Enlightenment and Speciesism

Rama Gz
11 min readMar 18, 2015

On the domain-specificity of awakenings

Contemplatives, people who have spent long hours in meditation, have described their understanding of a new vision of reality as ‘an awakening.’ Another term for the phenomenon is ‘enlightenment.’

Animal rights advocates have also described their understanding of speciesism as an awakening. But are these same realizations? Do they overlap? Or, are they merely analogous?

I will use some core definitions for what I mean by ‘awakening’ in the two cases. For a contemplative, awakening is manifested as self-transcendence, a dispelling of the illusion of the ‘I’ that commandeers our daily life. One begins to see that there is no inner self who thinks thoughts and directs actions. In Buddhism specifically, it might be described as the attainment of the insight that all phenomena are empty of self-essence, and that the reality is that none of us are separate. These realizations may come only in sporadic moments, but truly practiced meditators might enjoy prolonged periods of transcendence.

For the animal rights advocate, the ‘awakening’ comes about through the dismantling of speciesism, the insight that we share our feeling of inner subjectivity with not only other people, but also other animals; that there is no way to morally discriminate based upon species membership among animals with interests. Most people would include other humans in their sphere of moral concern; we accept that we should treat other humans as we would want to be treated. However, speciesism is the prejudice that blocks moral concern with other animal species who feel pain and pleasure like humans do. When we ‘awaken’ we understand that we have drawn the line of consideration too closely around us, and that we have to expand the boundary to include all animals that feel.

Is overcoming speciesism a form of spiritual experience, akin to enlightenment?

Or is it a more prosaic understanding? Certainly the enlightenment of the contemplative sounds more spiritual and all-encompassing. Perhaps I am making a ludicrous comparison between a truly spiritual experience and a more mundane ideological understanding. Except that some scholars and writers have described the animal rights realization in terms of spiritual conversion.

Tom Regan has categorized some animal rights activists as ‘Damascans.’ Similar to the conversion of Paul the Apostle, who is described as having a divine revelation in a blinding flash of light, these animal rights advocates also have a dramatic life-altering experience, or sudden breakthrough in understanding of the relationship between humans and other animals. Professor Regan also categorizes other types of advocates who come by their mission in more mundane ways: Da Vincians, who are born with the insight, and Muddlers, who gain insight through trial and error.

Some authors use ‘veganism’, originally coined as the practice of avoiding harm to non humans, interchangeably with the animal rights awakening. Will Tuttle’s book ‘The World Peace Diet’ would be one example of this. Dr. Tuttle has advanced a particularly spiritual or even ‘religious’ view of veganism. For Dr. Tuttle, the practice of veganism, particularly that of avoiding foods of animal origin, liberates one to deeper understanding and awakening. He says, “Animal foods concentrate both physical and metaphysical toxins.” In other words, not only are animal foods physically unhealthy, they are metaphysically unhealthy because they have incorporated cruelty, violence, enslavement and terror. By changing our eating habits to omit all animal products, we attain a ‘genuine spiritual breakthrough’ that will result in further spiritual and moral development.

But perhaps this is a uniquely mystical view that has yet to be substantiated, so let’s consider the views of other scholars.

Professor Steven Best explicitly equates the animal movement to enlightenment in the 21st century. While we would be hard-pressed to hold his use of the word to a spiritual or any other-worldly dimension, it is clear that he does mean a complete and profound overhaul of mental structures regarding one’s place in the world. This type of transformation has no equivalent in other philosophies. He says that he teaches many radical philosophies,

“..but only animal rights has the power to upset and transform daily rituals and social relations. “Radical” philosophies such as anarchism or Marxism uncritically reproduce speciesism. After the Marxist seminar, students can talk at the dinner table about revolution while dining on the bodies of murdered farmed animals. After the animal rights seminar, they often find themselves staring at their plates, questioning their most basic behaviors”

Furthermore, he describes the transformation in terms that sound closer yet to contemplative awakening; he says the new vision of humanity will be profoundly healing because one no longer has to ‘live the lie of separation’; in other words, the true reality is profound interconnection.

So, these examples show us that it is not far-fetched to think about the animal rights realization as a deep vision that is comparable to a spiritual revelation. To what extent then, is it reflected in the post-enlightenment views of contemplative sages? When a meditator awakens, when they become enlightened, do they also understand equality of consideration for all animals? Specifically again, I am going to focus on Buddhist meditators, as I have greater familiarity with this group, although I suspect my conclusions will apply to all contemplatives.

As far as I am aware, there is not one single Buddhist arahant who attained full vegan understanding through contemplative practices.

Rather, the philosophy of veganism was first outlined by Donald Watson (1944), who was a woodworking teacher, and the related idea of speciesism was developed by Richard Ryder (1970), who was a psychologist. Speciesism was later popularized by Peter Singer, the philosopher, in the book ‘Animal Liberation’ in 1975. None of them as far as I know were meditators, and definitely not arahants.

So my question is, if arahants are wise, then where is their understanding that species barriers are illusions? If they are compassionate, where is their love for their fellow beings that have similar interests in being free, avoiding pain and continuing to live? It seems that despite all the meditation, and the ability to see things ‘as they are,’ arahants cannot overcome speciesism, and we had to wait for others to propose the philosophy of veganism and animal rights.

Surely the understanding of not-self is too large to be restricted to humans alone. But even the earliest and most complete Buddhist scripture, the Pali Canon, is replete with speciesist references. In a relevant text, author Paul Waldau says,

“Despite the central place of animal stories and their important emphases on continuity and compassion and the ethical achievements obvious in the First Precept (do not harm), recognizable harms to even the most complicated nonhuman animals, such as elephants, were deemed to be humans’ prerogatives under the moral order.”

For instance, the canon describes the untrained mind as a wild elephant being subjugated into tameness: “As the strong hook-holder makes an untamed elephant, newly taken, turn against its will, so shall I make you turn.”

Buddhist doctrine holds a disdainful view of nonhuman animals. A

Buddhist depiction of the Animal Realm

nonhuman life is relegated to a lower status than a human life. The consequence of unwholesome karma in a human life is rebirth as a nonhuman animal. Nonhumans are not able to take the deliberate action toward awakening, as humans can.

Some animal advocates are deeply disappointed to find that a religion that teaches ‘compassion for all sentient beings’ can be so dismissive of other animals. Sadly, after all the enlightenment, Buddhists are as subject to the delusion of the species barrier as anyone else. A search for ‘vegan’ at the Buddha at the Gas Pump website yields no results. Jack Kornfield, founder of Spirit Rock Center, begins almost all his talks with the statement that in this existence, we have “a hole at the top where we insert dead plant and animals…” as if there is no other alternative to eating animals. Joseph Goldstein, co-founder of Insight Meditation Society, says that after a moment of enlightenment in his youth, he reflected while walking through a zoo, which makes me wonder, what is the nature of the enlightenment if one cannot understand the plight of animals imprisoned for no crime?

The typical response from Buddhist teachers as to why they are not vegan is that, “We kill beings with every breath we take.” The point here is that we kill microorganisms unintentionally when we take a breath or a step, and so therefore we might as well kill and eat animals. A slightly different form of this argument is that “In samsara we cannot avoid causing harm.” Both of these are speciesist fallacies, because we certainly do not think it is appropriate to kill humans intentionally, even though humans also die in accidents.

There are loopholes in Buddhist doctrine that allow one to eat animals, such as whether or not they were killed specifically for the person consuming them. The reasoning here seems to be that if one wasn't directly killing the animal, and if the animal wasn't killed specifically for them, then one is not culpable. This type of reasoning seems to willfully ignore supply-and-demand economics. If we were not paying someone to kill animals for food, then they would not be killed.

A recent article from Tricycle takes the defense of eating animals to some extraordinary lengths. Author John McClellan argues that we should not be too pure in our vegan habits, lest we build a buffer between ourselves and ‘the suffering world.’ On the contrary, it seems to me that vegans are more open to suffering than non-vegans, which is why they become vegans in the first place. Perhaps the author finds vegans to be self-righteous. One of the commenters has said that some vegans are narrow-minded and “stifling.” But isn’t a non-vegan stifling to the lives of the animals they exploit?

So this still leaves me with the question, why are arahants speciesist? Perhaps enlightenment is not the all-encompassing revelation that I have assumed it to be. Perhaps arahants are looking for something else entirely, which causes them to miss important realizations about nonhumans. Perhaps enlightenment is domain-specific.

Sam Harris, in his book Waking Up, recounts a whole series of stories about supposedly realized gurus who nevertheless engage in morally questionable practices. Some of them seem clearly violent and immoral. For instance, Tibetan Lama Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who drank liberally, ordered bodyguards to assault and strip his students, ostensibly for the students’ own edification. Others don’t seem quite so flagrant. For instance, Poonja-ji, Dr. Harris’ own Indian teacher, arranged for the marriage of his niece by publishing a picture of her in the newspaper’s singles column after having the photographer lighten her skin by several shades. While this is not the most enlightened of behaviors, I would just put it down to cultural conditioning. Sam seems more outraged by it than I would be, but then given my background I would have just seen this as standard practice.

“Unfortunately, the link between self-transcendence and moral behavior is not as straightforward as we might like. It would seem that people can have genuine spiritual insights, and a capacity to provoke those insights in others, while harboring serious moral flaws. ..depending on the level of their practice their insights may be an insufficient antidote to the rest of their personalities. The resulting problems can be accentuated by cultural differences.”

I can give some leeway for cultural differences, and how we regard other animals is the profoundest of our cultural inheritance. However, Poonja-ji was acting in a manner that he thought was in the best interests of his niece. But how can people be convinced that eating animals serves the animals’ interests? I suppose that the teachers are so convinced that exploiting other animals is the only way to live, they cannot even think to question it, regardless of their level of realization. Enlightenment leaves the assumption of human supremacy unchallenged.

It really does seem as if the contemplative awakening and animal rights enlightenment are two different transformations. One might be able to transcend the self through meditation, but to understand deep prejudices such as speciesism one has to engage in other types of practices as well. According to Matthieu Ricard, Buddhist monk, scientist and now animal advocate, one has to watch Earthlings. Here’s what he says in the video clip (7:10).

“Not only think but experience. And see movies like Earthlings, and Food Inc.

And see the situation, and don’t say it’s disgusting, I cannot look at that…It is precisely what the meat industry wants, that it is removed from our perception..If you watch with an open mind, it is very hard to have any kind justification after seeing what is really going on in a slaughterhouse. Not even Buddhists, but any decent human being, who has taken the care of seeing what’s happening…just can’t do it. “

It is telling that Dr. Ricard, who has studied meditation in fMRI studies, as both participant and scientist; who teaches meditation to the elite and who is a devout student of some of the greatest Vajrayana masters; it is telling that he does not say that meditation and study alone are enough to understand our place with respect to other animals. He says that one also has to watch Earthlings in order to have one’s eyes opened. This suggests to me that he had to go beyond all that he had already learned and realized in all his practice and study since the early 1970s.

In another interview in the same series, Dr. Ricard says that Buddhist doctrine’s instruction with regard to animals is mixed. There are a few advocates for animal rights among Buddhist scholars; they focus more on the sections of the doctrine which describe humans and other sentient life on a more equal footing. While these teachers may have good intentions, their view of Buddhism is misleading. As we are trying to see the ‘truth,’ it is inadvisable, if not impossible, to pretend certain parts of the Buddhist doctrine do not exist.

The animal rights vision has been developed by people who are not contemplatives or Buddhist arahants. Nevertheless it is a deep realization, along the same lines as the meditator’s awakening. I really don’t know why arahants are not vegans, and to say that it is ‘cultural conditioning’ seems to beg the question of what the arahant’s enlightenment really means. I wish I could end with Dr. Tuttle’s words,

“As vegans, we already are the spiritual leaders of the coming more-awakened society. As the vegan movement continues to gather momentum, spiritual teachers who aren’t vegan will be increasingly ignored as hypocritical and out of touch.”

But I can’t end with those words, eloquent as they are. Becoming an animal rights advocate is not just about avoiding animal exploitation, although it is a necessary part. Becoming an animal advocate is about a sea-change in the way we see our human selves, as embedded in the complex network of sentient life, no higher, no lower, but equal. Not only no-self, but no-different from other sentient lives. Rather, I think we might follow the Buddhist tradition for devising effective meditative practices to change our entrenched thought patterns. We should develop a new meditation on equal consideration of interests for all sentient beings.

It is a contemplative practice as worthy of cultivation as mindfulness, or equanimity, or metta.



Rama Gz

Vegan and former vivisectionist. BA (Oxon), PhD, MBA, formerHumane Educator. Mother of five, two humans, one dog and two cats. From Tucson, Cardiff and Chennai.