On Veganism, Engaged Buddhism and Resilience

Veganism is not about giving anything up or losing anything; it is about gaining the peace within yourself that comes from embracing nonviolence and refusing to participate in the exploitation of the vulnerable
~ Gary L. Francione

Being vegetarian here also means that we do not consume dairy and egg products, because they are products of the meat industry. If we stop consuming, they will stop producing. Only collective awakening can create enough determination for action.”
~ Thich Nhat Hanh, The Fruitful Darkness: A Journey Through Buddhist Practice and Tribal Wisdom

My attempts at vegan cheese: cashew-base, almonds-base and coconut milk-base all cultured with rejuvelac or kefir

Who are we without all the layers that the combination of culture, religion, formal/informal education and marketing throw over us?

That question has inhabited my mind for months now…

I used to think we were animals, a product of evolution with brains capable of creativity, deep thinking and spirituality but that without all those layers, we were nothing more than primates trying to survive. The roots of both good and evil were then in this indoctrination process, necessary for us to have a sense of identity and belonging: each culture then, would inculcate different values, ideas and skills, depending on what was useful for them. Lots of evidence backed up this approach: feral and neglected children were unable to speak and fully engage in social practices if they had passed what was found to be the “critical age” (around 10-year old) for language and socialization. Genes, on the other hand, seemed to have a lot of weight too as many cases were not fully explained through environment only: the old dilemma of nurture vs nature or whether both had some weight.

Lately, however, I have come to perceive another layer, than more than a layer seems to be the core: there may be “something” in us that’s beyond nurture or nature: something so profound that we can feel it even when it has been crushed under “genes” and “education”. Is this “thing” what’s screaming to be alive and reclaiming its essence through the many individual and community manifestations we see beyond the profoundly wounded times we are living.

My exploration of that question has pushed me further into engaged Buddhism: the practice that involves both deep individual work (through meditation, following ethical precepts and setting intentions for action) and relational/communal work: how that individual work can go beyond this “ego” and have an impact on the world around us. How can it become less self-centered and become more engaged.

I’m not a religious person and I reject any “following” that is blind. What attracts me from engaged Buddhism is its non-judgmental, critical-thinking, ethical approach to all we think, feel and do.

It is for that reason that their first precept (do no harm) made me think about how I am supporting and contributing to the oppression and suffering of so many through the food I eat. Going vegetarian was then a natural step: I can’t be supportive of the way millions of animals are raised in captivity and miserable, horrendous conditions, for the sole goal of feeding us; I can’t support a practice that depletes natural ecosystems through deforestation so grains can be grow to feed these poor animals.

Going vegan was a more difficult step (and still is) because I’m so conditioned to buy, cook and eat dairy that I find going vegan as a completely different world: what do I eat and how, where do I find what I need, what if I become sick, all very valid questions, made even more valid by the deep conditioning that tells me that I “need” this or that in order to be healthy and strong.

There were two things that stopped me: the first was the judgment I sensed coming from both vegetarians and vegans, the second was my deep commitment to building resilience: how a diet based in hard to grow, expensive and faraway grown foods (such as nuts, some whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables) can help us to become resilient?

I finally came to terms to these two by proactively approaching vegans and trying vegan meals, reading books and learning to make my own non-dairy cheeses and yogurts (to start with); for the second (and very valid) challenge, I decided that resilience is built in many ways: not everybody can and should be vegan: what we need to push is not a vegan agenda but an ethical one: for many people, raisin animals and killing them for food or taking their products is the only way possible to survive, same as hunting and fishing. We cannot and should not stop other non-human animals to kill so they can eat: there are hundreds of animals whose main or even only option is eating another animal. We are also growing and killing plants, and we have recently found that plants communicate, live in communities and even “feel”…so how can we be compassionate and ethical without taking from others and killing or mutilating them?

The response seems to be in the acting without oppression and with ethical, compassionate intentions: animals in general don’t kill unless they intend to it the entire pray. Those who don’t eat the whole animal, leave other species to come and eat the remains. There is no hoarding in nature: each takes only what it needs and when it needs it.

In my case, I acknowledge the temporary privilege I have to access nuts, legumes, fruits and grains and to grow vegetables. I also acknowledge the privilege of being physically and mentally able to carry out the skills of learning and applying different approaches to harvesting, preserving and cooking. Going vegan is a privilege not all have, but one that temporarily allows me to try different ways to become resilient and live ethically and compassionately.

I can’t and I won’t be judgmental of those who would like to but can’t go vegan because of cost, availability or access to what’s needed.

Going vegan also has many advantages that I’m just starting exploring:

  • Resilience is also built by exploring different tastes and options. Being able to find, identify, prepare and taste diverse foods create more resilience as some of us may have limited access to meat and dairy too
  • Nuts, legumes and grains are easy to store in big quantities and easy to transport as compared to meat and dairy; fruits and vegetables, if well preserved, can also be easily stored and transported
  • A vegan diet reduces cholesterol, blood pressure and other cardiovascular issues and provides you with a healthier digestive system. It also reduces weight

My current challenges are:

  • Nobody else in my family is vegan or even vegetarian
  • I’m the main person who buys food in the family
  • I’m the main person who prepares the food for the rest of the family
  • I’m still learning about alternative options and sources and how my body takes them

My current experiments include (will be sharing recipes and resources in future posts):

  • Making cultured vegan cheeses (easy and fun, but requires dedication, love and time)
  • Emphasizing salads, fermented foods and soups (good that I like them all)
  • Increasing intake of whole grains, pulses (legumes), nuts and seasonal fruits and vegetables (a slow and delicate process, as increasing the intake of fiber can mess with your system if you do it too fast and don’t take enough water)
  • Playing with rejuvelac, kefir and other fermented and cultured beverages

It is my strong belief that we have to work both inside and outside of us, and both as individuals and as part of relationships and communities. It is not easy work: many who adopt these practices (meditation, a vegan diet, etc.) do it so and detach themselves from the “evils of the world” making their intentions “to be pure” as if being pure individually would ever solve the problems of the systems we are part of (and being vegan doesn’t make you automatically “ethical” as you may still be part of many damaging and unethical systems). Others embrace activism and give it all to movements and causes, forgetting that without inner work, we may be just perpetuating old unethical patterns of oppression, discrimination and privilege.

The answer is not black or white, but a deep observation and understanding of the many grays in between.

May your path be one of continuous observation, discovery and compassionate/ethical engaged action.

Ethical veganism results in a profound revolution within the individual; a complete rejection of the paradigm of oppression and violence that she has been taught from childhood to accept as the natural order. It changes her life and the lives of those with whom she shares this vision of nonviolence. Ethical veganism is anything but passive; on the contrary, it is the active refusal to cooperate with injustice
~ Gary L. Francione


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