Dr. Will Tuttle, author of the #1 Amazon best-selling book, The World Peace Diet: Eating for Spiritual Health and Social Harmony, and more recently, editor of Circles of Compassion: Essays Connecting Issues of Justice, visited Wisconsin in September to give a number of talks and workshops. Dr. Tuttle, a former Zen monk with a PhD in Education from UC-Berkeley, as well as an accomplished musician and composer, now spends most of his time spreading the vegan message of compassion for all life in communities throughout the world, traveling with his wife, the artist Madeleine Tuttle. During their visit to Madison in September 2016, where Dr. Tuttle spoke at the First Unitarian Society, an event sponsored by the Madison chapter of Dharma Voices for Animals, Alliance Board member Marina Drake spoke with him about the ideas in The World Peace Diet and his philosophy as to how veganism can help us heal culturally and create a positive future. For more information about The World Peace Diet and Dr. Tuttle’s work, see his website at http://www.worldpeacediet.com/.
- How did you first become a vegan?
I was raised eating lots of meat, dairy products and eggs, and I never questioned it until after college, when I ended up in 1975 at a community in Tennessee called The Farm. They were vegans, but they called themselves vegetarians because no one had heard of the word vegan back then. I was vegetarian for five years because of their example, and then I learned more about the abuse of dairy cows, and became a vegan in 1980. Then I became a Buddhist monk in Korea in 1984, the second time I was in a vegan community, and I realized veganism is an ancient practice that goes back at least a few thousand years. It’s part of spiritual and psychological improvement efforts that have been around for centuries.
- Is veganism an all or nothing proposition? Put another way, can we be vegetarian or vegan, and do good, either way?
I think essentially the difference between vegetarianism and veganism is that veganism has an explicit ethical foundation. Donald Watson, when he coined the word vegan, said that it’s “a philosophy and way of life that seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of and cruelty to animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose.” Veganism is broader than vegetarianism also. It includes any use or mistreatment of animals, and includes more than just food, and means doing the best we can to minimize our abuse of animals with our food choices, the products we buy, entertainment, and so forth. It’s probably not possible to be a perfect vegan in this world, but we do the best we can to minimize violence to other beings, including human beings.
- What’s wrong with so-called “humane,” “free-range” meat/dairy/eggs/honey?
What’s wrong with the humane label—and that whole movement—is that it’s not humane if it’s coming from animals. If you’re eating the flesh or secretions of animals, there’s virtually always going to be abuse involved. We’re owning animals as property, and ethically, that’s slavery. Veganism is really a modern expression similar to the Sanskrit word ahimsa, which means non-violence, acting without harming others. Owning animals, impregnating them against their will, taking from them what they haven’t freely given, betraying them by killing them and forcing drugs into them, stealing their sovereignty—these are all aspects of violence and harm.
For example, I remember reading a while back about an investigation that was done in a small slaughterhouse in Devon, England, that catered to free-range, local, organic, grass-fed, “alternative” meat and dairy and other products. Even though it was a small-scale slaughterhouse, the abuse was much worse, because in large-scale slaughterhouses, the line speeds are so high that the abuse tends to be around animals being skinned alive or put through scalding tanks alive because the workers don’t have time to stun the animals or kill them “properly,” but small-scale slaughterhouses tend to make the workers more sadistic because they have time to torture the animals before they kill them. Whenever undercover investigations are done, even in small-scale operations, abuse is always discovered. People’s hearts get hardened by working with animals who don’t do what they want them to, so they feel they have to use physical violence against them.
There’s also systemic abuse. For example, if someone has a few chickens for eggs, those chickens are all hens, a form of abuse because they’re not allowed their natural social structures since typically, all the males are ground up or suffocated alive at birth. It’s all completely unnecessary. There are no nutrients that we need to imprison and kill animals for that are necessary for us. There are millions of people who have been vegan for decades who are thriving.
- What are the steps we need to take to redress the imbalance in our relationship to animals, the earth, and our own health? Put another way, how can we create a positive future?
I think it boils down to effectively and authentically addressing our routine abuse of animals for food and other products. Whether it’s large-scale or back-yard scale, animal agriculture is devastating to the ecosystems of our earth, as well as our society, the actual fabric of our culture, and also to our physical health. Animal agriculture is inefficient. It takes a lot more land, water, petroleum and inputs of chemicals and so forth to feed people eating meat, dairy products and eggs than it does to feed people
eating a plant-based diet, especially an organic plant-based diet. We can drastically reduce the amount of deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution and depletion, ocean destruction, and climate destabilization by moving to a plant-based way of living. That’s the most important thing we can do in terms of helping our environment. Our culture is also destroyed in many ways by animal agriculture because of its inefficiency. We’re growing enough food every year to feed 9 or 10 billion people, and even though we have a population of 7 and a half billion, we have roughly a billion people going hungry and starving to death continually. This is the driving force behind food shortages, which are themselves behind conflict and global refugee problems, and also, underlying that is terrorism. There’s violence towards animals, ecosystems and wildlife, because animal agriculture is also destroying habitat. Some estimates say that as many as 10,000 species a year are going extinct. We’re definitely in the middle of the largest extinction of species in 65 million years.
We have violence among human beings, not only because of food shortages, but also because the workers who have to kill the animals have traumatic stress disorder and very often commit violence in our communities, as well. Our public health is being devastated by animal agriculture, not only because of pollution and soil erosion degrading the environment, adding more chemicals, causing cancer, but also the so-called nutrients in animal foods—saturated fat, cholesterol, animal protein, which is acidifying and inflammatory—all of these are behind diabetes and obesity, osteoporosis, liver disease, kidney disease, auto-immune diseases, and breast, prostate and colon cancer, as well as strokes and heart disease, and a lot of the diseases that people suffer when they get old, such as dementia. We could be a lot healthier on all these three levels, physical, cultural and environmental, by moving to a plant-based diet. Animal agriculture also devastates our consciousness, because we’re all compelled, from the time we’re little kids, to eat meals that essentially repress our natural capacity for empathy and sensitivity to other beings. Our capacity to make connections, which is the foundation for intelligence, is also reduced. Animal agriculture harms our individual intelligence as well as our social and cultural intelligence, reducing our natural capacities. Historically, with the advent of animal agriculture, we had the arising of the commodification of life, reducing beings to mere commodities to be used, and also the rising of a wealthy elite class, and for the very first time, of war, which was used by the wealthy elite class to increase wealth, defined as livestock. Livestock were capital. The word capita means “head,” as in “head of livestock.” This also led to the first human slavery. It’s a short step from enslaving animals to enslaving other people. It led to the domination of women, because men began to see females as mere breeders to be used. It led to the role model of the hard, tough, disconnected male, and there’s no more devastating force than this. The whole mentality of domination, exploitation and violence, of “might makes right” and entitlement that underlies virtually all the social justice issues and the inequality we have in our society, are all based on people being forced to eat meat, dairy products, and eggs, and adopt the mentality of disconnectedness, exploitation and violence.
We have internalized this at a deep level. We can create a society of peace, joy, love, harmony, and freedom on this Earth. Our Earth is enormously abundant. We can feed everyone on a fraction of the land and resources we’re now using. By eating animal foods, we have all been forced to abandon our natural intelligence and sensitivity. We’ve all been wounded by that, and that’s what we need to address.
- You’ve said that society’s rituals around food and our consumer culture contribute to a culture of denial regarding our own behavior. Could you explain how these rituals and that culture have contributed to getting humans to where we are now in our relationship to animals?
The primary way any society transmits its values from generation to generation is through rituals, and the main rituals in any society are the meals, so when, as little children, we sit down at meals, we’re not only getting foods that are not in our best interest, we’re also being fed attitudes that are not in our best interest. These attitudes are exclusion, the commodification of life, disconnectedness, and the domination of the sacred feminine. The sacred feminine dimension of consciousness which is in everyone, both men and women, is that dimension of consciousness that yearns to love and protect life, and it’s the foundation of a healthy family, of healthy relationships, societies, neighborhoods and communities. Animal agriculture is not only about breaking the bond between mothers and infants, and of sexual abuse and killing of mothers and babies, on a massive level, over and over again, in a hideous way, but also, by forcing us from infancy to eat the flesh and secretions of these animals, it shuts down the sacred feminine dimension of consciousness within us, also, directly. This is the wound that we’ve all gone through, and that really calls out for healing in our society.
- Some people see veganism as a religion or as a cult. How do you respond to that? Also, when some people hear the word “spirituality.” they think “navel-gazing,” “self-absorption,” “passivity and inaction.” Could you explain how being vegan can be form of dynamic activism, and how does meditating help animals and create community?
Veganism is certainly not a cult, in any sense. It’s the yearning to live a life that causes less suffering to others, so I don’t see how anyone can think it’s a cult. The perpetrators—which is most of the people in our society, because we’ve all been wounded—see people who are not in the “tribe” of perpetrators as being in some other “tribe,” so they say vegans are in a cult. Essentially, it’s just a way to try to maintain a sense of distance from their sense of remorse. But spirituality is nothing other than our yearning to awaken to a deeper understanding of ourselves, and our relationship with other human beings, animals, the Earth and the larger order. It’s natural for us as human beings to question the official narratives of our society that destroy authentic spirituality, in order to attain wisdom that transcends our culture’s materialism. Animal agriculture is essentially indoctrination into a cultural program of learning to see animals as mere matter, where their value is determined by how much they weigh. It’s reducing them to mere matter, and when you do that for 10,000 years, like we’ve been doing—we’ve been herding animals for 10,000 years—gradually, with time, we create a society where everything is reduced to being mere matter, not only other animals, but for example, forests are seen in terms of board feet of lumber, human beings are valued by how much money they can make or what they can do for us. When we reduce everything to an object, we reduce ourselves to just a physical body with a name that was born, and will die. Spirituality is simply questioning this fundamental dualism and separation and objectification of life, and seeing at a deeper level our interconnectedness, and learning to respect other expressions of life.
The reason meditation is so important is that it’s an opportunity for us to quiet our minds. With a meditation practice, we work hard to try to free ourselves from being products of the conditioning of our society that takes root in our consciousness as our own thoughts and attitudes. Meditation is inner listening, where we’re being receptive and open to a deeper truth. When we do that, we begin to realize that our consciousness has been colonized by being born and raised in this society. This indoctrination is through well-meaning parents, teachers, ministers, and doctors and others, but we’ve all been indoctrinated into a cultural program that’s not in our best interest. Meditation is a very powerful way to be able to see this, and also see that what we are is eternal consciousness that was never born and will never die. We can begin to see other living beings as expressions of the same consciousness, and I think if we’re serious about actually being effective as vegan advocates, we need to take this second step. The first step of veganism is the outer behavior of saying, “I’m not going to eat meat, dairy, eggs, or honey, and I’m not going to buy wool, silk, leather or fur,” and that’s great, but that’s only step number one.
- What role does legislation play when it comes to relieving animal suffering?
I think veganism essentially, at its core, is a grassroots movement. It’s local groups educating people and each other, and helping to plant seeds of veganism. As the grassroots movement gets stronger, our influence will begin to trickle up, and we’ll begin to be able to pass legislation that will be helpful. It’s not going to happen until the grassroots gets strong enough to support that, but it’s very important. There’s a reason why billions of dollars of our taxpayers’ money is going towards reducing the cost of meat, dairy products and eggs, and why the laws overwhelmingly support animal agriculture on every level, and that’s because the grassroots are eating meat, dairy products and eggs. So for us to really transform our society, we need to work at education, mainly, but it’s good to work on the legislative angle. I don’t think we’re going to get too far, though, until we first build sufficient momentum at the grassroots level.
- It seems to me that the field of medical research is more concerned with observation and experimentation than with healing, and that this is part of the old paradigm of domination and exploitation. Do you agree with that? And why do you believe vivisection and experimentation on animals for medical purposes continues to be practiced?
I agree that science itself in many ways evolved out of animal agriculture as a way to dominate female animals and nature, to systematize that. It’s used to dominate, primarily. I think our medical model is part of that. It’s based on that same delusion of seeing human beings as mere biochemical, electrical machines rather than as beings of consciousness. The idea that we can somehow improve our health by making animals miserable and sick, through vivisection and harming them, is an example of utter delusion. Healing has to do with the being that we are, and it’s time for us to deepen our understanding of what it is to be human, what it is to heal, because if we just use medical procedures and drugs to treat symptoms, without addressing the underlying disharmony in the human’s life that’s causing that problem, then the disharmony will re-emerge as other symptoms, and then that person will need more surgeries and more drugs. We have a system in place that enriches a wealthy elite at the expense of most of us. If we want to reap health, we have to sow seeds of health and kindness, not seeds of misery and abuse and violence. The more vivisection we do, the more sick and unhappy we get.
- When we see so much animal suffering in the world and with much of it caused by human activity, it’s tempting to say, “People are horrible, and it’s hopeless, because people are hopeless.” How can we work with that feeling?
That’s a great question. No one gets up in the morning thinking, “Today, I really want to cause a chicken to suffer,” but on the way to work, we stop by Kentucky Fried Chicken, because we’re late and we’ve got to eat something, not with any intent to do harm, but our actions are causing terrible suffering because we’re disconnected from them. Essentially, our true nature is kind and loving and aware, but we’ve been born into a society where our consciousness, our conscience and our capacity for caring have been shut down by the rituals in our society. It’s not that we’re a species that’s doomed to never-ending war and conflict with each other and with the earth, it’s just that we have been born into a society with an obsolete food system based on domination and exploitation of other living beings. We internalize not only the behavior, but also the attitudes which lead inevitably to war and injustice and horrible suffering for animals and for humans and for the Earth. Instead of fighting against that system directly, the best thing we can do is to make an effort to understand what’s happening, and to build an alternative system. That’s why I love veganism. Veganism is not merely a critique of a violent system, it also offers an alternative. We’re still wounded, we’re still judgmental, we’re still angry, critical, blaming and shaming, we’re still lost and in many ways, in delusion, and that’s part of being here, so we have to make an effort beyond just going vegan to awaken out of materialism, out of the herding culture’s orientation of separation and domination.
We’ve been wounded in those ways, too, and to start to heal those inner wounds, by cultivating kindness and respect for all the animals, including the human animals, to make sure that our relationships with other humans are based on kindness, respect, integrity and granting dignity to others. Then we’ll have a movement that will be effective. It requires us, as a movement, to take the second step, and embody what veganism is, not merely as a behavior, but as an underlying attitude of ahimsa, non-violence, or loving kindness and compassion and respect, in all of our thoughts, words, actions, deed and attitudes. This is what we naturally yearn for, this harmony with nature, with our families, our communities, and to eat food that’s healthy and sustainable, without using drugs and chemicals, without being enslaved to a system of domination and exploitation. It’s up to us, in this generation, to say it’s not going to go any farther, we’re not going to pass the old narratives and delusions on to our children, and we’re going to create a vegan world, based on respect and kindness for other beings. We can’t change other people, but we can change ourselves, and if we change ourselves authentically, then we will be able to plant seeds of change in other people. And that’s already happening. Madeleine and I, as we travel the globe with this message, see vegan restaurants and meet-up groups, vegan communities of various kinds, and many more vegan efforts and expressions that are growing. The idea is to continue this movement, and for each one of us to make the effort to embody the ideal that veganism points to, which is justice, loving kindness and respect for all living beings. As we do that, we will be able to free ourselves—and then also our entire culture as this spreads—from the violence that we don’t want to be committing. It’s part of the system that we’re born into. We’re wounded by it, and veganism is essentially about healing.