When generalised compassion for ‘all’
forgoes compassion for individuals,
how can it be universal compassion?
In his 1999 book “Celebrating Everyday Life”, popular Zen teacher, writer, and ecologist John Daido Loori counsels us that “Because food is life, it is of utmost importance that we receive it with deepest gratitude. When we eat, we consume life. Whether it’s cabbage or cows, it’s life.” This raises the question, “To whom, precisely, should our gratitude be directed?” The cabbage couldn’t care less. In fact, it doesn’t care at all. The cabbage has no nervous system and no brain. It is not psychologically equipped to have any kind of mental life, including the experience of pain… In the case of the cabbage, there is no one to whom we can offer our gratitude.
We could, of course, offer our gratitude to the cow whose flesh is the steak on our dinner plate. But what are we being grateful for? She was not a volunteer. She had to be dragged quite literally kicking and screaming to slaughter. Farmed animals are not future Buddhas donating their flesh out of compassion for those of us who have developed a craving for it. They are victims of our greed from whom we steal the most precious gift any of us has: life. If you were kidnapped, slaughtered, and eaten by space aliens whose power over us was as absolute as our power over animals, would you think that act of murder was redeemed by the gratitude of the aliens? Or would you think the aliens were adding insult to injury?
But perhaps Loori is not talking about directing our gratitude to the plant or animal we are eating. Perhaps he is talking about a generalized feeling of appreciation that has no specific object… “Compassion without an object” is simply another way to describe universal compassion for all sentient beings without discriminating among them on the basis of our attachments and aversions. “Gratitude without an object” is a way for practitioners to feel good about themselves while committing acts that violate their fundamental spiritual practices… But the only quality that matters for compassion is sentience. If a being can suffer, it needs our compassion. If it cannot, it does not… The cow suffered in the unnatural confinement of the factory farm; the cabbage did not suffer in the field. The cow suffered in the cattle car and the slaughterhouse; the cabbage did not suffer in the truck or the warehouse. The cow love life and dreaded death; the cabbage was capable of neither love nor fear. Therefore, it is wrong to eat the cow – no matter how much “gratitude” we feel – and it is not wrong to eat the cabbage.
The Great Compassion: Buddhism & Animal Rights