Shojin and Samadhi: The Journey Toward Compassion
Will Tuttle, Ph.D.
In 1975 my brother and I, 20 and 22, embarked on a pilgrimage across the eastern United States, venturing forth from our parents’ New England home in the autumn. We lived on alms and walked fifteen to twenty miles daily on backcountry roads, heading first west, “maybe to California,” but then turning south to stay ahead of the approaching winter. Our long walk thus took us out across Massachusetts and upstate New York, and then south through Pennsylvania into the hills and hollers of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, and then down through Tennessee and finally into Alabama where we landed in early 1976 in a meditation center in Huntsville.
Our journey was not about seeing the country or having an adventure, though that’s what people usually assumed. It was an expression of a spiritual yearning, and our days were filled with walking, meditating, and with trying to find and question our invisible assumptions. I remember realizing so clearly that it was the elusive state of inner silence, or samadhi, that I was searching for as we wandered south from state to state. We gave away all our money and reduced our possessions to two small packs, and we focused our minds and spirits as brightly as we could on what we felt was the most pressing task at hand: to attain spiritual liberation. We aimed to achieve this through mental discipline and inner inquiry into the meditation question posed by the great sage Ramana Maharshi: “Who am I?”
As we wended our way, young and vulnerable, through rural America, we plunged into our task, and watched with amazement as miracles unfolded daily in our outer lives. I still remember the night we spent with a family in their little shack in Appalachia, and how they insisted on sharing food with us, even though it meant they might go hungry. And the afternoon we were walking along a country road, penniless and famished, when we suddenly coming upon two neatly wrapped fresh sandwiches by the side of the road, as if placed there just for us. And how people would sometimes approach us as we walked along meditating, and insist on pressing a few dollar bills in our hands because a voice had told them to. We experienced daily, in some way, the truth of the beautiful teaching, “Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven and all else shall be added unto you.” Food and shelter would somehow appear, and at times I thought I could feel the universe smiling on us, freeing us and encouraging us to deepen our meditation practice.
I first experienced the dietary harmlessness of shojin in some of the intentional communities we were guided to along the way: as part of their spiritual practice, people in these communities ate no animal foods. Somewhat surprised at first, I questioned them, for though I was dimly aware of the reasons for vegetarianism—chickens pecking each others’ eyes out in abominably overcrowded cages, cows bawling in pain under the castration knife, pigs screaming in fear as they witness the bloody death that awaits them, and the workers’ hands and hearts hardened by the dirty work of killing, maiming, and confining—at that point I didn’t realize that vegetarianism was essential to the spiritual practice of many people.
I learned also how natural it is for humans to refrain from eating animals, that our bodies are, thankfully, decidedly herbivorous, and decidedly not carnivorous or omnivorous. We don’t have the sharp fangs, hinged jaw, stomach hydrochloric acid, or the short and smooth-walled digestive tract of carnivores or omnivores. Instead we have the flattened incisors and molars of herbivores, with the herbivorous unhinged jaw for side-to-side grinding of grains and vegetables, ptyalin enzyme to easily convert carbohydrates to energy, and a long, highly convoluted digestive tract to absorb plant-based nutrients.
I began to realize that, despite everything I had been taught as a child, the animal protein in flesh, egg, or dairy product is toxic to my body and goes against its basic design. That if, for example, a cat is fed large quantities of meat, butter and eggs, it gets absolutely no build-up of saturated fat and cholesterol in its arteries. If a rabbit or a human eats this, however, their arteries become increasingly clogged to the point of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and heart attack, and their body becomes more toxic and acidified, with increased rates of osteoporosis, cancer, arthritis, diabetes, kidney and liver ailments, and other problems, as many studies have demonstrated.
I began to deeply feel the rightness of shojin practice as I discovered that there is absolutely nothing that my body needs nutritionally that I cannot get from a plant-based diet; that if I were to dine on animal protein and fat, I would be directly causing suffering to animals, and would be bringing into my body all the by-products of the suffering of these poor creatures. So by the time we reached the Zen center in Huntsville, I was a novice shojin practitioner. The center offered weekly classes in meditation and in yoga, and it was here that we could finally stop the seemingly endless walking and devote ourselves wholeheartedly to sitting meditation. As the months went by, practicing sitting meditation eight to ten hours daily, the link between the practice of shojin and the practice of meditation became more clear, and I began to more fully understand that cultivating inner silence means opening to the interconnectedness of all life.
It is significant that it takes five English words, “religious abstention from animal foods,” to say what can be said in one word in Japanese: “shojin.” Just as “samadhi,” or “meditative absorption,” seems somewhat foreign to western culture, and difficult to express in English, so does shojin, and yet I have come to see that both samadhi and shojin are deep expressions of our human potential, resulting from and furthering spiritual maturity. Shojin purifies the body-mind, allowing, though by no means guaranteeing, access to samadhi.
Meditation teachings sometimes refer to two types of samadhi. “Absolute samadhi” refers to an inner state of one-pointed, relaxed and bright awareness in which the body is still, typically seated. The mind is totally absorbed in the present moment, and the usual inner dialogue has ceased. In “positive samadhi,” which is based on the experience of absolute samadhi, we are functioning in the world, walking, gardening, cooking, and cleaning, with a mind that is completely present to the experience of life in this moment. This is similar to the practice of mindfulness, and to the Taoist practice of “wu-wei,” or “non-action,” in which the illusion of a separate doer has evaporated in the immediacy of fulfilling the potential called for by this moment. In Christian terms, this may be similar to “practicing the Presence” and to the practice enjoined by the admonition to “pray without ceasing,” whereas absolute samadhi is akin to a state of profound at-one-ment with the Divine.
Although both absolute and positive samadhi are enriching, and heal the mind and body at a deep level, they are difficult to attain and practice. I have found it requires an enormous ongoing commitment. And while entering the profound inner stillness of samadhi is difficult under the most favorable circumstances, it is even much more difficult for a mind that is disturbed by its outer actions. This is why the spirit of shojin is so essential on the spiritual path. The spirit of shojin is compassion, and it is also freedom, allowing others to be free and also freeing oneself from the dictates of craving, attachment, and conditioning.
The spirit of shojin tames the mind, and to be effective, it must be actually lived. To make spiritual progress, it is essential to walk our talk; for otherwise our mind will be too disturbed to enter samadhi. The inner stillness of samadhi lies at the heart of meditative life, and requires the inner purity of a clear conscience. It allows the old inner wall, splitting “me” here from “the world” out there, to be dissolved. With this, a deeper understanding of the infinite interconnectedness of all life can blossom.
Shojin is such a vital ingredient because it fosters the inner peace required for maturity. It is a form of inner and outer training and discipline that lays the foundation for meditative exploration. Without refraining from actions that are unkind and brutal, the mind will stay busy, avoiding the inner silence which births the understanding of interconnectedness. The mind will just not want to recognize its fundamental relatedness with those beings that it is killing and traumatizing, either directly or by proxy, and will therefore endlessly distract itself from the deep silence where it would naturally open to the truth of interbeing. This is why shojin is so essential to samadhi. These two fundamental components to spiritual awakening, outer loving sensitivity and inner silent receptivity, feed each other, furthering our spiritual development. Harming others hinders and disturbs us, damaging our inner peace, and ultimately hurting ourselves the most, while authentic kindness and concern for others nourish our samadhi and awakening.
So even though the knowing is actively suppressed in our culture, there are consequences to buying and eating animal foods. There is enormous suffering to the animals who are always brutalized; to the humans who must desensitize themselves and kill, maim, and confine the animals to reduce them to meat, dairy products, and eggs; to the humans who starve because animal agriculture wastes about 80% of our grain and fish as livestock feed; to the wild animals who are trapped or killed off by habitat loss and the environmental pollution of animal agriculture; to the animals who are tortured in tests for drugs to combat the flood of diseases caused by eating animal foods; to the humans who grieve the sickness and death of loved ones who self-destruct by eating animal foods; and to the future generations of humans and animals who will suffer by inheriting an ecosystem that is daily traumatized by the egregious air, water, and soil pollution caused by animal agriculture, the deadly greenhouse effect, and the destruction of the precious forest, topsoil, groundwater, and ozone resources that are inextricably connected with it. All this, unfortunately, is still only a partial list of the consequences.
In the years since Huntsville, as the experience of both shojin and samadhi has deepened, I have come to realize how difficult it is for people who don’t practice shojin to ever truly be relaxed or open enough within themselves to be able to experience the boundless joy, freedom, and peace that are available through the experience of samadhi. People have no appetite for knowing the true extent of the suffering animals face because of dairies, ranches, egg production facilities, factory farms, slaughterhouses, and fishing operations. As was the case 150 years ago with black slaves, it is far more serious than most would want to imagine. I have become convinced that the most serious ongoing problem today is the brutality towards animals, other humans, and future generations caused by our penchant for, or addiction to, animal foods. And I’ve found that while in the beginning shojin appears to be a discipline, before long it’s natural to practice it, and to truly delight in practicing it.
In failing to practice shojin, we inevitably end up eating the suffering we cause in the negative emotional energy that permeates animal foods, as well as in the toxic chemicals, hormones, and waste products that concentrate in them. We cannot reap happiness and freedom by sowing seeds of needless misery and bondage with our plates and wallets, and, thankfully, this is not necessary, for we have been given the precious gift of bodies that truly require no animals to suffer for their feeding.
Compassion can be seen as the highest form of love, and its awakening as the path and goal of spiritual practice. The truth that compassion arises from is the truth of interbeing: we are ALL connected. This truth is so fundamental that we all intuitively know it, and yet it is invisible and practically unrecognized in the competitive social framework that we are born into. The spirit of shojin, of freedom and compassion, brings us ever more deeply to this truth, to the direct realization of the infinite interconnectedness of all life that is so vast and profound that the ego, this illusion of a fundamentally separate self, is dissolved in the radiance of the unity that we all are.
Ultimately, the practice of shojin arises from and nurtures the understanding that there is one Life living through all of us. When we are kind to others, we are kind to ourselves; when we abuse others, we abuse ourselves. Our relationships with animals are especially significant in this regard, for they are the sensitive beings most vulnerable and helpless in our hands, and who are accorded the least privilege and fewest rights.
Through all the intervening years of studying and practicing meditation, in centers in this country and in Asia, I have become increasingly committed to the practice of shojin, and to understanding its spirit more deeply. I have found how absolutely essential the spirit and practice of shojin are to the opening of inner doorways of silence and understanding, and that it is through the opening of these inner doorways that the hidden doorway into the vast and liberating mystery of samadhi may be approached.
I have also discovered that to be effective, the spirit of shojin needs to be mindfully practiced, so that only organically grown foods are purchased, and animal suffering is not sponsored or consumed; therefore no animal flesh including poultry, fish or shellfish are eaten, nor any eggs, dairy products, or honey. With a little practice and understanding, it becomes easy and enjoyable, and begins to pay incredibly positive dividends. Removing animal foods from my plate has been like taking off shoes that were always too tight, but hardly noticed because they’d been on so long. Therefore, the relief was unexpected, and it would certainly be denied by the corporate culture which thrives on business as usual. Yet this relief just keeps growing, even after twenty-five years!
I’ve found the practice of shojin to be a crucial ally on the path of meditation and spiritual growth. It is also profoundly subversive to the mindset of domination that causes such suffering on our earth. It allows a true transformation in body, mind, and heart! The inner peace that is available, the deep relief, the freedom, for the animals, for the children, for the hungry, for our loved ones. For as we sow, so shall we reap. This universal law is never contradicted.
Will Tuttle, Ph.D., composer, pianist, Zen priest, and author of The World Peace Diet, is cofounder of Karuna Music & Art and of the Prayer Circle for Animals and Circle of Compassion ministry.