pets, animals & meditation

The one thing that will always slow your mind

All summer I’ve been reading Barry Lopez’s book, “Arctic Dreams” — it’s very, very long and I still have a ways to go — and the other night, I read this line which I’m very grateful for:

Watching animals always slows you down.

As someone who is always looking to slow down on multiple levels, I was really struck by by the suggestion that there’s something out there that will “always” slow me down, at least according to Lopez. In my own experience this has been quite true, even though I’d never thought about it this way.

I was up at our family’s cabin the night I read this line, and the next day, I noticed that indeed, every time I saw wild animals — butterflies, bees, moths, hawks, salamanders, toads, rabbits, deer, many different songbirds, crows, and even a bear in the distance — my interior mental world suddenly downshifted into something slower and more focused.

I wasn’t actively bird-watching or tracking or anything like that, just sitting on the porch or driving or walking along. I realized that the animals I saw were actually changing my interior world by disrupting the mental noise and rushing thoughts with a sudden dawning of slow and quiet focus.

It was such a blessing to notice this, to receive this gift of deeper awareness from Lopez and from the animals around me. I think it’s interesting and lovely that just “watching” them can do this.

It was lovely, too, to note that this has been happening all my life, soothing, healing, calming me beneath my conscious awareness. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I am so drawn to wild places and the natural world.

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What the death of an animal can teach us about the power of ritual

a ceremony to help children process a death

I am fascinated and touched and inspired by the deep love many children have for wild animals. It’s a love that seems natural, and sometimes more immediate than what many adults (including me) have to offer, at least on the surface.

Yesterday, my nine year old saw from the front porch that a raccoon had been killed by a car on our street. It was a terrible sight. She called her siblings out to see. The littler one, who is six, was very sad: “I just feel so bad for the raccoon.”

I felt bad too, and tried not to let the experience become a symbol for all the sadness I have about these sorts of things.

I suggested we light a candle for the raccoon. It occurred to me that the driver who hit the raccoon probably felt awful about it, so I shared that too and wished that person well.

And then, though that was all I had at the moment, my kids took it from there.

They gathered a wreath, the nine year old making the label “raccoon,” and the 6 year old making the picture above, which includes an assortment of vehicles with a big X through them.

“Why can’t everyone just ride bikes?” he asked (although in the picture I think the bike got an X too.)

This whole thing happened and the candle burned for the next couple hours and they told dad about it later … and all of this helped them work through their feelings. Me too.

It was a sad situation, but I felt comfort witnessing their feelings of love and connection, their care for another living being and for one another, AND the seeming effectiveness of this ritual.

It taught me about what I can do to manage my own sadnesses. It taught me that these rituals and gestures can be effective and meaningful. And it taught me about the loving kindness that lives inside us and is right there to tap into.

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Dharma lessons I learned from my cat

I lost my beloved orange cat Rusty last June. There’s something about a relationship with a pet that’s so different from any with humans. Apart from his sister, Bella, I was Rusty’s entire world. He wanted nothing more than just to be with me. It’s like he took it on as his total life’s purpose to love me.

And he always looked so indescribably SAD whenever I had to close a door between us.

Meditating together

Very early in our time together, he figured out that the ring of my meditation timer bell meant a lap was available. Soon after the “bong”, I’d hear the gentle padding of paws approaching. Then I’d feel him hop up onto my lap. He’d circle a few times before settling in, but he always found the perfect position to melt his entire warm furry body onto mine. He showed me what complete and utter trust looked like. I dedicated a special yellow towel to put on my lap to make sure there was no gap for him to fall through.

Before long, we developed a daily routine of sharing a silent space together, just the two of us. It was our favorite time of day.

It’s now nearly a year since his passing, and I still put the yellow towel on my lap to meditate. I so miss him.

Dealing with pain and grief

I’ve read somewhere that the depth of one’s grief is equal to the depth of one’s love. Rusty really did touch into me in a way no human ever could. He broke my heart wide open – to his deep unconditional love, and now, the equally deep pain of his loss.

One of the Buddha’s fundamental teachings is to avoid clinging to the things of this world. Not because it’s bad or wrong. Using grief as an example, it’s because it’s too easy to let a natural and unavoidable pain balloon into self-created stories that worsen our suffering.

Worldly and unworldly pain

The Buddha also distinguished between “worldly” and “unworldly” pain. On the one hand, I could allow this hurting heart to pull me down into pining, sluggishness, loneliness, etc. This is “worldly” pain because it keeps me tied down to a limited (i.e. “worldly”) view of my feelings and thoughts.

But I could also use this pain as a doorway to a bigger “unworldly” perspective. The day after he died, I cleaned and packed away his food dish and litter box. I shampooed the rug he had vomited and pooped on during his long illness. I discarded his meds at the prescription drug disposal. By doing all these things, I slowly let it sink in that he was gone, never to return. He, like all things, is impermanent.

I also see in retrospect how he approached his dying process with such dignity. I’m pretty certain he knew he was dying. And he seemed so matter of fact about it. He was in a lot of pain, but he kept up his “job” of loving me for as long as he could muster. I knew it was time to take him to the vet for the last time when his attention seemed to shift to some faraway place. He seemed ready to go. No fear, no fighting, no clinging. Just total acceptance.

What Rusty taught me

When I adopted Rusty years ago, I had no idea that he would be such a great dharma teacher to me. Not only did he teach me what love looked like, he also showed me how to live gracefully with the truth of impermanence. And that the way to peace is through letting go of what we cannot control. He taught me how to be with painful things, and transform them from worldly pain to unworldly insight.

I am still grieving, and suspect I will for a long, long time. On the other hand, his sister Bella is still with me. And I think one big thing I can do to honor Rusty is to love his sister the way he loved me. But he also showed me what it looks like to simply be a loving presence for others. And that’s a gift that continues to unfold for me.

Rest in peace, Rusty. I’ll be forever grateful for everything you gave me.

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Meditating with pets

I have a daily Zoom meditation group as part of Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative, and there are often a few pets in evidence. In fact one day someone commented that it must be “Take Your Dog to Meditation Day.”

In some ways pets are natural meditators. I’ve had a few cats in my life, and currently have a couple of dogs, and their ability to “just sit” and to be in the moment puts mine to shame.

At the same time, sometimes when we’re trying to meditate they want to get involved in ways that are distracting, and so that’s the topic I’d like to address today.

I stress I’m talking about cats and dogs here. And since I currently have two dogs and haven’t had a cat in a long time it’s almost inevitable that I’ll be talking mostly about dogs. Hopefully you’ll be able to adapt what I say here to your particular circumstances.

Preparing for Meditation

Even before I meditate, I’ll separate my dogs from each other. When they play together it’s a very noisy affair. There’s lots of running around, wrestling, and growling. I don’t want that going on when I meditate. We have baby gates in the house, so I can have one dog in the room with me, and the other one in the next room. Because the one in the next room (that’s Suki) can see through the barrier, there’s no anxiety. I’m right there.

If the dogs seem to be restless as I’m preparing to meditate, I’ll often give them something by way of a distraction. Suki is still teething, and so I’ll make sure she has a teething toy; it’s kind of distracting to realize during a meditation that your dog is destroying the kitchen cabinets. And sometimes I’ll give them each a “Kong” (a thick rubber cone) filled with frozen peanut butter. That keeps them busy for a good few minutes while I settle in to meditation, and after they’ve done with their treats they usually settle down as well.

My dogs also tend to be very quiet when they’re in their crates, so I’ve sometimes taken that approach during meditation. But not everyone has crates for their pets, and I imagine not all pets are quiet when they’re crated.

Be Empathetic

Next, if their human sitting still with their eyes closed isn’t something they’ve been exposed to before, your pet may be confused by you meditating. My experience has been that they get used to it in time, although you may have to work with them until they do. And maybe they never will.

A cat of mine called Piglit used to be very curious when I meditated. Sometimes she’d just come and sit beside me with her eyes closed, looking for all the world like she was joining in with me. Other times she’d bat at me with a paw, trying to get my attention. One of my dogs, Luna, does this as well. In fact sometimes she’ll stare at me and bark. It’s hard to ignore.

When this happens I think it’s best to be empathetic. This can be a confusing situation for your animal. Ignoring them can make them even more confused. Often they need attention.

And they’re individuals, so forcing them to do something isn’t very kind. Don’t feel that your dog “should” quietly sit as you meditate. Why should they? You need to work with them on their own terms.

Make Contact

Today, during an online sit, I opened my eyes to see one of the participants sitting cross-legged between her two Labrador retrievers. She was holding one dog’s paw, and had a hand resting on the neck of the other. In order to get her attention they’d started barking during the meditation, and this was her way of calming them down. Given this small degree of contact, both dogs were perfectly happy and relaxed, and were just lying quietly beside her.

Most pets love touch, so simply reaching a hand out to them and making contact, or let them make contact with me, if sometimes enough to calm them.

If you have to stroke your pet in order to help them settle, that’s fine. A lot of people think this would be a distraction, but you can pet your animal mindfully and with kindness, so that it becomes part of the meditation.

If I’m stroking my pet I do it in time with the breathing. Find your own (and your pet’s) pace. Let the meditating and the petting be one single experience. Be mindful of the movements of the arm and of the sensations of contact, and of how these things synchronize with the movements of the breathing.

Luna, who stays in the room with me, is small, so if she’s really persistent in trying to get my attention I’ll often pick her up (if she’ll let me) and sit her on my lap. (Suki’s too large for that.) That makes it easier to pet her and show her reassurance. She rarely stays on my lap for more than 15 minutes, and then she’ll jump back onto the floor. I’m happy to let her go. That’s what she wants to do.

Practice Lovingkindness

Often I’ll include Luna in my lovingkindness (metta) meditation. My favored way of cultivating metta — which I just think of as “kindness” — is to remember what it’s like to look with loving eyes. I’ll remember times I’ve watched my kids sleeping, for example. As soon as I do this, I feel a sense of warmth, tenderness, and softness around my eyes. And then as I turn my attention toward my own body, and Luna sitting on my lap, those same qualities are brought into the way I’m regarding the two of us.

With my eyes soft, relaxed, and kind, I’m able to embrace myself and my dog in a single field of loving awareness. There’s no question of this being a distraction. When I’d doing this I’m very concretely cultivating metta (kindness) for myself and another living being. We are, experientially, one body, not two.

When Luna is on my lap, she’s usually very happy to have her back stroked or her tummy tickled. (Until she decides she’s had enough and goes away.) Sometimes though she wants to lick my face. So I’ll just accept that as part of my meditation practice. I’m accepting kindness, which is an important practice in its own right. Usually she doesn’t do it for long.

Practice Compassionate Reassurance

Sometimes my dogs bark while I’m meditating. A neighbor might be taking their dog out, or a delivery worker might be dropping something off. And the dogs see it as their responsibility to defend the house. When Luna (my first dog) started doing this, I was a bit annoyed at first. I wanted to yell at her to get her to shut up. Then I saw her hackles were up and realized that she was physiologically and emotionally aroused. She was experiencing anger, and possibly fear as well. Her territory was under threat, and she was trying to ward off this menace and to alert me to danger.

So it became obvious that what she needed was reassurance. So when she’s barking like this (and I’m not meditating) I’ll go through to her, pet her to calm her down, and emphasize that the person or dog outside is a “friend.” (I’m training her to recognize that as a reassurance word.)

In meditation I don’t get up and pet the dogs, but —without moving — I do talk to them reassuringly. I’ll say things like, “It’s just a friend, Luna (or Suki)! Thank you for protecting the house. Good girl. It’s just a friend, though. You’re OK. You’re OK.” (“You’re OK” is another phrase I’m training the dogs to recognize as reassuring. I reckon that if they associate “You’re OK” with the experience of calming down, those words will start to be effective even without physical contact.)

Again, you might think that this is a distraction from the meditation, but I see it as part of the meditation. If I was dealing with a knot of anxiety in meditation, I’d talk to it in a similar reassuring way: “It’s OK. I’m here for you. I know this is scary, but we’re safe right now. I love you and I want you to be happy.”

It’s the same principle here, except that the knot of anxiety is in my dog’s belly rather than mine. All suffering deserves to be met with compassion. My dogs’ barking is a sign of their suffering. Therefore I respond compassionately.

Of course you have the option simply to let your dogs bark. After all, it’s an impermanent phenomenon and will therefore come and go. But I live in an apartment building and I think it would be a bit obnoxious to let my dogs disturb other people. And unrestrained barking isn’t a habit I want to encourage.

Practice Patience and Insight

Although I’ve said that sometimes your dogs need reassurance and comfort, sometimes they don’t! Or at least sometimes it’s better just to let them quiet down on their own, and maybe give them just minimal attention or no attention.

This morning while I was sitting, Suki started whining in the kitchen. I decided just to let her work through her emotions on her own. It isn’t really in my or the dogs’ long-term best interests if I jump up and attend to them every time they whine. After all, they whine every single time I leave the house, and I don’t respond by staying permanently at home. That the dogs are sometimes unhappy is something I just have to learn to tolerate. So be patient. They’ll be OK.

And bear in mind the insight that things are impermanent. “Things” here include my dogs’ feelings. They may be unhappy for a minute, but they’ll calm down and be at peace. Your feelings are impermanent too. It may be unpleasant to hear your dog crying, but it won’t go on forever.

It’s a judgement call to decide whether to intervene or not. Everyone is different, and all animals are different. I bear in mind, “Is this for our [i.e. mine and the dogs’] long-term happiness and well-being.”

So these are the kinds of situations I sometimes encounter meditating with dogs in the house, and some of the ways I respond to them.

Now bear in mind that my dog is not your dog, and that my dog is definitely not your cat or your African Grey parrot! So what works for me might not work for you.

In fact I’m sure some of you have evolved your own ways of meditating with pets. Perhaps you could share them in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.

 

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Adorable! A dog and his human “namaste” each other

namaste dog

This animated gif of a dog saluting his human is just beautiful. Technically neither of them is doing a “namaste” since that’s a verbal greeting—hence the scare quotes in the subject line of this post. They’re performing the añjali mudrā, which is the respectful putting together of hands, accompanied by a bow. Just thought you’d want to know :)

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Buddhism, vegetarianism, and the ethics of intention

One of the most attractive things about Buddhism is that it considers ethics to be based on the intentions behind our actions. This perspective is radical in its simplicity, clarity, and practicality.

When our actions are based on greed, hatred, or delusion, they’re said to be “unskillful” (akusala), which is the term Buddhism prefers over the more judgmental terms “bad” or “evil” — although those terms are used too, albeit mostly in the context of poetry. By contrast, when our intentions are based on mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom, they’re said to be skillful (kusala).

For many people accustomed to systems of morality based on commandments, rewards and punishments, the Buddhist ethical perspective is liberating and refreshing.

But sometimes the idea that Buddhist ethics is about intention is seen in too narrow a way. The problem is that a deluded mind is trying to become aware of itself! We’re not always aware of our intentions, or may choose to fool ourselves about what our motivations really are. We develop ethical blind spots and adopt evasive strategies to justify our actions and to avoid change. Delusion keeps us tied to our current way of being and stops us from making spiritual progress.

One tool that the Buddha encouraged as a way of breaking out of ethical confusion is paying attention to the consequences of our actions:

Having done a bodily action, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily action I have done — did it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Was it an unskillful bodily action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it was an unskillful bodily action with painful consequences, painful results, then you should confess it, reveal it, lay it open to the Teacher or to a knowledgeable companion in the holy life. Having confessed it… you should exercise restraint in the future.

If we notice that we’re harming others, or that we’re causing pain to ourselves — for example through inducing guilt — then we need to look more closely at our motivations, being open to the possibility that we’re not clear enough about our intentions. We need to look for and admit to hidden ethical agendas. I wrote about this recently in terms of the way some men harass women on the street, without being willing to look at the fact that their attentions are unwanted and cause suffering.

Another example is the way most people who eat meat say that they like animals. They don’t think of themselves as cruel. Most of them are shocked by actual cruelty and want animal abusers to go to jail. And at the same time, they pay people to abuse animals on their behalf. They don’t think of themselves as doing this, but when they buy meat they’re financially rewarding people who raise animals in stressful and unnatural conditions, transport them, terrified, long distances in trucks, herd them into a slaughterhouse, shoot them in the head, hoist them into the air by their back legs, cut their throats, and then disembowel and dismember them in preparation for being shrink-wrapped and sold.

Although there’s no overt ill intent when you pick up a steak at the supermarket, you’re paying for this whole process to happen — a process that causes affliction to others. And we don’t want to think about all this. We’re shocked by animal cruelty, so for example we don’t want to see videos of animals in slaughterhouses because we’d rather avoid being shocked. That way we can avoid the discomfort that comes from change.

If we’re going to take the Buddha’s teachings seriously as a guide for living, then we need to examine the harmful consequences of our actions, and then look for the hidden intentions and assumptions that drive those actions.

Implicit in buying meat are attitudes like, “You are more useful to me dead than alive,” and “I kind of like you, but I’m hungry, and so I don’t mind you being killed.”

The attitudes are rarely if ever experienced as overtly as that (and I’ve expressed them rather baldly here) but something like that is going on. I know. I used to eat meat.

Meat-eating is just an example. I’ve picked it because so many people who want to follow the Buddhist path fall into the trap of thinking that if their actions are not directly harming others, then there’s no ethical issue at stake. And I picked it because I really hope we can reduce the amount of suffering in our world.

The problem with discussing an issue like this, though, is that it’s emotive, and so the larger point — we should examine the consequences of our actions in order to clarify our hidden intentions — can get lost in our emotional reactions.

Setting aside any such reactions for the moment, the principle of examining the consequences of our actions extends into almost every aspect of our lives. One example is our interaction with the environment. I know that taking my car to work unnecessarily contributes to climate disruption. And I know that climate change causes suffering to people on the other side of the planet. And yet I still take the lazy route. This suggests that I care less about people if they live far away or if I don’t personally know them, and that I value my comfort over others’ wellbeing. My “forgetting” to do my share of the housework suggests that I have a sense of entitlement, and that I think other people’s job is to clean up after me.

The applications are endless; Buddhism is calling upon us to be radically compassionate, radically mindful of our actions.

The principle that reflecting on the consequences of our actions illuminates our unacknowledged motivations is rarely recognized, but it’s one of the most powerful teachings that the Buddha offered us.

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Becoming a vegan again: Day 1

vegan-1I’ve been a vegetarian for over 30 years now, ever since I visited a slaughterhouse as part of my veterinary studies and saw an animal being slaughtered. I didn’t consciously decide to become vegetarian. It was as if the decision was made for me, deep down, and I just had to go along with it. And in 30 years I’ve never once been tempted to lapse.

And I’ve tried being vegan several times, sometimes lasting for a few years. It’s a natural and logical extension of vegetarianism. Really, there isn’t a lot of different between eating eggs and eating a chicken. In both cases a chicken dies, but in one case the chicken lays lots of eggs first. But I’ve found it harder to sustain.

There was the usual tussle between ethics on the one hand, and convenience and laziness and craving on the other. So ethics was outnumbered.

Anyway, we were discussing the Buddhist first precept (not causing harm) in an online Dharma study group that I lead, and mentioned my unease about eating eggs and dairy, and my faltering desire to be vegan again. Someone in the groups connected veganism with my “getting myself on the cushion mantra.” This is an affirmation that I’ve been using to make sure I meditate every day: “I meditate every day; it’s what I do; it’s just part of who I am.” This has really worked for me. And when someone connected that mantra with veganism, I realized I had the tool I needed to give ethics the upper hand over the other three.

So this Wednesday, the day after the study group, was the first day I had an opportunity to put my vegan “mantra” into practice. It went well until dinnertime, when I discovered that some cornbread that my six-year-old daughter had made (all by herself!) contained an egg. It was my bad: I hadn’t had a chance to talk to my wife about the vegan thing. So I’m counting that as Day Zero:

Day One went well. I’d talked to my wife — who also wants to be vegan — and since I was cooking that evening there were no problems anyway. When I was our for a coffee with a friend, I became aware that my local cafe has nothing vegetarian (apart from oatmeal!) but I’ve suggested to them that they make a vegan carrot cake. And an online friend suggested that I carry around snacks. He takes some emergency Clif Bars with him for times he can’t get a vegan snack.

So it’s been sinking in that this is just what I do now, and from now on. There will be slips. My father-in-law invites us round for dinner from time to time, and his culinary skills are very limited. Basically he can make pizza. So every couple of months I’ll have some pizza. I’m not going to ask him to change his ways. In the past that’s tripped me up, because I’ve gotten caught up in all-or-nothing thinking, where I’ll regard eating Lou’s pizza as me having crossed back from veganism to non-veganism, and then I think there’s no point carrying on with it. I’m not going to do that this time.

For protein this week, in the three meals I’ll be cooking at home, I’ll be having tofu, seitan, and tempeh. I’ve also ordered a book, Artisan Vegan Cheese, by Miyoko Schinner. I’m looking forward to trying it out.

Anyway, this is the start of Day Two. Going public about this will help me stay on track, as will counting the days (although don’t worry — I’m not going to do a daily post on the subject).

I’m looking forward to my first anniversary as a vegan!

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Why Buddhists should be vegetarian

The Buddha ate meat. This is a fairly well attested fact. The issue of vegetarianism is addressed a few times in the Suttas, notably the Jivaka Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya. The Buddha consistently affirmed that monastics were permitted to eat meat, as long as it was not killed intentionally for them. There are numerous passages in the Vinaya that refer to the Buddha or the monastics eating meat, and meat is regularly mentioned as one of the standard foods.

For these reasons, the standard position in Theravada Buddhism is that there is no ethical problem with eating meat. If you want to be vegetarian, that is a purely optional choice. Most Theravadins, whether lay or monastic, eat meat, and claim to be acting within the ethical guidelines of the Buddha’s teachings.

This position sits squarely within a straightforward application of the law of kamma, understood as intention. Eating meat involves no intention to do harm. As there is no intention, there is no kamma. As there is no kamma, there is no ethical problem.

The situation in Mahayana is more complicated. Mahayanists, especially in East Asia, embrace vegetarianism, often as a temporary measure for religious events, although the monastics are typically vegetarian all the time. The motivation is, at least in part, an expression of the greater emphasis on compassion in Mahayana. In practice, however, Mahayanists often adopt vegetarianism (as do Hindus) as a rite of purification. This is despite such texts as the Amagandha Sutta of the Sutta Nipata, where the Buddha insists that eating meat is not a source of spiritual impurity. Tibetan monastics, on the other hand, usually eat meat.

Despite the apparently straightforward situation in Theravada, the problem does not go away. For obvious reasons: eating meat requires the killing of animals, and this directly violates the first precept. Eating meat is the direct cause of an immense quantity of suffering for sentient beings. Many people, myself included, struggle with the notion that a religion as categorically opposed to violence as Buddhism can so blithely wave away the suffering inherent in eating meat.

Let’s have a closer look and see if we can discern the roots of this problem. There are a few considerations that I would like to begin with. We live in a very different world today than the Buddha lived in, and Buddhist ethics, whatever else they may be, must always be a pragmatic response to real world conditions.

Animals suffer much more today than they did 2500 years ago. In the Buddha’s time, and indeed everywhere up until the invention of modern farming, animals had a much better life. Chickens would wander round the village, or were kept in a coop. Cows roamed the fields. The invention of the factory farm changed all this. Today, the life of most meat animals is unimaginable suffering. I won’t go into this in detail, but if you are not aware of the conditions in factory farms, you should be. Factory farms get away with it, not because they are actually humane, but because they are so mind-bendingly horrific that most people just don’t want to know. We turn away, and our inattention allows the horror to continue.

The other huge change since the Buddha’s time is the destruction of the environment. We are all aware of the damage caused by energy production and wasteful consumerism. But one of the largest, yet least known, contributors to global warming and environmental destruction generally is eating meat. The basic problem is that meat is higher on the food chain as compared with plants, so more resources are required to produce nutrition in the form of meat. In the past this was not an issue, as food animals typically ate things that were not food for humans, like grass. Today, however, most food animals live on grains and other resource-intensive products. This means that meat requires more energy, water, space, and all other resources. In addition to the general burden on the environment, this creates a range of localised problems, due to the use of fertilisers, the disposal of vast amounts of animal waste, and so on.

One entirely predictable outcome of factory farming is the emergence of virulent new diseases. We have all heard of ‘swine flu’ and ‘bird flu’; but the media rarely raises the question: why are these two new threats derived from the two types of animals that are most used in factory farming? The answer is obvious, and has been predicted by opponents of factory farming for decades. In order to force animals to live together in such overcrowded, unnatural conditions, they must be fed a regular diet of antibiotics, as any disease is immediately spread through the whole facility. The outcome of this, as inevitable as the immutable principles of natural selection, is the emergence of virulent new strains of antibiotic resistant diseases. In coming years, as the limited varieties of antibiotics gradually lose their efficacy, this threat will recur in more and more devastating forms.

So, as compared with the Buddha’s day, eating meat involves far more cruelty, it damages the environment, and it creates diseases. If we approach this question as one of weights and balance, then the scales have tipped drastically to the side of not eating meat.

Sometimes in Theravada vegetarianism is slighted, as it is traditionally associated with the ‘5 points’ of Devadatta. Devadatta wanted to prove he was better than the Buddha, so he asked the Buddha to enforce five ascetic practices, such as only accepting alms food, live all their lives in the forest, and so on. These practices are regarded as praiseworthy, and Devadatta’s fault was not in promoting these as such, but in seeking to make them compulsory. Stories of the Buddha’s childhood emphasize how compassionate he was compared to Devadatta’s cruelty to animals, perhaps because of Devadatta’s asscoiation with vegetarianism. So rather than deprecating the vegetarians as ‘followers of Devadatta’, one could infer from this passage that vegetarianism, like the other practices, was praiseworthy, but the Buddha did not wish to make it compulsory.

To argue in such a way, however, is clutching at straws. There is a wider problem, and I think the discussions of the issue among Buddhists generally avoid this. And the wider issue is this: meat eating is clearly harmful. That harm is a direct but unintended consequence of eating meat. Since there is no intention to cause harm, eating meat is not bad kamma. There are therefore two logical possibilities: eating meat is ethical; or kamma is not a complete account of ethics.

Let us look more closely at this second possibility. The notion that actions should not be done, even when they involve no harmful intention, is found constantly in the Vinaya. For example, a monk is criticised for baking bricks that have small creatures in them, even though he was unaware of them and did not intend any harm. The Buddha laid down a rule forbidding this.

In another case, the Buddha laid down a rule that a monastic must inquire about the source of meat before accepting it. The context of this rule was that someone had offered human flesh (their own – it’s a long story!) and this rule is usually said to only apply if one has doubts as to whether the food is human flesh. But that is not what the rule states – it simply says that one should inquire as the the source of the meat, and that it is an offence to eat meat without doing so. Needless to say, this rule is ignored throughout Theravada.

These are a couple of examples in the context of causing harm to beings. There are many others. Indeed, there are several Vinaya rules that were laid down in response to the actions of arahants. An arahant cannot act in an intentionally harmful manner, so these rules cannot be taken to imply that the motivation behind the acts was wrong. The acts have unintended harmful consequences, and this is why they are prohibited.

In this sense, if the Vinaya pertains to sila, or ethics, then the scope of sila is broader than the scope of kamma. This is, when you think about it, common sense. Kamma deals only with intention and the consequences of intentional action. This is critical because of its place in the path to liberation. We can change our intentions, and thereby purify our minds and eventually find release from rebirth. That is the significance of kamma to us as individuals.

But ethics is not just a matter of individual personal development. It is also a social question, or even wider, an environmental question in the broad sense. How do we relate to our human and natural context in the most positive and constructive way?

I am suggesting that, while kamma deals with the personal, ethics includes both the personal and the environmental.

As well as broadening ethics in this way, I would suggest we should deepen it. Ethics is not just what is allowable. Sure, you can argue that eating meat is allowable. You can get away with it. That doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing. What if we ask, not what can I get away with, but what can I aspire to?

When we recite the first precept, we say, ‘I undertake the training to refrain from killing living beings’. This is a challenge, and in itself is a powerful ethics. Yet it is merely a short summary of a principle. It was never meant to fully describe the virtue of harmlessness. When the Buddha spoke of this precept in more detail, this is what he had to say:

Having abandoned the taking of life, refraining from the taking of life, one dwells without violence, with the knife laid down, scrupulous, full of mercy, trembling with compassion for all sentient beings.

This is not just an ethic of allowability. It doesn’t merely set a minimum standard. It calls us out, asking us to aspire to a higher sense of compassion, an ethic that deeply feels for the welfare of all beings. More than just asking, ‘Does this act come from an intention to harm’, we ask ourselves, ‘Is this act the best I can possibly do to promote the welfare of all?’ Rather than simply escaping bad kamma, we create good kamma.

One obvious criticism of this approach is that being vegetarian does not mean you don’t cause harm. We hurt beings in many unintentional way, driving cars, buying products, almost everything we do. If we follow this principle to its logical conclusion, we end up with Jainism, and will have to walk everywhere with a cloth over our mouth to keep the flies from dying, and a soft broom to brush the creatures away. (Note, though, that even the Jains have a complex relationship with vegetarianism.) It is simply arbitrary to identify meat eating as the cause of harm. This is, after all, the point of the well-known (though apocryphal) story of Siddhattha as a young boy, seeing the plough turning up the soil, killing some worms, and leaving the others to be picked off by the crows. Even eating rice involves the unintentional destruction of life. The only solution is to get off the wheel.

The problem with this argument is that it confuses the existential with the ethical. On an existential level, quite right, any form of life, even the most scrupulous, will inevitably cause harm to some beings. This is one of the reasons why the only final solution is escape from rebirth altogether. Yet meanwhile, we are still here. Ethics is not concerned with the ultimate escape from all suffering, but with minimising the harm and maximising the benefit we can do right here. It is relative and contextual. Sure, being vegetarian or vegan we will still cause harm. And sure, there are boundary issues as to what is really vegetarian (Honey? Bees are killed. Sugar? Animal bones are used for the purification process… )

But the fact that we can’t do everything does not imply that we shouldn’t do this thing. The simple fact is that eating meat cause massive and direct harm to many creatures. That harm is, almost always, easily avoidable. Becoming vegetarian does not involve any huge sacrifices or moral courage. It just takes a little restraint and care. This is even more so today, when there is a wide range of delicious, cheap, nutritious vegetarian foods available. The choice of becoming vegetarian is, of all moral choices we can make, one of the most beneficial, at the smallest cost to ourselves.

To return to the basic problem. As Buddhists, we expect that the Buddha kept the highest possible ethical conduct. And for the most part, he did. So if the Buddha allowed something, we feel there can’t be anything wrong with it. There is nothing dogmatic or unreasonable about such an expectation. When we read the Suttas and the Vinaya, we find again and again that the Buddha’s conduct was, indeed, of the highest order.

How then, if meat eating is an inferior ethical standard, can it be that the Buddha did it? This is the crux of the matter. And I don’t have an easy answer.

Part of it is to do with the nature of the mendicant life. The Buddha and his disciples wandered from house to house, simply accepting whatever was offered. It’s hard to refuse offerings given in such a spirit. Yet this answer is incomplete, as there are many foods, including several types of meat, that are prohibited in the Vinaya. Clearly the monastics were expected to have some say over what went into their bowls.

There are other considerations I could raise. But I don’t want to press the textual argument too far. In the end, we have a partial, and partially understood record of the Buddha’s life and teachings. For those of us who have been blessed enough to have encountered the Dhamma, we have found it to be an uplifting and wise guide to life.

And yet: we cannot let our ethical choices be dictated by ancient texts. Right and wrong are too important. The scriptures do not contain everything, and do not answer every question. As Buddhists, we take the texts seriously, and do not lightly discard their lessons. Yet there is a difference between learning from scripture and submitting to it.

There are some things that the scriptures simply get wrong. The Suttas make no critique of slavery, for example, and yet for us this is one of the most heinous of all crimes.

Why are these things as they are? I don’t know. I have devoted a considerable portion of my life to studying and understanding the Buddhist scriptures, and in almost all things of importance I find them to be impeccable. But my study has also shown me the limits of study. We cannot access the truth through scripture. We can only access certain ideas. Our understanding and application of those ideas is of necessity imperfect. There is always something left over.

This being so, it is unethical to cite scripture as a justification for doing harm. If eating meat is harmful and unnecessary, it remains so whatever the texts say. Our sacred texts are sacred, not because they determine what is right and wrong, but because they inform our choices and help us to do better.

The principle of harmlessness underlies the very fabric of the Dhamma, and if its application in this context is problematic, the principle itself is not in question. It simply means our scriptures are imperfect, and the practice of ethics is complex and messy. But we knew that already. It is not out of disrespect that we make our choice, but out of respect for the deeper principles of compassion and harmlessness.

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Marmoset monkeys will meditate — for marshmallows

New Scientist magazine relates that scientists have trained marmoset monkeys to meditate. The study was designed to investigate whether the placebo effect is involved in neurofeedback training, where the electrical activity of the brains of epilepsy sufferers is recorded and displayed back to them, in order to encourage them to generate “helpful brainwaves.”

Since monkeys aren’t aware of the potential helpful effects of being hooked up to a neurofeedback display, they’re not susceptible to the placebo effect, where the expectation of improvement brings improvement about.

The researchers, at the Biomedical Primate Research Centre in Rijswijk in the Netherlands,

attached electrodes to the brains of marmoset monkeys to pick up electroencephalogram (EEG) signals from the brain. Rather than showing the monkeys the EEG signal, as might be done in humans, Philippens and Vanwersch simply gave them a marshmallow reward every time they tuned their brain activity to a certain frequency range – in this case, 12 to 16 hertz.

In human subjects, this frequency is associated with meditative states, where the mind is relaxed but focused state.

So, can monkeys meditate? Apparently, they can, according to the article.

“It’s like meditation,” says Philippens. “When you see the monkeys doing it, they look very restful but they have focus, like they are staring at something.”

Just like humans, monkeys vary in their aptitude for meditation. Two monkeys took only two training sessions to learn to put themselves into a meditative state, while the other two monkeys studied took four sessions to become blissed out.

Maybe “monkey mind” isn’t as unmeditative as we thought?

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