I went to a small, Jesuit liberal arts college in upstate New York. Although there weren’t many Jesuits teaching there, the school still had a religious feel. Crucifixes hung on the front wall of every classroom, statues of saints stood watch in the gardens, and the whole campus smelled like church.
One of the best professors I had while I was there was a man by the name of Ellerman. That’s how he introduced himself. Not Dr. or Mister, or even Karl, which was his first name. Just Ellerman. At the beginning of the first class, he gave a small summary of what we were going to study (Ethics) and then he simply said. “My name is Ellerman.”
As we got to know him, he confided in us that he hoped someday to write a new, improved version of Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground. He was intense, wore a pencil-thin mustache, and rarely smiled. He was also an avowed atheist. Quite rationally, he explained that since he could discern no proof of God, he simply couldn’t believe. This non-belief, frequently expressed, came as quite a shock to my classmates, most of whom came from Catholic high schools. To them, God was a given, the claims of the Bible waterproof tight. The priests and nuns told them so. And so it must be true.
Ellerman was the first pure contrarian I ever met, pushing everyone’s accepted beliefs to the limit, and I worshipped him for it.
Then one day, he was gone. Working at a college as I do, now I understand the intricacies and high drama of the tenure process. I’m sure he was told he wasn’t on track to get tenure anytime soon, so he moved on. But back then I wanted to believe he had lost his position because he was a confessed atheist at a Jesuit school. He stuck it to the man, wouldn’t compromise his beliefs, chose reason over magic, and paid the ultimate professional price. Even if none of it was true, believing it made his sacrifice seem even greater in my eyes.
One of the ethical problems we discussed was whether or not someone had the right to challenge another person’s long-held belief in God, even on their deathbed. Was it ethical to try and make the dying person see reason, or to let them die happily with their belief in the afterlife and eternal salvation? The question applies not only to religion, but to other philosophical positions as well. Politics or personal ethics, for instance. How far are we permitted to go in order to make someone else agree with our position? Is any discussion of long-held beliefs worthy, or do most people, by the time they reach a certain age, simply believe what they believe and either can’t or won’t believe otherwise, rendering any dialogue moot?
Buddha is quoted as saying that when words are both kind and true, they can change our world. But sometimes true words can’t be kind. And kind words are certainly not always true.
I’ve just finished Morrissey’s Autobiography, and have decided, once again, to recommit myself to the vegetarian lifestyle. This puts me in a somewhat uncomfortable position at times. In a representative quote from the book, Morrissey says, “Suddenly, you come to a certain situation and you are unable to live with it, and the only protest you can make on behalf of the butchered animal is to depart the scene. Whether this be considered irritating or rude by the gluttonous carnivore is of no interest to me. Nobody can possibly be so hungry that they need to take a life in order to feel satisfied – they don’t after all, take a human life, so why take the life of an animal? Both are conscious beings with the same determination to survive. It is habit, and laziness, and nothing else.” Later in the book, Morrissey tells us how he fired an agent for simply ordering frogs’ legs in a fancy Beverly Hills restaurant.
Vegetarians, like recovering alcoholics, must always be ready, it seems, to defend their beliefs. Carnivores and drinkers never do.
If I followed Morrissey’s lead, and simply started walking out of places, like the recent Super Bowl party I attended where a friend brought a bowl of chicken wings (wings I had, on many previous occasions, eaten with unchecked abandon), I wouldn’t have many friends left at all. How far am I willing to go, as Ellerman taught us, to challenge my friend’s long-held beliefs by reminding him that he is eating dead, burned flesh? Should I launch into graphic descriptions of animal torture and slaughter, and how sometimes the flesh is peeled back from the skull of a still-live cow in cases where that poor cow hasn’t been fully anesthetized by the slaughterman’s stun gun? Or how the beaks of chickens are cut off to prevent them from pecking each other to death in the unconscionable close quarters they are kept in? Should we talk of veal, or fois gras? And what about that poetic misnomer, “ethical meat,” that is bandied about by the foodies in the pages of the New York Times? What can be ethical about killing an innocent, sentient creature, with thoughts and feelings, who wants to feel pleasure and avoid pain, just like humans do, as long as the creature was “free range” or had a “name instead of a number” before it was led to the abattoir? Lucky Bessie! She had a good life, but then we had to chop her head off and eat the flesh from her roasted bones. A life destroyed for a moment on the lips.
You see what I mean about the problem of challenging deathbed beliefs. How graphic should I get? What happens in a slaughterhouse doesn’t need to be ginned-up to convey its sheer horror. Animals are skinned alive for our food. That’s what happens.
The whole scheme only works if you believe two (in my opinion) false assumptions. First, that animals are less worthy than people, thereby making their suffering less important, and second, that we need meat to live. If you’ve ever had a dog or cat or goldfish or hamster, and you examine your feeling towards these “domestic” animals, you will probably find that their lives are just as important as yours. I realize that humankind, at some point in our development, may have needed meat to evolve. But with 50 varieties of hummus and 30 kinds of peanut butter in every supermarket, no one can make the argument that meat is now necessary for human life to continue.
Yet meat is everywhere and is consumed, as Morrissey said, out of habit and laziness. Alongside the ubiquitous beef jerky, dried pieces of turkey flesh can now be bought in little baggies in nearly every checkout line of every Wal-Mart in America. Because turkey, the experts tell us, is healthier than beef. Healthier, perhaps, for everyone but the turkey.
Remember how shocked the world was to learn that there was horse meat in the meatballs that were sold in Ikea cafeterias? The horror! But is a horse any more noble than a cow, simply because it’s capable of running at Churchill Downs? If a cow could curl up on your bed at night, or even speak, would it still be so easy to kill?
But what if, as Thoreau believed, that as mankind evolves further, he will naturally leave off the eating of flesh food? However you slice it, meat is dead, decaying flesh. The forms that it takes disguise the fact. A plate of sushi, which is sliced fish bodies, is made to look like candy. Animals are the prefect industrial workers because they can’t complain in any meaningful fashion, nor can they unionize. It’s so easy to kill animals because we are stronger than them, and they trust us. But imagine leading your dog to the guillotine?
Yes, of course people love the way meats tastes, but is a few minutes of pleasure worth the pain? Is it necessary that both a pig and a cow be slaughtered so we can enjoy applewood-smoked bacon on our drive-through cheeseburger?
You may read all this and still say yes, it is.
I know in my lifetime I’ve consumed thousands upon thousands of once-living, self-aware beings. I’ve been vegetarian and even vegan at other times in my life, but have always returned to meat-eating eventually. I’m sure that if I had to hunt to keep my family from starvation, I would have to do it. Or if I was driving my car and had to swerve to avoid hitting either a child or a cow, I would avoid the child. Of course a few extreme situations can be imagined where animal life must be taken to ensure the survival of human life. But these situations, in the modern world in which we live, are negligible almost to the point of non-existence.
There’s a difference between ignorance, and knowing but still choosing. As we move from ignorance to knowledge, maybe we can leave off killing animals for food. Maybe we won’t need a deathbed conversion.
Maybe, as Gandhi suggested, the way we treat our animals will someday be an intimation of the way we treat each other. Maybe we can be kind. And true.
In the dining hall of the college where I work, everyone knows when it’s carrot cake day. Word spreads like cream cheese frosting-covered wildfire. Normally, diners can wait until their lunch is over before perusing the dessert case. Plenty of time to get those cranberry blondies, folks. No need to shove.
Today it was indeed carrot cake day (I knew by 10 a.m. because I’m friendly with the ladies in the kitchen) but I forgot to pick up my slice when I grabbed my ziti with bell peppers and sausage backed by a ham and cheese panini. Just as lunch was winding down, I remembered. I waddled over to the place they keep the desserts and noticed that there were only two pieces left. As I reached into the case with my silver, crumby tongs, I felt someone behind me. I turned and saw a nice lady, obviously a visitor because she was wearing a lanyard with a name tag attached. We smiled at each other. I put one piece of carrot cake on my dish. If she hadn’t come along, I would have taken the other. Instead, I turned and asked her if she wanted the last piece. I noticed she had been eyeing it expectantly. Yes, she said. I relinquished my tongs.
I’m not telling you this to show how special and kind I am. When we give gifts, or perform charity, we’re not supposed to let the right hand know what the left hand is doing, as Jesus said. If we give with any expectation of reward, then we haven’t truly given, the Buddha echoed. I’m telling you this because this little exchange is what keeps our society from completely and irreversibly blowing apart. Today, it was me. Tomorrow it could be you, playing the role of either giver or receiver. Who knows? Maybe both in the same day. My karma ran over my dogma, or something like that.
Or maybe the fabric of society has already has been shredded to bits but it’s little acts of kindness like this that can put it back together again. I could have pretended I didn’t see her and taken the last two pieces of carrot cake. I think these days, that’s what most people would have done. Just like this parking space I swooped into even though you had your blinker on for two minutes while you waited for the octogenarian to finally remember how to start her car and back it out of her space at the mall, when I want two pieces of cake, I want them, and who the fuck are you to tell me otherwise? It’s my right, right?
Wrong. Give a stranger your second piece of cake. Maybe even your parking space. You’ll both be glad you did.
Who can eat two pieces of cake, anyway?
This guy is not the Buddha. He may be a Buddha (because anyone has the capacity to become enlightened), but he’s not the Buddha. To me, he looks like a fat guy with a carrot hanging around his neck who forgot to finish getting dressed and is really stoked that he found these tennis balls in the bushes. Likewise the other images that folks refer to as “happy Buddhas.” You know the ones. The fat Asian-looking gentlemen with their shirts open to the naval, looking like they are auditioning for The Biggest Loser: Saturday Night Fever Edition, sitting in half-lotus, heads thrown back in uproarious laughter. Again, not the Buddha. The Buddha is not some kind of jolly, clean-shaven Santa Claus meant to make Westerners feel good about themselves. His head isn’t meant to be a lawn ornament. My Christian friends: imagine a world of gardens full of severed Jesus heads, parked between the rhododendron and the mums. My Jewish friends: think how you’d feel if you saw the decapitated noggin of Moses displayed in the clearance aisle of TJ Maxx.
Maybe you’d feel the way I did when I snapped this pic in the clearance aisle of TJ Maxx:
I’m really not as offended as I sound, even though the dharma teaches us that Buddhist images, for them to be authentic, must be made by actual Buddhists. Truth is, I’m a lazy Buddhist. To prove it, I just ate a delicious jambalaya for lunch. With chicken and andouille sausage. Definitely not allowed, especially since I’ve taken vows.
Maybe it’s for the best that all these images, false and pious, are floating around. Maybe just hearing the name “Buddha” will cause someone somewhere to become enlightened, or by reciting Buddha’s name, like the Pure Land school believes, we can attain rebirth in a place that will allow us to attain nirvana. Stranger things have happened, sometimes just by washing our breakfast bowl.
The truth is, I am a happy Buddha. I’ve spent many, many hours inside numerous zendos and meditation halls. I know firsthand that most Buddhists focus way too much on the “life is suffering” part of the Buddha’s teaching and not as much time on the Nirvana part. Buddhism asks us to constantly reflect on how we are keeping our mind at any given moment of the day. Are we being wise and prudent and slow to anger? Are we practicing non-attachment (which is totally different from not caring)? Are we using what the Buddha calls, wonderfully, “skillful means” to negotiate life’s daily difficulties?
Me, I try to keep my mind happy at all times, even though I know some days I’m faking it. Instead of waiting for enlightenment, I’m trying to make it happen, for myself and others, by actively engaging with the world. With its demons, and my own.
Someone once reminded me that in difficult situations, rarely do people find their courage, then act. Usually they act first, and in acting, find their courage. I try every day to keep my mind in a happy place, to not take things too seriously, to know that the universe has a way of allowing problems to work themselves out exactly as they should. Yes, life is suffering, as the Buddha taught. But that’s just the first truth of the Four Noble Truths. It’s not something to lose your head over.
And, BTW, here’s the real thing. Made of copper in Thailand by real Theravada Buddhists. It’s the one I keep on my dresser so I can see him every morning and remember the path that he blazed for all of us. Out of sorrow, laughter. Out of suffering, happiness. Nirvana.
One of the things I love about the Buddha’s teaching is that he neither confirmed nor denied the existence of an afterlife. Not because he was privy to some secret knowledge that he didn’t feel like sharing with the rest of us. The Buddha was, if anything, a practical guy. His reticence on the issue was probably because even he didn’t know if there was a heaven or not. I’m OK with that. Better to be truthful than to lie about something you have no knowledge of. Still, that hasn’t stopping humans from speaking with certainty about the existence of an eternal resting place beyond this temporal world of ours. Do I want to believe in heaven? Of course I do. The next question would be: what goes on there? I spoke at the memorial service of a dear friend recently. I tried, in my typical uncouth fashion, to lighten the mood in the church just a little by telling a few funny stories about the deceased, who was, among many other things, a poet, a dog-lover, and a beer connoisseur One of the stories I told had to do with dogs. The other with beer. I closed my remembrance by saying that I knew there would be poetry in heaven, but that I hoped there would be dogs and really good beer. I should have also said stories. If there is a heaven, and if the afterlife really is infinite, then that should give us fallible, rushed, judgmental human beings the time and the space to tell each other all our stories until we really know each other as fully and as compassionately as we can. Human beings have been telling each other stories since before written language. Maybe stories are our original religion. Maybe the stories we tell each other here are just intimations, the edited remarks of the much longer, much more detailed stories, we will tell each other in heaven. In this sense, the 1,000-plus page novel by David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, is but a precursor to the much longer, and hopefully happier story that Dave will tell when I meet him in the next world. I hope I can sit with him, and with all the people I knew and know and will know, who I loved and love and will love, and tell them my story, as they tell me theirs. In my version of heaven, we would finally have the time to get to know one another, uninterrupted by Facebook and our cell phones buzzing. I’m hoping there will be gardens, with clear warm streams flowing through them that we can swim in. Maybe some music. And really good beer. Or seltzer if you’re on the wagon. We’ll sit in these gardens with the water flowing at our feet, drinking our divine cocktails, with Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes playing in the background. Not piped in through some speakers that look like rocks hidden in the flowers, mind you. But actually played by Bob and Levon and Rick and Richard and Garth and Robbie, who will be there with us too. Here we’ll tell each other our stories. The stories we didn’t have time to tell each other on Earth. Because in my version of heaven, we’ll have all the time in the world.