Love That Word!

Originally published in VegNews Magazine, May, 2009

By Will Tuttle, Ph.D.

It’s encouraging to see that the word “vegan” is finally being included in Newsweek, Time, and The Today Show, but is its meaning actually comprehended by the public? For example, a friend of mine recently told me that her grandson’s doctor had put the boy on a vegan diet in order to help cure his autistic condition. While we were both glad to hear that her grandson had such a progressive doctor who was aware of the damaging health effects of meat and dairy, and the benefits of veggies, fruits, and whole grains, I felt it was important to emphasize to her that her doctor had not put her grandson on a vegan diet. Why not? Because the motivation underlying veganism is not personal health but compassion for animals. This might at first blush seem like splitting hairs, but it’s crucially important. Words only have power to the degree their meaning is understood and respected in daily usage.

We could say the doctor put the child on a plant-based diet, a non-dairy vegetarian diet, or a total vegetarian diet, but not a vegan diet because the key element in the word vegan is motivation. Donald Watson, when he coined the word in 1944 wrote, “Veganism is a philosophy and way of life which seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practical, all forms of exploitation of and cruelty to animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose.”

The motivation in living a vegan lifestyle is the yearning to minimize the cruelty our actions cause others. The essence of veganism is nonviolence: conscientiously cultivating a mentality of respect and kindness toward others. If this motivation is absent, it is not veganism, and shouldn’t be called veganism. Thus, when some people say they are following a raw vegan diet, for example, they often mean that their food is uncooked and doesn’t include, as many raw diets do, raw eggs, raw milk, or raw fish oil. However, it is not a vegan diet if the motivation underlying it is personal health or purity. If these same people later decide that they would be healthier eating some chicken, fish, or cheese, they will typically say that they tried being vegan but it didn’t work for them. It’s obvious that they were never vegan, in fact, because their underlying motivation was other than what veganism calls for.

When we experience the inner transformation that is implied by the word vegan, we see in a new way! We see beings to be respected and celebrated rather than things to be used. We become a revolution of one, questioning the core of our culture at the deepest possible level. When this happens within us, there is no going back because realizations authentically gained aren’t lost.

Veganism is actually a spectrum of psychospiritual development, and the most basic level of veganism is refraining from buying foods and products that cause suffering to animals. As our veganism deepens, we realize that veganism is radical inclusion, and that it calls us to act with respect and kindness in all our relations with everyone, all the time. A tall order! In short, veganism is an ideal that is perhaps ultimately unattainable, but that draws us ever onward to greater love and compassion in every dimension of our lives.
Veganism is nothing to be proud of. It is the natural flowering of consciousness freed from the continuous programming of the inherent violence in our culture. The word vegan is precious, inspiring, and demanding, because it questions the core mentality of our culture and it is the key to our culture’s transformation and to its very survival.

So please, let’s love, defend, respect, understand, and propagate this word and what it stands for as if all our lives depended upon it; they very well may.

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.  

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