Intentional plant-based living is nothing new. The modern development of ethical vegetarianism and veganism in North America and Europe is just the latest manifestation of something humans keep coming back to, independently, again and again. The Indian subcontinent is justly famous for its veg traditions that date back countless thousands of years, but you can find similar lifestyles nearly anywhere you look. From traditional and contemporary currents in the Middle East and east Africa, to traditional meatless feasts in China, South East Asia, and Northern Europe, to the Baha’i faith, which prophesies a worldwide shift to vegetarianism 873 years from now, human cultures recognize again and again the moral indefensibility of eating meat—that killing is incompatible with grace.
It is compellingly natural sentiment, one that seems to be an essential part of our search for meaning in this universe. And while plant-based living is easy enough for everyone to comprehend, a few traditions stand out by putting it at the center of their ways of life.
Jainism, one of the oldest living traditions on Earth, is, alongside Hinduism and Buddhism, one of the three great religious traditions to emerge from India. The 10 million Jains worldwide (there are some 100,000 in North America) believe that all beings have souls that are morally equivalent, souls that may transmigrate between forms from one existence to the next.
“Today I’m a human being,” says Dr Sulekh Jain, “tomorrow I may be an insect.” Dr Jain, a mechanical engineer who has been in the United States for four decades and has taught at MIT, UC Berkeley, and elsewhere, now lives in Texas and serves as the President of the Foundation of Jain Associations in North America. He explains Jain vegetarianism as a way to “avoid interfering in anyone else’s travel plans.”
Not eating meat is just the most obvious measure—many Jains won’t touch meat or even look at it. “The whole process of slaughter is full of violence,” says Dr Jain, “and meat is the product of that violence.” And while Jains traditionally drank milk from cows that were virtually part of the family and used leather from cows that died naturally, Dr Jain says that the violence inherent in modern industrial agriculture has led some Jains to become vegan.
In their efforts to eat with the least amount of violence, many Jains won’t eat plants that grow underground, including potatoes, because animals may be harmed in their harvest. Foods like onions, garlic, and chilies produce strong smells that interfere with meditation, placing them off the bill of fare for many as well. But there is no codification of these customary rules—Dr Jain says it is up to each individual to seek to reduce violence in their own lives: “Nobody else is watching my destiny,” he says, “only I am.”
Without all these ingredients it’s no surprise that Jain food is distinct. While there are no specifically Jain restaurants in North America, many Indian restaurants will give you a Jain menu if you ask.
This is especially so in places where there is a large Indian population: in India itself even Pizza Hut has a Jain menu.
The Rastafari movement originated in Jamaica in the 1930s. An afrocentrist messianic tradition based largely on the Old Testament, Rasta has been associated worldwide with Reggae music ever since Rasta musician Bob Marley became an international superstar.
But besides the dreadlocks and ganja that Rasta is identified with all over the planet, the one million Rastas throughout the world also constitute one of the largest vegetarian movements to originate in the Americas.
Although there is no centralized doctrine, most Rastas don’t eat meat (none eat pork). Rasta Ital cuisine is based on scriptural dietary guidelines and Rasta pacifism (the belief that hurting any living thing is the same as hurting oneself) and is flavored by Jamaican country cooking. Ital restaurants can be found in many large cities in North America and the United Kingdom, as well as in its native Jamaica. The Ital diet is said to be one of several crucial elements in attaining the state of Ire, or closeness to nature and to Jah.
Ital food is vegetarian; it includes honey but not milk or eggs. Ingredients are used in as natural a state as possible since processing and chemical additives are thought to remove a food’s vitality; for this reason Ital food is always organically grown. Even crystal salt is avoided because it has been processed, although many other seasonings—including ganja—are used liberally.
In addition to the scriptural Rasta tradition, a more modern body of “Reasonings” from dub poets like Mutabaruka and Miguel Lorne has furthered Rasta thought in many areas, including a move towards veganism and raw, living foods among Rastas.
Seventh-Day Adventist Church
More than a century ago, the Kellog brothers changed the American diet forever with their whole grain breakfast cereals. Seventh-Day Adventists like the Kellogs are still working to improve health—their own and that of their communities—by promoting vegetarianism.
“We believe our bodies are temples of God and that we should treat them as such,” says Jenny Friesen, a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, a Christian sect based in Maryland. Friesen is a nurse and is studying for a Masters of Public Health at an Adventist hospital. This focus on health and health care—Adventist hospitals and health centers can be found all over the world—is central to the Adventist creed.
The more than 13 million Seventh-Day Adventists worldwide (most are in Asia) follow the teachings of Ellen White who they believe received revelations from God in the 1860s on a number of matters, including diet. A vegetarian, White taught that not only is a veg diet the best way to honor the temple of the body, but that at some point in the future, eating meat and dairy would become so unhealthful that everyone should stop eating “flesh foods.”
Jenny Friesen believes that time has come—she is among the just under a third of Adventists who are vegan. She says a somewhat larger proportion is lacto-ovo, and the rest eat some meats, avoiding “unclean” meats like pork. But there is no stigma attached to meat-eating: “We have no right to say who is better or worse based on what people eat,” says Friesen. “That’s pretty judgmental.”
Friesen says that Adventists often consider themselves “total vegetarians” rather than vegans because their motivations are entirely health-related, and not informed by a concern for animal welfare—something she is working to change.
Seventh-Day Adventist restaurants feature vegan food, but you won’t find spices like cinnamon, cloves, and pepper, and dishes are all prepared without the use of vinegar.
Adventist magazines, radio, and television stations promote meatless cooking around the world, and access to information and meatless options near Adventist centers has been shown to improve public health for the community at large.
“We believe that as we consume less animal products we can have a clearer mind and clearer access to God,” concludes Friesen. “Our blood is cleaner and we have more oxygen so our minds are much more crisp.”
Zen Buddhism is the 1500-year-old descendent of a movement that originated in India more than two thousand years ago, moved on to China and Japan, and is now firmly established in North America.
“Bhuddism is about not harming other beings,” says Michael Wenger, Dean of Bhuddist Studies at the San Francisco Zen Center, the influential institution founded in 1962 by Japanese Zen master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. Wenger says avoiding harm has often translated into vegetarianism, depending on local resources and customs, but not to a dogmatic extent: “if you’re begging and there’s meat in your bowl, you eat it,” he says, referring to the ancient monastic practice of depending on the local community for food.
Wenger adds that in the Zen tradition, vegetarianism has come about “only” in the last 500 years, as Zen monks came to rely less on begging and more on their own cooking. But he adds that for Zen Buddhists, a plant-based life is not something to feel smug about. “It’s just something to live,” he says.
Zen has now been in North America for a generation, and is making itself felt in vegetarian cuisine here. In 1979, the San Francisco Zen center opened Greens, a lacto-ovo restaurant that helped set the tone for West Coast vegetarian cooking in the subsequent two decades. Last year, San Francisco’s Medicine Eatstation brought Shojin cuisine—the plant-based cuisine of Japanese Zen monks—to North America.
“We’re not a religious institution but we do take our mission really seriously,” says Medicine co-owner Will Petty. “It doesn’t qualify as Shojin cuisine unless you make it with a Shojin spirit: Japanese Zen is a really strict religion. We believe in discipline. We believe that our mission to serve others is more important than our personal egotistical desires.”