Awakening to the Suffering of Animals
Recent stories about coronavirus transmission in meatpacking plants have exposed the impossible choice between livelihood and personal safety faced by their workers. Bhikkhu Bodhi has recently written here about the disproportionate risk that falls on migrant workers and workers of color. Yet when animals themselves are mentioned in pandemic narratives — bats, other wildlife, or domesticated pigs and chickens — it is usually in reference to their role in the transmission of a novel virus, a virus that can take a human life. Described in human-centric terms, animals are dietary staples, exotic ingredients, and occasional reservoirs of catastrophic disease.
Missing from the narrative is the bleak reality of the animal marketplace: sentient beings reduced to objects, bodies taken for human purpose, without restraint, acknowledgement, dignity, or reciprocity, living our their days in horrifying conditions before slaughter. In this article, Thanissara reminds us that cruelty to animals is karmically fraught and charts her own journey to going vegan. No matter how disinclined to see and fully act on this truth we may be, we are intimately connected to these lives.
My dear friend Andrew Harvey, talking about the multi-dimensional planetary crises we are in, said “If there is one thing that wakes you at night and breaks your heart, then get up the next day and do something about it.”
These days, almost everything is breaking our hearts. Right now, we are reeling with the multiple fallout of the Coronavirus pandemic as the old world disappears fast and a new more sustainable world struggles to be born. While the urgency of climate collapse has been eclipsed temporarily by the Corona tsunami, it has not by any means disappeared. Its impact is here as extreme weather events destabilize communities everywhere, even whole countries, leading to economic stress, increasing mass migrations and wars.
In truth, every single piece of our dismembering world is a heartbreak.
However, if I were to choose one particular heartbreak that haunts me, it has to be the way we treat animals. In particular the billions of animals caught in the truly hellish torture of agro-factory farms and their dystopian, heartless, mechanistic, violent practices. This is very challenging to talk about, because we have such a habit of orientating all experience, all dialogue, around the primacy of our human-centric perspective, to the extent that we often don’t consider the harm we cause other beings.
At a certain point of awakening, one is absolutely answerable for one’s actions, decisions, and intentions.
Invisible in this trade is the fallout for those working the vicious and degrading high-speed machinery of such mass death. At present slaughterhouse workers, mostly vulnerable migrants, the poor, and those highly traumatised, are susceptible to Corona infection. Workers at meat packing plants are experiencing among the highest death rates while having the least protection or economic support. Beside killing day in and day out, they are also daily dodging their own death, sickness and injury while susceptible to acting out the internalization of massive violence, not only on the factory floor, but at home. They are, like the animals being slaughtered, just fodder for vast profits, all for feeding an insatiable palate.
In all actions, we have to explore how we can move toward a lifestyle that is more conscious, while changing habits that perpetuate harm. When it comes to the five great precepts, which essentially offer a training to do no harm to self or other, the invitation of that training is to understand we live in a web of life and in a realm of cause and effect. The Buddha taught that the observance of the precepts offers “immeasurable beings freedom from fear, hostility, oppression.” In the same way, observing the precepts, the Buddha said, we too, in time, will “experience immeasurable freedom from fear, hostility and oppression.”
Steps Toward Compassion
There are many lenses through which to regard our relationship with the animal kingdom. For example, shifting our dependence on dairy and meat for personal health and a sustainable planet. While all good and true, my own journey to a plant-based diet is primarily in response to the terror, extreme pain, and torture of those innocents caught in the machinery of factory farms. Not just in factory farms, but all animals, fish and creatures subjugated to our human dominance, while losing their right to life, control of their bodies, their sexual processes, their family, and freedoms.
I’m sharing here my own reflections. How I think about this issue. I don’t intend to be “preachy” but to share my process into a deeper awakening beyond vegetarianism into giving up eggs, milk, and dairy products. A process I found challenging. For a long time, I was just unaware of the truth of dairy farming. It is really due to the activists, who go underground to film what actually goes on in the dairy and egg industries, that I was able to begin to make the shift. I have the deepest respect for these activists and their extraordinary bravery.
Even so, sometimes I would find myself reaching out in the supermarket for “organic” cheeses or “organic” milk for my English cup of tea, one of my former addictions. So, I can’t honestly say that I just saw one undercover expose and that shifted me irrevocably. I feel some shame to even write this, how it took a longer time for me to renounce a product rooted in such extreme violence.
We now absolutely know that the assumption of our right to dominate nature is fast heralding our possible extinction.
I had excuses. It’s hard getting vegan food traveling and in Southern Africa, where I’ve worked for several decades. Or, it’s “organic”…. Or, we need to have probiotics in yoghurt. Or whatever. There was really no good excuse. Sometimes, I would walk up and down a supermarket aisle, struggling with myself. That pizza looked so good. My brain would disconnect, and my ethics would be muted, and I’d reach into the freezer and pull it out. As a meditator, I could feel the dissonance, but somehow, I still went through the check out.
A Transmission of Reality
So, I understand this involves an awakening journey. It’s not usually a clear-cut decision, but on the whole, is a process of steps along the way. One day though, the final shift came unexpectedly, like when I was 14 years old, after I read my first book about yoga and immediately became a vegetarian. Eventually, there was a final day when the thread keeping me attached to milk meant for a calf, finally severed. It was within a deep meditative process of entering a more open, liminal, lucid space where depth of inter-being is directly experienced. I felt an intuitive sense, an intelligence much more profound than myself. I felt it as Mother Nature’s prompt and guidance. She made me aware of a sobering reality. This may not be the reality for you, but it is for me.
It was a vision type transmission, a revelation of sorts. I understood that at a certain point of awakening, the implication being the point I was at, one is absolutely answerable for one’s actions, decisions, and intentions. That is true all along of course, but before, there seemed to be some kind of buffer zone, a sort of deeper benevolent allowance of some kind of a “benefit of the doubt,” that gave slack for growing into a more awakened state.
The consequences of our actions are catapulting back to us at blinding speed. So we have to pay attention.
It was clear that the slack, a gift of grace if you like, was finished. I “saw” or felt all the animals whose lives I was implicated in taking. This wasn’t an ordinary state of consciousness, just a deep awareness and understanding. Further, I understood from then on, if any animal suffered, or had their life taken due to my intentional actions, I would be karmically implicated and answerable to them.
From that moment on, I gave up all dairy products and my beloved black and Darjeeling teas, and became vegan. My resolve also deepened to help these innocent beings caught in such a terrible predicament.
Stormclouds of Karma
These days, we are in a much bigger picture, one where all harmful causes are ripening at lightning speed into a karmic maelstrom. We now absolutely know that the assumption of our right to dominate nature and her myriad beings is a root cause for the collapse of our living systems and is fast heralding our possible extinction.
Master Hsuan Hua, whom I’m grateful to for opening the Kuan Yin Dharmas, said if you want to know why there are wars, listen to the sounds at the slaughterhouse; the sounds, smells, and the agony of it all. He talked of the great dark cloud of karma from the killing of animals, and all the violence involved, that is oppressing the planet.
All is connected in our awakening reality. We are all deeply connected with every living being, plants, all of creation. The period of wilful ignorance, where we could be unconscious for a little bit longer, has ended. Perhaps then, the message to me is now the message to you. The consequences of our actions are catapulting back to us at blinding speed. So we have to pay attention.
To meet this reality is now our task. Every decision and action has consequences. In the midst of such urgency, Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching “we are here to awaken from the illusion of separation” must now be our daily contemplation. A contemplation that is rooted in fierce compassion and expressed as dedicated action founded in harmlessness and service to Mother Nature and her myriad children, whatever form they appear in.
Adapted from a talk given November 7th, 2019 at the Dharma Voices for Animals benefit and Educational Day at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, CA.
Thanissara trained was a monastic in the Ajahn Chah Forest Tradition for 12 years. She’s led retreats since 1988, and co-founded Dharmagiri in South Africa and Sacred Mountain Sangha based in California. She has an MA in Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy from the UK, and is author of several books, including Time to Stand Up: An Engaged Buddhist Manifesto for Our Earth — The Buddha’s Life and Message through Feminine Eyes.