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The Vegan Spirit of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving, a holiday that stands out for many vegans and vegetarians as the most discomforting meal of the year, is fast approaching. As a recent Butterball undercover investigation reveals, the millions of turkeys killed for Thanksgiving feasts suffer terribly cruel treatment, and vegans, painfully aware of this and often finding themselves with friends and family who participate in and support this violence, can grow to dread Thanksgiving. This is ironic in the extreme: Thanksgiving was originally about celebrating the abundance of the fall harvest of plant-based foods.

In fact, even the rapidly growing number of people who are just seeking to limit their consumption of animal foods may be getting increasingly uncomfortable with the Thanksgiving spectacle. It’s becoming more obvious that we have a ritual feast centered around a morbidly obese roasted and stuffed bird that some say looks like she could be of the vulture family, while everyone gathers ‘round to get their share of the carcass, contributing to their own obesity.

The ironies go further. Not only do we eat like we’re vultures (not killing the animal ourselves, but letting someone else do it, and gathering like scavengers), we also do this in the name of gratitude and thanksgiving. Imprisoning and killing millions of innocent and vulnerable birds because it is a traditional way of giving thanks for the abundance of the autumnal harvest exposes an essential disconnect that is so fundamental that it reveals our efforts for peace, justice, and equality as being merely ironic. We want for ourselves what we routinely deny others on a massive scale, and fail to see that when we sow seeds of violence and inequity, even if we do it in the name of gratitude, we will inevitably reap disease, conflict, and frustration in our lives. We are called today, more than ever, to question the official stories and to make an effort to live our prayers for peace and abundance by granting these to the beings who are vulnerable in our hands.

How did we get into this predicament? Obviously, no one eats turkey-flesh of their own free choice. We do it for essentially one reason: because we’re following orders. The orders came early from our parents, relatives, teachers, religious institutions, TV programs, and ads – from every possible angle. The commands were overwhelmingly powerful and were ritually injected into us through forcing us as infants and children not just to witness the adults around us chewing and eating the flesh of animals, but requiring us to do the same. The cultural injunction to eat animal flesh and secretions continues throughout our lives as both outer social pressure and as the internalized inner voices in our own minds. Meals are the most powerful rituals in the lives of all cultures. We have all been ritually abused and indoctrinated by our meals growing up in this culture, and the Thanksgiving dinner epitomizes this indoctrination.

It’s important to remember that our modern Thanksgiving tradition is rooted in an ancient practice of giving thanks for the autumn harvest – which is of course plant-based foods, not animal-based foods. Looking deeply into the spirit of Thanksgiving, we see that it is decidedly—and ironically—vegan! Celebrating the miraculous abundance of our Earth, Thanksgiving points to the truth that we live in an essentially benevolent and cooperative universe, and that life is a creative exuberance flowering all about us and within us, and as us, and that we are invited to participate by giving of ourselves. Veganism, ahimsa (nonviolence), and the spiritual teachings of the world’s religions all agree in emphasizing the core wisdom of universal compassion for all life and working in harmony with the lives around us rather than exploiting, stealing from, and violating them.

It’s also important to remember that from the early days, there have been two types of agriculture: plant and animal. Plant agriculture is essentially more feminine work, cooperating with the cycles of nature, nurturing the spontaneous growth of herb-, fruit-, nut-, and seed-bearing plants, and saving the precious seeds so they could be planted again the following season. For thousands of years, sacred rituals celebrated the extraordinary abundance of the Earth, the powers of rain, sun, and green growth, the fecundity of Nature’s ever-giving and replenishing womb, and the joy of receiving a bounty of fragrant, delicious, and life-giving vegetables, fruits, and grains.

In stark contrast, from the beginning, roughly eight to ten thousand years ago, animal agriculture was essentially men’s work and it required violence and the cruel domination of animals who always resisted as best they could the mutilations, thefts, confinements, and killings that were forced on them for their flesh, fur, and secretions. It began with wild sheep and goats and spread to cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals, and it always brought out the worst in the people who practiced it.

Universally, we feel a sense of wonder and joy upon entering a lovingly tended organic garden. It exudes beauty, magic, delight, and blessedness, and we instinctively feel grateful, humble (from humus, earth), and blessed in the presence of the gifts we receive so freely from forces that accomplish what we can never do: bring forth new life from seeds, roots, and stems. And universally, upon entering a slaughterhouse, we are repulsed by the sheer horror and ugliness that are always required to kill animals for food, and at a deep cultural level, we feel ashamed of our relentless violence against animals for our meals. Because of this shame, we have created elaborate cultural rationalizations for our behavior—myths and stories we tell our children and ourselves that explain why we eat meat and dairy products.

We cannot create life, but we can most certainly destroy it, and we do so on a massive scale. This mentality of violence that is injected into us by our practice of animal agriculture has spread to our plant agriculture. Though we could humbly cooperate with life by creating widespread networks of small-scale organic gardens and fields, we tend instead to dominate nature violently, the way we dominate animals for food, and create the kind of pesticide-ridden, mono-cropped industrialized agriculture that is actually a manifestation of the same mentality required by thousands of years of animal agriculture. Genetically-engineered grains and legumes are, in many ways, the inevitable result of this practice of relentless exploitation of animals and the mentality of reductionism and domination it requires.

The result of this is destructive food program is that we are cast out of the garden into the rat race of competition and consumerism, ashamed of ourselves. It is this low self-esteem that drives the profits of corporations enriching themselves on our insatiable craving for gadgets, drugs, and entertainment to help us forget what we know in our hearts, and to cover over the moans of the animals entombed in our flesh. The choice is set before us at every meal between the garden of life or the altar of death and as we choose life and eat grains, vegetables, and fruits rather than flesh, milk, and eggs, we find our joy rising, our health increasing, our spirit deepening, our mind quickening, our feelings softening, and our creativity flourishing.

There are countless alternatives to the dead bird in the center of the table. As Dr. Neal Barnard has pointed out, the “three sisters” that Native American people venerated and cultivated as staple crops—corn, beans, and squash—make a terrific foundation for sumptuous feasts of gratitude. Stuffed pumpkins, nut loaves, Tofurkeys, vegetable and sweet potato dishes, and even completely raw Thanksgiving feasts of marinated eggplant and zucchini pasta are all in alignment with our yearning for compassionate and sustainable traditions. Vegan Thanksgiving meals are booming—in Raleigh, NC, now, for example, there are over 800 people gathering for their annual vegan Thanksgiving dinner, and this tradition is growing in other communities throughout North America as well.

We are here to bless the world. As we find our song and give it voice and wings, we contribute to the healing of our world and join with others in the celebration of love and beauty on this Earth. The inner teaching is generosity, humility, and gratitude: that as we give and nurture, we receive and are blessed. Mindfulness of our food choices is the key to creating not just outer gardens and fields of beauty, sustainability, and nourishment, but to nurturing the inner garden of our hearts. Choosing plant-based meals is the foundation of spiritual awakening, authentic generosity, humility, and of ensuring the future of life on this abundant Earth.

This is the ancient benevolent tradition of the harvest festivals that pre-date our modern “turkey-day,” which is an orgy of death and suffering for millions of innocent animals. May we wake up, remember, and celebrate our inherent wisdom and compassion, and continue to create the new vegan Thanksgiving meals and traditions that reflect the bounty of nature and the kindness of our true nature. We are all connected.

Image Source: Tomas Fano/Flickr