Explorations by Kenley Neufeld

Being Vegan

By on July 21, 2008

Back in 1985-1986, I was deeply troubled by the plight of the rainforest in the Amazon. The information I received at that time came primarily from the Rainforest Action Network who talked about deforestation to support the booming fast food industry and the American hunger for cheap hamburgers. I felt helpless to do anything until I realized that I could start by not eating meat. My connection to the environmental movement was connected to my eating habits and I became a vegetarian. Ten years later I began a journey into Buddhism, eventually becoming a student of Thich Nhat Hanh. It was there that I learned about vegetarianism as it relates to ethics and its connection with compassion to all beings and not killing. Now, another ten years have passed. I am still a vegetarian. I am still a student a Thich Nhat Hanh.

In October 2007, he wrote a letter to our community where he talks of the environment and food. I encourage you to read the entire letter, but here are few excerpts:

– In 2005, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) began an in-depth assessment of the various significant impacts of the world’s livestock sector on the environment. Its report, titled Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, was released on November 29th 2006. Henning Steinfeld, chief of FAO’s Livestock Information and Policy Branch and senior of the report, in the executive summary, asserts that: “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change, air pollution, water shortage, water pollution and loss of biodiversity. Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale and its potential contribution to their solution is equally large. The impact is so significant that it needs to be addressed with urgency” (page XX)

– The U.N.’s recommendation is clear: “The environment impact per unit of livestock production must be cut by half, just to avoid increasing the level of damage beyond its present level,” (page XX)1. We need to reduce at least 50 percent of the meat industry products, and that we must consume 50 percent less meat. The U.N. also reports that even if cattle-rearing is reduced by 50 percent, we still need to use new technology to help the rest of cattle-rearing create less pollution, such as choosing animal diets that can reduce enteric fermentation and consequent methane emissions, etc. Urgent action must be taken at the individual and collective levels. As a spiritual family and a human family, we can all help avert global warming with the practice of mindful eating. Going vegetarian may be the most effective way to fight global warming.

– Both monastic practitioners and lay people practice vegetarianism. Even though the number of lay practitioners who are 100 percent vegetarian is not as many as monastic practitioners, but they practice eating vegetarian meals either for 4 days or 10 days each month. [Thich Nhat Hanh] believes that it is not so difficult to stop eating meat, when we know that we are saving the planet by doing so. Lay communities should be courageous and give rise to the commitment to be vegetarian, at least 15 days each month. If we can do that, we will feel a sense of well-being. We will have peace, joy, and happiness right from the moment we make this vow and commitment.

But what about being vegan?

I practiced veganism for about 12 years (1994-2006), a practice of not eating any animal products or byproducts, including dairy and eggs. This can be a challenging diet and requires more effort than a simple vegetarian diet. It was because of this challenge that I became lazy. It would be easy to blame my young children, who eat cheese, for my lapse but I must take responsibility for my own actions. I have been lazy.

This week I received a Skype call from Denise Glover, a sangha friend whom I’ve never met in person. She expressed frustration with trying to practice the vegan diet, primarily suggested by the letter mentioned above, and was seeking support from a sangha friend. I felt awful when I shared that I had become lazy and had been eating dairy periodically over the past two years. We talked for 45-minutes and she inspired me to redouble my efforts and to return to the path of a vegan diet.

Here’s what Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in regards to being vegan:

This evening when we begin the retreat, everyone will be informed that we will not use dairy and egg products during the whole retreat. From now on, all of our retreats and, of course, all of our practice centers in Asia, Europe, and North America will be conducted like that. Thay trusts that lay practitioners will understand and support wholeheartedly.

So, there you have it. I am “Being Vegan” again. I continue my no meat diet and add the no dairy back. At this point, it does not extend to animal byproducts such as leather but may in the future. In just the past four days it has brought great awareness to my eating habits. How wonderful this is for me. Please support me where you can and consider making a change in your diet, perhaps simply reducing your meat consumption a little, and help reduce global warming, eat healthier, and live a more compassionate life.