I love food.
What we eat is deeply personal, like our religion. It nourishes us not only physically but emotionally and spiritually. It brings us together with our friends and families and helps us to celebrate. Most of us use food, at least occasionally, to soothe ourselves when we are sad or to suppress unwanted feelings.
Food is close to our hearts. And so I want to begin this blog by saying that it’s not my intention to force anyone to change their diets. What we eat is our choice, and it should remain so.
All the food we eat contains suffering. One of the blessings we regularly use before we eat goes:
This food is the gift of the universe; the earth, the sky, all sentient beings. In this food is much joy, much suffering, much hard work. We accept this food to follow a path of practice, and to help all beings everywhere.
What suffering does it contain? Men and women have toiled in sometimes difficult circumstances to plant the seeds, harvest the vegetables, package them, transport them and sell them. Some of the earth’s dwindling resources have been spent in transporting the food. Worms were cut in two by farm machinery, just like at the ploughing festival centuries ago when the young Buddha saw them die and sat down under a Rose Apple tree to contemplate on suffering. Bees have been bred and released by the van-load to pollinate vast tracts of crops.
When I became vegan, I was very tempted to step up onto a superior moral platform and look down at those tucking into bloody steaks. I often did, in fact. Look at the suffering they were causing! Did they have no idea what they were eating? And then I remembered that I also ate meat when I was a child, and that I ate eggs and dairy until five years ago. Food is very close to our hearts. I was afraid of looking at the facts, because I didn’t feel able to make any changes. I lived in everso-slightly-uncomfortable denial, clasping my cheese toasted sandwiches, luxury ice-cream and milk chocolate to my breast.
It is impossible for us to eat food without causing suffering, but we can minimise it. I am vegan because when I ate eggs I was complicit in the killing of male chicks, and when I drank milk I was complicit in calves being taken away from their mothers. Yes, I continue to make unskillful choices that lead to more suffering, when I buy food wrapped in plastic, when I eat palm oil, or when I give money to companies engaged in unethical behaviour. But I spend less money on these foods that contains more suffering, and I don’t put it into my mouth.
It is impossible for us to never cause suffering. It is possible for us to reduce the suffering we cause, bit by bit – gently and kindly. We can have a meat-free day twice a week. We can try one new vegan recipe every Thursday. We can swap our milk for a non-dairy alternative. We can choose a vegetarian meal from the menu. We can start experimenting with luxury vegan ice-cream!
I would urge all Buddhists to move in the direction of a plant-based diet (and all non-Buddhists, for that matter). It makes sense in terms of animal suffering, environmental impact and health. Enjoy super-delicious food, a happier body, and a cleaner conscience. Reduce little bits of suffering, here and there – they do add up. Start here or here. What do you think?