I know, I know. How can this photo possibly have any bearing on ahimsa?
Well, it's complicated—as is life.
Before I continue, I wish to recognize that much of what follows is a compromised version of ahimsa, but this version is what works for my family where we are, a crucial factor in my private definition and reasoning.
Exploring a Buddhist path for myself has meant multiple things to me at different times: it has meant vegetarianism and daily meditation; it has also meant mindful meat eating and meditation through living.
After a year and half of practicing vegetarianism while my family continued to enjoy meat, I found myself at a crossroads, needing to redefine where my practice was heading and how my family fit into it.
First and foremost, I am a householder, a role that is fundamental to my being and crucial to my interpretation and assimilation of the dharma. I came to a point where I needed to ask myself where I stood in relation to my commitment to vegetarianism and how that would impact my relationship with my family.
Was I, for instance, willing to force my own values on others, and if so, wasn't that a form of violence? If I was not willing to do this (which I was not), then I found myself face to face with the dilemma of what kind of meat my family would be eating and what role I was willing to take in supporting that consumption.
As I meditated on the dilemma, I determined that I could continue to buy grocery store meat, which supported the factory farming methods I loathed; I could expand my search for local sources and continue to pay top dollar for someone else to do the difficult work and take on the karmic pricetag for me; or I could consider raising the meat ourselves, which would not only ensure the quality of life and meat, but which also held the potential to transform my own family's relationship with the meat on their plates.
Raising our own meat, I reasoned, would put us all face to face with the animal whose life we were taking, creating the opportunity for each of us to become more mindful of what the meat on our plate meant—where it came from, what went into raising it, and how it was to honor that life even in the taking of it.
Also to consider was the affect my journey was having on my relationship with my husband. While he was not seeking to impose his values on me any more than I sought to impose my own upon him, he nevertheless mourned the loss of what he considered a valuable commonground and source of joy and connection in our relationship: the mutual creation and enjoyment of gourmet meals, along with the wine and meat that are a large part of that lifestyle for him and for us as a couple for more than ten years of our lives.
I had changed my path while he had not, and though I was free to continue my journey into Buddhist philosophy, I needed to find a way to do so while also honoring the path on which I already walked hand in hand with those I love. At what point, I asked myself, was I doing more harm by putting my values before my relationships than I would be doing by finding a way to live them together?
My own journey into homesteading has much to do with my desire to feed my family in a way that's both healthy and humane while also nurturing the earth that supports us all. By raising our own meat, as well as other food, we all have a new found respect for the life it represents and the level of care and effort that goes into bringing meat to our table.
By raising our own meat, by being responsible rather than abdicating that role to others, we are able to honor life itself by becoming more mindful of what and how much we consume. Our meat consumption has drastically reduced, and we no longer support large-scale meat production or consumption.
Ahimsa, I believe, looks differently for those walking different paths. This is what ahimsa looks for me on this lifepath that I walk at this moment.
This photo, this refrigerator full of chicken carcasses, represents the humane treatment and processing of poultry. It represents the mindful consumption of meat throughout the year, as it requires careful consideration of portion size and meat-oriented meals, as we've consciously increased the number of our vegetarian meals while reducing the number of carnivorous meals.
No longer does the bulk styrofoam package of boneless chicken breasts translate into two weeks worth of meals instead of the 14 chickens it really represents; instead, we see it for what it is. We do the math in our heads and consider how ludicrous it would be to attempt the harvest of a chicken breast per person per meal—how wasteful and wanton that would be on a practical level.
As we move closer to the production of our own food, we become closer to the value of life itself and closer to the earth that sustains it. That, to me, is a version of ahimsa—not ahimsa for a monk, certainly, but a version of ahimsa that works for my family in this moment, honoring the spirit of the precept if not the letter of the law.