[Buddha-l] Some hae meat and canna eat

Richard P. Hayes rhayes at unm.edu
Wed Jun 23 15:54:04 MDT 2010

Dear denizens,

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that the Canadian Broadcasting
Corporation radio program called Ideas was running a three-part series
of programs entitled "Having Your Meat and Eating It, Too." Themes that
run through all three installments are the methods of so-called factory
farming and all the distortions that large scale agricultural operations
feed into the economy, the environment and the political climate of the
countries in which it is practiced. There are examinations of the
influence of pharmaceutical companies, chemical companies that produce
artificial fertilizers and pesticides, and "big box" retailers such as
Wal-Mart and McDonalds that force prices paid to farmers to such low
levels that hardly anyone in small-scale agriculture can make a
livelihood any more. Rarely have I heard the word "unsustainable" used
so many times in a span of three hours.

Episodes two and three both have discussions of the ethical and
environmental and health implications of a vegetarian diet. Suffice it
to say that it is not obvious that a vegetarian diet is unambiguously
indicated as the best way to stay healthy and preserve the environment,
although everyone agrees that the current dietary proclivities of
Americans are both unhealthy and environmentally disastrous. (Those who
swoon whenever people trash-talk America will love much of this program.
Needless to say, I was so ecstatic to hear all the trash-talking of
America that I nearly had to be taken to a hospital. But I couldn't find
any ambulances that would take me from New Mexico to a Canadian hospital
for a reasonable fee. But I digress.)

One of the observations that most caught my attention was made by a
woman who was a vegan for 20-30 years and eventually changed her diet to
include some animal products. She observed that being a vegan is much
more than deciding what to eat and what not to eat. It is also taking on
an identity. It is wearing all the accoutrement of a persona that must
be defended almost every time one picks up a fork. It is, in other
words, to take on a practice that has exactly the opposite effect of
what most Buddhist practices are designed to do, namely, to reduce one's
attachment to a particular identity. And, said this former vegan,
whenever one takes on an identity, one loses perspective and enters into
a mentality that warps almost everything one sees, systematically
refuses to look at evidence impartially, and enters into the
epistemological vices of believing things for which one has insufficient
evidence and not believing things despite having plenty of evidence.
Buddhists called these epistemological vices by the simple term "moha,"
the state of being perplexed, confused, infatuated or fooled.

Needless to say, there is no invariable causal relationship between
deciding to be a vegan and becoming incapable of thinking carefully and
impartially. As long as one makes such decisions whimsically and
realizes that the decision is a manifestation of sentimentality,
everything is fine. It is only when one begins to think that there is
something rational and righteous about the decision that one begins to
get into trouble.

All these observations intrigued me, because they spoke to my own
experience. When I became convinced that veganism was the only morally
defensible diet for an environmentalist, I entered into a year of living
fanatically. I found myself welling up with disgust when I saw people
put a teaspoon of milk into their afternoon tea. People who put a
spoonful of honey on their yeast-leavened bread, I regarded them as
morally equivalent to genocidal maniacs. I exaggerate for effect, but I
really did find myself hating the kind of self-righteous judgmentalism
that entered my mentality shortly after I began to eschew all animal
products from my pantry and my wardrobe. It was as though I had suddenly
become a patriot or the member of some marginalized tribe figthing for
ethnic survival or the follower of a religion that forbids exogamy and
associating with out-group folk for fear of ideological contamination.

To some extent even insistent ideologically driven vegetarianism
promotes epistemological warping, but not to the extent that
ideologically driven veganism does.

None of this is new, of course, I wrote a scathing denunciation of the
fallacious argumentation found in the vegan sections of various Buddhist
texts some twenty years ago (just as I was climbing out of my own
descent into veganism). We have talked about it plenty of times on
buddha-l in the past (October 2005) and need not get off onto that topic
again. It's just that the excellent program on Ideas reminded me of
those issues. Anyone interested in hearing the programs should be able
to get them for a short time by pursuing the following links. (CBC makes
its podcasts available for only one month for free. After a month has
elapsed, one must order them at a cost that no academic or monk can
afford. So hurry.)

First episode: http://podcast.cbc.ca/mp3/ideas_20100607_32369.mp3 
Second episode: http://podcast.cbc.ca/mp3/ideas_20100614_32370.mp3
Third episode: http://podcast.cbc.ca/mp3/ideas_20100621_32371.mp3

In my grandparent's sparsely outfitted apartment, the dining room walls
were bare except for a framed exemplar of the Selkirk Grace:

"Some hae meat and canna eat, 
   And some wad eat that want it; 
But we hae meat, and we can eat, 
   Sae let the Lord be thankit."

When my grandfather died, my mother gave me that framed exemplar and
apologized profusely for giving me something that might offend my
vegetarian sensibilities. I explained to her that the prayer was written
in the 17th century, when "meat" was metonymic for food, in much the
same way that "meal" is in current English, or "go-han" is in Japanese.
So when a 17th century family sat down to have their meat, they often
ate bread and ale and perhaps a piece of cheese.


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