Shojin and Samadhi

Originally published in VegNews Magazine, September 2002

By Will Tuttle, Ph.D.

In the Japanese language there is a beautiful word, “shojin,” roughly translated into English as “abstention from animals foods and products for religious or spiritual reasons.” The existence of this word reveals the culture’s recognition that abstaining from the use of animal products is a valid dimension of religious practice and of spiritual aspiration. People undertake the practice of shojin for a set period of time, say for a fourteen-day meditation retreat, or they may do it for a lifetime, as in the case of many Zen monks and lay Buddhist practitioners. In the Buddhist tradition, the practice of shojin has a venerable history, going back 2,500 years to Shakyamuni Buddha, who required the practice of shojin of all his students for a variety of reasons, the most notable one being that, as he said, “eating flesh kills out the seed of great compassion.”

Our relatively new English word, veganism, approaches the idea of shojin, though it is less explicitly spiritual in its connotation. It is, however, like shojin, an essential ingredient to attaining the unparalleled inner peace and joy of spiritual awakening. This is because veganism and shojin are essential steps on the path of mental and emotional purification, freeing the mind not only of the violence that invariably accompanies the consumption of animal products, but of the deep-seated, often unconscious guilt and inner hardness that purchasing and using these products necessarily produces.

Like Jesus, Buddha taught an approach to spiritual development with two basic components: inner silence, and outer kindness and compassion. Inner silent receptivity, with the mind totally poised in the present moment, free from the bonds and delusions of conditioned thinking, bright, clear, aware, relaxed, and open, is an inner state referred to by the Sanskrit word samadhi. It is the essence of prayer, and of meditation.

As anyone who has seriously practiced prayer or meditation knows, samadhi is not easy to attain, because the mind gets easily disturbed by outer circumstances. This is the inner, secret reason for teaching compassion, and why the practice of shojin and veganism are essential to the spiritual path. The more self-centered the mind is, and the more it engages in actions that are harmful to others in the outer world, like using animal products, the more it will resist the inner silence where it necessarily opens to everything, to the full awareness of the effects of all of its actions. This resistance keeps the mind shallow, busy, noisy, and preoccupied.

Thus shojin and veganism are fundamental prerequisites to spiritual growth beyond the initial stages. By themselves, they obviously don’t guarantee spiritual awakening, but they untie the boat from the dock. Ahead lies the open ocean! I truly wish you a bon voyage!

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.

Back to articles