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Ask Auntie Suvanna: On eating vegetarian monkey brains

ChimpDear Auntie,
Can I still consider myself compassionate if I like to eat vegetarian monkey’s brains? A local vegan restaurant serves it, and it is delicious.
Signed, Ethical Eater

Dear Ethical,
It’s clear that when it comes to vegetable-based meat substitutes, emotions run high. Many people, both vegetarians and omnivores, feel that it is completely stupid to eat fake meat. Others say, well if you like the taste of meat, but don’t want to cause harm in that way, why not? The practice can be attacked and defended in various ways. In addition, some meat eaters seem to get a bit touchy around vegetarians, as if vegetarianism were invented as a direct attack on their lifestyle, just to make things inconvenient. And then there are the vegangelicals…

Why are we so righteous about food? Why do people care so much about what other people, even complete strangers, eat? Is the biggest issue in your world today whether your vegetarian acquaintance likes Tofurkey sandwiches? And this happening in a country with the most unhealthy people in an industrialized nation. But it just occurred to me that I am supposed to be answering questions, not asking them.

Your vegetarian monkey’s brain is probably made of wheat gluten, also known as seitan, pronounced similar to – but otherwise having nothing in common with – “Satan,” unless Satan is a vegetarian, which seems unlikely. Seitan has been used by northern Asian vegetarian monastics for hundreds of years as a protein-rich alternative to meat. The monk who came up with the famous unanswerable question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” had perhaps eaten a seitan monkey’s brain that day, which would explain a lot.

Overall, I would say that if you currently consider yourself compassionate, and you are, you may continue to do so while chewing wheat gluten, even if said wheat gluten has a remarkably brain-like texture. The only reservation I might have would depend on whether or not the vegans actually screw the head-shaped wheat ball into the table and saw off the top of it. If so, you may have in fact gone over to the dark side, where there is no compassion.


Auntie SuvannaEver despair at how to cultivate lovingkindness for Dick Cheney, or ponder the effect of anti-depressants on Buddha Nature? If so, check out Auntie Suvanna, who applies her unique wisdom and wit to your queries about life, meditation, Dharma, family and relationship issues, or anything else that comes up.

Ask Auntie Suvanna was written by Suvarnaprabha, who practiced at the San Francisco Buddhist Center until she passed away in September, 2013, after an encounter with cancer. Suvanna blogger her way, with humor and good grace, from her diagnosis until shortly before her death, in Crap! I’ve Got Cancer.

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Comment from lynn Horowitz
Time: July 31, 2008, 10:27 am

The name monkey brains just turned me off but then I realized this was the name for the products you described. We have had it – yummy, but now live in Cozumel, MX and have little specialiality foods for veggies. My Buddhish group mostly are not vegetarian and I have had several discussions with them about it-they saying that in Nepal/ Tibet it was hard to find enough food, etc. and the people gave the monks yak meat so they ate it…But in Mexico it is diffirent of course, but this is the justification they give me. ( I looked it up as well and received a similar type of justification). How can Buddhists take vows of not killing and still eat meat, etc. Lynn Horowitz

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: July 31, 2008, 10:44 am

I just wanted to let you know that Auntie Suvanna is on retreat just now. I should be there too, but alas the dates of some teaching I’m doing at the University of New Hampshire overlap with the retreat.

Anyway, she’ll probably reply when she gets back, but if not I’ll chip in.

A veggieburger is one thing, but I’m not sure I could quite bring myself to try something called vegetarian monkey brains!

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: July 31, 2008, 9:49 pm

I just heard that after Auntie’s retreat she’s attending another retreat, so I’ll say a few words. She may still add something herself when she returns.

There are many justifications (or rationalizations, as I would prefer to call them) that Buddhists use for not being vegetarian. I have little patience with those excuses since at best they tend not to make much sense (e.g. it’s hard to be vegetarian in Tibet, but as you say, what relevance does that have if one lives outside Tibet?), and at worst they involve a distortion of the Dharma (eating animals gives them a better rebirth, or shows that we’re interconnected, or gives us an opportunity to thank them for “sacrificing” themselves, etc).

Basically I think it comes down to attachment — a false sense that happiness is impossible without eating meat. I remember having that attachment myself, when I was younger. I literally couldn’t imagine being a vegetarian without a sense of dread, and I also felt ethically challenged when I came across people who were vegetarians. Then I visited a slaughterhouse and that attachment was gone forever.

Attachment is one thing, but it’s the rationalization that disturbs me more. I certainly do unethical things — I’m a lapsed vegan, for example, and I believe that keeping animals for milk, etc (at least in industrial conditions) is wrong — but I try not to rationalize these things. The fact that I’m not a vegan is something for me to work with, not to justify. I think that if you can attempt to justify having living being killed to satisfy your cravings you can justify any unethical act. So that bothers me more than the actual meat-eating. At least if people acknowledge the attachment they can begin to do something about it. Of course I think we have to find ways of gently steering people towards an awareness of their attachment, for example by asking them how they imagine they’d feel if they didn’t eat meat, rather than beating them over the head by telling them they’re attached and that they’re refusing to face up to their unskillful samskaras. even though that may be true on some level!

I may not be popular for saying some of this. I’ve been getting an increasing amount of hate mail these days, and I guess I’ll be getting a bit more!

I wrote a whole book exploring the topic of Buddhist teachings on vegetarianism, and you might want to check that out. If you search for my name on Amazon you’ll find it. There’s even a Spanish translation.

All the best,
Bodhipaksa

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Comment from Auntie Suvanna
Time: August 15, 2008, 12:08 am

Hi Lynn,
Not sure if you’re still watching this space but if so I just want to clarify, did you say you had had vegetarian monkey’s brains? Auntie

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Comment from David M
Time: October 10, 2013, 4:57 pm

For the record, I don’t eat meat. However, I understand that the karma of killing and eating meat are two entirely different things. Most meat eaters have no intent to kill, they are merely satisfying a craving. If there is no intent to kill, there is no karma of killing. The karma of eating meat is no different than the karma of eating ice cream or candy bars.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: October 11, 2013, 11:29 am

I don’t actually think that’s true, although your comparison with ice cream and candy bars is a bit tricky because usually those are animal products as well. But leaving that aside, if we eat meat and are aware that we’re causing suffering by so doing (and we are, after all, creating a demand for meat, such that killing is being carried out on our behalf) then we’re choosing not to act compassionately, and choosing to act with disregard to the wellbeing of others. Those are ethical choices, and they affect our character. There therefore karmic actions.

Hiring a hit-man does not absolve a person, legally or karmically, from the harm the hit-man causes. In terms of meat-eating, our slaughterhouses and supermarkets are our dietary hit-men.

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