The Cabbage & The Cow

When generalised compassion for ‘all’
forgoes compassion for individuals,
how can it be universal compassion?

– Stonepeace

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
Norm Phelps


  • I think we should simply be grateful to have food to eat,be it a cabbage or cow. I think it’s easy to condemn meat eaters and conveniently forget that hundreds if not thousands of earthworms and other sentient beings living in the soil had to die just so that we can get our cabbage.

    As long as we are in Samsara, there will be no end to suffering, even if we are a vegan, living things have to die just so that we can live.

  • The article does not say we should not be grateful for the animals that die for vegan produce to be possible, but that the cabbage in itself does not require gratitude as it is not sentient, while the true way to be grateful and compassionate to the cow is to not even want to eat him.

    In this sense, the article is not against gratitude to all sentient beings. In fact, it is to remind us what true gratitude is – by minimising harm – especially the obvious harm from greed for animals’ flesh and produce.

    Incidentally, much less animals die for vegan produce, as vegans eat right at the bottom of the food chain, while animal-eaters eat right at the top. The animals animal-eaters eat had to eat much more crops in their lifetimes to fatten up, which implicate the lives of more insects and such. Here is a sense of the proportion killed: http://www.animalvisuals.org/projects/data/1mc

  • If farmed animals are not bred in farms and wild animals not caged in zoos, I wonder if they will be roaming about on earth?
    If farmed animals are bred with much humanity, say almost equivalent to rearing pets, will it deem fit to eat them eventually?

  • The truth is that wild animals have been in the wild for past ages, till humans came along to imprison them in zoos for amusement and research – none of which the animals appreciate. This is not rescue from harm in most cases but downright incarceration and ‘forced’ breeding within bars. There’s nothing wrong with wild animals being in their natural habitats in places designated to be reserves, as long as we keep a respectful distance. Life on Earth does not centre of humans only.

    It is impossible for all humans to turn vegetarian overnight, unless there is a pandemic that is linked to all livestock. As such, when we turn vegetarian, the demand for meat will reduce gradually, which will lead to less breeding and less killing. Farm animals won’t suddenly swarm the planet free. If we cannot accept it that a human baby bred humanely is deemed killable and edible later, why should this humanity not be extended to animals too?

    Pet-rearing is a form of imprisonment too, that forced many kinds of animals over time to be domesticated, to have lost their wild instincts to some extent.

Please Be Mindful Of Your Speech, Namo Amituofo!

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