Saturday, June 25, 2011

Skilful Action and Collateral Damage

On a narrow rocky ledge, a beautiful caterpillar is basking in the sun. I see it, and nevertheless crush it with my foot. A shocking act, except that a few feet above, a little boy has crawled under a guard rail and slipped. He has grasped a tree root, but his grip is failing. The only way to reach him is to step on the narrow ledge, exactly where the caterpillar sits. Perhaps if I were a skilful mountaineer, I could have saved the boy without stepping on the caterpillar.
I don’t know the official definition, but I understand ‘skilful action’, in the Buddhist sense, to mean an action that is wise, compassionate and effective, that causes the least harm.
Our skilfulness is acquired over years of practice. Our imperfectly wise and compassionate actions will inevitably cause some collateral damage.
Our perpetual choice is whether to act now out of compassion, or refrain from acting, to avoid causing collateral damage. Perhaps we should wait until we have developed greater skill. We could stew over that question forever.
Surely each choice must be met as it arises, and once made, bravely and directly carried out. If we choose to step on a caterpillar to save a boy, we must do it, and live with the consequences.
This post came out of nagging recriminations over my last post on speciesism. I felt I had been a bull with a mission loose in a china shop, not sure what I had stepped on but pretty sure I must have broken a few things. Old self-doubt crept back wondering if it was worth it.
The skill we develop in our practice is not just skill in our actions, but also skill in making choices. As our wisdom grows, our choices become wiser. As our compassion grows, our actions become braver.
May we accept being where we are, our inevitable mistakes, and be diligent in our practice!

AP Photo/Fraidoon Pooyaa

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mindful Blindness: A Rant Against Speciesism

Every time,
A twinge of sadness:
The meat department

Warning! This is a rant.

As you may have noticed, I love you all dearly. The last thing I want to do is cause you pain. Because this is a rant, I’m not taking aim at anyone in particular, but if you stand too close, you may get thwacked, I may hit a nerve, or even step on your beliefs. No hard feelings if you bail out at any time.

You could think of this as an address to the jury on behalf of a group of sentient beings facing the death penalty that can’t speak for themselves.

I’ve been a vegetarian for the past six years, and in total, about 15 of my 62 years, but have only been phasing eggs and dairy out of my diet for the past six months or so [as at 2011].

I am grateful to Peter Singer’s classic book Animal Liberation for helping to crystallize my thoughts on the subject. I have drawn freely from his ideas.

Speciesism, like cannibalism, slavery, religious persecution, racism and sexism, is the imposing of the will of a powerful group upon a weaker group - in this case, by humans upon other sentient species. We take it so much for granted that it often goes unnoticed. But it's everywhere - not just on our dinner plates and covering our feet, but also at the rodeos, circuses, bullfights, hunting and fishing trips, the fur trade and clothing stores. Last but not least, the worst atrocities are hidden behind the walls of the factory farms and slaughterhouses.

The idea of animal liberation isn’t new. Plato and Pythagoras were vegetarians for ethical reasons. So was Leonardo Da Vinci. He would buy caged birds sold at the marketplace for food and then set them free. Edison and Einstein were another couple of smart guys that decided they didn't need meat and stopped eating it.

The amount of suffering we inflict on animals is staggering. Of course, physical pain causes suffering – branding, de-horning, castrating, tail docking, de-beaking – all without anaesthetic.

But so does the psychological pain caused by frustrating the natural instincts to run, to root around, snuggle with a mother or an offspring, socialize normally, exercise and play. It’s not uncommon for pigs in factory farms to literally go insane, making endless repetitive movements and biting their own tails and their cage bars. Pigs are as intelligent and affectionate as dogs, but the idea of subjecting puppies to the same cruelty we bestow on pigs, and then killing and eating them, is unthinkable.

Fish suffer too, when they are pulled out of the water and left to die in a heap.

Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
So why do we eat animals? What benefit can we possibly get that outweighs the suffering and killing?

I like the taste. You can make some really delicious veggie meals – avocados, ginger, oranges, roasted nuts, garlic – the combinations are endless. My dad used to say “hunger makes the best sauce”. I think eating with a glad heart makes things taste pretty good too.

They are dead already or I didn’t kill them. Every time you take a chicken home from the store, another chicken has to be killed to take its place on the shelf.  By eating them, we are causing their deaths. Like the starfish story posted over at Jomon's lovely blog nothing to attain, every little bit of meat not eaten makes a difference.

I need my protein. True, but you can get it from plants.  Beans and grains provide all the essential amino acids our bodies require. End of story. If you don’t believe me (I’ve got a degree in nutritional biochemistry), ask the vegetarian Olympic athletes. If vegan Carl Lewis can win nine gold medals, surely I can drag my sorry ass to work and back without eating meat. The omega unsaturated fatty acids found in fish oil are abundant in flax seeds. The only thing lacking in a vegan diet is vitamin B12, which you can take as a supplement.

Our bodies are designed to eat meat – we have canine teeth.  True, but we are also designed to eat plants – we have molars.  Unlike other animals, we have the ability to choose our foods.  We tell our bodies what to eat, not the other way around. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

You are killing plants. As far as we know, plants don’t experience pain.  As Alan Watts said, “cows scream louder than carrots.” Besides, it takes about ten pounds of plants to produce one pound of beef.  So if you eat a pound of beef, ten pounds of plants are killed as well. Maybe in a perfect world, we will live on fruit and nuts and grains and no plants will be killed.

You may want to skip over the next paragraph. It's a little unkind.

I eat meat mindfully. This one really gets me, and I’m sorry if I’m talking about you. Nothing personal, but I don’t care how many prayers you say, how many candles or sticks of incense you light, or how “in the moment” you are; and I don’t care what the sutras say, or what the Buddha said – the animal on your plate was still killed, and another will be killed to take its place. Maybe the smells and bells and chanting will make you feel better or change your karma, but that’s not the point. If it is the point, then I’ve missed it. The same reasoning would justify the death penalty, killing in battle and all manner of atrocities. How can you be mindful and in the moment, and not hear the screams from the abbatoir?

I only eat meat from animals raised and killed compassionately. Good for you. I mean it. But if you go to all that trouble to eat something you don't need, why not just stop?

What about eggs and dairy?  I'm finally 100% vegan - no eggs or dairy or honey, leather, wool or silk - but it took quite a while.

[This post originally read: Ouch. This is where I get hit by my own flailing. There is plenty of suffering associated with the milk and egg industry, but my diet is still only 95% vegan, for interpersonal reasons. You know the old saying, "take my advice - I'm not using it." Besides, if they only allowed perfect people to rant, it would be awfully quiet.]

What can I do? Lots. Here are a few suggestions. Start by cutting dead critters out of your diet.  If you eat eggs, make sure they are free range. If you eat dairy, make sure the cheese doesn't contain rennet and the yogurt doesn't contain gelatin. Consider giving up leather and silk. Consider only using detergents, shampoos and cosmetics that are labelled 'not tested on animals'. Learn about this stuff. Check out blogs like and organizations like PETA. And of course, spread the word. If you're looking for company, I posted a list of some famous veggies here.

Here's something to consider: If all the land in North America now used to raise and feed animals were used to grow crops, it would produce enough food to eliminate hunger on the entire planet.

If you managed to read this to the end, my heart gives you a big hug! Thank you.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead

If you're up for it, watch the trailer for the award-winning documentary Earthlings, but be prepared to weep (seriously!).  You can watch the trailer and the entire movie here.

I also recommend seeing the documentary Forks over Knives just released, about the health benefits of a plant-based diet and unrefined foods.

Photograph: AP/Alexandre Meneghini 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Acts of Kindness: Does Size Matter?

One morning I noticed a tiny insect drowning in a cup of water and rescued it. As I watched it drag itself to safety, a flood of emotions took me by surprise: love for the little creature, joy that it didn't drown, and gratitude that I happened to notice it and could help. Fortunately, I had to leave for work before I really started wallowing in feelings.

I walked to work with a glad heart, and a sort of koan took shape: What effect does saving the short life of a tiny being have in the grand scheme of things? When I reached the office, more pressing matters took my attention and I forgot about it.

That evening, I read a beautiful blog post over at ZenDotStudio called Gladdening the Heart which reminded me of the question. A couple of days later, a simple but moving story called Three Gifts at Mind Deep reminded me again that the question was not going to go away.

One of my all-time favourite movie scenes is near the end of Schindler's List where Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) gives Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) a ring made from a gold bridge given by one of the 1,100 Jews he saved from the gas chambers by employing them in his factory. He essentially bought their freedom with his own money. He realizes to his dismay that he still has an expensive car and a gold pin that he could have sold, and in that heart-wrenching moment he breaks down, crying "I could have got more out, I could have got more - but I didn't!"  (Watch the scene here - make sure you have hankies.  It gets me every time.)

The inscription in the ring is from the Talmud:  "Whoever saves one life saves the world entire."

That line is reminiscent of the statements attributed to the Buddha: "On the day I became enlightened, the whole universe became enlightened," and to Jesus, referring to feeding the hungry and caring for the sick: "Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of one of these, you have done it to me."

One thing is for sure: because of the interconnectedness of every single thing with every other single thing, there is no way that our tiny intellects can ever calculate every possible outcome of a simple action. Science fiction stories have described how a seemingly trivial event could prevent Hitler from being born, averting the second world war. Perhaps a child watching you rescue a stranded worm from the wet pavement will be inspired to become another Mother Teresa. Or perhaps the child will just think you're a nut.

You could say that saving an insect matters because it's connected to everything, or that it matters because it is everything, or, that it doesn't matter.

So the question remains: In an act of kindness, does size matter?

The ox goes through the window
But it's tail does not
Why was the little bug saved?
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...