Veganism and Karma

What it might be, and what it probably isn't


Vegans have been talking about ‘karma’ a lot lately, with reference to the Nepal earthquake in particular. It might be useful to consider what ‘karma’ means, particularly in a Buddhist context, because it has useful implications for the movement. Karma is generally explained by Buddhist teachers quite simply as “cause-and-effect.” Or simpler still, as “action” or merely “intention.” Prior to the Buddha’s teachings, one’s actions were thought to be the determinants of one’s future well being. According to these teachings, as long as you performed certain religious rituals, you would receive the benefits of those actions. The Buddha refined and corrected this view by saying that is not really the action, but the intention behind the action that gives rise to ‘karma.’

The fruits of acting on the intention are automatic. Rewards and punishments are not meted out by a deity. It might not be clear to us the way in which karma works. It might work immediately, as in the little niggling uneasy feeling we get when we are being less than generous. Or, it might take years. According to Buddhism, karma doesn't even have to bear fruit in this lifetime, because you may experience the results of karma in any number of future rebirths. And because Buddhism recognizes ‘anatta’ or not-self, we don’t really know ‘who’ will be one to experience the results of the good and bad karma we engender during our own lifetimes. It gets pretty complicated, and this is why the Buddha said that if we try to understand karma our heads will break into 7 pieces. So, best to focus our intentions skilfully on compassion and wisdom rather than try to fathom karma.

The Buddha did not say that everything that everything that happens to us is a result of past karma. If you happen to be in a natural disaster, for example, that could just be due to other causes than your past karma. Gil Fronsdal explained it as a rubber duck in a pond.

“ We live in a sea of cause and effect. I like the word sea because, if you take a pond, and you throw a whole bunch of pebbles into the pond, you create wave patterns that ripple out in all directions.

If you put a rubber duck in the pond before you throw all those pebbles in, which pebble is affecting the duck, making it bob up and down? They all are, and they all are in this complicated way by which the pebbles and the waves are interacting on the surface of the water. In the same way, in this life of ours, we live in this big sea of cause and effect. The ripples of cause and effect and the way in which all these ripples affect each other in turn affect us. We are like ducks.”

The stumbling block for a lot of people is in understanding that karma, at least in the Buddhist’s view, is not really a mechanism for meting out justice, and that it definitely isn't payback. But it seems that humans have strong need for retributive justice, a need to punish wrong-doing. So we often say that someone getting their comeuppance is the result of karma. But Buddhism argues against acting through anger, and wishing or intending retribution, because this is another way in which we hurt ourselves.

So if karma is not a vengeful god or a godlike being, then what is it? If it is not punishment and retribution, then what is it? I realized that I have been thinking of karma like it is some kind of negative feedback loop, that if things move too far from a set point there will be corrective mechanisms. I have probably been influenced by scholars such as Thanissaro Bhikku who also talk about feedback loops.

“ Buddhists, however, saw that karma acts in multiple feedback loops, with the present moment being shaped both by past and by present actions…there is free will, although its range is somewhat dictated by the past. The nature of this freedom is symbolized in an image used by the early Buddhists: flowing water. Sometimes the flow from the past is so strong that little can be done except to stand fast, but there are also times when the flow is gentle enough to be diverted in almost any direction.”

What karma might be

As we have learned from several scientific articles, position papers, from the book Comfortably Unaware, and the documentary Cowspiracy, the leading contributor to climate disruption and environmental destruction is animal agriculture. Plunder the earth for meat and dairy, and suffer the consequences of actions in the anticipated floods, famines, droughts, disease, and war. Greenhouse gases, fresh water pollution, ocean dead zones, air pollution, rainforest destruction; air, water, earth all polluted, defiled and spent because of addiction to meat and dairy. Now this really does sound like a religious narrative — indulge your cruel addictions, and be subject to devastation yourself. If you sin, then you will be punished.

There are two things to note here though. First, the karmic effects do not necessarily restrict themselves to those who sinned. Both young children and other animals who did not intentionally contribute to the environmental degradation will also suffer the consequences. So those of us looking for retribution will get more than we bargained for. It doesn't make sense to think of it as sin and punishment, or vengeful payback. It is what it is, cause and effect. If we continue to engage in animal farming we will dramatically accelerate climate disruption effects.

Second, note that the climate effects are a direct result of animal exploitation for food, but not a result of all types of animal exploitation — clothing, the entertainment industry, and vivisection. In a narrow sense of cause-and-effect, none of the other uses of animals is responsible for the massive scale of devastation wrought by eating animals. They might have their own karmic loops. Or you could argue that in the broader sense all animal uses reinforce the wrong idea that sentient beings are commodifiable.

What it probably isn't

Nepal has just been devastated by an environmental catastrophe of its own, the 7.8 earthquake. Several thousand humans were killed, many more injured, and we might surmise, at least as many other animals were affected.

Many of us, particularly vegans, were outraged at Nepal’s Gadhimai festival a few months ago, where 300,000 animals were hacked to death in a sacrificial rite. The obvious religious connection made the killing seem much more “unnecessary” than the killing of animals for food in the west. Vegans and non-vegans alike called out this event as “outdated thinking.”
Note, we do kill animals for religious purposes here in the west, lambs for Easter, turkey for Christmas come to mind, not to mention the animals killed for nonreligious celebrations (Thanksgiving Turkey, Fourth of July Cookouts). But because non-vegans consider that “necessary” killing they are not met with the same outrage.

Unfortunately though, the two events, the ritual killing and the earthquake, have been linked together as a karmic cause-and-effect, that the earthquake is the payback for killing animals. This clearly smacks of revenge-taking by vegans and perhaps some non-vegans also. There is no cause-effect connection between the slaughter of cows in Gadhimai and the earthquake. To say that the earthquake is ‘karma’ is engaging in the same type of thinking that we objected to in the first place when the Nepalese sacrificed animals for to the goddess Gadhimai for the sake of achieving prosperity.

In either case, whether it is sacrifice and prosperity, or sacrifice and earthquake, we have no reason to believe there is a causal relationship.

The Climate Connection

I don’t argue that Buddhists have all the answers. For one, they are not beyond evoking cause-effect connections that we have no scientific proof for. For instance, praying or wishing well for others has positive psychological benefits for the us, and this has been shown in scientific studies. But Buddhists believe that metta will have some positive effect in the world aside from the effects it has on our own mental well being, and we do not have any evidence of that.

We might not understand karma but we do understand that causes have effects. The connection between eating animals and impending climate catastrophe is clear. We also understand that wishing for retribution, revenge and payback hurts us right now, just like holding a hot coal to throw at someone else hurts us.

If there is any use for ‘karma’ other than revenge-taking and spurious causal arguments, it is that it connects us with archetypal narrative that makes immediate sense to everyone. I often end up supporting my animal rights views with climate arguments. People can’t connect with animals, probably because our tradition and our experience force us to turn a blind eye. Most people can’t see past our routine exploitation of non-humans. With some deft turns in the argument to focus on environmental effects, I can get some concessions, sometimes.

Furthermore, it seems that the climate argument for omitting animal products from our diet is advanced by those who are vegan already for animal liberation. It seems that it is hard for people to go vegan for the planet. Even the ‘climate vegans’ are people who are animal rights vegans who spread awareness about the effect of animal agriculture on the environment.

Let’s not confuse the true causal argument with the spurious ones. The observable effects of eating animals are just too obvious to compromise.