Location: Hong Kong
Were you born into a Buddhist family? Yes, but I didn’t understand much about Buddhism until I started studying it on my own. Like many people, I looked to the Buddha as someone to pray to in order to get what I wanted—to go to a good school, to meet a good girlfriend, to get a raise or a promotion. But actually that has nothing to do with what the Buddha taught.
When I began my self-study, I learned that that the Buddha’s teaching is all about karma. Buddhism is about causes and consequences, conditions and circumstances. I was an engineering major, and I’ve studied physics, which talks about actions and reactions, so karma makes a lot of sense to me.
You’ve started a movement called Green Monday. What is it? It is a multidimensional social venture revolving primarily around food. The common thread is the question, how do we build a more sustainable world in a way that also benefits ourselves? The call for action is for people to eat a plant-based diet one day each week.
Why do you focus on food? Food is something that everyone is involved with, so it’s the easiest way to engage people. No one forgets to eat, right? Also, most people don’t know that the meat industry contributes more to our carbon footprint than transportation. So if there is one simple way to lower our carbon impact, it is to reduce our meat consumption.
Are you a full-time vegetarian? I have been a vegetarian for 15 years. I started purely out of compassion for the animals. The question that led me to become a vegetarian is, why do we treat certain animals compassionately and other animals cruelly? We love our pets and treat them like family. Why do we treat cows and pigs and chickens differently? Unless someone can give me a satisfactory answer to that double standard, I’m going to be nice to the dogs and the cows.
When did you connect your compassion for the animals to a wider environmental concern? I think it was a natural result of being mindful of what I was eating. When you start to pay attention to your diet, you notice the impact it has on yourself and the animals. Then you research the impact it has on the planet. In this way, Green Monday is not just about vegetarianism, good health, and the environment. It is also a good way to plant the seed of mindfulness in people.
Why go green on Monday? We tend to overeat on weekends. Monday is a good opportunity to detox, eat lightly, and cleanse. If you want to choose Green Thursday, Green Friday, or Green Sunday, though, that is okay. The more days you do, the better. But suggesting Monday is another way that we can synchronize our efforts and make this change together.
I read that Green Monday has more than 1.5 million people participating. In less than four years we have transformed the city of Hong Kong. Before we existed, vegetarian diets were mostly about religion, with maybe a few people doing it for health reasons. But we came in and started a movement. Now a quarter of the population in Hong Kong is practicing Green Monday.
What are the keys to building a successful social movement? There are three major characteristics: it’s simple, viral, and actionable. If you want to mobilize a lot of people to do something, your instruction has to be very simple and clear. If it’s too long-winded and complicated, it will get lost. So we deliberately picked these two simple words: green and Monday. These are words that a 3-year-old would know, regardless of cultural or language background.
The second key is that it’s viral. Unless you are Leonardo DiCaprio or Taylor Swift, you cannot talk to 10 million people. To build a movement, it must have a viral element that allows you to reach many people. Food is a social activity; we always eat with other people, so the message can spread that way. Also, thanks to social media, people like to post pictures of what they eat.
The third component is that your message is actionable. In the case of Green Monday, the call for action is: one day a week, please eat plant-based food.
I guess a fourth thing is that your message has to be pleasant. If you’re going to mobilize people and create a movement, you cannot start with something negative. Obviously, people won’t join something they don’t like.
Do you think Buddhism needs rebranding? The first noble truth is suffering. Well, clearly the first noble truth is true, but this is not the best way to open a conversation. If you start with suffering, people will think you are a pessimist. So I like to rephrase the four noble truths and tell people that the Buddha offers a path to sustainable happiness. Yes, the Buddha said that there are potholes on the road of life—such as greed, hatred, and ignorance—but he also pointed out the ways to avoid the potholes. If you navigate your way around these potholes, your life will be smooth.
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