BOOKS: The Great Compassion & Holy Cow
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2004:
The Great Compassion:
Buddhism & Animal Rights
by Norm Phelps
The Hare Krishna Contribution to Vegetarianism & Animal Rights
by Steven J. Rosen
Both from Lantern Books (1 Union Square West, Suite 201, New York,
NY 10003), 2004.
169 pages, paperback. $16.00.
Norm Phelps, spiritual outreach director for the Fund for
Animals, is an angry Buddhist and animal rights activist.
Phelps’s righteous anger is primarily directed at the many
Buddhists –he estimates about half–who eat meat. Phelps regards
meat eating by Buddhists as both hypocrisy and as much a heresy as
can be committed within a religion whose teachings emphasize
tolerance. Phelps contends that western Buddhists who continue to
eat meat, when they must know of the horrors of factory farming,
offend the fundamental principle of their ancient religion, which
requires compassion for all sentient beings and preparedness to make
personal sacrifices in order to reduce others’ suffering.
Phelps marshals all the arguments he has heard from Buddhists
who rationalize eating meat, attacking their special pleading,
selfishness and prevarications with ruthless analysis and scathing
Many Tibetan as well as western Buddhists eat meat. The
Tibetans excuse is that the high plateaux of Tibet are not suitable
for plant farming and so meat eating was a necessity of life. Phelps
is not impressed, pointing out that many meat-eating Tibetans have
lived for decades in fertile India, after fleeing the Chinese
invasion of 1950 and repression following the uprising of 1959.
Even his Holiness the Dalai Lama eats meat, despite having
briefly become a vegetarian in 1965 after seeing chicken slaughter.
Many Buddhists share Phelps’s sense of betrayal and disappointment
with his excuse: that doctors advised him to eat meat after he
suffered from hepatitis.
On page 115 of the Dalai Lama’s book A Simple Path, his
Holiness confirms that the scriptures say that even animals have a
natural desire to avoid suffering.
On pages 154-155 he stresses that compassion alone is not
enough and that Buddhists have a responsibility to take upon
themselves the task of helping all sentient beings. In fact, the
Dalai Lama goes so far as to allude to scriptures that require
Buddhists to imagine that all beings are their mothers and to treat
He acknowledges on page 168 that “my own practice is very
poor, very poor indeed.”
Analogies between Buddhism and animal rights philosophy are
highlighted throughout Phelps’s fascinating book. Vivisection is
compared to pagan animal sacrifice. As Phelps puts it so neatly:
“Vivisection is the modern equivalent of religious animal sacrifice;
both attempt to purchase our own well being with the lives of
Concerning hunting and conservation, Phelps points out that
Buddhism regards animals, along with humans, as the “contents” of
the environmental “container,” whereas the conservation philosophy
lumps animals in with trees and rocks as part of the environment.
This has important consequences. Conservationists cull animals
supposedly to protect the environment, whereas Buddhism would
require protection of the environment for the benefit of all living
Although the 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham and
contemporary philosopher Peter Singer have gone some way toward
Buddhism in stressing the need to include all sentient animals within
the scope of our ethics, Buddhism goes further by precluding
exceptions based on lack of mental capacity. There is no hierarchy
of sentience in Buddhism: even crabs and earthworms are entitled to
Whether or not animal rights activists believe in rebirth,
the law of Karma, and other more esoteric aspects of Buddhism,
Phelps’ comparisons show that the “great compassion” principle ought
to be shared by dedicated activists.
Buddhism, Phelps emphasizes, is much more than a selfish form of
spiritual practice designed to reduce stress and lower anxiety
through meditation. The “great compassion” must go to the very depth
of our existence: we cannot achieve our own happiness until we are
prepared to sacrifice it for the happiness of other beings.
Holy Cow: Hare Krishnas!
Holy Cow purports to describe the Hare Krishna contribution
to vegetarianism and animal rights. However, author Steven Rosen,
editor-in-chief of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies, makes little
effort to analyse the main schools of thought within animal rights
philosophy, and draws comparisons between them and Hindu principles.
His main concern is vegetarianism, and the concluding chapter
contains some delicious-looking recipes.
There can be no argument that the Hare Krishna movement has
contributed much to the spreading popularity of vegetarian food.
Once associated primarily with flower-selling at airports, the Hare
Krishna sect rose to respectability and cultural influence through
worldwide outreach programs such as Food For Life, and through the
commercial success of vegetarian cookbooks and restaurants.
The Hare Krishna success has been achieved against
considerable odds. It began in 1965, when Srila A.C. Bhaktivedante
Swami Prabhupada, dressed in robes and rubber sandals, 70 years old
and penniless, arrived in New York from India and set about
establishing a western branch of the Hindu sect called Gaudiya
Vaishnavism. He died in 1977, long before the major growth phase of
the Hare Krishna movement, but had built momentum that has continued
through further generations of leadership.
The Hare Krishna religion preaches the same great compassion
for all sentient beings that we see in Buddhism, and this should not
be surprising, for both religions have their spiritual roots in the
Vedic scriptures of ancient India. Both believe in the
transmigration and rebirth of souls, so that devotees might believe
that they should avoid meat-eating, for fear of consuming the new
body of an old relative.
But Hare Krishna splits from Buddhism in its enthusiastic use
and promotion of dairy products. Perhaps this is one reason why Hare
Krishna has had so little direct impact within the animal rights
movement: despite the animal welfare benefits of eliminating meat
consumption, participants in a secular movement emphasizing veganism
rarely identify with either the practice of lacto-vegetarianism or
the Vedic spiritual teachings associated with it.
Unfortunately, the author lapses at times into Hare Krishna
movement self-congratulation–for example, listing at some length the
achievements of various Hare Krishna cooks.
Further, delving into esoteric aspects of the faith that
non-believers might consider mumbo-jumbo, Rosen makes his book much
less attractive than it could be to non-Hindus.
Rosen stresses the religious rituals associated with food.
First pure food must be offered to God (Lord Krishna, a vegetarian).
Only then may it be eaten by the devotee, for once the love of the
Deity has been shown, the food can tnourish not only the body, but
the spirit as well.
Rosen notes that vegetarianism is rapidly growing in
popularity in the developed nations, whereas surveys show that
Indians are consuming more meat than ever before, contrary to the
teachings of all of the major religions founded in India and many
“minor” branches, little known elsewhere, which nonetheless claim
millions of Indian adherents.
As India modernizes and emulates western ways, meat
consumption–and the cruelty inherent in raising animals for
slaughter–seem certain to increase.
Swami Prabhupada taught that, “Real philosophy is nothing
more than this: ‘friendliness to all living entities.'”
Such sayings have taken root in the west, which may
eventually help them to regain currency where they started.
–Chris Mercer & Beverley Pervan