The middle path seeks to find a way through the extremes of asceticism and gluttony. Ascetics in the Buddha’s time put their bodies through rigorous anorexic self-mortification practices to the point of almost death in order to exert control over the body and train the mind. On the other end of the spectrum was full sensual gluttony using every device for hedonistic pleasure, sexual debauchery, brutal sporting events, hunting, and excessive food-orgy intake regardless of the consequence. While we don’t know where the Buddha stood on the topic of veganism we certainly know he taught a middle path to living one’s life as a way to awaken fully. We know he discarded asceticism and gluttony in favor of a middle way. The question I pose is veganism more a middle path or is it diet, as I heard directly from a dharma practitioner just this week, “of people who have eating disorders” which would seem to put it in the realm of a modern ascetic practice of a somewhat disturbed person and certainly not the middle path?
The “normal” diet this Buddhist practitioner was alluding to as a diet of less disorder and thus more healthy, centered, and middle path, was a standard American diet (SAD) or Western diet, replete with beef, fish, chicken, pork, dairy and eggs. However, when we take into account the many disease states associated with eating a standard American diet; heart disease, diabetes, cancer and many others, a case can certainly be made for putting this common diet in the category of gluttony (and eating disorder) rather than a vegan plant-based diet. There are a number of reasons for this including the exorbitant cost of resources to produce animal products, health, and most importantly ahimsa.
We utilize inordinate amounts of resources to produce animal products versus plant foods. This is a well-documented scientific fact. When we consider it takes approximately 15 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of beef and that this one pound of beef can feed just a few people once and then transpose it against simply eating the grain directly (15 pounds of grain directly eaten could last a couple weeks) we start to see the waste of resources involved. When we consider that we can feed one person a meat diet using 2.5 acres of land versus feeding about 20 people on same 2.5 acres of land a diet of potatoes, cabbage and rice the resource cost is staggering, especially to the 800 million human beings who go hungry every day in the world and 20,000 children who die every day from starvation. But we don’t see the costs, which are not past onto the consumer due to government subsidies. The average cost to raise a cow in the U.S. is $498.00 but the market value is only $245.00. (Taxpayers subsidize meat and dairy industries annually to the tune of $38 billion). These costs are vast, and the costs to the environment are enormous as production of animal products are a leading cause of the sixth extinction due land use, clearing of rain forest, dead zone creation and the emptying of the oceans to feed land animals a diet rich in sea food, a completely unnatural food for them.
When we take into account the level of obesity in countries whose diet is the standard American diet we find many sick people killing themselves with food.
On the other hand when we analyze a vegan diet which is based on whole foods we find a regimen rich in nutrients, high in vitamins, minerals and fiber, and naturally low in fat. In short we find a diet which creates health and does not harm the body. Therefore we find it is a diet which is not based on gluttony nor asceticism.
Can vegans practice anorexic asceticism by eating a diet of almond milk and Oreo cookies? Yes. Do they? Most do not. Most eat diets based on a variety of fruits, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds. Their diet is rich in calories, nutrition, whose foundation are whole foods, with a small carbon footprint.
Are there a few meat eaters who don’t eat correctly? Yes, all of them, even when they eat a so-called balanced-diet since it is too high in fat, lacks nutrients and contains animal protein which is inferior to plant protein by causing disease and global warming.
If a person is eating enough calories to keep up their body weight and eating a balance of foods from the many types of vegan food available they are creating healthy bodies and minds. As the middle path is one that acknowledges our short time on this planet and seeks to harm as few sentient life forms as possible in the process, eating a diet that does not create gluttonous obesity and disease states is more wholesome and compassionate and is closer to a true middle path diet.
A vegan diet is one that allows the individual freedom of choice to do less harm to their body, the planet, and the 6 million other species with whom we share the earth. All of which are just as important. Choosing to live vegan is a middle path between starving oneself and overeating fat, cholesterol, and protein. The middle path is choosing nutrition for the body so that we can be strong in our yoga, meditation, and lives. It leads to a healthier mind due to the body connection it makes through ingested food which is not connected to a being that died violently and lived suffering traumatized life. This diet has recently even been shown to have a remarkable effect on depression. It sets up an opportunity to choose a different path than the one we are conditioned to choose. Isn’t that what the Buddha taught? That we should awaken to the robotic trances we are all involved in? Mindlessly following cultural teachings which are harmful to ourselves and other beings? That we should awaken to make choices based on a more truthful assessment of what it is we crave and why we crave it in the first place?
We are generally loving as humans but remarkably most of us do not even realize the ways we discriminate against other humans and sentient beings. “I love my cat and dog and do all I can to protect and care for them but the mother pig on my plate in the form of bacon I do not even give a second thought.” Understanding why we dislike some while liking others is core to Buddhist thought and meditation practice is it not? In this light veganism is a way to expand our scope rather than hide behind a disorder. It helps us along the path of cherishing others. When we find ourselves learning to cherish others and building a foundation of equanimity toward others we are then on the middle path. When we find ourselves eating foods that kill others, harm and planet, and cause us to be fat and diseased, is this the middle path or a form of blindness and bondage?
Je Tsongkhapa, the Tibetan Buddhist master, states in the Foundation of All Perfections, “Sensual gluttony is a gate to suffering and is not worthy of a lucid mind.” This is true today when we look around and we see what we do to other beings. Sixty to seventy billion land animals are raised in cruel hell realm conditions and fight to live up until their throats are slit each year. This is suffering of a magnitude we cannot comprehend. Every day some 410 million land and sea animals are slaughtered by humans around the globe which is the equivalent to killing every man, woman and child in the U.S. every 18 hours without pause. Every year 600,000 Americans will die of heart failure, a disease that need not arise except for the gluttony and mindless eating habits based on culture and wrong view. Every year we kill thousands of species of animals and put additional climate change gas into the atmosphere causing those of us living to breathe more CO2 than any other humans have in history and causing the global temperature to rise mostly based on our choice to eat animals. Is this gluttony or the middle path? Is this suffering or happiness? We all know someone who has cancer and has died of cancer, yet we continue to eat dairy products which have been scientifically shown to be associated with cancer by Dr. T. Colin Campbell. The main protein in diary “casein is a chemical carcinogen, perhaps the most relevant carcinogen that we consume” according to Dr. Campbell but we continue to consume it, believing it will give us good health. Is this the middle path or is this suffering, ignorance, and insanity? Is a diet that stops using non-human animals as commodities a disorder or health? Is a diet what eliminates cholesterol, high blood pressure, fights obesity, improves depression and fatigue, lowers inflammation, saves water, reduces carbon foot print, saves the rainforest, reduces social inequalities and saves lives — a disorder or a more healthy way to live?
As Buddhist practitioners are we not on a path to realize equanimity for all, beginning with our own selves? Does blindly following what society and culture has taught equate to learning to love all beings or do we have a responsibility to look at our own behaviors and make compassionate changes based on factual data? I would suggest that a diet which causes less disease, environmental damage, and direct killing of sentient life would be a more a middle path diet.
What to do?
- Embrace the suffering in a standard American diet. See the animals we use as commodities. Accept the scientific-based data showing the correlation between eating animals (and their secretions) and human disease.
- Take a breath and stop grasping, craving, and being attached to the bodies and secretions of sentient beings.
- Experience the space created by the stopping-breath to freely choose a more peaceful healthy diet.
- Then act and do something to change when this freedom occurs. At the point in which you embrace, stop, and experience a space/pause in your craving you are free to act in a more ethical and holistic manner.
This is the true middle path. This is dharma practice. Enjoy this freedom. Go vegan.