Vipassana: May All Beings Be Happy and Vegan, too

Evening snack of fruit for the new studentsI’ve just returned from my fourth 10-day Vipassana meditation course. How peaceful it felt being unplugged and letting the world outside the camp fade away!

However, I realize that for many people joining a 10-day silent meditation for their first time, the food can be a concern.

If you are an omnivore, you may worry whether you’ll be satisfied with meals that are billed as “vegetarian.” Likewise, vegans may be worried if there’s going to be food containing eggs or dairy products.

Relax.

  • vipassana mettaFor vegans, with few exceptions the dishes are vegan, and on the rare occasion they do contain dairy, it’s labeled. There is usually non-dairy milk available, and salad dressings are also vegan.
  • For omnivores, there is butter, cow’s milk, yogurt, and occasionally cheese available as condiments. While I don’t condone dairy, having familiar foods available helps make the course environment less stressful.
  • If you have any questions about the ingredients, you are allowed to ask the kitchen staff (an exception to the “Noble Silence” practiced with fellow meditators).

Some raw vegans and fruitarians contacted me following my previous post (“For Whom the Bell Tolls”) to ask if there are enough fruit and vegetables to survive. As I have also been on a high raw vegan diet, I can relate–yet I think it’s a lot to expect to eat exclusively fruits and vegetables, because they are costly and often in limited supply.

Because Vipassana courses are free of charge, you attend as a monk or a nun—as beggars—and cannot complain if food doesn’t meet your taste or dietary profile. Courses are funded by donations, with some food being donated by old students. Cooks are volunteers, just as the assistant teacher, class manager, and other roles.

Of course, feel free to contact the Vipassana center ahead of time and inquire if you have dietary concerns. I write this as someone who has volunteered in the kitchen.

Typical Daily Menu

I have attended Vipassana courses in Hawaii and Japan, and found the menus quite similar. I learned from other old students it’s consistent with other Vipassana centers.

Breakfasts were basic and the same each day: A choice of oatmeal, boxed cereals, and whole-grain bread, with peanut butter and jelly, and butter. Stewed prunes. And seasonal fruit, such as bananas, oranges, papaya, and pineapple. There was instant coffee, and a variety of teas including green, black and herbal teas. A number of days, there was an urn filled with peppermint tea, ginger and tumeric tea, or tulsi tea, made with roibos tea and licorice.

Lunches were varied and flavorful, filled with metta (“loving kindness,” in the Pali language) of the volunteer cooks. Ratatouie, lentil soup, thai curry, pumpkin and sweet potato curry, spaghetti with lentils, tofu steaks with mashed potatoes and gravy, chana masala, roasted vegetables such as zucchini and pumpkin and carrots, and polenta. Chickpeas were featured in  hummous and salads, and curries often contained fresh cilantro. There was brown rice at every meal.

All this amazing food, yet we had been instructed to eat only three-fourths of our typical volume to avoid drowsiness? Talk about misery!

Sticking with one helping, I filled my bowl with the main dish and made a big plate of salad. In additon to lettuce, there was cucumbers, celery, carrots, and often purple or green cabbage. There were usually 2-3 homemade dressings to choose from, and olive oil and apple cider vinegar were also provided, as well as sunflower seeds, gomasio, and ground flax seed for sprinkling.

Everything was so colorful that I wished I could have taken photos, but we surrender our phones at the beginning of the course, along with any reading and writing materials.

A Vipassana course is not about the food

You join a Vipassana course to learn and practice the meditation technique passed down since over 2500 years ago by Gotema the Buddha to develop equanimity and liberate yourself from craving and aversions in order to come out of misery.  As teacher S.N. Goenka’s pre-recorded discourse reminds us over and over again, equanimity equals purity. Vipassana is meditation of purification.

Vipassana courses are designed for, and run like clockwork, for the student’s benefit. Having meals served eliminates the need for students to occupy themselves with cooking and allows them to focus their energy on meditating for 10 hours each day.

You can find out about Vipassana courses near you or all over the world at http://dhamma.org

Old Vipassana Students Fast for 19 hours each day

The daily schedule at a Vipassana course begins with a wake up bell at 4:00 am and ends with bedtime between 9:00-10:00 pm. Breakfast is served at 6:30 am after a 2-hour meditation period.

As mentioned in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” a bell is rung at meal times and other important times. At 5pm, new students (those taking the course for the first time) are offered fruit and tea with milk (including non-dairy milk). Old students are allowed to have tea but without milk, and no fruit.

Given that lunch was the highlight of the day (other than the meditation), I am not too proud to admit I still found meditation difficult right before lunchtime, drifting toward the dining hall so I would be nearer the front of the line when the bell rang for lunch at 11:00am.

My monkey mind goes like: “I’ve been meditating for 5 hours today, the last stretch of 3 hours and it will be my last food until tomorrow at 6:30 am.”

Going without eating for 19 hours for 9 days in a row is about as close as I’ve come to fasting. They could have given me anything vegan and I would have been happy. But the food really tasted good, and there was always enough.

In fact, after taking a course like this a few times, you’ll begin to wonder if dinner is really necessary? It’s nice to give your body a break from eating, since digestion consumes so much energy.

Metta Day

On the final day of the course, known as “Metta Day,” the kitchen volunteers were recognized and given a standing ovation by all the students.

I wish that many of my fellow meditators will recognize how vegan food sustained them through this life-changing experience of a Vipassana course. I hope that many will reduce or eliminate meat and animal products after realizing that when we say “May all beings share my peace, my harmony. May all beings be happy, be liberated” we are also referring to non-human animals.

Do you have any experiences with food during a Vipassana course or after returning to your normal life you can share? Please leave them in the comments below.

Photos courtesy of Pohoiki Dhamma Farm.

5 thoughts on “Vipassana: May All Beings Be Happy and Vegan, too

  1. Monroe Davids

    Your Vipassana sounds amazing and something you truly enjoyed. You seem to engage yourself in amazing things that brighten your core while feeding your body the best possible food energy available. Kudos!

  2. Kasia

    My issue with Vipassana: Living a wholesome life is encouraged, including not having a job that involves the raising, killing of animals or selling of animal flesh. The idea that everything changes and is impermanent and the truth of the reality of this exact moment is of upmost importance is the basis of the meditation technique. At the end of every meditation “Bhavatu sabba mangalam” is chanted which means “May all beings be happy” to which everyone responds (if they wish) “Sadhu! / Well said!”
    Everyone seemed to enjoy saying “Sadhu!”
    Yet, they serve milk.
    This contradiction became very distracting for me. I could not stay because staying meant being complicit. I wondered how many passed through here feeling conflicted and saddened by this as they tried to face their own personal truths. When I expressed my feelings to the manager she was empathetic and said her son had felt the same way. When I asked the teacher about it she said that the violence was not happening here – she expressed the very complacency we were warned not to accept in our own lives. She told me that while she agreed with me, they served milk because that is how they have always done it; a contradiction to the importance of acknowledging change, impermanence and the reality of the moment.
    She told me not be “attached” to this issue and to focus on myself and the techniques being taught.
    I tried that, but it felt like lying.
    I considered not donating at the end of it, but that felt like stealing.
    I even considered a hunger strike but I doubted anyone would notice or care.
    I didn’t believe Enlightenment would come with these costs.
    I needed to acknowledge what was true and that serving milk was a disservice to the students, to truth, and to the peaceful environment they were trying to create. I figured if enough people left the course or otherwise expressed their recognition of the truth, then they might make a change.
    After four and a half days I left after protesting in my own small, slightly disruptive way. I’ve never considered myself an activist. I prefer doing the best I can to lead by example and to let others live as they will, but I did it because I really believe in what this place is doing and trying to do.I wanted them to know that their serving milk is distracting for those who know the truth of the dairy industry. For those who do not know, I thought they were about eliminating ignorance and attachments to things you do not need.
    I would have loved to have stayed.
    I will write them every week asking them to make this simple change so that more people, including those who know the truth of the horrors of the dairy industry may enjoy the fruits of this place and the techniques they are teaching.
    I have continued meditation and have ordered materials on the technique and will continue to do my work in the relatively cruelty-free home that I have created.
    If you would like to read about my experience more fully or if you would like to add your name to my letter when I write to them, DM me.
    S.N. Goenka, the man responsible for the recent boon of popularity in this valuable meditation says that if you work patiently and persistently, you are bound to be successful. I have taken his words to heart.

  3. william Post author

    I appreciate your comments. I have had similar feelings of disappointment, especially after my most recent course when a fellow meditator mentioned she enjoyed a restaurant that served hamburgers made with organic grass-fed beef! We have to acknowledge that the majority of people are meat eaters, and that this course is probably the longest period they been exposed to a plant-based diet. The milk, butter, and yogurt are there (at least not in the meals), but so too are the non-dairy options. Unfortunately, I did note in Japan last month that they have stopped stocking the sesame butter they previously used, and other nut butters are also considered too expensive (they are about twice cost in the U.S.). The management also noted that nut butters are not commonly eaten in Japan, so there will be no butter alternative for the forseeable future. The whole purpose is to make students feel comfortable so they can learn and practice. I support your cause to have dairy products removed from the menu. Also consider, in my case at least, it took at least several months from the time I set out to become vegan before I had ceased all dairy consumption. Change is often gradual, and has to come from within. Metta.

  4. Suzy Berry

    Hi Kasia and William thank you for the article and comments. I have been interested in taking up a VIpassana course after meeting James Aspey but I am conflicted about the same feeling. How can they pray for the happiness of all beings while being complicit in the unhappiness of cows? It just doesn’t seem to add up and I feel I would be conflicted about it too.

  5. william Post author

    Hi, Suzy. I am sorry you are having doubts about attending a 10-day course. I also have a yoga asana practice and have been trying to learn why more yogis and meditators are not vegan (topic for a future post). Part of the blame, besides people’s “need” to taste meat, is the medical establishment (Western and Eastern alike) who caution those following a vegan path the first and every time they report a complaint. As vegans, we don’t see much if any difference between lacto-ovo vegetarians and carnivores, but it is a big step for a carnivore to give up meat and fish. After being vegan for over 11 years, I feel like we should give some credit to those moving in the right direction. As I said, I would also be more than happy to engage in a letter-writing campaign to the Vipassana Association. Please don’t let your feelings about the menu (vegan except for condiments) stop you from experiencing the practice. Much Metta.

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