Should We Eat Animals?
Explorations from a nondual perspective
This is a report from the field about my current relationship to eating animals. I’m not writing about vegetarianism in general. My narrower focus is on the complex question of how we can maintain integrity in our relationship to eating or not eating animals while practicing in nondual spiritual traditions.
My vegetarian life interrupted
I’ve been a vegetarian twice in my life. The first time, I was 14 and dating a vegetarian. When we broke up, I broke up with vegetarianism.
My second vegetarian stint came in my early 40s. I happily did not eat animals for a couple of years. I’d also had some pretty serious digestive issues since my mid-20s.
About a year in, my Guru came in a dream. I thought she told me to eat meat, but I wasn’t 100% sure, and I wanted to keep being vegetarian. So I ignored her.
Sometime later, she came in my dream again. This time she yelled at me to start eating meat. She told me that my digestion was not healthy enough for a vegetarian diet.
In fact, that was true. All of my digestive issues have stemmed from a susceptibility to bacterial and fungal infestations. These critters thrive on carbohydrates.
Currently, I am eating a small amount of animal protein.
Over the years, I’ve pondered my relationships to animals and vegetarianism. I’ve received teachings about eating animals from Ayurveda and from my home spiritual traditions—Trika Shaivism and Dzogchen. None of my teachers have been vegetarian, and my traditions do not demand that we stop eating animals.
I’d like to mention that a few students over the years have challenged me to think more deeply about eating animals, and I’m grateful to them.
In keeping with my traditions, I’m beginning this exploration with the most all-encompassing, Absolute view.
Nothing ever happens
Rigorously nondual traditions teach that nothing ever happens in an objective, material sense. They say cute and annoying things such as “the only thing to renounce is renunciation itself.”
More recent versions of nondual traditions often maintain dualities between the real and unreal and the exalted or holy and the degraded. They tend to have strong ideas of sinfulness and purity. Unsurprisingly, they are more encouraging of forms of renunciation such as vegetarianism and celibacy.
So what does nothing ever happens mean, and what does it have to do with eating animals?
The oneness thing
Nondual traditions teach that in all of existence, there is only one continuous subjectivity. You can call this Shiva nature, presence, nature of mind, essence nature, the base or natural state, or whatever you like. My Guru just called it that.
Whatever you call it, this subjectivity gives rise to all experiences of beings and worlds. We are all made of that subjectivity. We have no independent or objective existence.
Dream experience is one way to understand this.
We have vivid sensory and emotional experiences in dreams, but when we wake up, we know that we have produced all of these real dream experiences within and out of our own body, energy, and mind. They have no independent existence. So we sometimes call them unreal. But they are not unreal. They are a variety of real experience.
If I cry in a dream, I am experiencing sadness just as I do during the day.
Waking life is a dream from which we have largely not woken up. We are convinced that waking life is fundamentally more real and objective than dream life. But both waking and dreaming states are produced by the same base state of existence: an alive, self-aware, subjectivity.
Our waking life does not have precisely the same qualities as a dream. But it operates on the same fundamental principle. Dreams and waking life are both projected self-expressions of the creative life of the base state of existence.
Whether a carrot or a hamburger is eaten, nothing has really happened. There is no objective carrot or hamburger. Just like in a dream. And just like in a dream, the carrot and the hamburger are real experiences, not illusory. Manifest life consists of experiences not things.
If you are vegetarian, and you eat a hamburger in a dream, you might be upset. But when you wake up, you feel you have not eaten an animal. Whew! This is a mistaken point of view according to my spiritual traditions.
We would say that you have never eaten an animal because animals do not objectively exist. Only experiences of animals exist, just like experiences in dreams. These experiences are real as experiences, but they are not objective events.
Furthermore, you also do not objectively exist. The real enjoyer of the experience of you, hamburger, and carrot is God.
What makes the nondual traditions such as Trika Shaivism and Dzogchen so thorough-going, and I think spectacular, is that knowing nothing ever happens, they do not denigrate or dismiss the phenomenal world of experience.
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Nothing to renounce
Traditions such as Trika and Dzogchen celebrate the beauty and diversity of impermanence. They refer to impermanence—the mundane world—as the ornament or glamour or magic of the natural state of living presence. In my home tradition, Lord Shiva, the Absolute, is referred to as the Magician or the Artist.
Creating Infinite, diverse experiences is what this alive-aware reality does. And God or living presence literally is all phenomena. So there is nothing to renounce.
But Trika and Dzogchen are emphatically not about spiritual bypassing. They teach us to attend to our real circumstances, including our dualistic perceptions, while not forgetting the Absolute.
We don’t have to renounce eating animals, but we also don’t have to renounce the concepts and emotions that lead some of us to not eat animals.
Our experiences of separation and of the categories we contrive are real experiences. They have effects on our bodies, energy, and minds.
For instance, some of us might feel terrible when we see animals being eaten, but we are happy ripping plants out of the ground and wantonly munching on them. We celebrate the harvest, but revile the slaughter.
In some indigenous, animist traditions, both harvest and slaughter are performed joyfully and worshipfully after asking for consent and giving thanks.
From an absolute, nondual perspective, feeling terrible about eating one manifestation of awareness and feeling great about eating another are conditioned, concept-driven distinctions. But they are still real, embodied experiences.
If we are practicing in a nondual or animist tradition, we are being less than true to our traditions if we support our vegetarianism or veganism with claims that animals are fundamentally different from plants, or that we are being less violent if we eat only plant-based food.
Only dualist traditions can honestly make that kind of argument.
At the same time, compassion is built into all of reality. When we are moved to compassion by the experience of the suffering of others, we can listen and act accordingly.
One time my Guru, Anandamayi Ma, heard a pepper plant crying in pain from beneath a freshly-poured concrete sidewalk in an ashram. She ordered the sannyasins in the ashram to dig up the entire sidewalk and rescue the plant.
We can surmise that she was simply moved to do so. At other times, she ate plants. She did not proclaim a fixed ethical system for saving or not saving plants. She did what she was moved to do in the moment. Ma called this kheyal - spontaneous improvisation driven by immersion in primordial wisdom.
On a very ordinary level, as my Dzogchen teacher, Namkhai Norbu pointed out, many sentient beings are killed in the process of growing plants. Many insects and small creatures die in the process of sowing and harvesting and burning fields for regeneration. Habitats are lost, and animals die due to the repurposing of lands for agriculture.
if we are going to eat anything , other creatures are going to die in the process. So, as Namkhai Norbu pointed out, vegetarianism is somewhat of a fantasy.
Start from where you are
Many of us, including myself, are moved by the terrible treatment of other animals by human beings. Because we feel strongly about the conditions of the lives of animals, we don’t want to remember the teachings. We feel adamant about being vegetarians or we feel conflicted.
Trika Shaivism and Dzogchen and other nondual traditions encourage us to be real about our condition and act according to how we are and not according to wisdom that is still just conceptual for us.
If we are practicing in nondual traditions, we cannot strictly say that anything other than God objectively exists. But if we have not fully realized this, we can use as our starting point our own more limited, embodied responses to eating animals vs. plants.
Most of us are not enlightened enough to embody the continuity and equality of everything. We should be honest and work with how we actually feel.
Here is a story I read about a time when Abhinavagupta, a 10th century Trika siddha, gave a teaching about eating animals. Unfortunately, I didn’t write down the source and have not been able to locate it since. If anyone knows the source, please write it in the comments or contact me.
A Vaishnavite acharya [teacher/knowledgeable person] questioned Abhinavagupta about eating meat. Abhinava responded by saying that we must ask ourselves two questions when deciding about eating animals.
First we should ask: Is eating meat healthy for me? This question is in line with Ayurveda which prescribes meat be used medicinally.
Second we should ask: Do I feel sad, or guilty, or have some other disturbing emotion when I eat animals?
If the answer to the first question is no and/or the second yes, we should not eat animals. But we should also not comment on what others eat, advised Abhinavagupta.
Why? because even while honoring and being practical about our relative experience, we should remember the more Absolute view.
Abhinavagupta then offered the Vaishnavite a Kashmiri meat dish and said that, if the acharya was in the right condition, Abhinava would cause him to see the entire universe it in. Subsequently the Vaishnavite became Abhinavagupta’s disciple.
Our lived experiences are what we have to work with. So if we can see that we are God, and the animals are God, and that when we eat animals, we are God enacting a play of eating, then it is okay.
But if we feel guilty or outraged or sad about eating animals, or if we feel upsurges of sympathetic compassion as Ma did toward the pepper plant, we should respect that and act accordingly.
The nondual “trick” is to keep the Absolute in mind while at the same time honoring our real condition.
Going along in this way, we can eat animals or not. We can be animal rights activists or not. But we will avoid self-righteousness, pride, and the entanglement of denigrating others and creating more experiences of separation.
Even more realer. . . relatively speaking
Colonialist, so-called “scientific” culture has, since the Greco-Roman empires, been busy with the project of ranking beings. The point is to continually enthrone humans at the top of the heap. From this project, we have inherited the perennial and completely self-serving question of what makes humans different from “animals.”
Categories of “human,” “animal,” and “plant,” have been deployed by us to justify an incredible amount of violence and destruction. Whatever is deemed lesser than, we dominate, use, and abuse.
Thankfully, over the centuries, barriers to recognizing a continuum between animals and humans have been somewhat eroded.
In my elementary school, teachers told a story about how humans were deemed the tool-making animal, but then scientists found that animals were also tool-makers. Surprise! How clever we are to have discovered this astounding fact! The conclusion of this teaching was about the continued search to find out what distinguishes humans from animals.
So then humans were the animals with language. But animal languages and the ability of animals to learn human languages became a huge area of scientific research.
Following this, humans were the self-reflective animals. Now, many studies have proved that animals can feel complex emotions, reflect on their thoughts and behavior, solve problems involving the ability to construct and remember mental maps, remember animal and human friends after years of separation, recognize emotions in others, grieve, celebrate, and give thanks.
A newer area of research is fungi and plant consciousness and communication.
True nondual traditions start from the assumption of continuity, not separation. We assume that life cascades from the absolute along a continuum. We ask about unity and equality and celebrate difference rather than using difference as a weapon of domination.
Ultimately we want to stop deploying categories such as “animal,” “human,” and “plant” for purposes of domination while celebrating the wildly diverse expressions of this alive, aware reality.
Compassion limited and not so limited
Many people following a vegetarian diet do so out of compassion for animals. Human behavior is causing animals to suffer, and a mass extinction is taking place.
We are not excluded from this because we live on earth, and we are animals.
UN chief Antonio Guterres said at a recent UN Biodiversity Conference, “We are treating nature like a toilet,. . . And ultimately, we are committing suicide by proxy, with the effects felt on jobs, hunger, disease and death.” 1
My own desire to not eat animals comes from a feeling of solidarity, of wanting to stand with animals. I deeply appreciate the lives of animals and the diversity and beauty they offer. I like to imagine a world in which we make more efforts to communicate with animals and integrate our habitats in creative and magical ways.
Even though I still eat animals, I do my best to support animals living in human captivity being raised and slaughtered in a compassionate way. This is in line with most ancient human traditions where it is recognized that everyone eventually becomes food for others, and we should treat all beings with respect and reverence.
At the same time, I know that a desire to stand in solidarity with animals is a one the infinite bhavas or feeling orientations being invented, savored, and played out by this alive, aware reality.
Animals, including myself, exist like ephemeral waves of light dancing in the ocean of consciousness.
I experience grief and the poignancy of animal lives under human dominion. I mourn the loss of beauty, diversity, and opportunity. I don’t reject these feelings. And I try to be practical given my relative condition.
But understanding the real nature of things, I don’t take myself too seriously.
with infinite love,
Should We Eat Animals?, part 1 - A blog post I wrote in 2006, before my Guru told me to start eating meat
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