[Last updated 12/03/19]
Have you ever wondered why more spiritual teachers don’t completely give up animal products? These are compassionate people, right? "Enlightened souls" who've seen through the illusion of separateness of form and into the oneness that connects all life, right? Well yes, they are. But this, unfortunately, doesn't always translate back living a vegan lifestyle. Read on to find out why.
Asking a spiritual guru - be they a wise Buddhist monk, a learned Hindu elder or any number of non-sectarian western teachers - specifically for advice about veganism is almost like going to a veterinarian for tips on your yoga practice.
As scholastically involved in the Vedic scriptures or the verses of the Sutras as these spiritual teachers may be, none of this necessarily makes them qualified to have an informed opinion on the moral treatment of non-human animals, the deleterious environmental effects of animal agriculture nor the specifics of human nutrition. These three issues are by far the main reasons people turn vegan, and these are topics for those well versed in philosophy and science, not religion or meditation.
Of course there is nothing stopping spiritual teachers from branching out into multiple fields, as many do and is discussed below, but it is not because they may be unusually present to the moment and detached from cravings that they can properly address questions about veganism, it is because of their other, more relevant studies.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I think we would all agree that not everyones opinion on every subject is deserving of equal weight. Even undeniably intelligent people have said things they would probably not say again about topics they are less familiar with.
Eckhart Tolle is an very effective spiritual teacher who has helped countless people lead happier, more deeply fulfilling lives - including my own and many people I know personally - by his ability to relate to present day westerns, but you have to remember that any answer he or any other spiritual teacher gives to a question about the ethics of eating animals is going to be framed within their field of expertise.
As you can see from the answer Eckhart gives in the video below, veganism is definitely not his field of expertise, but his answer is perfectly inline with the important things he has dedicated his life to teaching.
(While watching the video, please remember the point of this post is not to isolate anyone and I am using Eckhart only as an example here because he is quite a well known mainstream figure.)
As usual, Eckhart raises a few great points, including how being egoically identified with vegetarianism or veganism is a hindrance to spiritual awakening, but it's unreasonable to expect him to straight-out promote veganism.
But this is okay, because philosophy, nutrition and environmental science are not his field of expertise - and he is not a vegan activist, his role is only to help us become enlightened - and because of this, I don't think people should go looking to him, or anyone else like him, for advice on veganism, for the same reason you wouldn't ask your accountant about your broken hot water system, even if they do use hot water every day. It is also equally irresponsible for anyone else to use answers like Eckhart gave above as excuses to continue paying for animals to be harmed.
There are of course exceptions to this general rule, and this comes possibly most notably in the form the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh, who has concisely voiced his opinion on this matter in the following famous quote about the meals at his temple.
"Being vegetarian here also means that we do not consume dairy and egg products, because they are products of the meat industry. If we stop consuming, they will stop producing. Only collective awakening can create enough determination for action."
- Thích Nhất Hạnh
In the short video below Thích Nhất Hạnh briefly explains why everyone should go vegan.
But of course, people like Thích Nhất Hạnh are the beautiful exception to the rule.
We look to established spiritual guru’s for advice on meditation, peace of mind, and interpretations of ancient texts. We look to medical doctors, nutrition scientists and large bodies of dietary professionals for advice on human health, philosophers for their well thought out positions on ethical behaviour, and other (non-biased, non-industry funded) scientists for their findings on the environmental concerns of animal agriculture.
These are the people who have done their homework in this department, so these are the people who are qualified to talk most authoritatively about the all reasons we should avoid exploiting non-human animals. These people know the benefits of veganism because it directly relates to their field.
Will avoiding animal exploitation as much as is possible as practicable help to remove the attachment to forms that is responsible for so many of the reasons we go to spiritual teachers for guidance? Will it help us to understand the true nature of ourselves and our place in the universe? Not really. So don't expect people who's field of expertise is these spiritual concepts to advocate for veganism like some other professionals do, because it's highly unrealistic at this point in history.
Remember, regardless of what the latest data shows and despite that, no matter our diet, we can all agree that it's wrong to harm animals unnecessarily, there is still currently less than 5% of the population practicing veganism - and this includes medical doctors, environmental scientists and philosophers - so unless you enjoy disappointment, I wouldn't expect more than 5% of spiritual teachers to be vegan either.