Twenty years ago, my daughter, Mia, had a shattering revelation at the age of 4. We were watching one of those nature movies about sea life. Out of the blue, a school of tunas appeared. These were of the massive, bulky, ten-foot-long, 2,000-pound variety. Mia’s mouth dropped. She looked over at me with an expression of disgust. “Tuna is a fish?” she half asked, half exclaimed. 

Mia’s experience offers an entry into a hypothesis and an argument I will try to weave together. The hypothesis, “non-buddhism,” will help me formulate the difficult argument. The argument is that Buddhists should commit to advancing animal liberation, which necessarily entails an anti-speciesist or vegan stance. This is a difficult argument to make to Buddhists because Buddhism has struggled mightily with the issue for millennia and, as a result, has formulated many arguments against my contention. 

To say that Buddhism rejects animal liberation is, of course, only half of the story. For every prohibition the Buddha makes against, say, “strict vegetarianism,” in one text (typically from the Pali canon associated with Theravada Buddhism), we get an offsetting proclamation in another text (typically from the Mahayana canon) that “meat-eating I have not permitted to anyone, I do not permit, I will not permit.” Buddhism, taken as a whole, suggests too many variegated and often contradictory positions on the issue to offer us unambiguous guidance. Indeed, even the seemingly univocal lay precept “I undertake to observe the rule to abstain from taking life” and the bodhisattva pledge “sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them” are, in actual practice, filled with loopholes.

My sense, derived from forty-some years of participation in American Buddhism, is that intra-Buddhist rumination about what counts as a sentient being, what role intention and motivation play in moral responsibility, the karmic repercussions of killing unawares, the argument from ultimate emptiness, and so on have contributed to the contemporary Buddhist culture of technicality around ethics generally, including the topic of animal liberation. Given Buddhism’s divided path on such a momentous topic—after all, the lives of trillions of beings are at stake annually—where do we go from here? Do we leave it as an intractable “personal choice” matter, or might Buddhism contain the goods unequivocally to clarify the issue?

The Tuna Heretic

To view the argument of advancing animal liberation—or any argument—through the lens of non-buddhism, you must take a heretical stance within Buddhism. 

A heretic is typically a devoted practitioner whom the authorities of their tradition deem dangerous. Think of the beloved Dominican prior Meister Eckhart (1260–1328), who was condemned for notions such as you are “the creator of the eternal word, and without you, God would not know what to do”; or the magnificent Sufi mystic Al-Hallaj (858–922), who was executed for proclaiming, in the grand nondualist tradition of ego-dissolution, “I am the truth.” As the fates of these two figures show, a heretic’s devotion invariably takes a form that appears wickedly mistaken to the status quo, so mistaken to warrant condemnation and even death. So why should you want to take such a position? Our two mystics already gave the short answer—namely, that you and not “God,” or indeed “Buddhism” or “the dharma,” abide at the heart of value, meaning, and truth. A heretic, in short, remains committed, albeit in a complicated way, to their tradition and, crucially, takes on the responsibility for transforming it. 

What made Mia’s revelation so shattering was that it rendered her a heretic. She had loved spooning tuna out of the can, spreading it on warm toast swathed in creamy mayonnaise. Yummy! Her image of tuna was formed by Madison Avenue. Some readers might recall Charlie the Tuna, the hip mascot of StarKist, with his thick Buddy Holly glasses and Beatnik red beret. Charlie’s pleas that his impeccable “good taste” made him a prime candidate for a can of StarKist were met with rejection: “Sorry, Charlie!” With cute cartoon Charlie’s benign assurance, Mia believed tuna was just some delicious flaky stuff in a can. And now “the Real” of the matter was starkly revealed: she was eating the mutilated flesh of a once majestic living being. She was eating a once-living, feeling animal whose exquisite head and tail had been chopped off, whose silver iridescent body had been gutted, boiled, fileted, minced, and stuffed into a tin can for human consumption. Not yummy. 

From that moment on, Mia was a tuna heretic. For, on the matter of eating it, she was now in a position—indeed, unavoidably compelled—to decide, or like the original meaning of the Greek word hairetikos, heretical: “to be able to choose; to be able to have a distinct opinion.” My argument is that with the aid of non-buddhism, you will similarly find yourself standing at the starkly forked pathway of animal suffering and liberation.

Why non-buddhism?

The original impetus for my conception of non-buddhism came from the work of the contemporary French thinker François Laruelle. He calls his work “non-philosophy” or, more recently, “non-standard philosophy.” I came across Laruelle over ten years ago while working on a critique of Buddhism. I wanted my critique to avoid being just another reformist corrective to Buddhism. So I set out to emulate, in one crucial manner at least, a rigorous scientific method: it must leave its object, Buddhism, just as it is.

No one practices Buddhism, only a variation of Buddhism.

Like a scientific investigation, my critique would not determine what postulates or assumptions properly constitute “Buddhism,” or the value, truth, or relevance of any of the claims made in the name of “Buddhism.” Instead, I would ask: how does “Buddhism” work? What does it do? Who is its subject, its ideal person?  How does it go about creating its subject in the real world? What does the proliferation of so many plural Buddhisms reveal about the principle singular formation, “Buddhism?” (My neologism, “x-buddhism,” is intended to index the relation of the many to the one. No one practices Buddhism, only a variation of Buddhism.) These were the questions driving my critique. 

Such an approach would open the possibility of speculative applications of Buddhist material. So the “non” is not a negation of or an anything-but Buddhism. It means “Buddhism,” but not under the “punctilious gaze” of the masters, as Laruelle puts it. The “non” indicates Buddhism mutated through certain operations. In short, non-buddhism does things with x-buddhist materials. My idea was that the speculations enabled by these operations would, in turn, ensure Buddhism’s vitality and relevance in the face of what I was increasingly coming to see as its diminished role at The Great Feast of Knowledge.

The Great Feast of Knowledge

So let’s begin here, where it all began, at The Great Feast of Knowledge. This is a non-buddhist trope intended to accomplish two related aims. First, it aims to provide a realistic picture of x-buddhism’s place in the larger world of thought and practice. Second, it aims to remove a significant hindrance to x-buddhism’s diminished place within that larger world, namely, the principle of sufficient Buddhism.

The trope of the Great Feast asks you to imagine a colossal medieval-type hall crammed with massive wooden rectangular tables, around which are sitting, standing, pacing, gesticulating, and arguing the motliest throng of human beings you can imagine. These are the representatives of Knowledge—philosophy, psychology, history, physics, biology, politics, literature, religion, law, and so on ad infinitum. The Feast is a place where x-buddhism’s ideas—its various concepts, beliefs, myths, truths, fantasies, hopes, and dreams—are subjected to the invigorating ordeal of being debated, contested, complicated, contradicted, refuted, maybe ridiculed, and maybe embraced by other traditions.  

A crucial feature of the Great Feast is a guard standing at the entrance. The guard’s task is to collect the weapons from the various authorities that seek access to the Feast. Anyone may enter but shorn of sword and insignia. So imagine “Buddhism” arriving, arrayed with its battery of dharmic concepts; its inexhaustible treasures illuminating the darkness of the world; its bodhisattva field marshals armed with seductively confident arguments; its Buddha, glowing with the sovereign nimbus of the thaumaturge. Stripped down, deprived of their authority, and bereft of their institutional robes, titles, lineages, publishing houses, and PhDs, the Buddhist agents enter the hall indistinguishable from everyone else. They take their seats amid the chaotic swarm. The Feast begins.

Biology comes over to Buddhism’s table. Is it true that you find desire a problem? 

The Buddha responds: I don’t envision even one other fetter—fettered by which beings wander and transmigrate for a long time—like the fetter of desire. 

Biology is dumbfounded. But we are animals driven by self-preservation. Desire (craving, thirst, attachment) is precisely the mechanism to ensure our biological reproduction. In what sense can it be considered a “fetter”? 

Philosophy overhears the conversation and chimes in: Buddhism, you seem to assume another world beyond this one. Can you offer us any proof for this quite incredible transcendental assumption?

Psychology’s ears perk up: You also seem to denigrate the human being, its very body full of craving, its mind full of dreams, its emotions full of loving attachments. Does Buddhism exist for the person or the person for Buddhism?    

The Principle of Sufficient Buddhism

What might physics, neuroscience, poetry, sports, or love say to Buddhism about the value of desire? The trope of the Great Feast of Knowledge asks you to subject your x-buddhist concepts, beliefs, and theories to the vast perspective opened by the world of ideas. How does your concept fare? A non-buddhist analysis predicts that one result will be particularly far-reaching. This result is the revocation of the principle of sufficient Buddhism. 

This principle holds that all things are “Buddhistizable,” to coin an ungainly but apt term. Buddhism possesses assumptions and concepts that may be applied to virtually any other domain of inquiry, thereby bringing that domain into Buddhism’s field of vision. From everyday issues like relationship troubles and job woes to problems with addiction and depression, to the nature of consciousness and quantum reality, Buddhism, the principle holds, can provide a sufficient explanation and solution. From the perspective of non-buddhism, the price that Buddhism must pay for this sufficiency is too high. As long as Buddhism remains regulated by this principle, it will remain unable to “think” beyond its self-reflection. It will thus be incapable of offering the rigorous account of reality that it purports to provide. Instead, it can only offer us a circularity in which Buddhism gazes into a matter only to see its image reflected back.

If the reader doubts the massive load-bearing function of the principle of sufficient Buddhism, ask yourself what happens once it is dismantled. On the negative side, Buddhism loses its preeminent status as an enlightened wisdom. For, in dialogue at the Feast, its assumptions, such as karma and rebirth, will rarely, if ever, prove incontrovertibly sufficient. Let’s focus on the positive side. Laruelle likens the move to that of non-Euclidean geometry. The decisive difference between Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry concerns the behavior of a line. Euclid’s fifth postulate assumes parallelism. In upholding this postulate, along with the other four, Euclideans radically limit the field of possible forms. Rejecting this postulate, though preserving the other four, non-Euclidean geometry, by contrast, envisions radical new possibilities; namely, it permits elliptical and hyperbolic curvature. In removing a postulate that was not self-evident, non-Euclidean geometry can describe actual reality more accurately. Might removing the principle of sufficient Buddhism similarly enable us to envision radically new and eminently practical—and as such, more realistic and rigorous—possibilities for ourselves?

The Real

One matter above all occupies Buddhism’s specular gaze and needs to be discussed before presenting an argument for animal liberation. I mentioned earlier that the shattering aspect of Mia’s tuna revelation was that “the Real” burst through an otherwise benign moment. Her disturbing realization was that she was not eating happy little nuggets endorsed by an innocuous cartoon fish; she was eating the mutilated flesh of a brutally eviscerated animal. The idea of “the Real” allows us to talk about disavowed features of reality that threaten to undo our constructions of goodness, order, sense, and meaning. 

For instance, anthropomorphic cartoon mascots like Charlie the Tuna and the Chick-fil-A “Eat Mor Chikin” rebel cows enable us to hold at bay the Real of fifty-six billion horrifically tortured, maimed, mutilated, and slaughtered land and aquatic animals every year in the United States. Such disavowal allows us to maintain our sense of ourselves as good people committed to justice and anti-oppression. But when reality fractures and the Real breaks through, as in Mia’s case, what then?

The concept of the Real is taken most recently from Lacanian psychoanalysis, but it is an ancient element of thought about reality that spans philosophy (Plato’s forms, Kant’s a priori, for example), science (laws, forces, empirical realism), psychology (the unconscious), religion (God, the Absolute), even art (the sublime, the true and beautiful). Buddhism’s version is expressed in several similar “first names.” First names are those terms that I put in parentheses that symbolize the Real. Candidates for Buddhist first names are, for instance: no-self (anātman), emptiness (śūnyatā), dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda), pain (dukkha), and the dharma. I emphasize that these names symbolize the Real because they can never adequately represent it, much less capture it. And this is where non-buddhism can help. 

Buddhism, like all other sufficient systems, believes that, through its concepts, it does capture the Real. When Buddhism adduces the existential priority of pain, it is confident that it is thinking the Real. That is, Buddhism identifies the Real of human pain as dukkha. By contrast, non-buddhism sees such a move not as a thinking of the Real of pain, but precisely as resistance to the Real of pain. How so? Just ask yourself whether a phenomenon as colossal, monstrous, or immense (no word is big enough) as “the existential priority of pain” can be adequately represented by a concept such as dukkha. Buddhism, in short, aims to teach us what there is and how it all hangs together. 

Discovering such a principle is a timeless human yearning if the history of ideas is any indication. It is the yearning to know, to embrace intimately, or even to be consumed by, that which is fundamentally real. It is a yearning born from the lived human experience that involvement with the things of this world—its objects, people, events—does not produce abiding pleasure and, indeed, is too often the very source of pain. 

Recognizing the problematic, often hallucinatory, role that such yearning plays in the ideological production of meaning, non-buddhism aims to suspend Buddhism’s claim over the Real. It does so by “foreclosing the Real.” The idea here is that the Real of human pain can never be adequately articulated in a given thought system, and so is ultimately foreclosed to that system. A related idea is that it is precisely the Real that nonetheless causes the ruminations on pain that we call Buddhism, and Buddhism itself encapsulates these ruminations as the quite particular idea it terms “dukkha.” So, in short, while x-buddhism thinks the breached, Real, non-buddhism thinks from the foreclosed Real. Readers would not be wrong to hear echoes of the Buddhist idea of “abandoning the raft” here. 

By revoking the principle of sufficient Buddhism, foreclosing the Real, and positioning ourselves as heretics, we can now fashion innovative usages of Buddhism.

Axiomatic Animal Liberation

We can fashion “more real” usages out of Buddhist materials (concepts, texts, practices, texts, etc.) because the strictly Buddhist sense of the material is suspended. It is important to note that we do so by interrupting, not revoking, the Buddhist usage. This move allows non-buddhism to create experimental axioms for itself of the nature, “If we assume that x…” It is from these axioms that we create new usages of Buddhism.

I can now state the non-buddhist argument for animal liberation. The argument holds that Buddhism and animal liberation are inseparable. Consequently, a Buddhist practitioner must actively eliminate the exploitation of nonhuman animals for any purpose, meaning committing to an anti-speciesist or vegan stance. At a minimum, this engagement must take the form of refraining from using animal products and includes veganism. 

I realize that nobody wants to hear such musts, but recall that non-buddhism aims to be inventive, experimental, speculative, and rigorous using axiomatized and abstracted Buddhist ideas. So let’s try it out. First, I will state three theorems. As you read them, please ask yourself what it would mean for a Buddhist to reject the theorem. Then, I will frame the argument using the four noble truths: pain as an innate characteristic of sentient existence; pain’s origin in craving (desire, thirst/hunger, want); craving’s interruption; the way to do it.

Three Non-Negotiable Theorems

Theorem 1. The animals whose products you use and consume are sentient beings who perceive and feel pain. In 2012, “The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness” was signed by “a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists, and computational neuroscientists.” The declaration concludes that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.” 

Theorem 2. Every sentient being is an inalienable One indisputably deserving of dignity, freedom from exploitation, and protection from unnecessary pain. Being fellow sentient beings, nonhuman animals are not categorically distinct from Homo sapiens. The human-derived “animal” category permits the “othering” that invariably leads to exploitation, enslavement, cruelty, and death. 

Theorem 3. Buddhism is a rare force for compassion in the world. Subtract its compassion imperative, and Buddhism’s value as an agent of betterment is fatally compromised. More than ever, the world needs the robust, unambiguous displays of compassion that Buddhist training can offer.   

Four Truths to Make You Noble

First ennobling truth: Pain is inevitable, but you can contribute to its diminishment. You actively participate in the animal-industrial complex when you use and consume animal products. Among the countless horrific actions of this complex that you will be disassociating from as a Buddhist animal liberationist, let’s look at pigs alone (figures from 2020). Crammed shoulder to shoulder in stifling hot trucks, deprived of food or water over distances that might take days, these highly intelligent animals experience terror, sadness, and despair to a degree inconceivable to most humans. Some 330,000 of them will die during this inhumane transport. The other 131,563,000 will arrive, terrified, at the slaughterhouse. There, it is not unlikely that the males will have their testicles ripped off without anesthesia. Piglets are sometimes killed by having their heads slammed against the ground. Eventually, all the “viable” pigs are stunned into unconsciousness. The most common methods of stunning are done with a penetrating captive bolt (a metal bolt is shot into the brain), gassing (typically with carbon dioxide), and electricity (an electrical current pierces the animal’s brain via tongs). After stunning, the hind legs of the still-living pig are tied, and the pig is lifted upside down while a slaughterhouse employee cuts its neck arteries, causing it to bleed to death. An emotionally animated, socially attuned, deeply feeling, loving pig went into the slaughterhouse. A ghastly human commodity called “pork” came out. 

A truth is ennobling only when it is lived.

Second ennobling truth: Craving. The root cause of killings every ten hours equaling the “deadliest conflict in human history” (60 million during World War II) is our craving for animal flesh, eggs, milk, leather, etc.

Third ennobling truth: Cessation. That needless slaughter will cease with the cessation of our craving for animal products.

Fourth ennobling truth: The Way. Stop using and consuming animal products.

It’s as simple as that.

A truth is ennobling only when it is lived.

Regarding nonhuman-animal justice, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham famously said, “The question is not can they reason, but can they suffer?” Regarding Buddhists today, the question is not, “Can they reason their way out of this and other such anti-speciesist arguments,” but “Shouldn’t they do whatever they can to reduce suffering in the world?”

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