Avoiding cruelty, the “far enemy” of compassion (Day 30)

Cute sheep looking directly into the camera. Who would want to eat this lovely person?

Yesterday I wrote about the complexities of the “near enemy” of compassion, which is the grief that arises from attachment. So we might feel bad when we see someone suffering, but not actually have any empathy for them. That’s not compassion. It’s “grief” at having our normal experience disrupted by someone who’s inconsiderate enough to suffer. Or we may spiral into despair and sorrow (which is called “failed compassion”) because we’re unable to bear the discomfort of knowing someone is suffering. This is all rather tricky for people to get hold of, sometimes, and it’s potentially undermining because we can end up doubting, in an unhelpful, self-hating kind of a way, whether our compassion is real. (Don’t worry. Just keep on going with the practice and things will sort themselves out.)

Cruelty, the opposite or “far enemy” of compassion, might seem to be more straightforward. But I’m not sure it always is!

The straightforward side of cruelty is deliberately causing physical pain to others. Now of course when we’re children we often just don’t understand that small creatures you’re tormenting are actually experiencing pain. We just see the worm writhing and think it’s funny. And we may need to be taught that what seems like fun for us isn’t fun for the other; that the other creature’s pain is as real to it as ours is to us. And with that leap, empathy is born.

There are a few places in the early Buddhist teachings where the Buddha helps children to become aware of their cruelty. One time he came across a crowd of boys who were fishing, and he simply asked them “Boys, do you fear pain? Do you dislike pain?” Of course the boys did. And the Buddha points out, in the Dhammapada, the empathic basis of non-cruelty: “All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.”

So this brings up the question of vegetarianism. If you eat meat you’re either killing or you cause another to kill. An animal has to die. So you might not think it’s cruel to eat meat, but a lot of cruelty has gone into bringing the meat to your lips. The Buddha didn’t force his monks and nuns to be vegetarian, but remember that the monks and nuns lived by seeking offerings of food as they went door to door. And although we think of India now as being largely a vegetarian country, it certainly wasn’t at that time; there are plenty of references in the Buddhist scriptures to butchers, and to cows being slaughtered (cows that Hindus now consider sacred). So imagine living by begging from door to door, accepting what’s put in your bowl, and remaining vegetarian. It wouldn’t be easy. And as confirmation of this, the early Buddhists saw vegetarianism as an ascetic practice, along with wearing cast-off rags and sleeping under trees. To be a vegetarian monk would have meant risking malnutrition and illness.

But I presume you’re not a monk and don’t live by begging from door to door. You do have a choice about what you eat, and you can choose to eat food that involves less cruelty. In fact I’ve been a vegan (again!) for the last four months, because there’s a lot of killing and pain involved in the dairy and egg industries, and I’d like to contribute less to that.

People get very attached to eating meat, and this attachment makes them indifferent to suffering.

But there’s a lot of cruelty involved in our lives in subtler ways. Not all cruelty is to do with causing physical pain or taking life. Cruelty is, fundamentally, the desire to make others feel pain (even emotional pain) or to deny them happiness.

So there’s a simple question you can ask yourself in your interactions with others, or when you’re thinking about them: am I trying to block another’s happiness or to make them feel bad?

Listen to your thoughts and words, and see how often you blame others for things that have gone wrong. We often want to make people feel bad.

Listen to the jokes and put-downs you make at others’ expense, or even at your own expense. (We can be cruel to ourselves, too).

How often do we rain on someone’s parade when they’re really excited about something?

How often does our ego prompt us to be obstructive: someone at work has an idea, and we immediately switch to fault-finding and obstructionism. It can be laziness or being unwilling to change on our part that leads to us acting in this way, or it may be that we don’t want the other person to get any credit, but we can take positive pleasure in stopping people from seeking happiness and satisfaction.

How often do we “blame the victim” or feel judgmental when someone’s suffering and their own actions contributed to their pain?

We tend to believe that punishment — the infliction of suffering in order to modify behavior — is a necessary part of everyday life, especially when it comes to children. Many people still hit their children, which I find incredible. And yet the most effective trainers of animals show us that punishment is totally counter-productive to getting the behavior you desire. Rewards work much better — and rewards can just be a “good job” or a “Thank you, I appreciate what you just did.”

So watch out for how you think and talk and behave. You can always backtrack, apologize, try again with more kindness. You can make cruelty less likely to arise by keeping the metta phrases (“May you be well; may you be happy”) running through your mind during the day. You can keep bringing your awareness to your heart as you go about your life and especially as you encounter people. And make sure that you’re not unkind to yourself as you become more aware of the small cruelties embedded in the way you behave, speak, and think. Be compassionate to yourself, for the most common target of our cruelty may well be ourselves.

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Becoming a vegan again: Day 1

Vegan-friendly icon, from By Peepal Farm Foundation - File:Vegan friendly icon.png, CC BY-SA 4.0,

I’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 group 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 Chris 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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Russell Simmons on money, bliss and veganism

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The message of music mogul Russell Simmons’ latest book, “Super Rich: A Guide to Having It All” (Gotham), may seem contradictory: A person can become “super rich” by reaching the state of needing nothing.

Simmons, the self-made millionaire often credited for putting hip-hop on the map with Def Jam Recordings, is one of the wealthiest black Americans in the country, but he argues a person can become rich not by obsessing about money but by giving to others.

Being rich is about finding the happiness inside, he says.

Slender and with a kind smile, the 53-year-old still looks youthful, part of what he attributes to a strict vegan diet he embraced 10 years ago.

“The last book helped change so many people’s lives. I wanted this one to do the same,” he says of the new book he co-wrote with Chris Morrow. (His previous one, “Do You! 12 Laws to Access the Power in You to Achieve Happiness and Success,” also co-authored by Morrow, became a New York Times best-seller upon its release in 2007.)

The following is an edited version of our interview:

CNN: What does it mean to be rich?

Russell Simmons: The idea of “Super Rich” is likened to a state of yoga, being in a state of needing nothing. There is this space where you are awake, a heightened awareness, and this kind of space is very attractive.

The title is a little deceptive to some. It certainly is the road to having success in the world, having the toys, the trappings people refer to as rich. (It’s also about) those people who are good givers and feelers — the book practices to bring you toward a more enlightened state.

CNN: Has your definition of rich always been this way?

Simmons: No, I think “Super Rich” is a fun title, and I think I couldn’t call the book “Christ Consciousness.” It’s really about being in a blissful state, and I think all of us are looking for that.

CNN: What is that blissful state?

Simmons: I think the idea is we want to be happy, and happy is something that is not based on the outside forces. It’s something from inside. And when you’re calm and you’re in a state of needing nothing, it’s a place of operation and of abundance.

CNN: Do you think you’ve reached that state?

Simmons: I certainly can’t say I’m enlightened. I have faith in the process.

CNN: Why did you write the book?

Simmons: This is my second book on the subject. The last book was a big best-seller. It was fun bringing all the scripture together and making it simple and putting the book out. I never expected it to be so big. So many people from the last book — “Do You!” — came up to me and told me that my book changed their life.

I wrote this book more as a “how to” book but with a greater intention. It was not just — can I bring these teachings together but can I really make it an offering.

CNN: What are some of these teachings people can incorporate into their everyday life?

Simmons: The idea of giving. Wake up in the morning and decide on what you are going to give. Those people, who are selfless servants, always are successful. Many of my interns from Puffy, who you could put your left hand out and there would be a cup of coffee. … If you make someone better, then they keep calling on you to make them better. Then one day you’re their president, and they look to you for inspiration.

CNN: What are the ways you give?

Simmons: I run many charities. I make music. I have a financial service company that is very special.

CNN: The book talks a lot about being focused and awake. How can we do that?

When I say you need nothing, it’s a state of awareness so you can be focused on your work. People are sometimes focused on their results, and it can be a distraction. Be focused on the action, the work, and that’s what we want to teach people.

CNN: People can often link success to material objects, perhaps a new car or house. How do you break away from that belief when so many people are inundated with material objects?

Simmons: There is a simple chapter on meditation to watch your thoughts just a bit — to not to be a sheep through that practice and other practices. You start to think on your own, and you can check what society is telling you, whether the collective unconscious behavior is your behavior or your future. Do you have to do what everyone does?

As you come to meditate and look inside, you can make your own choices. And entrepreneurs absolutely have to think outside the box, don’t they? You want to have the creativity and a spacious mind. The book is about creating that kind of mind-set so you can be a better entrepreneur.

CNN: Meditation is one way to achieve that clarity. Are there other ways?

Simmons: Take stock in yourself. When you meditate, you take inventory before you transcend the thoughts. As you come to know what they told you is true … when you hear the truth, it rings a bell. This book is written in such a way that many people who might not hear it from their mother, their preacher, their prophet or their scripture, they are hearing it in this book.

CNN: Tell me about being vegan.

Simmons: I’ve been vegan for more than 10 years. It’s maybe the worst disaster in human history — 15 billion suffering farm animals. And I don’t want to participate in it. I’m 53 years old, and do I look sick to you? I don’t eat animal or animal products, and I feel fine. I feel pretty healthy.

CNN: What are your favorite dishes?

Simmons: I like this spicy tempeh dish. I like that a lot. People ask my favorite stuff, and I say the thing in front of me a lot. Right now if I weren’t on a liquid diet, if I had an avocado roll and some soy sauce, it would be that.

CNN: What can people learn from your book?

Simmons: I hope people become more compassionate and happier, and I guess the fringe benefit is they will be successful in the world.

Original article no longer available


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Ask Auntie Suvanna: On eating vegetarian monkey brains

Monkey looking intently at a baby monkey

You ate what?

Dear 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.
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 Suvanna

Ever 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.

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