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What Wonderful Gifts!

The Joys of a Vegan Lifestyle

illustration by Brother Phap Ho

I met my first vegetarian friend during my time at the university in Sweden. I found out about her being vegetarian on a date, when I had invited her for dinner. I was not prepared for that but was able to put together a vegetable dish rather quickly. (Practicing acceptance and letting go can be easy when you want to make a good impression on someone.) I must admit that in the coming years I had more influence on her food choices than the other way around. I have had some regret about this because I became a vegetarian eight years later. I have also asked myself why it took so long and what elements inspired this shift. 


Exposure to healthy and tasty plant-based food was the beginning of my life as a vegetarian and, later on, a vegan. Four and a half months in India will do that to you! Eating vegetarian is the economical and safe way to get by during an extended stay in India. I noticed several concrete benefits after this shift in my diet. I had much less mucus in my nose and throat. My digestion was smoother and more regular. My energy level was more even and flowing through the day. After this direct experience, I have never thought about turning back. During this time, I also read a short book on vegetarianism that addressed health benefits, the detrimental effects of a meat-based diet on resources and climate, as well as the situation of animals. Today I choose to be vegan because of health, love, climate, and equality, which are all supportive elements to nurture and sustain me as I step out of the mainstream. With this kind of exposure and a practice of awareness, including not turning away from suffering, there isn’t much of a choice!

Returning to Sweden as an alcohol-free vegetarian was to be reborn. So many new things to learn and so many new habits to develop! During two months in Sweden, before traveling to France and Plum Village, I experimented with oat and soy milk, sprouts, soaking and blending sesame seeds, and so on. It was a lot of fun, and I was lucky enough to have a lot of time. 


Arriving at the monastery I found a different stream, the loving stream of mindful living. Now at home at the monastery, I am offered the wonderful gift of vegan, home-cooked food every day. There is so much to take in as we line up, pick up a bowl and utensils, and start serving the meal with all its sense impressions: life is present and manifest. Whenever I return from a trip somewhere, I am delighted not to have to read ingredients or try to find something vegan on a menu. I have to admit though that I sometimes think, “Oh, not tofu, rice, and steamed vegetables again!” Gratitude is a living awareness, a practice, and not an idea or concept, for sure!

For me it is clear that everyone and everything wants to live, so when I cut a carrot, I sometimes say “Sorry” to the carrot for interrupting its manifestation as a carrot, and I ask, “Do you want to become a human being? Do you want to become a monk?” This is one little example of how I play and practice in order to recognize suffering and look deeply into life. What kind of change is happening and what is the suffering involved? Years ago during a US tour, we stayed at a monastery outside New York. Their meal contemplation included the phrase “not to use food as entertainment.” Hearing this for the first time was like a shock wave crashing into me. Slowly I am learning to eat in order to have a healthy life, and less for the simple pleasure of eating. To skip dinner for periods of time, to fast now and then, as well as to eat mostly what others cook and serve, have all been helpful practices to deepen my relationship to the food I eat and allow me to focus more on other sources of nourishment. 


Recently I attended the eleventh annual Vego Mässan, a vegan fair in Stockholm organized by an animal rights organization. I was struck by the age of people attending the fair: I would say about 75% were under forty; and I also noticed that about 75% of the visitors were women. The fair offered a lot of food alternatives to inspire a vegan diet, including some phenomenal ice creams—delicious treats that contain healthy ingredients. 

There were also several lectures during the day, and the two I attended were very inspiring and helpful. The first was offered by an MD and cancer specialist, also a friend and practitioner. He offered ample and convincing information, showing that a vegan diet is the healthiest for us humans and moving in that direction can not only help reduce the risk of future disease but also help relieve current symptoms. He showed that associations of nutritionists and dietitians as well as worldwide cancer organizations have these findings and information on their websites. He and other MDs have started the organization Läkare för framtiden (Medical Doctors of the Future). He urged all of us to take vitamin B-12 and vitamin D supplements. 

The second lecture I attended was by a Belgian man who is involved with the Center for Effective Vegan Advocacy (CEVA) and who writes the blog “Vegan Strategist.” He offered a very refreshing and empowering talk, with a practical and friendly approach. He focused on reducing our consumption of animal products and inspiring more people to move in this direction, rather than getting dogmatic and trying to be perfect. He touched on the importance of food products that can make the transition easier. He encouraged us to invite friends for vegan meals, at home if you are a good cook, or, if not, to take them out to your favorite vegan restaurant. These are some of the ways to encourage people to change their behaviors so that more animals can be saved in the short and the long term. He elaborated on how we often change our values and beliefs after our behaviors have already started to change.  


This spring I received a wonderful gift. I now have an opportunity not only to eat vegan food every day, to share vegan food with the thousands of people coming through Deer Park Monastery every year, and to learn about the practice of mindfulness, but also to be able to share what I care about with people who want to learn and grow. During our Wake Up retreat in April, I offered a talk in part about the mindfulness trainings. It was so natural for me to share about how a plant-based diet helps reduce the destruction of life, not only for the individual animal but for all of us, when you consider its effects on preserving natural resources and slowing climate change. Sitting at lunch, I felt a strong call from the core of my being to continue to learn and speak out about plant-based living in an open, inspiring, and loving way.


To continue my practice and reflection, I have started writing a mindfulness training on the vegan lifestyle:

Aware of the suffering caused by human exploitation of animals for food, clothing, cosmetics, medical testing, and the pet industry, I am committed to recognizing the preciousness of all life. I will learn about the situation of animals as well as establish relationships with wild and domesticated animals in order to deepen my understanding of their happiness and suffering. I will continue to take steps to lessen my consumption of animal products and help others do the same, in a joyful and loving way. I see my transition to a plant-based lifestyle as a necessary ingredient in a collective awakening and a comprehensive approach to mitigating catastrophic climate change. Cooking or serving a plant-based meal, I shall also remember the plant life that is being offered to sustain my life.

May all beings be happy and safe and may all hearts be filled with joy.

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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