Tofu Elephants in a Forest Called Mercy

This is really about heartache.

I remember an old co-worker reminiscing about her morning smoke. She’d have it with her coffee. She’d sit at the breakfast table with her husband. Just the two of them. She since had to quit and switch to decaf. She was nearly in tears.

The Buddha said attachment–craving or clinging–is the origin of suffering.

Buddhist cuisine is vegetarian. When Buddhists become monks, they take oaths against violence. This oath includes not eating meat. The violence of slaughtering animals, even for food, incurs karmic debt. This connects to their belief in reincarnation. Buddhist cuisine features some of the earliest and most creative meat substitutes. These substitutes often go beyond replacing the nutrients in meat. These are imitations. They’re meant to remind you of meat in sight, smell, taste, and texture.

Source: Wikimedia Commons By: Takeaway

Source: Wikimedia Commons By: Takeaway

When we think substitutes, we often think cheapness or hardship. The word ersatz refers to (often inferior) substitute goods. Germans received wartime rations of Ersatzkaffee–coffee made from acorns or chicory.

Buddhists aren’t eating tofu to save money, though. If they all thought meat was gross they wouldn’t go to the trouble of accurately imitating it. Religions demand sacrifice from followers: from tithing, to fasting, to flagellation. Religion entails holding yourself to a higher standard.

People aren’t born monks and lay Buddhists can eat meat. A monk may remember meat. They too can long for what once was. Craving is the origin of suffering but does satisfying that craving with a substitute break the spirit of the teaching? Perhaps.

It is good to put away what is bad for us. It is better to put away even the thought of them. This old verse goes:

“let a man walk alone, let him commit no sin, with few wishes, like an elephant in the forest.”

But, that’s a hell of a way to live. Beyond most of us, even monks. Just as medicine becomes poison if you take too much, it may be that what’s meant to emancipate us can become a fresh set of shackles. Religion strives for a form of perfection, but in striving, do not we admit our imperfection?

Perhaps then, these meat imitations are a concession, a mercy, to human weakness. Religions distinguish between what’s desired and what can be had. But, this is something where we all struggle. To do what is good for us demands strength we do not always have. Is it so bad to cut ourselves a little slack? There’s always tomorrow.

We will all have to let go of something but it’s not easy to stop our hearts from longing. When our hearts ache, we owe ourselves a little mercy.

This isn't really about meat. 


Sean Stone

Sean Stone is a lover of the idiosyncratic, esoteric, and obscure. An old soul born at a young age on Vancouver Island, he now lives in Ottawa. He has a degree in Political Science and still finds that sort of thing interesting. He’d like to find some stimulating work to pay for new suits and old books.

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