Originally from Nebraska, Saij currently lives in the Knoxville area of Tennessee and is an Executive Assistant at a local college as well as a Zen Buddhist Priest and spreads the message of veganism throgh both roles.
“At my work I held a week-long seminar on what veganism is and how it affects all of us as sentient beings and our planet. In my role as priest I have taught meditation to fellow workers with compassion/ahimsa as a major tenet, and when asked about veganism specifically, I share the knowledge I have about it and point people in the direction to learn more about what truly happens. I am also a mixed-media artist. One of my latest projects is a collage work done of flowers, but the close-up of each piece is actually pictures of meat and dairy. This was done to show the way many people view their meat/dairy/egg food as if there is nothing wrong, but in actuality upon further investigation it actually is the sentient lives of beings that have been slaughtered, tortured, and abused for palate pleasure. This series of pictures is meant to bring awareness to those who look deeply.” – Saij
Annika: Would you consider your area vegan friendly?
Saij: I would not consider my area vegan friendly. I would say most people have never heard of veganism here. However, this week in Knoxville the first all-vegan restaurant will open, Sanctuary Vegan Cafe. I am excited about that. I hope it lasts. There is a small meet-up group but it often doesn’t meet due to lack of participation, and I think several members are vegetarian.
Annika: When did you become vegan & why?
Saij: This is the second and final time that I have been vegan. I went vegan once before but did not do my research and did not maintain it and went back to vegetarianism. This most recent time was three years ago. I had watched several documentaries, such as Food, Inc., Vegucated, and Fork over Knives. This led me on a journey of discovery and understanding of the true knowledge of the agriculture business and dairy business in this country and other countries. It led me to Youtube channels like BiteSizeVegan which covers all topics imaginable regarding veganism done in an in-depth educational manner. I found out what truly happens to all the sentient beings (cows, chickens, pigs, sheep, etc.) that are routinely and without thought or conscience slaughtered, tortured, brutalized, abandoned, kidnapped, etc. all for the taste buds. I truly, truly made the connection and found out there is no “humane” way to do those obscenities. There is no such thing as “humane” slaughter, and that is why today I align with the abolitionist viewpoint of veganism. In my opinion, single-issue campaigns and welfarist views only tend to maintain the status quo and the unending pain that these beautiful beings go through when it’s completely not necessary given the fact that all necessary nutrients come to us through plants, grains, beans, fruits, etc. The meat/dairy/egg industry run on myth and money and corporate greed, nothing else. And even though this is how I feel now, I know that veganism for many is a process of realization. I am an example of this. I do believe that there are many roads to veganism, and I support the end, but in my heart once the connection is made, abolition is the way I feel overall.
In saying all of this, I also realize however, that there are places, cultures, economies in which being vegan may not be the easiest way. I understand that it may be more difficult for some in certain locations with extenuating circumstances, however, I don’t feel the United States is one of these countries. Contrary to one of the myths perpetuated by these industries, it is not more expensive to be vegan. There are many, many ways in which to eat nutritious meals without the need for more expense. There are many, many resources online where people are doing this all over the world. One only need to look.
Annika: Did motherhood have any influence on your vegan outlook?
Saij: Of course it influences me now, however, my oldest child is grown and out of the house, and my youngest is 11 years old and his father and I both share in raising him in both of our respective homes. My son also has sensory issues which make it much more difficult to restrict certain foods for him. Due to where we live and exposure to many households that do not prepare vegan food, he is accustomed to certain foods. Most of the food at my house is vegan, and he is getting used to more vegan foods all the time. I constantly work at finding vegan options that he will like, and I am making him more aware all the time about the source of his food and helping him make the connection. Ultimately, as a serious ethical vegan mother, this is a source of constant anguish for me. I can only hope that by my example, my constant instruction, and demonstration that over time and as he grows, he will choose compassion when making not only food choices, but any choices that have to do with animals.
Annika: What are some of your children’s favorite foods?
Saij: Pizza, pasta, rice, cookies, soup, Southern cooking.
Annika: What are some of your favorite foods?
Saij: I love Italian and Chinese food and all things that have to do with potatoes.
Annika: Favorite meal(s) to make for your family?
Saij: Chinese food, pizza, and I love to find ways to “veganize” the things they love to eat as well including desserts and soups and down-home cooking.
Annika: Favorite restaurant(s)?
Saij: Plant in Asheville, NC, and hopefully the new vegan restaurant coming to town. It is opening this Thursday. It’s called Sanctuary Vegan Café.
Annika: Any specific challenges you face as a vegan mother & how you handle them?
Saij: The biggest challenge I find is the fact that I cannot control all the food that is given to my youngest. His time is split between two homes each week. His father’s home is not vegan and so my son is not vegan there either. None of the rest of my family or our extended family is vegan. He has become accustomed to the way most Americans eat as well. His school does not offer vegan options either. When he is with me, he eats the majority of the time vegan food, however, still wants to have the things he is accustomed to, so it is difficult. I have had to treat veganism as something I teach my children by example rather than forcing the issue with each place that he eats. I try to teach my youngest about the issues in an age-appropriate way so that as he gets older hopefully he will make choices that are compassionate as he becomes more educated. It is very hard to find balance with this issue given the circumstances and where I live. If I could control the households and locations of where my son ate, I certainly would make sure they were always vegan. If I had the ability to do so, I certainly would.
Annika: How did the view and understanding of suffering affect your decision to become a vegan?
Saij: I think up until I made the connection, I didn’t realize what happened to farm animals or the animals used in circuses, zoos, labs, etc. I had an idea, but I didn’t see it completely. I hadn’t studied it. I think as a society we are conditioned to think and consume in certain ways, and unless there is a desire to learn more and change things, the status quo remains unfortunately. But once you “know”, you can’t unlearn those things. What shocks me more than anything is when people do finally realize it and continue to ignore it. Suffering completely and totally affected my decision in every way.
Annika: What are your thoughts on mindful advocacy and the relationship between dharma and activism as a vegan such as animal rescue work, sanctuary work and the production of media that informs and educates, kitchen activism?
Saij: This is an excellent question and one that has changed for me over the years. I used to be an outspoken, angry activist that marched and belonged to groups who were very outspoken and active. When I entered seminary and started studying the Dharma in a different way, I feel that now anger and in-your-face tactics are not the best way to educate people and show them the true meaning of compassion. I also definitely feel that activism has its place though. I feel that leading by example, educating where possible in a non-confrontational way, and demonstrating love for all sentient beings is by far (in the long run) more effective. I know the horrors. I have made the connection, but I didn’t start that way. It took years for me to understand and make that connection, so I have to let others find their way as well, but I can do everything I can to help in that regard. I don’t push my views on others, but if someone asks me questions, I make sure they “really” want to know the truthful answer. I will be brutally honest with them about the facts. I won’t mince words and I won’t sugar coat the truth. I won’t be angry about it though even though I sob sometimes at the atrocities that go on every day. I feel animal rescue, sanctuaries, media that is honest and informative, activism that is non-confrontational, and kitchen activism is vital and necessary. However, in my heart of hearts, I align with the abolitionist point of view even though I know for most (including myself) it is a process of discovery and educating oneself. All of the pieces of advocacy have a place and a time, but any time an issue is brought to the surface through violence in any way, that is never acceptable. Advocates or activists who push their views in this manner make the real message of veganism harder to find and less appealing to those who might be curious.
Annika: What is the relationship of veganism and Buddhism in your life? Were you Buddhist before you were vegan (or vice versa)?
Saij: They are completely related for me. I was Buddhist many years before I was vegan. I was vegetarian for years before I made the connection because I thought this was doing the best that I could do. I didn’t know. However, whenever I heard of someone being vegan, I thought to myself “I bet that is hard.” But in my heart I felt that being vegan was my true nature. I thought it would be too difficult and that I was doing “enough” at the time. I had no idea just how simple it is to become vegan and stay that way.
When I took vows as a priest saying that I would not kill or contribute to killing, it all clicked for me. I could no longer contribute in any way to the cruelties of any industry that uses animals for any purpose. Over the last three years I have tried to make my home cruelty free as much as is humanly possible, and I continue to work on that as it is a continuing process. I have gotten rid of or recycled clothing and accessories that contained animal products, reduced packaging including plastics which end up in our oceans, and adopted more minimalistic ideas for the home as well. I also make most of my beauty products and cleaning products, and before I purchase things I do my research to make an informed decision. There are certain things that are unavoidable I know, but for me veganism is a way of life. It is definitely NOT a diet. It is a moral way of living for me, and I will continue to try to improve upon this in every aspect of my life, and I will do my best to educate others whenever I can in a loving and compassionate way.
Thank You Saij!
This interview is part of an ongoing interview series by Annika Lundkvist with vegan mothers and fathers around the globe. For more interviews and information please visit this page: Interview Series: Vegan Pregnancy, Parenting & Kids.