In this series, we ask vegans engaged in different kinds of activism a question, and post their responses, to show a diversity of perspectives on the same topic. This is not a forum for ‘professional experts’ and thought leaders, but a space for community voices. Join the discussion below in the comments.
To me, spirituality is simply the search for what is true and what is real. Beliefs are not only not required, they actually may stand in the way of true spirituality and, I’ve found, often do.
The best friend one can have on this search is a completely open mind and an extreme willingness to question anything and everything. So in this regard, my spirituality is definitely related to my veganism. Veganism came about with a willingness to question the norm, and to look at where food comes from without blinders. It hurts to see or think of an animal in pain, or to try and not think of their plight at all. It feels much better to love and respect them. And I’ve found the health benefits of the diet to be life-changing.
One of the best spiritual gifts that veganism has given me is showing me how I don’t feel good when I try to tell others what’s best for them. Plain and simple, it just doesn’t feel right. I think the reason for this is that, when I look deeply, I see that I don’t actually know what’s best for others or even what’s best for animals. It hasn’t felt good to me to act as if I do. Of course others may feel differently in terms of what they feel they know and what feels right to them, and that is perfect.
Back in 1975, fresh out of college, I embarked on a spiritual pilgrimage that brought me from New England to The Farm in Tennessee, which at that time was a spiritually-oriented hippie commune of nearly a thousand people who ate a completely plant-based diet for ethical reasons. I became a vegetarian there, and it was primarily due to the example of these people at The Farm, who were obviously healthy and who were concerned about both animal cruelty as well as the fact that eating animal foods causes world hunger.
I spent the next ten years or so living in several different Buddhist meditation centers, and became a vegan in 1980 out of concern for the cruelty to cows and hens. In 1984, I lived in Korea as a Zen monk, and lived in a monastery there that had been practicing vegan living for 650 years – the monks abstained from meat, dairy, eggs, wool, silk, and leather out of compassion for animals. I began to see clearly that veganism is essentially a contemporary iteration of the ancient Eastern spiritual principle of ahimsa which is non-violence. Ahimsa is a core principle in all religions, actually, and it is based on the universal wisdom of the Golden Rule and also of karma – that whatever we sow, we will reap: when we harm others, we harm ourselves, and when we enslave others, we enslave ourselves. Spirituality is about liberation, and thus always calls us to awaken to the interconnectedness of all life, and to practice kindness and respect for others. These are both pre-requisites for – and the natural results of – authentically realizing our essential nature as spiritual beings.
Donald Watson, in coining the term “vegan,” specified that the motivation in vegan living is to abstain from cruelty and exploitation to animals (and humans). This is ahimsa, and has always been my primary motivation, though I’ve also been motivated by the health, environmental, and spiritual purification reasons as well.
At its core, veganism is a spiritual movement, based on the ancient wisdom teaching of the interconnectedness of all life, and founded on the compassionate yearning within all of us to bless our world and to celebrate our lives creatively and joyfully on this magnificent Earth. I give thanks to everyone who has, is, or will live this message in daily life. By bringing this message, in whatever ways resonates for us, to our world, we help uplift human consciousness to the truth that compassion and joyful health are two sides of the same coin.
Author, The World Peace Diet
My initial venture into vegetarianism 27 years ago I would say was inspired more by political beliefs, however my later practice of veganism was definitely motivated by my spiritual practices. I feel that my spiritual beliefs and my practice of veganism go hand in hand, and are inseparable from each other. The two spiritual traditions I feel most closely aligned to are Buddhism and Native American Indian. Both practices hold in high esteem the idea of oneness with all of creation, and respect and honor for all life, and that is something I try to be conscious of each day, and especially with each meal.
In Buddhism, you take the vow to “save all beings,” a very lofty ideal! Having taken that vow, how could one then proceed to support the slaughter of animals for meat, or their enslavement and torture for dairy and eggs? As a true Buddhist, one that wants to end suffering for all beings, there is no better way to do that than by practicing veganism. Similarly, when I attend sweat lodges, we end each round by chanting “Mitakuye Oyasin” (All My Relations), a Lakota prayer to honor all your relations, including the rocks, trees, bears, geese, wolves, etc. Again, I feel that to truly honor your relations, you don’t eat or enslave them, but allow them to pursue their lives with joy and happiness.
Sea Shepherd Philadelphia
I am not Christian, or Buddhist, or a Yogi or any other label. But I connect with many of the teachings in various religions: compassion and love for all, ahimsa, karma, service to others, raising consciousness, oneness, faith, the golden rule. These teachings go hand in hand with my veganism. They are not separate for me because my veganism and my spiritual beliefs are part of my whole being. But, I prefer not to wear labels. I see time and time again people get really defensive when their labels and attachments are challenged. Wars are raged on humans and animals every day because of labels.
Many people use the label of their religion as a reason to do harmful things to others. I had a woman tell me that I was wrong to oppose horse-drawn carriages because “horses, donkeys, and mules have been working for us since the beginning of time and carried baby Jesus on their backs.” I was shocked by this comment. I thought Christianity was based in the teachings I listed above. I naively thought that most people would agree that these horses are working against their will and do not want to be dressed up in fancy costumes and whipped into submission. Just because we’ve been doing something since the beginning of time doesn’t make it right and unchangeable. For her there was a cap on how much compassion she could spread. I don’t understand this.
I often read or hear people say that veganism itself is like a religion. I have such negative feelings about religion, so it’s hard for me to agree with that statement. But since I’m devoted to this way of life and all that it entails, I guess it is my religion. A religion of compassion and kindness for all beings, a desire to help all beings discover joy and bliss, a lifestyle devoid of hate and violence, and the hope for a better future for all creatures.
The following comments are excerpted from the blog post “Paradise Recovered,” with permission of the producers of Bold Native:
I feel that living as a vegan is my natural extension of following the teachings of Jesus. As a Christian, how can I seek to alleviate suffering when I have just eaten a big piece of steak from a poor cow murdered in a slaughterhouse by unskilled workers desperate for income?
Denying myself and taking up the cross is the call for a Christ follower, and every time I say ‘no’ to meat, despite the ridicule and the nastiness of people, I say with my actions that suffering of any type is not acceptable. And this includes remembering the farm workers (most of whom have no health insurance and are illegal to boot) just as much as it does the animals who are abused.
It’s Easter, and I am reminded that Jesus was a Passover lamb that willingly sacrificed himself to satisfy the demand for justice for the things that we do to offend God and one another. Crucifixion was a brutal death, but some of what I have seen from videos of slaughterhouses equals that kind of brutality. I have often wondered how callous someone would have to be to actually crucify and beat someone beyond recognition. And yet, the industry demands that we create these kinds of workers to do this exact thing to animals. Why? For cheap burgers?
This isn’t the days when Farmer Brown took the pig out back because the family was hungry and had no other access to protein, or even when a pre-literate Jewish family hand raised a Passover lamb as a reminder that sin has consequences – in this case, the death of a prized possession. These are animals that have been genetically mutated, filled with chemicals and artificial hormones, forced to live in repulsive conditions, stripped of any natural defenses, beaten and abused, starved and dehydrated on trucks, and then skinned and gutted alive as they hang upside down.
This is changing the way I look at Easter. And I think that perhaps Jesus, through his crucifixion, lowered himself to the worst imaginable state…a state that many animals suffer. Jesus went willingly to his cross…these poor animals have no choice.
I remember how sad and outraged I was when I first learned, at the age of three, that we kill animals for food. But I wasn’t in a good position to argue about the injustice I saw in this. So I went along with the programming I received from my family and from society, and ate what was put before me. But I can still remember thinking very highly of vegetarians because they make a special effort to help animals each day.
Many years went by before this issue again came to the fore. My ex-wife and I became members of the Humane Society of the US, and we occasionally received pictures that showed the typical living conditions of farmed animals in this country. I found it shocking and could hardly believe that this could occur in a modern, civilized society such as ours. I was also troubled by the tremendous waste of resources that’s involved in animal agriculture. So I gradually went vegetarian and a year later went vegan.
A few years into my new lifestyle, I began thinking about what my biggest benefit was in making the change. I had dropped 30 excess pounds and my cholesterol numbers had improved a lot; I no longer had lower back pain; and was completely rid of the sinus infections since dropping dairy.
But my biggest change, the one that meant the most to me, was in my relationship to a higher intelligence and my newfound sense of clarity regarding the idea of “Oneness” and connection to everyone and everything. I thought “Wow, I do have religion!”, and I stopped calling myself agnostic.
My spiritual growth was enhanced tremendously by my vegetarian and animal rights activism and by making some time available each morning for reflection/contemplation/meditation/prayer for farmed animals. Veganism has been a wonderful practice for me and has helped expand my world far beyond my own personal interests. I’ve learned firsthand that shifting toward a plant-based diet is a powerful, powerful way to love this planet and all those who share it.
Volunteer chairperson for EarthSave Baltimore
My first thought is of that delightful George Bernard Shaw line, “A man of spiritual intensity does not eat corpses.” Amen! Yet I am surprised that you say that many vegans self-identify as spiritual or religious. I think I have found a higher proportion of committed atheists among vegans than in the general population. In fact my first few years of animal rights activism brought on a profound loss of faith. It was almost a cliché – as I learned the horror of the mass institutionalized animal cruelty that is at the framework of society, I asked if there could possibly be a loving God who would allow it.
Indeed, my animal rights activism, which propels my veganism, may make the belief in a God as presented by the classic religions difficult. Yet it makes faith of a different sort necessary. And that faith makes my activism possible, so I love the way you put it, that they “inform each other.”
I practice yoga daily and I study A Course in Miracles, a spiritual text that uses traditional Judeo-Christian terminology to present decidedly Eastern ideas. The main tenet is forgiveness. A Course in Miracles teaches that we do not sin, we make mistakes, we choose badly, and we can always choose again. We are a deeply flawed species; acting in cold self-interest is part of our nature. Yet another part of our nature, perhaps the truest part of our nature, is loving.
I think my activism is more compelling and I know I stay saner when I dispense with the idea that people who don’t yet feel how I do about animal suffering are bad, are the enemy – any more than I am a true enemy to those fighting the global water crisis if I take 15-minute showers. That more forgiving outlook comes from my spiritualism and is fundamental to my activism.
If we don’t believe that other people can change, as we continue to see ourselves change, how can we be activists? My spiritualism, the repetition of mantras such as “Forgiveness is my function,” reminds me that people aren’t good or bad, but instead all have the capacity to choose compassion. It keeps me on course as an activist. I would be useless without it.
Values are, or at least should be, at the core of our beings. For some, religion is a matter of values and belief (and for others it is a matter of ancestry and tradition). Despite ancestry and tradition, I could not and would not choose to live any religious way of life that contradicted my values and beliefs. Thus, I find it quite wonderful that Judaism does genuinely support values that I deem most morally right and by which I choose to live my life, including my vegan values. More directly to answer the question, though, my veganism is not the result of my Judaism, nor is my Judaism the result of my veganism. They are both important in my life and fit together quite well, sharing certain teachings, and having no contradiction between them.
In Judaism, there is that which is considered law and that which is considered tradition. There certainly are traditions in Judaism that are not vegan, but those are mere traditions that do not go back to the origins of Judaism, are not required, and for the most part were actually adopted by Jews from their non-Jewish neighbors. That which is a part of religious Jewish requirement, however, not only does not require anything non-vegan, but much of it actually beautifully supports and sometimes teaches a vegan way of life. Even when the Torah speak of a “land flowing with milk and honey,” the milk of which it speaks is almond milk and the honey of which it speaks is date honey.
Food is culturally an important part of Jewish life. Most holidays have their traditional foods, and those that actually have their religious significance are, or easily can be, vegan – apples dipped in date honey at Rosh HaShanah, fall harvest vegetables at Sukkot, latkes and apple sauce at Chanukah, hamantashen at Purim, matzah, charoseth,, bitter herbs, green vegetables, etc. at Passover, falafel at Yom HaAtzmaut, etc.
All Jewish holidays are filled with positive messages that are quite congruent with being vegan. Passover, for example, is also known as the Festival of Freedom. While traditionally on their seder plates, some Jews use an egg to symbolize new life and growth and a shank bone to symbolize the blood that was used as a paint on ancient doorposts, these are not items referred to traditionally in the haggadah to actually be eaten or even required to be present. The symbolization, though, is important, and it is quite acceptable to use an avocado pit instead of an egg and beet instead of a shank bone, as they symbolize the same. At my seder, we use “The Haggadah for a New World,” which I wrote decades ago. It includes all the required and most traditional Passover readings but also incorporates other elements that are important for fully consciously celebrating such a Festival of Freedom.
My favorite day of the year is the ancient Jewish holiday of Tu b’Shvat. It is an age-old holiday that was the original Earth Day. It is to be celebrated by honoring the earth, taking care of the earth, and feasting on the fruits (and nuts) of the earth. The holiest of all holy days on the Jewish calendar is Yom Kippur. As I lead the children’s services at synagogue, each year some child asks the question of why there are many adults in synagogue without their belts and wearing fuzzy slippers or canvas sneakers instead of their dress shoes. It is a perfect opportunity to help the children learn the vegan message that is such a part of Yom Kippur.
On the holiest of holiest of all days of the year, when we are to be asking G-d for forgiveness for all of our sins, Judaism teaches that it would be considered the greatest sin to be wearing part of one of G-d’s beautiful creatures. It is thus prohibited on Yom Kippur to wear animal products such as leather. I help the children realize that if that is the holiest way to live on the holiest day of the year, then we can make our everyday lives more holy by living that way everyday of the year. Being vegan is the ideal in Judaism. In Eden, the world was vegan. When the Moshiach comes, the world will be vegan. While we may be permitted to not be vegan in these unholy times in between, there is no reason we can’t elevate our lives to be holier and be vegan everyday of our lives. As Jews, we can live fully by our values as VeJEWtarians.
www.VeJEWtarian.org is a chavurah for those who are both actively Jewish and vegetarian and consider both to be important parts of their lives.