By Will Tuttle, author,
The World Peace
Diet (as interviewed in L.A. Yoga Magazine)
Wars have been fought and explorations around the globe have been made, in search of food. But what if we entertain the thought that the food we eat can in and of itself be a cause for wars and aggression. This is part of the premise of the World Peace Diet, delineated in the book of the same title by Dr. Will Tuttle. It’s an idea that’s gaining traction as Will and his wife Madeleine have been traveling tirelessly to share the message. Their work has even inspired the World Peace and Yoga Jubilee, the second of which will be held in Ohio, October 21 – 24. Will is a passionate advocate not only for animals, but for ending the widespread violence that is a part of the fabric of our culture.
Felicia M. Tomasko [Felicia]: How did the process of looking at the relationship between compassion and what we eat get started for you?
Will Tuttle [Will]: I was raised in a typical family, eating the usual huge amounts of meat, dairy and eggs, never questioning anything. But when I was in college, I started to feel into the problems of human hunger. I read Frances Moore Lappe’s book, Diet for a Small Planet; she discusses how human hunger is in many ways exacerbated by eating an animal food-based diet. I ended up going on a spiritual pilgrimage after college where I wound up eventually at a community farm in Tennessee which was at that point about 900 people living a totally plant-based diet for ethical reasons. The Farm was, to me, a revelation. That’s when I became a vegetarian in 1975. About five years later, living in Oakland, I made the connections to dairy and eggs, and the cruelty in them, so I became a vegan in 1980. Over the next fifteen or twenty years, I started making more and more connections. I went to Korea and lived as a Zen monk in a monastery that had been vegan for 650 years.
Will: I started to see that veganism and compassion for animals and compassion for all life are foundational to a spiritual path, and to meditation and meditative clarity. After I earned my PhD from UC-Berkley, in education and philosophy, I increasingly saw that there was a huge unspoken story about our culture’s routine mistreatment of animals for food and the whole range of problems that we have as a culture that we can’t solve because the mentality responsible for our problems is the same mentality that is required to eat so many animals.
We are killing 75 million animals a day in the United States for food. I said to my wife, Madeline, someone is going to write a book that will give this big picture of our culture’s mistreatment of animals for food; I can’t wait to read it. Years went by and finally I decided that I was the one who was supposed to write this book. I spent five years researching and wrote The World Peace Diet. After it came out, in the end of 2005, I realized the best way to encourage people to read the book was to travel and give lectures. We have been doing about 150 events a year for the last four years, speaking to audiences about the main ideas of World Peace Diet.
Felicia: It seems to me that we collectively engage in everything with an attitude of institutionalized violence: how we treat the environment, animals, how we even drill for oil and then use chemicals to make everything we use on a daily basis. There are so many different layers and different aspects of it and I think people don’t very often talk about the violence that’s at the heart of everything that we do.
Will: That’s the point I try to make in The World Peace Diet. I believe this institutionalized violence that you are talking about, against animals, against other human beings, and against the Earth is generated at its core by killing so many animals for food. This practice that we are all forced to engage in from birth, of eating the flesh of animals, their dairy products and eggs, requires so much violence. We all take it on, we disconnect and learn to commodify beings and look at them as mere things. This mentality of seeing nature as something to be manipulated and owned, this was the great revolution, the herding revolution, I believe, that happened eight to ten thousand years ago.
One of the oldest words for war, or a skirmish, is the Sanskrit gavisti, which literally means the desire for more cows. When people started owning animals, reducing beings to things and creating cultures of a wealthy elite who owned animals and could get rich by going to war, they started down this road we are on now where we perform all agriculture and all industry with the same mentality of violence toward the Earth and animals. The reason it has so much traction is because the subtext of every meal, every ritual, three times a day, is that beings are things and the Earth and females, especially, are here to be used.
Female animals from the beginning have been much more brutally dominated than male animals. This is the underlying hidden driving fury behind the dilemmas that we have. We have a hard time looking at it because we are all participating in it. This is the liberating message: we can transform our culture to the degree that we understand this and transform our own personal lives. The beauty of it is that we find that most people are much healthier on a plant-based diet.
Felicia: In seeing this from the perspective of the teachings of Yoga and Ayurveda, food (and everything) is described as being sattvic (promoting clarity), rajas (promoting activity) and tamasic (increasing dullness). Sattva is something considered positive to cultivate and most (but not all) animal based-foods, from the perspective of Yoga and Ayurveda, are either rajasic or tamasic.
Will: I think this is the ancient wisdom of the sages: If we want to be successful on the spiritual path we have to purify our consciousness. Purifying our consciousness means purifying not just our mind but also our behavior. If we engage in behavior that causes fear, terror and violence and is unjust, then we sow the seeds within our own consciousness that keep us disconnected from the intimate compassion, joy and love that we are here to experience through Yoga and spiritual practice.
Felicia: You speak about the importance of being vegan. But in Ayurveda, ghee and cow’s milk are revered foods. In the classical texts, your cow is seen as a member of the family. I understand that most modern agricultural practices involve commoditization of animals and violence. But how would you speak to the importance of ghee in Ayurveda?
Will: I would say, number one, the times have changed and perhaps there was a time when people treated the animals very kindly. The thing is, however, I have done a lot of research about how cows are treated in India. Even in very small operations, the cow is kept impregnated, and after the babies are born, they are often sold. There are a lot of half-starving cows in India, many are sold for meat, and when they don’t give enough milk anymore they are also sold and often killed.
Felicia: I am not suggesting that this type of scenario is something to aspire to, but I feel it is a conundrum, since ghee (clarified butter) is considered an important food in Ayurveda.
Will: Even in modern India, where people love their cows, when you get down to the nitty-gritty, there is a lot of suffering in that system because the animals are not cared for the way they say they are. But if you try to find a time when perhaps they were cared for, what you do with the male animals? Well maybe they work.
Joseph Campbell, when asked the reason for myths by Bill Moyer, said that the main reason for myths and stories is to somehow reconcile our abuse and killing of animals for food. We create enormous rituals with religious significance because I think we feel guilty about confining animals. The worst thing you can do to a being is put them in prison; putting someone in jail is a punishment. These cows are owned. Their sovereignty is stolen from them by human beings so they can have their milk. They are not allowed to live their lives freely in nature and we would all like to be able to live our lives freely. I think there is no need, personally, for ghee to be healthy. Certainly there are many cultures that survive without having ghee. In the fullness of time, hopefully this will be seen to be something we can let go of. I would like to see cows returning to sovereignty again, how they lived for millions of years.
If animals really want to offer us their milk when they are sovereign, that’s something else. The ultimate relationship we can have with animals is when they are sovereign in nature. When they are really living their lives, they are powerful. I have had beautiful experiences with animals in nature.
Felicia: When we talk about the sovereignty of animals, how do we then think about companion animals, dogs and cats? How do we think about the right, ethical or peaceful action? I see many people who are vegan and love their rescue animals.
Will: We have a situation today where there are a huge number of unwanted dogs, cats and other companion animals so I think it is a wonderful thing if someone gives a home to one of these beings who otherwise would be confined to a terrible shelter or be killed. There is an enormous amount of suffering that dogs and cats and other animals go through at the hands of humans, puppy mills and breeders.
Again I think our goal should be to allow these animals to return to sovereignty again. We can relate to them that way and I think it is much more fulfilling ultimately, even though we love to have them around us and they make us feel good. It is very interesting to me that the two primary animals we chose to have around are carnivorous. It kind of gives us this identity that we must be carnivorous also. I think that’s another part of the delusion.
It behooves us, as humans, to love creation by allowing animals (dogs, cats, horses, parrots and others) to live freely in nature. The few horses that are left to be able to really live wild are being rounded up and killed or confined for the rest of their lives because the ranchers don’t like them anymore out in the wild lands of the West.
There is an enormous amount of hidden suffering that I think we prefer not to think about, in terms of food for animals and breeding and this whole incredible domination of different breeds of dogs and forcing them to fulfill our expectations.
Felicia: And it is tricky because we’re looking at ten thousand years of this practice.
Will: Exactly, so we are looking at the next stage of evolution for our culture and maybe for us as a species. It is hard to say how long Homo sapiens have been here, some people say around 400,000 years. Ten thousand years is not a huge amount of time in relationship to say, 400,000 years or even longer.
But I think it is clearly not working. Our violence towards animals has fascinating repercussions. When we confine them, we end up being confined; when we cause disease in them, we end up with the same thing happening to us. When we break down their families, we end up with more breakdowns in our families. When we cause obesity and osteoporosis to them, we end up getting a lot more obesity and osteoporosis. The ancient spiritual teachings of whatever we sow, we will reap, are especially true for our mistreatment of animals for food. Every problem that we have as human beings we are in fact directly causing to animals routinely.
Felicia: What is the answer you give when someone asks about spiritual hunting, having a relationship with the animal related to prayer. Some people say that it has been a part of many indigenous cultures around the world before the advent of animal husbandry.
Will: Herding animals and owning them as property is much more violent toward ourselves and the animals than what you are talking about. On the other hand, there is no reason for us in our culture to go spiritual hunting. For one thing, we could never feed everyone. I am not condemning or criticizing Eskimos or whoever may be in situations like that.
I just think that what we need to do is to focus on the wound that we have. The Buddha said that if you have been struck by an arrow, the best thing to do is not analyze who shot the arrow and why and who they were and who their father was and the whole history of it, but to realize that the best thing is to take the arrow out and treat the wound.
The wound of eating animal foods in our culture is devastating our physical,
spiritual, environmental and cultural health. If there were small groups of
people who thought in some way that they were in some way in a spiritual
connection to the animals when they killed them, that really has nothing to do
with our routine violence towards billions of animals for food unnecessarily.
That is a distraction. The livestock industry will often advertize the noble
Indian idea. As far as hunting goes, inflicting terror on another living
creature is not my idea of showing them love or any kind of spiritual thing. In
any event, I think the main thing is that it is irrelevant
to us today.
Felicia: In talking about our institutionalized violence, this brings up for me the issue of the violence in our plant agriculture. Look at pesticides, herbicides, genetically modified organisms, the practices that strip the land in the service of industrial monocrop agriculture. Do you think there is a connection there?
Will: Yes, I love that question. There are two kinds of agriculture, plant agriculture and animal agriculture. Plant agriculture from the beginning was mostly women’s work. It basically brings out the best in people because you are working with nature, working with the miracle of life. You plant one plant with one seed and thousands of seeds come forth. It’s a miraculous celebration of life and there were always festivals of harvest and abundance and joy that we are provided for by the benevolent universe.
The other kind of agriculture, which is animal agriculture from the very beginning was mainly men’s work. Animals were always trying to get free; they did not like to have their babies stolen, they did not like to be inseminated against their will, they did not like to be killed, so they were always resisting. Men had to be tough and hard and kill, dominate, brutalize and mutilate them. It brings out the worst in people who engage in that type of agriculture. Yet when someone says they are a farmer, you don’t know what they are. It could be plant or animal.
From the beginning, gardens have been places of celebration of beauty, love and joy and stockyards and slaughterhouses places of misery, terror, fear and pain. But our culture is mainly a meat-eating culture, so now we do everything the way we do animal agriculture. We do plant agriculture the way we do animal agriculture.
We see the earth as resisting so we fight and dominate and we use pesticides, herbicides and fungicides and we genetically engineer crops and we engage in mono cropping, where any other plant, any other animal, that tries to be on that land, we kill. It’s enormously violent. It’s the way we do oil drilling, it’s the way we do everything because this is what we’re eating.
Every anthropologist knows that the most powerful and profound and intimate connection we have with our culture and with nature is food. If we don’t look at the food we won’t understand our culture, and this is why our culture doesn’t understand itself. We don’t understand why all of our efforts for peace, sustainability, justice and equality are merely ironic because we haven’t examined our food choices.
The understanding now is that we can feed a lot more people through local organic gardens than we can through industrial agriculture. It’s a much more efficient use of land; greater amounts of food can be grown by people in small gardens than can ever be grown in industrial agriculture, with higher quality. This has been seen with the dacha movement in Russia where almost 90% of their crops are coming from local small-scale gardens. Industrial agriculture is wasteful, inefficient and violent and doesn’t work on any level.
Felicia: Do you feel that the growing urban garden and permaculture movements are more compassionate solutions?
Will: Yes. I love the dacha movement in Russia because of what the government did, and the government can do it here too, they gave anyone who wanted (this was about 20-25 years ago) a small piece of land, I think about 1,000 square meters, outside of the city where they lived. People fell in love with their little garden. They would go out there every weekend. They started growing more and more food and now 90% of all potatoes and 85 -90% of all the vegetables and fruits eaten in Russia comes from dachas. It’s an important source of positive cash flow for Russia because the food is such high quality that Europeans are buying their food from Russia.
If our government, for example, would give everyone a small piece of land to have a garden, which could easily be done, we could feed everybody many times over.
This earth is totally available. Even with the inefficiencies we have, growing enough food for between 12-15 billion people, the problem is we are feeding much of it to the animals, and then killing the animals or using them for dairy products and eggs. So we are wasting most of the grain. Could you imagine if these monocrops were all small gardens growing vegetables, grains and legumes for people to eat? We could easily feed people for the fraction of the land, and have plenty of land available for habitat for wild life.
We are in the middle of this huge extinction of species mainly caused by eating animals and animal foods.
Felicia: What has been the most heartening experience you have had recently through traveling and spreading this message?
Will: Overall, the most heartening dimension of this is to see that people are starting to make this connection and change their behavior. I realize that as an individual, I can never ever change another person. The only territory I have sovereignty over is my own mind and my own behavior. All I can do is do the best I can to live my life in a compassionate way. With veganism, it is simply coming home into my heart and looking with eyes that see beings instead of seeing things. It is a mentality of radical inclusion that I am going to include all living beings in my concern and compassion. The most heartening thing to me is when people say to me that I understand now and have become a vegetarian, or I understand now and I am teaching a class on your book in the local community here. More and more people are teaching classes and leading study groups on The World Peace Diet. If people are eating a non-vegetarian diet and they move to become a vegetarian, a vegan or a vegan educator, every step they make increases the amount of kindness in the world and reduces the amount of violence and suffering. I think we have to make major changes if we are going to survive as a species.
This is the change that goes to the very core of our relationship with each other, with the established order and with divine life. If the infinite creator created this Earth then we are not to spoil it and kill all the beings that live here. When we do that we are killing ourselves. As long as we are enslaving others, we will be enslaved.
We are here to love and honor and respect creation and work in harmony with it as a garden and as people who care for and respect life and to grant sovereignty to all the living beings here. Then we will have freedom for ourselves. That’s the essential ancient spiritual teaching and it holds true now as it always has.
Felicia: It seems to me that the core teaching of this comes down to relationship. How are we in relationship with each other, with animals, with plants, with other beings, with earth, with the divine?
Will: That is exactly the key. It is about relationship and how we treat those who cannot retaliate to our violence. If I am violent towards another human being, especially a being whose rights are recognized by our culture, someone with protection, then I will face consequences. Let’s say if I steal from them, confine them or kill them I will have to go to jail or I will get sued or whatever. But animals have no status; their interests are not protected, even though we know in our bones that their interests are as important to them as my interests are to me.
That’s the acid test really, for spiritual growth, moral development and intellectual clarity is how do we treat beings who are vulnerable in our hands. Even though animals cannot retaliate, when we look deeply, we see that our violence towards them retaliates as physical, psychological, spiritual, cultural and ecological disease. If we want to be healthy, we have to be physically, spiritually, psychologically and environmentally healthy.