Thursday, June 12, 2008

FLESH AND TONGUE: Eating and Talking About Animals

Peter Singer, philosopher of animal liberation, has suggested that "habits not only of diet but also of thought and language must be challenged and altered." Nowhere is this more true than in our expressions about animals. Once a friend tried to defend his usage of "beating a dead horse." "C'mon," he persisted, "give me a break! It's just an expression!"

I shook my head. "Then murdered animals are just food?"

Clearly exasperated, my friend sighed, "Well, if you want to know the truth, I guess I never really gave it much thought."

The transition from a destructive diet to vegetarianism (and the more healthful vegan lifestyle) is a weaning process. So is the switch to a new language free of allusions to violence and cruelty. The idea is gradually to eliminate the more egregious offenders: "there's more than one way to skin a cat," "let's kill two birds with one stone," "that's the straw that broke the camel's back," "cold turkey," "let the cat out of the bag," "in the doghouse," "a bat out of hell," "you're a dead duck," "your goose is cooked," "hog-tied," "like a lamb to slaughter," "a chicken in every pot," "hold your horses!" "milk it for all it's worth," and "like shooting fish in a barrel." These are examples of malignant usage we can eliminate from our diet of "harmless" colloquialisms.

In our quest for "gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals," (one of Thoreau's "Higher Laws") cow, calf and pig are first to go on the menu, soon followed by water-dwelling and sky-borne animals. Likewise, liberated language is further realized by cutting out debasing slurs, stereotypes and similes: sly as a fox, dumb as an ox, fat and smelly as a hog, madder than a junkyard dog, sillier than a goose, uglier than a moose. As dairy and leather are next on the list of forbiddens, so too go insults and innuendo in our animalspeak. "How is it," asks Marjorie Spiegel, author of The Dreaded Comparison, "that we find ourselves in a time when comparison to a non-human animal has ceased to be a compliment and is instead hurled as an insult?" Examples include: "You disgusting pig!" "You old nag!" "You lecherous goat!" "You little weasel!" "You stinking skunk!" "You silly ass!" "You dirty rat!" "You slimy snake!" "You animal! You beast!" Do our friends of the earth deserve such opprobrium? The powerful forces of market capitalism have conquered the hearts and minds of trusting consumers who truly believe that "meat is necessary" and "milk does a body good." Language is deep-fried in denial and larded in obfuscation to promote a deadly agenda of unhealthy products that sell for billions of dollars. Propaganda, doublespeak, half-truths and outright lies keep us, as John Robbins puts it, "prisoner by a point of view beneath the threshold of our awareness."

Keeping Numb by Playing Dumb

It's always easier to swallow a sugarcoated pill than face up to the ugly truths disguised by corporate advertisers' practice of euphemistic naming. The unpleasant awareness that you are devouring a mutilated animal must be repressed or seen as something more pleasant than it really is. Otherwise, the gourmand status bestowed on charred corpses might not sound so appealing. Take away what Carol Adams terms the tortured "absent referent" -- the animal that used to exist -- and all that's left is "veal," "steak," "bacon," "sausage," "pork" and "ham." Hey, where's the beef? In this way, drugs become "compounds and health products," pain becomes "short-term discomfort," hormones become "growth promotants," to castrate becomes "neuter," factory farming becomes "family farming," and slaughter becomes "process/harvest/go to market."

Along with euphemisms, oxymorons masquerade and parade through the language of corporate speciesists whose livelihoods depend on animal suffering. The "whole chicken" at the market is a macabre example: a bird minus her head, feet, feathers, and internal organs is not exactly whole! Oxymorons render us ethically neutral to the daily atrocities perpetrated by the meat and dairy industries. Other howlers include: "humane slaughter," "wildlife management," "fresh meat," "live boiled lobster," "tender cut," "grain-consuming units," "lean fat," "dolphin-free tuna," and "farm fresh eggs." Bad taste in both food and expression are human cultural traits. Challenging the supremacy of diet and language is one thing; actually altering our cherished cultivation of flesh and tongue is quite another.

Minding Our Language

In becoming less speciesist toward animals, we come to appreciate how similar, not different, we are. Many animals engage in the same purposeful behavior attributed to humans. But naturally, we have apotheosized the self-referential "human being." What about "cetacean being," "ape being," and "avian being"-- for aren't we are all cut from the same cloth, only into different patterns to make the quilt of life?

Will our children ever know what it means to treat animals with the love and respect they deserve and once merited from our species? A cynical answer would be that they won't if they continue to be raised on rotten diets and filthy mouths. Only by changing our present way of living, of thinking and talking about animals, can we hope to pass on to future generations a healthier, more all-encompassing compassionate world. When that day comes, it will herald a return to reverence and harmony with the sacred "spirit-that-moves-through-all-things." Recurring cycles of evolutionary consciousness will be completed. Humans, estranged from their roots in the earth for so long, will once again become a part of, not apart from, all Gaia-inspired life.


Tom McGuire attempts to answer a hardy perennial question for vegetarians, "How can you justify killing plants?"

At one time or another, vegetarians must confront the inevitable: defending what we eat against an onslaught of detractors, pessimists, naysayers and staunch advocates of the dietary status quo. George Bernard Shaw referred to these unrepentant legions as "the outside anti-vegetarian world." When questioned about his standard fare of fruits, grains, nuts, seeds, vegetables and assorted plants, Shaw fired back, "Why do you call me to account for eating decently?"

For the most part the debate rages in the spirit of enlightenment and sharing information, and the questions are reasonable, if a bit naive: do you get enough protein? What else do you eat besides tofu? Don’t you miss turkey at Thanksgiving? Why are you a vegetarian, after all? The feistier, more entrenched flesh-eaters, upon hearing of the ethical considerations, scoff and trivialize the issue. Lately, I’ve had to fend off variations of a seriously-posed question: if I am so opposed to killing animals, how can I justify "killing" plants? Flesh-eaters, it seems, are trying to turn the moral tables on vegetarians by guilt-tripping with their "plants have feelings, too" line. How can vegetarians tread the moral high ground when we too, kill and destroy living things: plants? Up against such sophist deception, how many vegetarians have felt taken to the philosophical cleaners?

The most common objection vegetarians must defend against is "plants feel pain, too, and if all things feel pain, what difference does it make which thing we inflict pain on?" — as though harvesting garden vegetables or picking ripe cherries is tantamount to enslaving, torturing and slaughtering animals! As Gabriel Cousens, MD, author of Conscious Eating, says, "Our very existence causes some sort of pain on the planet, but there is a relativity to it."

No reliable scientific evidence has ever been presented which documents plants being able to feel or perceive pain. Plants do not have central nervous systems, the only bio-physiological mechanism or indicator known which would enable them to suffer a discomforting, joyless existence or experience agonizing sensations of pain. Although many point to The Secret Life of Plants as proof positive that plants are indeed sentient, their ability to sense and take cues from their environment, to stimulate growth, and ensure the survival of their species through strategies of natural selection are not in question here. It’s their ability to sense and experience pain that we’re talking about, and even if plants can feel pain in the same way that animals can, Cousens notes, "to even the most callous observer, the experiences are magnitudes different in pain and violence."

The idea that one can be cruel to plants is ludicrous. You can’t torture or inflict cruelty on a plant, nor deprive it of a fulfilling life. The only duty we have towards plants in using them as food resources is to water them regularly and let them grow healthily without toxifying them with chemicals and pesticides. (On this count, we fail morally.) Unlike animals, plants are naturally immobile, rooted to one small space in the earth for their entire life’s duration, "to draw nutrition, propagate and rot," as Alexander Pope observed.

Plants are not forced to conform to cages or pens, but confining animals, immobilizing them, is in opposition to their natural free-roaming nature. Furthermore, animals are social beings: they raise and nurture offspring, mate and bond for life in some cases, perform collective activities, travel and move about in groups, flocks, herds and even schools. They have personalities, we give them names, we commune with them — not true with plants, unless you happen to be one of the extremely rare individuals with psychically-attuned frequencies to plant’s modalities.

Finally, plants, unlike animals forced into unnatural aggregations, do not pollute and defile the earth in great numbers; rather, they sustain and revitalize the earth in great numbers. Plants, it must be concluded, do not enjoy the sort of communicative interaction that animals do. It’s therefore absurd to compare the unethical and unnecessary exploitation of animals with the harvesting and eating of plants.

Peter Singer, author of the seminal Animal Liberation, long ago pointed out the ridiculous logic of those who accuse vegetarians of ethical breaches by killing and eating plants. He makes the point that we must eat something, so if there is even a shred of reason to this argument, then we must perforce choose the lesser of two evils. Hands down, that is eating plants. In a meat-based diet, 10 times as many plants are "killed" as in a vegetarian-based diet. Again, the plant-eaters win!

Undeniably, plants are living entities. They play a vital role in maintaining the delicate balance of Gaia’s ecosystem. But do they feel pain and emotional trauma? Do they merit the special ethical consideration that vegetarian activists and advocates extend to animals?

Theoretically, our very existence causes pain to the earth at every level. Given, once again, that we live in the modern world where alternate food choices are available, must we carry the same burden of guilt when we take a plant’s life as we presumably would in killing an animal? Only to the extent that all life, all of the earth and "the-spirit-that-moves-through-all-things," is sacred. By recognizing this and acknowledging the dilemma and contradictions of this life, we can venture forth into this imperfect world with compassion, and begin to make choices that bring us back into a state of harmony and grace with the earth, ourselves, and all living beings. Once we begin to base our food choices on the principle of least harm and destruction, then we will know, as Tolstoy knew, that we are on the right path, that the vegetarian ethic is the genuine and sincere pursuit of moral perfection on the part of our species.

This piece was selected by Satya as one of the (now defunct) magazine's TOP 50 essays and published in The Way of Compassion.


Is a violent act ever justified? What if the violence committed prevents greater crimes from occurring? What if the violence perpetrated brings about change, a paradigm shift? Is violence justified then?

It would be easy to say yes. But what is violence, really, in all its ugly manifestations? Is it a physical act of abuse toward a fellow human? An animal? Does it emanate from our voice tones, our usage of unpalatable metaphors in our speech? It would be easy to point to the natural world’s abundant violent occurrences, tendencies, and outbursts, and proclaim therein our stark role model of behavior, a template for our actions, since we are also part of the natural world. But violence is ultimately a destructive act, a shattering of hope, a killing of possibility that feeds negatively upon itself until death--not necessarily something we wish to build a karmic foundation upon.

Human beings will rationalize anything, including violence. In the pursuit of hedonistic selfish goals, for example, we have “enviros” drive Hummers (violence toward Earth) and Buddhists eating meat (violence toward animals). Similarly so with violent acts committed in the ultimate good of humanity—bloody insurgencies, gruesome territorial wars, firebombing Earth-unfriendly property—the idea seemingly being that, hey, if the violence is committed in the spirit of something you strongly believe in, or can conveniently rationalize away, then it is somehow less karmically wrong and more morally all right.

One of the great things about being modern humans is that we can make choices that defy our evolutionary heritage. We are not chimpanzees engaging in crude territorial disputes and violent armed conflict for alpha-bragging rights; nor are we vicious warmongering army ants—we are human beings who can choose to act with compassion, mercy, kindness and love, in every act and in every moment. Why, then, is it so much more appealing to act out their opposites in our relationships with each other, the earth, and her many diverse beings?

My vegan/ahimsa ethics simply do not allow supporting violence in any way, shape or form. The principle of least harm must be the guiding light, otherwise, “an eye for an eye makes the world go blind.” And, besides, why put violent energy in the world? It can only come back to bite you in the ass. It is best to live by example, or “be the change that you wish to see,” to quote Gandhi again.

Yet there are those who say that violence is cleansing and liberating, as Franz Fanon famously asserted. . .in which case we should have no trouble believing Josef Stalin’s notorious line, "One death is a tragedy, but a million deaths are a statistic.”

Can there ever be revolution without violence? Perhaps. But it is certain that violence without revolution is senseless.



In August 1992, Hurricane Andrew left a swath of death and devastation fifty miles wide through the Caribbean, south Florida and up into Louisiana. Entire communities were destroyed, others immobilized by unheard-of Aeolian forces. This “act of God” was just a run-of-the-mill disaster, though, compared to the potential lethal capabilities of an angry earth in upheaval.

Billions of dollars in property damages were incurred, and 250,000 were left homeless in the wake of Hurricane Andrew. But the human toll of the tragedy was amazingly low. Life went on for most. Those who faced the wrath of the Bangladesh cyclone a year before in April 1991 were not so lucky—100,000 people were torn limb from limb and drowned by vicious killer winds and monstrous waves. In the previous thirty years in that wind-ravaged country, nearly a half million people have perished from cyclonic activity (300,000 alone in 1970). And in August of 1931, an unbelievable 3,700,000 people lost their lives in tempestuous floods and tidal waves when the Huang He River in China swallowed up the countryside.

Our planet has been wracked lately by a series of natural and human-created disasters approaching a magnitude unknown during this century. In the 1990s alone, Hurricane Andrew was quickly followed by the merciless typhoon named Omar that slammed into Guam packing 150-miles-per-hour winds. Hurricane Iniki then blasted into Hawaii with the strongest winds of the century, wrecking the paradise isle of Kauai. At the same time, a monstrous tornado cut a path of destruction through Wisconsin, killing two and causing millions of dollars in property losses. The very next day, an offshore earthquake created a tidal wave that bashed Nicaragua’s Pacific coast and killed over 100 and wiped out 300 miles of coastal villages. Who can forget the Great Flood of 1993 in our nation’s heartland, when the Mississippi River swelled to unprecedented heights and forever altered the landscape—physical and psychological—of the area? In late 1996, vast portions of the western United States suffered repeated major flooding, landslides, and mudslides. The Noachian drenching contributed to the Merced River in California altering its course, causing multi-million dollar damage to Yosemite National Park, forcing its closure for nearly three months, and prompting park Superintendent B.J. Griffin to lament, “This was our Hurricane Andrew without the wind.”

Each summer in the drought-plagued West, forest fires rage out of control for days on end, charring hundreds of thousands of acres of woodlands, and creating hazards for humans who have built their abodes in dry, wind-swept canyons. In 1992 in the Philippines, Mt. Pinatubo, dormant for centuries, exploded with unimaginable fury. The infernal blast, more devastating than the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens, killed 800, displaced thousands, destroyed entire towns, and like Krakatau in 1883, altered weather patterns worldwide. Mt. Pinatubo flared up again shortly afterwards, this time with steaming mudflows that sent 50,000 fleeing in an already deluged area affecting nearly 1,000,000 people. Weary and battered residents in Japan experienced frightfully similar encounters in 1993 as Mt. Unzen darkened skies with ashy plumes. No doubt about it, the Ring of Fire is alive and well, expected to spit lava and brimstone on an increasingly violent scale in the years to come, from Alaska to Chile and throughout the South Pacific, Japan and Siberia.

Earthquakes are perhaps the most feared of all natural calamities. In a few horrendously tumultuous minutes they can instantly transform and sculpt hundreds of square miles of the earth’s surface. What other disaster, save a nuclear war or meteoric collision, can snuff out 830,000 lives in just several seconds, as happened in China in 1556? A mega-temblor in Alaska in 1964 measured 8.5 on the Richter scale and raised parts of the ocean floor more than fifty feet. Felt over an area of 500,000 square miles, an earthquake of this magnitude in a more populated region would herald apocalyptic destruction on an unimaginable scale. In 1972, Managua, Nicaragua was virtually leveled. The year 1976 was a legendary year for serial killer quakes. Guatemala suffered severely with 25,000 casualties; New Guinea, 9000; countless thousands died in the old Soviet Union; and untold hundreds of thousands died in a single earthquake in Tangshan, China. The 1985 Mexico City earthquake killed, by various estimates, anywhere from ten to fifty thousand people in a few minutes. In Armenia in 1988, a colossal earth movement razed cities and killed nearly 30,000. In 1989, the San Francisco Bay Area, site of one of the world’s most famous faults (San Andreas), received but a mild taste of things to come. Seismologists predict earthquakes within three decades up to four times as devastating as the most powerful ever registered on the Richter Scale: the Chilean monster of 1960, an 8.6 ripper that packed the energy release equivalent of three million Hiroshima-type A-bombs.

Geophysical instability is nothing new to our planet. A molten rock whirling like a gyroscope through space at a dizzying velocity would naturally tend to experience instability from time to time, if not frequently. If it is any consolation, despite the wide ranging disasters of every kind striking almost daily, our earth may be in a lull. Today’s earthquakes, volcanic upheavals, floods, firestorms, mud and landslides, and tropical storms and tsunami must still be viewed as insignificant disturbances compared to a catastrophist’s (or, for that matter, a conventional geologist’s) interpretation of the geologic record. From Siberia to Antarctica, the jumbled fossil heaps of animals of all shapes and sizes perished together in four major cataclysmic extinctions; in fact, 90% of all species who have ever lived since the Precambrian have become extinct due to gargantuan catastrophes. And yet any one of the “minor” disasters mentioned above could potentially disrupt the course of life on earth; in concert, they constitute a very real threat to the fabric of civilization.

As unconscionable human activities like clear-cutting and chlorofluorocarbon pollution continue to adversely affect weather patterns around the world, global warming (possibly a trigger mechanism for Andrew/Omar-type storms) could eventually melt icebergs, inundating vast coastal areas. Earth scientists grimly announced late last year that the ozone hole above Antarctica is now the size of Europe. The ebb and flow of our ocean levels has countless times in the past altered the geo-physiognomy of the earth, in the process destroying and burying former civilizations without a trace. Geologically, it’s a sure bet to occur again; it’s just a matter of when.

Throughout time, many “legends” have recorded events (“creation myths” or “religious allegory”) which can easily be interpreted as consequences of a pole shift, or the earth’s axis of rotation suddenly and radically being displaced. Do not underestimate the earth’s acrobatic tendencies: pole displacements have happened several times in geologic history, as evidenced by tropical plant fossils being found in today’s circumpolar regions. No one yet understands the titanic forces involved or trigger mechanisms responsible for a pole shift, but such an incomprehensible cataclysm would dwarf the mightiest of earthquakes. But it’s hardly an incomprehensible scenario that the mightiest of earthquakes could initiate a pole shift. The unthinkable might not happen for another 2,000 or 20,000 or perhaps 2,000,000 years, but with human intervention skewering the planet’s natural balances and rhythms, it might happen in the next 200, or 20 years. Then what?

In the ultimate catastrophic nightmare, earth could conceivably cross orbital paths with an asteroid or comet. The magnitude of such a disaster can only be imagined in made-for-TV movies; perhaps Shoemaker and Levy, discoverers of the comet that pummeled Jupiter last year and gouged out craters the size of earth, might have an inkling of an idea what a tenth of that impact would do to earth. On a recent NBC National Geographic Special, Eugene Shoemaker speculated on the threat of such a thing ever happening—estimated to occur perhaps twice in a million years on earth alone. Sixty-six million years ago something crashed into the Yucatan peninsula area with enough force to have wiped out most life on earth, including the fabled dinosaurs. More recently, on June 30, 1908, in Tunguska, Siberia, a mysterious 30-megaton blast devastated hundreds of square miles of forest; high-altitude glowing clouds were seen over Asia and Europe for days. Two decades later, when an expedition was finally mounted to the remote region, scientists were astounded by what they saw: flattened and charred pine trees as far as the eye could see, but no trace of the object, having disintegrated upon impact. Most people are not going to lose sleep over outer space agents striking the earth and ending life as we know it. Nonetheless, former Vice President Dan Quayle was advised it was a serious enough threat that he set up a commission to investigate just such a scenario and likely solutions to fend off the extraterrestrial menaces, including using Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) technology to deflect and bombard with lasers any asteroids heading our way.


According to prophecies and seers, the spate of current and predicted disasters is “proof” that civilization is about to terminate in a series of “end of the millennium” catastrophes which humans can do very little to prevent. Many sources throughout the ages, among them Native American (Hopi, Mayan, Lakota Sioux, Navajo), Biblical, Greek, Zoroastrianism, Chinese, Icelandic, Polynesian, Hindu, Tibetan Buddhist, Edgar Cayce, and Nostradamus, are in consensus that the planet, rather the planet’s inhabitants, are doomed. And right about now. Unless a coincidence or conspiracy is in the works, how is it that all of these people and traditions concur on their prognostications of global cataclysms in our time?

Science writer Fred Warshofsky believes we have “reached a point where the destruction of mankind and the earth upon which it dwells is now not only technologically possible, but statistically possible.” The result will be a terrible period of suffering and destruction. Author John White says this predicted event—the demise of this world—is inevitable because of “man’s greed, arrogance and insensitivity to the sacred relationship he has with the planet as a living organism.” This theme, echoed in ancient Biblical and Babylonian “mythic” destructions of a corrupt, degenerate, immoral and evil race of humans, assumes modern significance among the Hopi and their prophecy of Qoyanissqatsii—life out of balance. Geophysical disturbances, they say, have destroyed three past worlds of “high civilization”, each time mandated by the Supreme Creator Taiowa because humans “grew cold and hard to the ways of the Good Life. . .and the soft spot that was the doorway between the body and the spirit began to harden.” This, the Fourth World, is about to go the same way, say the elders of the secret religious societies who safeguard the prophecies, except for the “faithful ones who did not forsake the ancient teachings given by the Great Spirit.”

Clearly, to not heed the warnings of poets, visionaries, prophets, and scientists is folly. And yet, writes Kenneth Watt, in The Titanic Effect, “there appears to be a basic human tendency to ignore warnings about such possible enormous disasters as ‘unthinkable’.”
We can no longer afford to think of possible enormous disasters as unthinkable! They can happen; they have happened; they will happen again. Their testimony is written in the stones and bones of sedimentary foundations around the world. The original founders of the sciences of geology and vertebrate paleontology, William Buckland and George Cuvier among them, were catastrophe theorists who, bolstered by irrefutable planetwide evidence, believed that “whole races were extinguished leaving mere traces of their existence.” But such a concept was “unthinkable” in Victorian times; a new doctrine was called for: Uniformitarianism. First proposed by Hutton in 1795 and echoed by Lamarck in 1800, amateur geologist Charles Lyell seized upon the concept in the mid-nineteenth century to develop a tidy theory which ascribed great age and slow, regular predictability to the earth’s physical processes. Charles Darwin ultimately used Uniformitarianism to support his theory of evolution by natural selection, a theory which required vast amounts of unbroken time for its scenario to unfold. It wasn’t long before Uniformitarianism supplanted catastrophism as the respectable viewpoint in institutes of higher learning, and again made the world safe and secure, and predictable, for everyone. It has taken over a century to come full circle. At Harvard, where the great ichthyologist Louis Agassiz once lectured on catastrophic earth events, a new heir to a modified catastrophe theory, Stephan Jay Gould, now packs lecture halls to expound on punctuated equilibrium, which takes into account severe geophysical disruptions, electromagnetic radiation bombardment and genetic mutations to account for the cyclic demise and relatively rapid reappearance of species on the earth (all of which got Immanuel Velikovsky into big trouble).

Watt insists we do something. “The magnitude of disasters decreases to the extent that people believe that they are possible, and plan to prevent them, or to minimize their effects.” Such frightening displays of Mother Nature gone berserk are tocsins sounding at the eleventh hour, indicating that our existence on this planet is fragile and totally at the whim of forces we cannot control. When natural calamities wipe out entire communities of plants, animals and humans in a matter of minutes, we are reminded of our impotence in dealing with a “retributive” nature whom we have abused and desacralized. But at least we can try to do something about it. A good place to start would be to reexamine and reprioritize our waning sacred relationship to Mother Earth, our role as stewards of the planet.


Does this apparent increase in natural disasters signal the fate of humans to perish in a horrible cataclysm? Could a gigantic asteroid crash to the earth and wipe out four-fifths of all life? Could the axes tilt, the poles shift, the crustal plates rotate and upheave, thereby thoroughly rearranging the geo-physiognomy of the planet and taking with it all of life’s, well, life? Could the icebergs melt and continents submerge, while others arise in paroxysms of volcanic and earthquake activity?

Could this happen in our lifetime? Is the “Doomsday Question” a Chimera? Carl Jung wrote, “we are again living in an age filled with apocalyptic images of universal destruction.” Does our collective cellular memory “remember” having lived through painful disasters before? Jung’s one-time colleague, and correspondent of Einstein, Immanuel Velikovsky, was convinced that we have: “upheavals in nature, with the unleashing of frenzied elements, shocked the minds of survivors and left there an indelible, heritable impression.” Like amnesia victims incapable of remembering and healing a traumatic past until the painful memories resurface and are repeated, is human culture condemned to fulfill the dire prophecies accordingly? Thomas Banyacya, a Hopi elder, tells us, “if man keeps himself in balance, the earth will keep itself in balance.” Survival, not just for humans but for all of our animal and plant friends, is thus somehow integrally tied into regaining a lost ethic in our personal relationships and our spiritual ties to the earth, our womb of life.

Ancient peoples’ reverence of the earth was grounded in harmony and oneness with the “spirit-that-moves-in-all-things.” Today, millions are rediscovering this awareness, sharing in the knowledge that the earth is alive and sentient, our one true tangible connection to a Supreme Consciousness. Deep ecology, ecofeminist visions emerging, and the Gaia hypothesis provide this native spiritual understanding with a neo-scientific framework to show how the earth is indeed a living being, a self-regulating, conscious entity, capable of adapting, changing, adjusting, and compensating. Part of this process involves cleansing and detoxifying, as when a sick person vomits, defecates, sweats, belches, farts, expectorates, shakes and sneezes. Sometimes death prevails, must prevail, as the ultimate prophylaxis.

Whereas Western peoples tend to view the Gotterdammerung of civilization with horror—as they do with individual death—the keepers of the prophecies and those who revere the traditions herald the coming of earth changes as a great purification of the planet. A time to start all over. Old, corrupt worlds destroyed, a new cycle of civilization beginning. It won’t be the first time. Some have foreseen this before, perhaps having sensed similar disasters already occurred millennia before their own lifetimes. Seneca, a contemporary of Pliny and mentor of Nero, wrote, “a single day will see the burial of all mankind. All that the long forbearance has produced, all that is famous and all that is beautiful, great thrones, great nations, all will descend into one abyss, will be overthrown in one hour.” Netzahualcoyotl (“Hungry Coyote”, the poet-king of Texcoco in ancient Mexico) proclaimed, “all the earth is a grave and nothing escapes it. . .filled are the bowels of the earth with pestilential dust once flesh and bone, once animate bodies of men.”Out of the rubble a few human survivors will emerge, trying to pick up the pieces, and learn from past mistakes. Over millennia, the reality that was our contemporary global civilization will become “creation myth” or “religious allegory” as new generations regroup, repopulate and rebuild. The Fifth World will be our next chance to walk again in spiritual balance with the earth, our last chance to hopefully be a part of, not a part from, all Gaia-inspired life.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

KILLING THEM SOFTLY: The Buddhist Rationale for Eating Animals

On a recent lecture tour, the Dalai Lama dined sumptuously on lamb at a chic Bay Area restaurant. Earlier in the year His Holiness partook of chicken soup at a seder. Nepalese Buddhist monks have been known to enjoy burgers, fries and shakes at American diners. Gelek Rinpoche, a Tibetan spiritual leader, proclaims, “We Tibetans like to eat meat. We don’t care if it’s healthy or not—we like it.” A zen teacher once stated three times during a workshop, “Buddhism is not vegetarianism!”

While that may be true, vegetarianism, for many, is an ethical practice based on non-violence and compassion toward animals. In that respect, Buddhism occupies common ground with ethical vegetarianism. A fifth century Sutra urges, “If you see a person about to kill an animal, you should devise a means to rescue and protect that creature.”

Religious groups from the Jains to Seventh Day Adventists practice ethical vegetarianism. Buddhist scripture likewise exhorts us “to dwell compassionate and kind to all creatures that have life.” But how many Buddhists break this commandment and violate the prime directive of unconditional, pure loving-kindness to all creatures? Surely, the volitional act of eating murdered, mutilated animals stands in direct contradiction to the Bodhisattva vow, “All beings, without number, I vow to liberate.”

In his spiritual teachings, Buddha never advocated a vegetarian diet. He and his cousin, the “devious” Devadatta, once argued over the proper diet of monks. In an attempt to wrest power and create a schism in the faith, Devadatta forbade fish and meat, and ordained that monks lead an austere lifestyle. But Buddha, as narrated in the Vinaya, prevailed. He insisted that monks never refuse almsfood, and felt that gourmand, self-absorbed vegetarians were more “at fault” karmically than mendicants who ate meat served to them.

The Blessed One indisputably indulged in animal flesh, enjoyed it, and did so “blamelessly” by ascribing three instances in which meat should not be eaten: “when it is seen, heard, or suspected [that the living being has been slaughtered]” specifically for the person. Buddha was thus able to justify the inherent barbarism of flesh eating by claiming to be merely third-party to the act. Buddha thus decreed, “with no evil in the heart, no indulgence of appetite,” that his followers no longer had to trouble their consciences; they could now eat their victims “blamelessly”. But no matter how you cut the carcass, it’s complicity, a shared responsibility for the deaths of innocent beings that no amount of scriptural exegesis can rationalize.

In the Jivaka Sutta, Buddha insists one can be a good Buddhist, and still eat animals whose flesh was knowingly taken, when done with “a mind imbued with loving-kindness.” His vague prescription of non-attachment also helped—so long as one’s attitude conformed to non-attachment, eating and killing animals was no longer verboten. The taking of a life became okay if one was not “tied to it, infatuated with it, and utterly committed to it, seeing the danger in it and understanding the escape from it.” A Buddhist holy man noted recently, “The important thing is the quality of your heart, not the contents of your diet. . .one who eats meat can have a pure heart just as one who does not eat meat can have an impure heart.” (Never mind the victims’ hearts!)

What right do humans have to enslave, torture, massacre and eat animals? Certainly, dependency on animal protein is a given in many traditional or marginal areas where being vegetarian would mean starvation. These people have little choice but to kill and eat animals to survive. But what about the Dalai Lama, who eats meat behind the facade of “doctor’s orders”? What about untold other Buddhists living in Western-style cities who eat animals knowingly killed for the purely selfish sake of gastronomic pleasure? Why cannot these Buddhists, who live in places where viable nutritional alternatives exist, simply swear off eating and killing animals?

Roshi Philip Kapleau’s A Buddhist Case for Vegetarianism “picks a bone” with the faithful who eat animals without blame or guilt. Dharma heir Bodhin Kjolhede laments how these Buddhists are merely masking their true motivation “with the pleasing fragrance of such Buddhist concepts as ‘non-attachment’. . .it is sad to see how many American Buddhists are managing to find a self-satisfying accommodation to eating meat.” Sagaramati wonders how a self-respecting Buddhist can practice the teachings of Buddha by endeavoring to become kinder and more compassionate to all beings, and yet deny an ethical connection between the unkind and decidedly non-compassionate treatment of animals and the corpse on one’s plate.

It all comes down to a simple question of need versus desire. Let’s put aside for a moment the assertion that all things being equal, “a carrot is the equivalent of a cow”. Let’s forget for a moment all this stuff about attachment and non-attachment, transcendence of guilt, and purity of intention, and think for a moment about those least able to speak up for and defend themselves—the attachees! If one can honestly do without, do without! Being vegetarian palpably helps to reduce pain and suffering in the world. Why be complicit in the deaths of innocent beings for no better reason than to indulge in bloody flesh and sate some base gastronomic lust?

Some argue that eating animals is excusable because to worry and fuss too much about it all is “ to be attached” to straitjacket world views. Other defenders wave off innumerable harmful consequences of a flesh diet by couching the issue in a liturgical context, making it an exercise of attitude, discipline and questioning practice, instead of moral behavior. Well, something fails to compute here. Where is ahimsa, the non-violent ethic of least harm in a Buddhist’s daily life?
Purification of the mind and heart is the essence of the Buddhist journey to Nirvana. As one becomes less and less attached to earthly misery and suffering, one ultimately comes to accept all things as equally worthy of supreme love and compassion. This noble, if highly abstract ideal, fails to address the concrete, solid, material world that most of us dwell in. What of rampant hatred and murder, violence and injustice? Transcendence might well be the answer. What can a single individual do, after all?

In the realm of diet, a lot! A single individual can manifestly begin right at the kitchen table, picnic basket, and restaurant. A single individual can directly alleviate pain and suffering of innocent living beings. This is the vegetarian imperative; not surprisingly, it is a Buddhist virtue and ideal as well.


STELLA Aldrin gasped for breath. Her small capsule was nearly depleted of oxygen. A fading Holographic Pinpointer showed a half-buried object near Luna Sector II. Stella’s eyes were buzzing, her head was spinning, and she was barely able to make sense of the “sacred epitaph” that was rumored to lie under the blanket of dust deposited by the polluters who ran the abandoned thermoelectric conversion plants which once brought power to Old Moon Tellurians early in the twenty-first century.

Tedd Armstrong, like his lover, was also an amateur archaeologist. They had been searching for the relic during their final days of their third honeyearth vacation in the outback of the Luna Veldt. Two previous expeditions had failed to turn it up; countless treasure-seekers had risked death in the dry, remote Mare looking for the “epitaph”. Its fetching price on the Trans-Galactic Black Whole Market was no secret.

Stella and Tedd knew it bore a profound message, inscribed in Paleo-Anglican some five-hundred years ago by pre-mutant ancestors; it was supposed to be some sort of gesture of pre-halocaust goodwill, or so they imagined. Stella fancied it to be the ultimate riddle of the Sphinx, a message to humans encoding secrets of stellar evolution, the key to expanding Tellurian consciousness to spiritual levels of Magico-Technology. The two were determined to locate it once and for all. They were in the right place, but the wrong time was running out.

Stella strained to decrypt the hologram and make sense of the illegible message:


Tedd was furiously making an adjustment to the holocomputer. “We should have this cryptogram decoded in a flash!” he said. “And what is that “ank” all about anyway?”
Stella messaged her temples, closed her eyes, visualized: “What’s any of this all about? Were the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Rosetta Stone, Capra’s Quark Conundrum, or Mayan Infiniti-Calendrics as difficult to decipher as this ancient plaque?”

Stella felt tears welling up. Tedd was a lump of frenzied emotional energy. Just a short year ago they had come to Livingston, Luna to begin a new life after Telluria became too polluted. They landed cush jobs, too: researching Spinoza’s phyto-replication biota theory to create oxygen on Luna—long considered an eccentric’s fantasy, but recently met with a degree of success owing to Stella’s chance discovery of photoautotrophic bacteria near the CO2-bergs of Sere Mare.

Before the events leading up to the end of the world as everyone was about to know it forever and ever, Tedd and Stella had been vacationing in the magnetic outback, deep in the Forbidden Zone of Velikovsky’s Volcanic Veldt. Four centuries ago, in the celestially perturbed year of 2076, this archaeo-explorers’ paradise became impossible to visit, indeed, the entire Old Moon was off limits for the next 398 years after a series of unimaginably severe convulsions on Luna caused by meteoric bombardment, castoffs no doubt from Bode’s Fragmented Planet (formerly known in the New Dark Ages as the "Asteroid Belt"). Tedd and Stella were considered lunatics for wanting to visit the Veldt, but such was their determination and desire to locate the epitaph.

During their explorations of the Veldt they found two rare sparkling tectites that would fetch more than diamonds back on Telluria. They poked around at abandoned Phase IV Tri-Plenipotentiary colonization projects. They visited the confounding Cairns of Caleidi, monuments composed of robin’s egg blue and sunflower yellow crystal balls stacked hundreds of feet high, left by a mysterious and largely unknown ancient star-trekking culture from the Multiverse’s “West Bend” (or so goes the generally discredited theory of Wurm Hool, a German astrophysicist who in 2020 discovered the Cairns and claimed to have met the Caleidians as well.)

Macabre as it was, a highlight turned out to be wandering on their sore knees, absorbed for hours, in the labyrinth catacombs of the extinct Proserpine Android Vole cult (discovered in 2039 by psychistorian, Cayce Mitchell IV). Their life on Luna was exciting, and this was the crowning moment of their achievements—until the one, sudden brutal moment when they received news that a sickening nuclear conflict had erupted on Telluria, the land of their birth, and now had spread to Luna like a cancerous contagion. All the hopes, dreams and visions of humankind up in nuclear smoke and megaton brimstone.

Tedd and Stella learned from the reports that the war raging on Telluria was much worse than the Quasi-Armageddon of 2076. That abominably idiotic conflict had erupted over renegade, crazed nuke-nations armed with plutonium molotov cocktails. After the Seventeen-Year Depression (from 2030 through 2047), the world’s pressure cooker blew its lid and hell broke loose. But how on Telluria could it have happened again? After so many years of peace and prosperity fostered by the compassionate embraces of the Luminous Orwellian Visionary Ecstatics? LOVE had divided the post-nuclear world into Tri-Plenipotentiary states consisting of the Soviet Hegemony of Independent Territories, the Plutocracy of Indoamerican Socialist States, and the Federation of United Circum-Afrikkan Kingdoms. In theory, this division of pwer was an experiment with utopia, positive steps toward the eradication of nuclear weapons forever. A great step forward in evolution, lessons learned by little boys, you don’t play with fire without getting burned. A heralding of a Golden Age of irenic co-existence of cultures, with the sublime goal of respect for and harmony amongst all living beings on Telluria. The killings, massacres, butchering and warmongering mayhem were barbaric pastimes of primitive people. Humans were even going to become vegetarians! That’s what LOVE wanted you to believe anyway.

Everyone on Telluria had perished already—everyone, that is, except the Pinnacle Dignitarians and a handful of wealthy C.S.D.s--Cryogenic Sperm Donors, comfortably ensconced in bomb-proof chambers in deep set North Atlantic trenches. It was now Luna's turn. A sentimental verse rang in Stella’s head: I pray for one last landing on the globe that gave us birth let us rest our eyes on fleecy skies and the cool green hills of earth. Tedd mused cynically on the “doubly-wise” species: Homo sapiens sapiens, who didn’t even survive a fortieth of the amount of time the dinosaurs reigned, let alone the cockroaches. Now, such a laughingstock, ecce homo, no better off than those vanquished Proserpine voles who lost their sanity, then their lives, in a complex, sightless maze of dead-end tunnels.

Tedd punched some esoteric dials on a modular dash panel, activating the Scrambler. “Stella, let’s get out of this capsule now, go take a look at ourselves. We’re about cooked on oxygen anyway.” They beat their brains out still wondering about:


“And do what with it if we actually do find it?” she sighed. “Donate it to a museum?”

They figured they had about twenty minutes left before Luna blew up or yo-yoed off its gravitational orbit to fling forever through the chartless depths of the galaxy. Tedd maneuvered the Scrambler through an obstacle course of tectite-twisted metal—rubbish from old Apollo and Icarus missions. Three ancient Tupolev LEM wrecks perched nearby on the rim of Caldera Crater like gargoyles watching over eternity. The epitaph had to be around here somewhere. The Holographic Pinpointer had located it in this vicinity.

They tore across the unforgiving Lunascape. Off in the distant horizon, the jewel of heavens, Old Earth, was rising in pitch-black space like a half-doused ember, emitting smoky plumes and streaks of sporadic fireworks in blood-colored brilliance. Stars seemed to be falling from their positions.

Tedd ground the Scrambler to a halt. There were still maybe a few minutes left to solve this minor archaeological enigma. But who would give a damn anyway?


The grand deception of a “utopian” society was at long last exposed. . .and no one, not even the famous Cosmic Eavesdroppers from Ubujumaka Iimashtaqqopowoqq, the “CB” satellite handle station ten trillion nanosecs from Barnard’s “Spook” Star, knew or cared about the demise of Tellurian civilization. It was almost anticlimactic, this long-awaited Final Extinction (Final Solution?). There would be no encore, no curtain call, no more cool, green hills. Only a voided world envisioned by Lord Byron a half millennium ago: “Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless—a lump of death—a chaos of hard clay.”

Tedd lowered himself onto the surface of the Veldt, whispering cynically, “That’s one small step for a human, one giant blunder for humankind!”

Stella calculated the coordinates. “It’s over there!” she cried. “I know it. We can make it before our oxygen runs out!”

“What’s the use? We’re gonna be blown to smithereens anyhow,” said Tedd.

Together, they bounded toward the site once known as Eagle Landing in the archaic Sea of Tranquility, beyond a low, sinuous ridge that looked like a Komodo dragon’s tail. They sloughed up and over the slippery slopes, compelled by an impatient urgency to discover the message before they died. Suddenly an explosion rocked Luna. An empty horizon flared up in a hideously beautiful thermo-nuclear glare of reddened madness: the smell of hell.

“My love,” said Stella, half-deliriously, “civilization is a sham, a hoax! Let’s meet in the next world! It will be better, I promise.” In their final moments, Stella and Tedd embraced in an eternal loving gaze. Then they made their way over to the shimmering Sea of Tranquility and stumbled to their knees at the foot of Old Glory. All around them bombs burst soundlessly in the stratosphere, eerily illumining their surroundings, giving proof through the night that the plaque was still there.

Stella swiped at the dust with a tired hand, uncovering the message of the epitaph, the long-forgotten promise left by her direct ancestors. Dying, she whispered,