Saturday, June 26, 2010

Does a Vegan or even Vegetarian Diet Reinforce Self Identity?

The teacher Bodhipaksa has a fascinating postconsidering the issues surrounding vegan/vegetarian diets, Buddhist,and identity. Responding to another article, he questions that writer's views that choosing to be vegan, for example, is a sentimental choice that can easily reinforce attachments to an identity.

He writes:
While I agree with Dayamati’s point that our dietary preferences can become unhealthily clung to as an identity, I don’t think he sufficiently takes into account that it’s possible for us to live on a vegan or vegetarian diet without it distorting our identity. He does say, “Needless to say, there is no invariable causal relationship between deciding to be a vegan and becoming incapable of thinking carefully and impartially.” That’s welcome news.

I’m more bothered, however, by the following:

As long as one makes such decisions whimsically and realizes that the decision is a manifestation of sentimentality, everything is fine. It is only when one begins to think that there is something rational and righteous about the decision that one begins to get into spiritual (and philosophical) trouble.

I’m not sure quite what he means by making a decision to eat a vegan diet “whimsically.” If he simply means “with a lack of attachment” then that’s fine by me. If he means that we should only decide to eat a vegan diet on the basis of a passing irrational impulse, then I disagree. I think it’s possible to seriously consider the effects of our diet, and the sufferings that farm animals experience, and decide not to eat animal products. It’s only when I disengage my thought processes and refuse to consider these things that I can eat animal products. It’s when I surrender to the passing irrational impulses of hunger and craving that I find myself eating dairy products or eggs.

The suggestion that we should realize that “the decision is a manifestation of sentimentality,” leaves me puzzled. The word sentimentality implies that we have a disproportionate emotional response to a situation. Actually, our situation as a species is grave. We’re seriously messing up our world, and the problem is caring enough — our brains just aren’t well designed, it appears, when it comes to thinking about long-term consequences and the suffering or large numbers of beings.

I have had a vegetarian diet for about 15 years now. I have never felt compelled to become vegan, and I do have to say that I've met more self-righteous vegans than self-righteous vegetarians, but certainly that could just be my experience. In addition, although some would argue differently, I don't think being Buddhist means you must eliminate all meat from your diet. It seems more complicated than that.

I remember reading a chapter in one of herbalist Christopher Hobbs' books about how, after 20 years of not eating meat, he started experimenting with the use of fish oil supplements. He had been experiencing a lot of joint pain, so much so that he was concerned about his long term health. And he discovered that consuming fish oil for short periods of time - a few months each year - his quality of life dramatically increased.

That's just one example. There are plenty of others to consider out there. What do you all think about these issues? For example, what do you make of being vegan? Or are you already one, and can offer your perspective here?


Brikoleur said...

I have no problem with veganism or vegetarianism as such. Hey, I'm a vegetarian myself, about five days of the week; I have a strong preference for veggies over red meat or poultry, and I only eat fish when I can get it fresh, natural, and non-overfished. (Today's such a day, as it happens—we're having grilled fresh mackerel.)

However, I do have a problem with fussing about food. Many of the vegans and macrobiotics and some of the vegetarians I know are well into fussing-about-food territory; IOW, they never miss a chance to make a point about being vegetarian, never even mind inconveniencing others, e.g. by making it quasi impossible to eat with them, unless they're inviting, or going to one of the very rare restaurants that specialize in that type of food. And because in a very physical and intimate sense we are what we eat, fussing about food can become a major building block of identity, and as such a huge PITA—for yourself and others.

So yeah, I tended to agree quite strongly with the original author's points, although I too found "sentimental" and "whimsical" a bit of an odd choice of words. The way I see it, yes, it is important to pay attention to the choice of what to eat, just like it is with everything else—but once you go beyond choosing from what's in front of you, in a manner of speaking, you risk sliding into the same territory of sanctimony, covert aggression, and self-righteousness that really makes you no fun to be around, and does your spiritual development—whatever that means—no favors either.

In a nutshell, my take is that if you want to be vegetarian, be a vegetarian—but also remember that even the Koran explicitly allows Muslims to eat pork if traveling among unbelievers and that's the best available choice. Yesterday I was vegetarian, today I eat fish, and when a week or two ago my parents lovingly prepared us a veal roast, I ate it and enjoyed it, and was thankful both to the calf for giving us its meat, and my parents for preparing and serving it, even if I, personally, would have chosen something else at the boucherie.

Robyn said...

I agree with Petteri. After 20 years of fairly strict vegetarianism, I stopped calling myself that. My choice is always to eat that way but I also always accept food that is prepared for me as a gift, even if it includes meat. No one wants to hear lectures or feel badly about their food choices, especially not when preparing food lovingly for another. If people ask, however, I tell them my preference.

It is called a Middle Way, after all.

Anonymous said...

At a dharma talk, I once heard that people who do things like buy energy efficient light bulbs are less likely to give to charity because they have a sense that "I" have already done something...

It's amazing how many ways "I" can stick you!

zendotstudio said...

For me, it's about looking at what I do, not what others do. I am a vegetarian for a variety of reasons. Most of the time I am also a vegan. But I am not slavish about it. I eat dairy and eggs sometimes and I even will eat fish occasionally.

I remember a monk I know being told by her teacher that she was too attached to her "eating habits" which were healthy food, mostly vegan. It is something to consider.

Nice post. Always helpful to look more deeply at our motivation and actions.

Nathan said...

I agree with you Petteri and Robyn about the lectures and self-righteousness. Neither are helpful.

For myself, I just don't take meat, even if it's what is offered. The last few times I tried to do so, in order to not offend, I ended up making things worse by choking on what I was eating because I wanted to vomit.

I always tell people I'm vegetarian if they are going to prepare a meal that includes me. No lectures. No grumbling about the plates of ham or chicken that appear on the table next to whatever I might be able to eat.

It's very true that people can get attached to their eating preferences. The above comment might even make me one of those. Yet, it seems to me that since I stopped eating meat, my body simply rejects it now.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan,

I'm with you on that. I'm a veggie (for 28 years now) and won't eat meat even if there is nothing else (although luckily that's never been tested to any extreme, I'm sure I'd eat meat if I was starving - or even very very hungry!!).

But I remember a few years ago eating some chicken in a Thai temple (Buddhists in Thailand seem never to have heard of vegetarianism!) and feeling very bad about it afterwards. Bad for the chicken, for myself, and physically bad. I shant do that again.

As for ego. Yes, sometimes I see myself getting all proud about my vegetarianism. True. But on the other hand, in a world in which it is seen as normal and acceptable to eat the flesh of sentient beings (of whom all have at one time or another been our own relatives and loved ones), refusing to engage in this holocaust is actually something to be rightly proud of.

Oh, and the Buddha said:

"If anyone regards me as his teacher, he should not eat any meat"

He then went on to say why...

"Meat eating destroys the merciful heart, obstructs Nirvana and liberation, and violates the teachings of sages, thus I do not allow eating meat. Not eating meat cultivates the pure-heavenly (Brahma) seed and many practice-Ways; Wisdom, richness and nobleness, all come from not eating meat."

This quote comes from the Lankavatara Sutra

But doesn't the Metta Sutta also suggest that the wise ones love ALL beings ("whatever beings there may be") like a mother loves her children? I've yet to see a mother place her children in the vile and disgusting conditions that animals are forced into in today's "farms", and then eat their flesh!

But, okay, back to what the Buddha says about this....

Apadakehi me mettam.
Mettam dvipadakehi me.
Catuppadehi me mettam.
Mettam bahuppadehi me.

May there be love between me and creatures without feet.
May there be love between me and creatures with two feet.
May there be love between me and creatures with four feet.
May there be love between me and creatures with many feet.
- the Khandha Sutta

Yes, if you must must must eat a sentient being (all of whom love their children, cry, learn, feel joy, etc) then okay. But what love are you expressing when you choose to eat meat and ignore the veggie options?

Thank you Nathan and the others here for your vegetarianism. On behalf of the millions of tortured and slaughtered animals around the world today, thank you.

All the best,


Nathan said...

Ah, Marcus, I was waiting for you to arrive with some backup from the sutras :) Thank you for offering some specific teachings for people to engage with.


Robyn said...

Hi again Nathan, I was thinking about your post as we drove through Nebraska and saw some CAFOs (I think they are called - cows being raised for meat as an industry). It was appalling! Especially since we had seen many, many cows enjoying pasture grazing. The contrast was shocking. It reminded me of something Thict Naht Hahn has written about how when we consume food that has suffered like that, we become it. The suffering becomes our being with all sorts of results - negative results! How could it be otherwise?

My only comment regarding Marcus's quotes, is that it reminds me of listening to a scholar give a lecture on the Yoga Sutra and insisting that ahimsa meant being a vegetarian and that, if you ate meat, you could never be a true yogi and achieve the yogic version of nirvana. He wasn't particularly obnoxious about it but he was 100% sure of himself. All I could think was that, according to his rules, Inuit could never be enlightened. I really don't think so. The problem with those rules is that they always end up broken!

Nathan said...


It's very true that one's geographic location and available food sources need to be taken into account.

Thanks for sharing about your experiences while on the road.


Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan,

It seems to me that every pattern of behavior and every form of extreme idealism - whether for or against something - is susceptible to reinforcing the sense of self; it has nothing in particular to do with vegetarianism or veganism, although I can certainly see where the latter might tend to lead in that direction or, alternatively, may be attractive to those who are looking for a means to "feed their egos" in one form or another. I personally follow a vegetarian diet for various reasons, none of which I would label as being "sentimental" or "whimsical" - terms which call to my mind images of young teenagers going through a short phase of living on french fries and diet coke as opposed to well informed, mature adults who can and do indeed have rational reasons for being vegetarian/vegan.

As for the use of language, I see nothing inherently wrong in making the statement that one is a vegetarian, no more than it is to state that one is a Buddhist. I happen to be both, but I generally don't make any proclamations about either unless I'm specifically asked or am engaged in discussions such as this. It seems elusive at best (and perhaps even dishonest at worst) to go out of one's way to explain that one does not eat meat but is is not a vegetarian. On the other hand, and somewhat ironically, the establishment of a religious identity is arguably a greater problem with respect to the ego than dietary habits; something all Buddhists, but especially those who place inordinate value in Dharma names, titles, robes etc. shouldn't underestimate.


Nathan said...


Good points, especially about not making an effort to define or call out yourself in situations that don't warrant it. To me, it's a clear sign of attachment to an identity when a conversation is about something entirely different, and I or someone else interjects something about being X.


Linda-Sama said...

I've been vegetarian for years and then became 99.9% vegan after my last trip to India this year. I can someone not be 100% vegan?

BUT...I must do what is right for MY body (like your example with using fish oil).

I have stopped reading some vegan blogs because of the "all or nothing" approach....seemed way too strident and not "Middle Path."