[Buddha-l] Insight into Anti-Muslim Violence in Sri Lanka

Richard Hayes richard.hayes.unm at gmail.com
Thu Aug 22 00:10:15 MDT 2013

On Aug 21, 2013, at 13:01 , Dan Lusthaus <vasubandhu at earthlink.net> wrote:

> So what got you start eating meat again?


A more interesting question might be what set of circumstances affected my views on diet in general and vegetarianism in particular. That change came about as a result of my participating in a number of interfaith events that were organized by an orthodox rabbi who was fastidiously observant of halacha and also a staunch vegetarian by conviction. The conferences he organized were always on some version of the theme of how the human race is one big happy family despite our minor religious differences. We are all children of God (even we atheists), and God loves all her children equally. As pleasant as it was to hear that mantra intoned in various ways, the reality of these events was that various religious convictions stood in the way, again and again, of harmony. Every day was a series of demonstrations of what a dysfunctional and unhappy family God's family is. Orthodox Christians refused to pray with Catholics and Protestants. Some Jews would not enter Christian churches. There was friction between Sunni and Shi'i Muslims. Theravādins were shown disdain by Mahāyānins, and vice versa. On one occasion Jews showed open hostility toward an Israeli Jew who had converted to Catholicism and become a priest. The behavior displayed at the events were profoundly discouraging to me.

Among the many disturbing features of these meetings was the extraordinary difficulty involved in having meals together. We kept trying to do so, but whatever the venue, whether Montreal or Jerusalem or Arkansas or England, no meal was ever simple. The rabbi cross-examined the cooks to make sure no pot or spatula that had ever touched meat was used in the preparation of his food. He asked for disposable plates and cutlery, lest he be served off a plate that did not meet his strict dietary observances. The whole atmosphere of the meals was one of various kinds of division and disunity, and I was by no means the only one who noticed how much dietary fussiness was undermining the harmony and unity that the meetings were ostensibly about. As one person put it, "For crying out loud, eating was never meant to be this complicated. God can't possibly require this degree of rigidity."

Meeting this exceptionally observant rabbi was a valuable experience for me, because it held up a mirror that enabled me to see what a royal pane in the donkey my own vegetarianism had been to others, and how totally unnecessary it is to be uncompromising about something that is not even (to my mind) a moral issue, but a matter of purely personal aesthetic preference.

Now it just so happens that at the same time I was dealing with the fastidiously orthodox vegetarian rabbi, I attended a series of talks by a rabbi in New Mexico who grew up in a fastidiously observant home and went to a very disciplined ultra-orthodox yeshiva but came to feel that his observance was putting up barriers between himself and other Jews and other human beings in general and even between himself and God. His jocular way of stating his change of attitude was that he went from ultra-orthodoxy to ultra-flexidoxy. What that meant for him in practice is that he would observe certain practices in the privacy of his own home, but he would not let them stand in the way of interacting with native Americans, Hispanic Catholics, Protestants, and Sikhs and Hindus and Buddhists. When in their company he would eat as they ate, dress as they dressed and worship as they worshiped (to the extent that he was welcome to do so). If others put up barriers, he would honor the barriers, but he resolved that he himself would make no such barriers. He even went  so far as to say that the word "hebrew" meant wanderer or nomad and that the essence of being Hebrew was to cross boundaries and barriers and frontiers and explore uncharted terrain.

So I became a convert to the flexidox attitude, which means that in my own home I follow dietary disciplines that reflect my own purely subjective values and tastes, but outside the home I behave as others do. There are, of course, limits, imposed mostly by my own cowardice and fear. I don't go to gambling venues or brothels or strip clubs, because I don't enjoy being in noisy places where people are inclined to be unruly. Boisterous people terrorize me. So I'm no Vimalakīrti, but neither am I one to pass judgement on how others behave (except Republicans, of course).

In the Spring semester I taught my last course before retirement. In the course we read the entire Lankāvatāra Sūtra with quite a bit of care (or as much care as can be given to something read in translation) and discussed the themes in it. When we got to the final chapter, the diatribe against carnivores with its superabundance of spurious arguments for vegetarianism, several students said they felt the chapter completely undermined the message of the rest of the sūtra. The rest of the text tirelessly explores the them of non-dualism, and warns repeatedly against making false mental distinctions and rending the unity of the pure consciousness of the Buddha. And then the whole text is spoiled by this ridiculously dualistic and adolescent vegetarian tirade. Some of the more imaginative students in the class were convinced the vegetarian chapter was deeply satirical and that the point of it was to demonstrate just how ugly and fatuous dualistic judgmentalism can be. (Can it be that the Lankā has coyote nature?)

Well, Dr Lusthaus, since having the last word means a great deal to you, and since this topic of vegetarianism is much more important to you than it is to me, please go ahead and state your rejoinders. You asked an honest question out of the depth of your curiosity, and I answered to the best of my ability. Now I think I'll go eat a faux pork sausage, washed down with some almond milk and reflect on the relationship between form and emptiness.


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