Early Fall is upon us, and the year’s Wheel turns from harvest into the darkening time leading to Samhain. This reminds us that one great distinction between modern NeoPaganism and most contemporary religions is our different relationship to death. For the monotheistic traditions death entered into the world as a consequence of sin. As I understand Buddhism, death is one of many forms taken by suffering, and suffering is evidence something is amiss with embodied existence. The secular modern ‘religion’ of scientism hopes someday to enable us to achieve immortality, perhaps as consciousness encased within a computer.

Today many of the deceased are painted to look as if they are still alive, ‘sleeping,’ and their bodies buried in ornate caskets with comfy cushions to protect them for as long as possible from finding physical oneness with the earth. We mourn the loss of loved ones but we mourn from within a different context than do those who see death as a misfortune.

We NeoPagans generally honor the powers of death with a Sabbat, Samhain. If two Sabbats are more symbolically important to our practice than any others, they are Beltane and Samhain. Separated by 6 months, they honor the two greatest themes of physical existence: life and death.

I think this distinction between most of our traditions and so many others is worth thinking about at length. Here is one thread in several parts.

It starts with a story.

Many years ago the American Association of Religions held their annual conference in San Francisco. A friend from Boston University flew out to attend, and invited me to come down and visit him while he was there. A mutual friend was also “womaning” a Boston Buddhist reception there, and John suggested we visit her as well.

“Great, see you there.” I replied.

When we walked into the Buddhist reception room there was an elaborate buffet, half of which had vegetarian food, as one might expect. The other half included meat. I heard a good deal of quiet muttering among some of the people visiting, objecting to the meat.

Hearing this righteous muttering, I walked over to the cuts of beef and piled my plate with it much higher than I normally would. I have a great deal of respect for vegetarians. I might even become one some day. But I have an almost irrepressible urge to poke self-righteous ones.

I ended up talking with a Buddhist scholar from somewhere up in Oregon. I’ll never know whether or not he noticed what was on my plate. Perhaps he deliberately averted his gaze from the carnage. But he did tell me “Eventually the meat eaters will rise to the vegetarians’ level of spiritual discernment.” Or something like that.

“Into my hands he is delivered,” I thought to myself.

“Think about the hunter who gets up in the morning, goes off into the woods, and shoots a deer. He brings it back to feed his family, but otherwise leaves the woods pretty much alone.

“Now think about the farmer. He gets up in the morning, goes into the woods, and chops the trees down to make a new field, destroying the homes of countless animals. Then he digs up the stumps, destroying the homes of more. In both cases the land outside the field is already occupied, so these displaced beings either die, or take over someone else’s home, and they die.

“Now the farmer plows the field, destroying the homes of more animals, and killing many. After planting his seeds he must protect his seedlings and later his crop from birds, rabbits, deer, and insects. Maybe he uses bio-controls, and so insects he likes kill the insects he doesn’t, but the birds, rabbits, and deer may not be so lucky. They just might get shot.

“All so the vegetarian will know there is no blood on his plate of spinach.”

He huffed and puffed, but had no response. I was right, and he knew it.

Some people to whom I later described this encounter responded that the vileness of factory farming justified vegetarianism and condemned eating meat. But neither follow. The brutality of factory farming justifies never eating meat raised that way, and I don’t. But after this decision whether to eat meat at all remains an open question.

To live means to bring death to some and to benefit from the deaths of others. There might be good reasons for being a vegetarian. In my opinion when you do certain kinds of spiritual work there are very good reasons for doing so. But removing oneself from causing the deaths of others in order to live is not one of them.

Of course we can minimize the deaths we bring, but just how far should we go? What does “minimize” really mean? Even vegans drive cars or ride in trains and busses which hit a certain number of birds, turtles, dogs, cats, skunks, raccoons, and so on. The list is long. The cotton in our clothes came from fields where “pests” met untimely ends by one means or another. Our buildings have windows and many a bird meets its end flying into one. The list is long.

I am not saying that causing death is not a major ethical issue. It is. But we must think about it clearly. Simply saying “Death is bad and I will not kill.” is not an option for us, (or anyone else for that matter).