I began interviewing and photographing vegans in late 2014 (beginning on Oahu, where I was living at the time). Pamela Davis was one of the first people I interviewed and photographed for that ongoing project. She was also the very first Buddhist I chatted with on issues related to the intersection of vegan beliefs and Buddhist philosophy and practice. Upon her suggestion we met at Mu-Ryang Sa Temple, a treasure of a setting deep in Palolo Valley. You can read our dialogue from that first interview here.
Pamela is a vegan, practicing Buddhist and active animal advocate, so it was a wonderful to touch base with her again and delve into these topics, so central to our lives, again. Please enjoy this dialogue and also visit and support Pamela’s critical work at the Animal Advocate Inc Facebook page and the No-Kill Hawai’i Facebook page.
Thank you for reading and Pamela many thanks for your time.
Annika: Coming to terms with my own ignorance about the meat and dairy industry and the suffering of the animals in it was traumatic but necessary. Gaining more knowledge was a liberation, as was renouncing those products and committing to a vegan lifestyle. How did the view of suffering affect your decision to become a vegan?
Pamela: The fact that animals are enduring unimaginable suffering is the reason I got involved in animal advocacy. However, when I first decided to help animals, it only included laboratory animals. I had known for years that animals were suffering terribly in labs, being subjected to cruel and deadly toxicity testing for countless consumer products. I also knew animals were being subjected to horrific vivisection experiments for the so-called “advancement” of science and medicine. I did a lot of research and discovered that all this suffering is unnecessary because there are better alternatives available. Animal experiments and testing are not 21st century science; they are the science of the past. That’s how I got started.
A few months later a friend introduced me to veganism, and it took me completely by surprise. Like most of us, I had never questioned my eating habits. But I started watching videos showing the terrible cruelty and violence in slaughterhouses and factory farms, and was shocked and traumatized by it. I knew I could not keep contributing to this suffering and death, and immediately gave up eating meat. However, the cruelty of the dairy and egg industries was not so obvious to me, and it took about 8 additional months before I realized the suffering of those animals. I then gave up those products as well.
You mentioned that knowledge was “liberation” for you. I think of veganism in a similar way, as the beginning of “awakening.” Veganism “wakes us up” to certain horrible truths in samsaric existence (known in Buddhism as “apparent reality”), which had formerly been kept well hidden by vested interests, including the government, mainstream media, and large corporations. There are enormous profits being made by people who are engaged in animal agriculture activities that are devastating our environment and our health, and using animals as if they were commodities rather than the sentient beings they are. But in addition to this samsaric awakening, I also began to experience a spiritual awakening which opened the door to the possibility of understanding the nature of Ultimate Reality, understanding who we really are. I have a strong feeling that if I had not discovered and embraced veganism through the blessing of compassion, I would not have been able to discover and embrace Buddhism. My innate compassion (which we all have, although it may be heavily obscured) brought me to veganism, but the teachings of the Buddha greatly expanded my compassion. Thanks to Buddhism, I now realize that all beings are important, because at the most essential level, we are all the same. Therefore, we must do everything we can to alleviate the suffering of all beings. The Buddha teaches us that this great compassion must be extended even to those who are torturing, enslaving, killing, and exploiting other beings. There are consequences when one harms others, and these consequences may be experienced in this lifetime and/or in future lifetimes. The beings committing those acts also need our compassion.
Annika: There can be a strong correlation between practice, belief and action for Buddhists who are involved in various issues of justice, acting as agents of change and seeking, in various ways to change hearts and minds. What are your thoughts on mindful advocacy and the relationship between dharma and activism as a vegan (i.e. animal rescue work, sanctuary work, production of media that informs and educates, kitchen activism)?
Pamela: My Buddhist practice is the most important part of my life. I have a daily practice, and I take my vows seriously. I try to conduct myself in conformance with the teachings of the Buddha (in thoughts, words, and actions). When I make a video, I try to do it in such a way that it touches the compassion within others who may see it, and I try not to judge others. When I see videos or photos of animals being killed or tortured, I no longer get angry. Instead, I try to generate compassion for both the abuser and the abused. This is very different from the way I conducted myself before I found the Dharma. I still have a long way to go, but I am a much happier person now.
Annika: Many North American Buddhist Centers were traditionally vegetarian but with the rise of interest in veganism and popularity of plant based diets, more Buddhists are becoming vegans. How do you feel Buddhist centers can play a role in expanding awareness of the compassion inherent in veganism and also practical skills to incorporate in one’s life to ease the path to veganism?
Pamela: My teacher (Lama) has taught me that all of us, all sentient beings, have existed since beginningless time. We have never been born, and we will never die. We have had countless lives in samsara, in many different forms. There is not a single being who has not been our mother or father, who raised and protected us with great kindness in previous lifetimes. It would be terribly wrong to harm them. The Buddha taught that all the happiness and miseries which each being experiences have arisen solely from their positive and negative actions accumulated in the past. He said, “All living beings have actions (karma) as their own, their inheritance, their congenital cause, their kinsman, their refuge. It is karma that differentiates beings into low and high states.” Because of this principle, known as “cause and effect,” some of our old mothers and fathers have been reborn as animals or other types of beings, and are suffering greatly. We must not harm any being, and this includes even the ants, worms, flies, and so forth.
The first book my Lama asked me to read was “The Words of My Perfect Teacher” by Patrul Rinpoche. In that book, the Rinpoche teaches that animals experience inconceivable torments. He tells us that whenever we see animals suffering, we should put ourselves in their place and imagine in detail all they have to endure. He tells us to meditate with fierce compassion upon those beings reborn as animals, and if you have animals of your own, to treat them with kindness and love. He also teaches us about the many ways humans mistreat animals including hunting, removing babies from their mothers, using their skins and fur, slaughtering them for meat, stealing mother animals’ milk to make butter and cheese, and much more. This was my introduction to Buddhism. I knew I had found what I had been looking for.
My Lama is vegetarian, and he leads by example. There are members of our Sangha who are not vegetarian/vegan, but that is a reflection of their own karma; perhaps in time they will be able to realize greater compassion and understanding, and change their eating habits. I hope so. Recently, I read about Lama Zopa Rinpoche, who has decided to be more vocal. He said, “As there are more and more people becoming vegetarian, that means less and less animals will be killed. So it is very important. In the world people eat meat mainly because of habit; so many people have not thought that the animals experience unbelievable suffering.” He also described seeing a cow struggling to not go down a ramp to slaughter: “A man was pulling him down from the platform, but the cow didn’t want to go down. So I thought, I can’t stop the animal suffering, but what I can do as I go around the world to teach, even if it is on sutra and tantra, I will announce or request if people can become vegetarian. That is something I can do.”
Veganism is not a religion, it is an ethical decision not to harm others — and for me, Buddhism is the ultimate expression of compassion and the path to spiritual awakening. His Eminence Druwang Konchok Norbu Rinpoche said, “As a Buddhist, we should understand the essence of the Buddha’s wisdom and teachings, which is to do good and abstain from committing evil deeds. Abstaining from evil means that we have to keep our precepts. Hence we should not take meat. When we are sick, old or near death, we would go to the doctor, we would practice and do anything possible to extend our lifespan. However, when we take meat, we are killing sentient beings that are healthy. How great is our compassion and loving-kindness if we treat sentient beings in such a manner? We should abstain from killing because it generates immense negative karma. Instead, we should develop loving-kindness and compassion towards all sentient beings.” The Rinpoche clearly states that we should not use or exploit other beings for our own purposes in any way, and this is also the definition of veganism.
This is just a brief explanation of how Buddhism has positively affected my life as a vegan, and is not to say that other religions are not also good. Any religion that teaches us compassion and leads us to an understanding of our true nature is good.
I’d like to share these words of the Buddha:
One should not kill a living being,
nor cause it to be killed,
nor should one incite another to kill.
Do not injure any being, either strong or weak, in the world.
– Sutta Nipāta 2.396
* * *
This interview is part of an ongoing project I began in late Summer 2016 to explore the connections between Buddhism & veganism for contemporary practitioners, I began reaching out to several Buddhist centers across North America to see if they had vegans in their community who would be interested to take part in the interview series aspect of this project. For more on this project visit this link.