smile and shake my head. I wasn’t stopping anyone from enjoying their meal, I wasn’t saying *anything* verbally about my decision to opt out of the meat option, yet I was getting this very snarky reaction. It is really interesting.

    Dana, you mentioned the alcohol issue. Same here. I’ve not had a drink in …. a long time. Years. I simply grew to not like how it made me feel. So, why bother? I occasionally have a glass of wine if it’s a special occasion (sparkly at a wedding/new year’s), but I find it difficult to finish the glass, and usually leave it after two or three sips. Again, as you pointed out, with the defensiveness.

    I remember hearing somewhere in my college days that the reason people get defensive when you choose to opt out of things like drinking is that it feeds into their feelings of guilt. I know that’s certainly true about the question of drinking (because the people who get defensive are always those who drink with the intent of becoming inebriated), but I wonder if it’s true about those who eat meat?

    I know before I ever became vegetarian, I was curious about those who opted out of meat. I don’t think I ever felt “lesser than” vegetarians. I never felt the need to cut them down. …. so I wonder why so many others do?

    • David Chou on August 2, 2013 at 2:50 am

      There’s a logical enough assumption of some moral implication, like when someone says “to-maY-to” and another responds pronouncing it “to-maH-to”…plus of course stereotypes and personality quirks.

  24. David Chou on August 2, 2013 at 2:47 am

    What of animal scientific research? What of research involving animals to benefit animals??

    Perhaps these poor creatures are truly to be regarded as sacrifices (as per their label, “sacs,” in experiments) for that day when their kind can finally live without fear of human consumption or other exploitation: all the research conducted on them will surely one day end, once enough data’s been gathered — thus, synthetic meats; thus, genome maps….

  25. timo on September 11, 2013 at 1:42 am

    Awesome article Dana.I have been vegan for 10 years now and what lead me there was largely my study of Buddhism and the teachings on compassion. I read about a buddhist group attending an animal liberation protest,watched a video called Meet Your Meat, then it all developed from there. I then found out about being vegan and joined my local Animal Liberation group ( whom I now volunteer for. They promote the 30 Day Vegan Easy Challenge to support people into making the transition(see providing mentors to offer extra support.It’s important to understand that being vegan is about more than our diet.It extends to what we wear, what entertainment we choose to support, and what personal products we use. Essentially it means trying to avoid supporting industries that exploit and kill animals with our purchases. So glad you wrote this article as I believe that living vegan is entirely consistent with the Eightfold path and the buddhist teachings on compassion and awakening. I believe that a deep understanding of Buddhism ultimately leads to a vegan lifestyle as part of the practice. I highly recommend the film Earthlings for any body who hasn’t seen it. It has been called the ‘vegan maker’ for a good reason. I don’t know how any compassionate person can watch that without making the transition. And by the way, the cat I live with also eats a completely nutritionally complete plant based diet and has done so for 6 years without any deterioration in her health and well being (see

  26. timo on September 11, 2013 at 1:46 am

    And please check out which exposes the highest welfare standard of animal exploitation in Australia. And also please check out which exposes the myth of ‘humane’ animal exploitation and killing. If it wouldn’t be humane for us humans to be treated that way, it isn’t humane for other animals either.

  27. timo on September 11, 2013 at 1:56 am

    I’m amazed at even how many people who identify as buddhist attempt to justify their own choice to eat other animals and their body secretions which is clearly not in line with buddhist values and goals. Please check out for a detailed description of Carnism which “is the invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions people to eat certain animals. Carnism is essentially the opposite of veganism; “carn” means “flesh” or “of the flesh” and “ism” denotes a belief system. Most people view eating animals as a given, rather than a choice; in meat-eating cultures around the world people typically don’t think about why they find the flesh of some animals disgusting and the flesh of other animals appetizing, or why they eat any animals at all. But when eating animals is not a necessity for survival, as is the case in much of the world today, it is a choice – and choices always stem from beliefs.” A great resource for anybody who wants to know the truth about the lies we have all had literally forced into soon after birth by the industries who profit from animal exploitation, abuse and killing.

  28. Dana Nourie on September 11, 2013 at 8:12 am

    Thank you so much for sharing your view timo! I’ve been surpised at how easy it is for me to not eat meat, as it was something I really enjoyed. But I’ve realized that my withdrawl from meat has come from my ethics, and therefore it had become more difficult to include meat in my diet than not.

    The one struggle I have is cheese. I’m still eating cheese, but have cut back on it in a huge way.

    I had gained 15 pounds since becoming a vegetarian, leaning towards vegan, because I found myself eating a lot of breads, pizza, pastas, potatoes etc. because I’m not crazy about veggies. That is changing as I have discovered some good recipes for veggies. I’m also determinded to lose weight so I’ve increased my excerise, and cutting out those high starch foods.

    I had realized I’d become a hypocrit by eating meat. I’ve always advocated for animal welfare, yet I was eating them. That just no longer sat well with my conscious, and I feel much better mentally and emotionally since giving up meat, eggs, and milk. The last hurdle for me is feta cheese.

    Thank you for your thoughts, experience, and recommendations!

    • timo on September 11, 2013 at 3:45 pm

      You’re welcome Dana. I was fortunate in that I never liked cow’s milk and cheese so I didn’t have an attachment to them. I know a lot of people say that what helps them to give up cheese is knowing that to make it, a calf is torn away from their mother, the males who are useless to the industry are killed shortly after birth, and the females are killed when they are no longer producing enough milk for their exploiters to profit. As you can see, this industry steals and kills, something that goes against the buddhist precepts. The dairy industry is a slaughter industry.Dairy cows end up in hamburgers. And every time we consume milk or cheese we have asked somebody to steal a calf from their mother and kill the cows that are not useful to exploit for profit.And luckily these days there are many tasty cheese and milk analogues available. Check out for a list of them.

      I’m also haven’t been crazy about fruit and vegetables, but getting into them a lot more these days.I’ve found that it helps to look at our attachment to food, culture, tradition in general and ask our selves if the pleasure and convenience we experience in tasting is worth the suffering, pain, and violent death of somebody else. You’re on the right track. You’ll get there because your motivation is in compassion 🙂

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