Lately there has been some discussion (and some elevated emotions) over the OI (Order of Interbeing) listserve about vegetarianism, veganism, and the impacts of eating meat on the environment. While it’s true that Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) has asked his students to reduce their meat consumption by half and to consider cutting out meat entirely because of the damaging effects the livestock industry has on global warming and it’s also true that our tradition’s monasteries have switched to a vegan diet I’m not so sure the most pressing question involved here is whether or not to eat meat or to become vegan. For me, the question here is what can I do to potentially help support an environmentally sustainable food system?
For those of us not who are not familiar with the terms: A vegetarian is someone who does not eat beef, chicken, seafood or fish and a vegan is someone who, in addition to not eating meat, also does not eat dairy, eggs, or other animal byproducts, such as honey.
“All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.” –(1905 – 1971)
I’m pretty sure I’ve shared this quote before on my blog but the way I figure it, when it comes to deep and important teachings, you can’t really hear them enough. In my experience understanding teachings is a long process. And the more “simple” the teaching appears the more complex the understanding process gets. It is quite easy to say to ourselves, “Yeah, yeah, that makes sense, I get it, and I totally do that already,” when really we have very little concept of a certain teaching. Just because we hear something and absorb it on an intellectual level does not necessarily mean we absorb it on an emotional level and know how to actually put it into practice in our everyday lives.
The above quote by Suzuki-roshi is one of my favorites. It speaks to the heart of our human condition and to the root of our struggle. For better AND for worse our collective society is very dualistic in nature. What this means is that we function in an EITHER/OR manner. For instance: people are either good OR bad, we feel either happy OR sad, life is either black OR white, decisions made are either wrong OR right. We can get terribly confused when it comes to teachings on non-duality, which involves the practice of seeing things as part of BOTH sides, not just one or the other.
What Suzuki-roshi is encouraging us to practice is seeing that in this very moment, with this very breath, we are all both perfect AND in need of improvement. When we get caught in duality in regards to this teaching we can become very off balance and cause a lot of distress for ourselves and others. If we only focus on the first part of seeing that we’re perfect we can become very self-absorbed, callous, and disconnected from the effects we have on others. Our ego becomes inflated, we form shallow relationships, and we are unable to grow. And if we only focus on the second part of seeing that we need improvement we can become very self-conscious, emotionally over sensitive, and unable to socially engage and interact with others. Our sense of self is deflated to the point of self-pity, loathing, depression, and worthlessness. In both instances we will be unable to grow and transform.
To begin to understand this teaching we need to practice seeing that both parts of us exist at the very same time. We are perfect just as we are AND we are all in need of a little improvement. Practicing with both sides allows our ego to not become overly inflated while also not beating up on ourselves for the parts of us we wish were different or better.
What a completely beautiful, complex, confusing, and enthralling opportunity it is to be human eh?
Our ideas of good and bad are not factual distinctions we make. Good and bad are subjective, fluctuating, and often illusory divisions we tend to make in order to solidify our point of view. Lately I have been appreciating the practice of equanimity, which I’ve found to be a fruit of cultivating the art of mindfulness. I would define equanimity as the ability to not be easily swayed by false ideas of good and bad, right and wrong. Developing the insight of equanimity allows us to accept situations, people, and ourselves just as they are and not get caught in duality.
I’ve recently started corresponding with an old acquaintance who is currently in the county detention center. He’s awaiting trial and wrote me a letter a few days ago. In his letter he stated that while he sees there are two sides of him, one that seeks goodness and one who is, in his words, evil, he will probably always be on the dark side of life. He wanted me to know what I was getting myself into before corresponding further, for the sake of my own well-being.