Searching for Western Wisdom Teachings

Dr. Will Tuttle

Having just returned from a four-week lecture tour through east Asia, I am struck by some basic differences between Eastern and Western culture that seem significant for the vegan movement. One of the most compelling differences is in the relationship between a culture’s vegan movement and its ancient wisdom teachings.

We were inspired by the remarkable progress being made by the vegan movement in east Asia due to its being propelled forward by the efforts of Buddhist and other traditional spiritual and religious groups. These groups are working to encourage more conscious and compassionate eating and consuming habits among their rapidly expanding memberships, and also among the general population. Two of the Buddhist movements in Taiwan we worked with, for example, Tzu Chi and Bliss & Wisdom—each with many hundreds of thousands of devotees—actively promote both vegetarian and vegan living through their schools, universities, hospitals, lay and monastic trainings, farms, sanctuaries, disaster relief efforts, recycling and environmental remediation projects, and other educational and cultural programs. This is also true of many other Buddhist groups in Asia, as well as for other faith traditions, such as Confucian, Taoist, Jain, and many strands of the Hindu tradition like yoga and Advaita Vedanta. These traditions typically encourage their adherents to refrain from eating animal flesh, and increasingly to abstain from all animal-sourced foods and products because of their traditional scriptural teachings.

           The ancient instruction of ahimsa (nonharmfulness), for example, goes back untold thousands of years, and is a core teaching in Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu traditions. Ahimsa is the essence of veganism: to minimize harming others for one’s own benefit, and it is also strongly present in Confucian and Taoist teachings that encourage humility, kindness, and respect for others, and harmony with nature. In all these traditions, animals are explicitly included within the sphere of moral concern. In most of Asia, if someone is a vegan or vegetarian, it is assumed that it is because they are following a religious movement that teaches this.

In the West, the vegan movement seems to lack this essential foundation of respected ancient wisdom teachings that strongly encourage vegan living. Western religious traditions are for the most part dismissive and unsupportive of veganism, and in many cases even staunchly oppose it in practice, with church barbecues, halal and kosher slaughter, and the teaching that humans are so qualitatively superior to animals that it renders our ongoing abuse of them for food and other uses to be of little ethical consequence.

            So, veganism in the West is often anti-religious and even anti-spiritual, and also tends to be pro-atheist and pro-materialist in an attempt to escape the disheartening support of animal abuse promoted by both ancient and contemporary Western religious teachings. Thus, in the West, veganism is seen as an evolution into a new way of being, and in the East, it’s seen more as a return to the wisdom of the ancestors. Ironically, it has been the successive invasions of the East by Western herding cultures over the millennia that have helped cause them to start herding and eating animals, and to increase meat and dairy consumption in recent years, but their memory of the pre-herding spiritual awareness of respect for all life seems to be more intact there than in the West.

As I discuss in The World Peace Diet, the Abrahamic monotheistic religions that co-evolved with the herderism of Western culture all tend to support the warlike, patriarchal, and animal- and nature-dominating orientation of Western culture, still organized at its core around herding animals for food. These Judaic, Christian, and Islamic religions, being monotheistic, have also all historically been aggressive in their efforts to convert people to their religion and their “one true God.”

In contrast, there is no concept of a “one true God” in Buddhist, Jain, Taoist, Confucian, and Hindu traditions, and thus little compulsion to proselytize, which can be its own form of violence. These non-theistic Eastern traditions emphasize self-cultivation, spiritual awakening, harmony with others and nature, and are inclusive in their orientation. However, they are decidedly not atheistic or materialistic. In contrast, the West’s violence toward animals has produced its two main ideologies, authoritarian and bellicose monotheisms on one hand, and reductionistic atheistic materialisms on the other. There seems to be little authentic spirituality in either of these, or support for vegan living either.

     So, do we in the West have any ancient wisdom teachings to which we can turn, like the East can, to nurture our yearnings for religious and spiritual sustenance that strongly supports vegan living? Unfortunately, there seems to be little in the West that approaches in scope or depth the vast and profound repositories of spiritual wisdom of the Eastern traditions. For example, we visited a vegan school in Taiwan where the students study the ancient Buddhist Lamrim and Avatamsaka and Prajnaparamita Sutras, and the Analects of Confucius. These voluminous teachings call for altruism, harmony with nature and animals, respect for elders, daily meditative reflection, understanding life and consciousness as eternal, and the Bodhisattva ideal of dedicating one’s life to the welfare and liberation of all beings. They provide a powerful support for the students in their vegan lifestyles: their meals, their work in the organic vegetable gardens, and their relationships with others.

            To bring this kind of education to the West, I find myself searching for comparable ancient traditions and teachings that could support and deepen vegan living here. While it seems best to mainly leave it as an open question for our culture and movement to address, we can immediately see that there are several helpful passages in the Old Testament (though much also that is opposed), and in the New Testament also, in the teachings of Jesus. There is a core instruction of mercy and respect for others and for God’s creation that could potentially support vegan living. There are also some positive teachings in the Koran and the Islamic tradition that encourage kindness to animals. Additionally, there are the teachings of Pythagoras, unfortunately mostly lost, as well as some of the pre-Socratics. Plutarch, Plotinus, and the stoicism of Marcus Aurelius are potentially helpful. The Orthodox tradition also has many stories of pious monks who befriended and didn’t eat or harm animals. According to some scholars, the earliest Christians were well-known to their contemporaries to refrain from meat and wine, and even wool, to refuse participation in war and slavery, and to advocate vegan ideals as well as the removal of the passages in the Torah that promote violence toward animals and humans. Perhaps the ancient Essene communities harbor wisdom teachings that can be a foundation for Western vegan culture.

Otherwise, we in the West can also certainly study and benefit from the Eastern scriptures and other non-Western teachings because they are part of our human heritage. And finally, we can do our best to create the new vegan and spiritual traditions and writings that may someday be the ancient wisdom teachings of future generations.

If you have further suggestions or ideas, please post in the comments below – thanks! Click here to see our short video of the lecture tour highlights.

(There is a German translation of this essay also, thanks to Stefan Wolf.)

9 Responses to Searching for Western Wisdom Teachings

  • Breitman Patti says:

    Thanks, Will. Interesting observation. I am thrilled that JewishVeg is promoting vegan living from an Old Testament perspective.
    Wishing you every good blessing in the new year, Patti

  • Racine Hiet says:

    This was so beautiful! I want to find a way to accomplish this in our culture. Perhaps we can make a book compilation of all these beautiful scriptures that have been tossed away in order to reinforce the exploitive and violent teachings that “benefit” humans. I know that reading the original Course of Miracles in Jesus’ words, difficult at times, shared the vegan ideal. Perhaps we need our own expression for “do no harm” and to globally create a new vegan spiritual community, which would include vegan inter-faith religion for vegans who wish to continue with that, with its own name. I’d love to have a retreat for this some day. There can be no change in the schools, the government, the medical system, the environment, no Peace and enlightenment, no true compassion or Unity and Oneness for all, etc, etc, without some kind of profound foundational change. Anyone want to work on this with me? Thank you! Ahimsa would not be vegetarian today, but vegan.
    You may be interested in Codes.Earth, a foundational whole-system healing framework, founded in Israel, and now being shared throughout the world.

  • Krzystof Sibilla says:

    I was listening to the sermon of John McArthur describing biblical paradise as a place where there is no killing,we are all vegans there,he was saying that there and here are different places,……….I would ask him to look deeper at his congregation and see if his people are truly satisfied Christians with having all the freedom to eat other beings of paradise for food
    Many christian monasteries follow vegetarian or vegan lifestyle because they are progressing towards Truth.Seems to be that the key is in walking
    the talk.Please invite pastors to your home and share your deep insight with them too.


  • Stefan says:

    Will, thank you very much for this fantastic essay! I would be glad to translate it into German. As for suggestions. I am thinking of Peace Pilgram, she was an inspiring Christian and American Sage who practiced a vegetarian/vegan-friendly lifestyle. A book about her life and message is available online for free. Another one is Franz from Assisi, who was a Christian vegetarian Saint. It is also important to note that today’s Christianity would most likely be vegetarian or vegan if some essential parts of the Bible texts would not have been tremendously distorted, as is proven clearly in the following excellent documentary: (only available in German so far, recommended for Madeleine) Another example of Western wisdom teachings could be the way of life of the vegetarian Vedruss civilization, described by Anastasia. This Civilization flourished for tens of thousands of years in the East AND in the West. However as Anastasia tells us, all the Vedic scriptures of that Civilisation have been destroyed. So it would probably be not so easy to prove that this Civilisation actually existed, although there might be ways to do so.

    • Will Tuttle says:

      So generous and loving of you to translate this into German, Stefan – thank you! And appreciate your ideas for suggestions. Saint Francis, alas, from my research, had a great connection with many animals, but was not a vegetarian…. Maybe in his next life! And yes, the Vedruss civilization would be perfect but it seems to be almost completely lost and suppressed… Thanks for the link to the video on the Bible also.

  • Zach Shatz says:

    Will, I feel that your essay presents a profoundly incisive analysis of comparative religion, east and west. Getting to the heart of things intellectually, historically, morally and ethically, you’ve also gotten to the heart of things spiritually.

    In addition to the basic theme of veganism in contrast with dominance over animals, this quote very succinctly identifies the differences of eastern traditions from western: “These non-theistic Eastern traditions emphasize self-cultivation, spiritual awakening, harmony with others and nature, and are inclusive in their orientation.”

    The western traditions are more externally as opposed to internally oriented. Of course to make the external as we wish, we must bring it from the internal. As Ghandi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” And for those who appreciate the unexpected, there’s Michael Jackson: “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a…change!”

    The western traditions seem to have missed the boat, just too much emphasis on acquisition and ownership. Where is the veneration for sacred Mother Earth?

    Will, you’ve hit upon an insight of inestimable importance, easily worthy of another book to follow on the groundbreaking World Peace Diet. Blessings.

    • Will Tuttle says:

      Thank you Zach! Coming from you with your years of immersion in Chinese culture, is significant. And now another something new to work on! The journey of a thousand miles, step by step….

  • Albert Mah says:

    Thank you Will. You wrote with deep insight, no doubt because of your regular meditation and mindfulness practice. I was born in Malaysia but now living in Australia and have been a practicing Buddhist for 20 years and a vegan for 12 years after being a vegetarian for 5 years. What made me turn Buddhist were the teachings of kindness and compassion in Buddhism and later when I read Norm Phelps book, The Great Compassion – Buddhism and Animal Rights I became a vegetarian straight away and then later a vegan after I found out the cruelty of dairy, egg and other animal exploitation industries. So practicing Buddhism is what made me become a vegan and it gives me a spiritual dimension absent in the Western vegan movements I’m actively involved in. What you wrote is an accurate observation and assessment and I fully agree. Thank you again.

  • Janet Liu says:

    Hi Will,

    Thank you for your work to eat vegan. I enjoyed reading your essays on your travels to Taiwan (2014, 2020). I was born in Taiwan and moved to the U.S. while a child with my family. I was struck by your observation that veganism is embraced by its Buddhist monastics, educators, politicians, and media. You also mentioned that you are not allowed to speak at Buddhist centers & temples in North America (& elsewhere) because the monks, nuns, and leaders there eat meat & dairy regularly. I agree with you that it’s important to work with the religious institutions. I was wondering if you could share some advice on how to work with them.

    I had an unpleasant experience of advocating to eat vegetarian at a religious institution. I attended a Portland, OR Unitarian Fellowship for many years (you performed there on your book tour). Some 5 or so years ago, the congregation considered a resolution to serve only vegetarian food at its facility. It was narrowly passed. Some people were unhappy and left the Fellowship. A year later, the resolution was repealed. Now the vegetarian topic is considered toxic and some key people are vehemently opposed. I still attend some activities at the Fellowship but no longer feel invested in it.

    I volunteer for NW VEG, a Portland, OR vegan organization. I want to promote eating vegan because it is the biggest contributor to the climate crisis, which is an existentialism threat to humans. But it is an uphill battle in the U.S.: the big animal-agriculture industry, the culture entrenched in meat and dairy. I watched your interview yesterday on Corona Healers: “Claiming Your Personal Power to Solve the Climate Crisis”. I liked your message that we become points of light, that peace on earth starts with ourselves. I participated in a small group study of World Peace Diet a few years ago in Portland, OR, led by Beth Redwood. We were all vegans and the book made us aware that we can be peaceful activists.

    To me Taiwan is a very special place & its people have developed an admirable life in the shadow of the threat of China. I love the people’s warmth, their awesome vegan food, their well-run government which gives them universal health care, a top-notch transportation system, preservation of their forests, etc. I realize that their recent remarkable handling of the COVID-19 is not an anomaly. The government is transparent, intelligent, values the people, and has won their trust. I hope to return soon, when it’s safe to fly.

    Wish you health,

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