Even before our plane touched down near Tokyo, I knew I wouldn’t make it out of Japan without eating meat.
I’d been a vegetarian for just over five years, and stuck to a vegan diet for most of that stretch. Apart from the bugs I’d breathed in on sunset runs, and however many pounds of spiders we’re said to swallow in our sleep over a year, I’d done a reasonably good job of avoiding eating other sentient creatures.
Spending August in Japan with my family was bound to end that streak, for a couple reasons.
First is the interpretation of what a vegetarian meal is. In Canada, it’s generally considered food free of any ingredient that used to have a mom and dad; in Japan, it’s largely understood to be a meal without beef. You might order a big bowl of “vegetarian” ramen in Narita, only to be picking bits of tentacle from your teeth halfway through lunch.
Were this the only obstacle, I might have been able to stick to a vegan diet, provided I’d done more research beforehand and prepared most of my own meals.
The larger issue I couldn’t get around was that, for me, Buddhist practice comes before vegetarianism. Most often the two support each other very nicely, but forks can sometimes appear, and there were plenty in Japan (in the road, not on the table).
An important part of Buddhist practice is being aware of the suffering of others and doing what you can to reduce it. That makes veganism a natural and popular choice for many Buddhists.
Some situations call for making the less harmful of two choices. During our stay my family was shown tremendous generosity by friends who treated us to feasts at home or at their favourite restaurants. Most times I could stick to the vegetable plates, but sometimes our hosts would excitedly present us with a plate of octopus or Kobe beef. You could see how happy they were to watch us sample these local specialties for the first time.
I had to make a choice between refusing their generosity and biting into an animal that had already been barbecued or boiled, one that wouldn’t be coming back no matter how many veggies I ate.
So I tightened my bib, said a prayer for the critter on my plate and chomped away. I wouldn’t have faulted anyone for making the opposite choice. All I know is that I went with what felt right in my heart.
It was also in line with the advice given by much wiser people, like my zen teacher back in Canada, and Muhō Noelke, the abbot of Antai-ji temple, whom we had the chance to meet in Japan.
I’d heard him recall in an interview years ago how he was served steak on the night of his ordination. A life-long vegetarian, he complained about the menu to his Dharma brothers. One of them responded that sticking to such preferences was “killing” – in this case, “killing the good intention” of those who provided the dinner.
It was in the spirit of honouring the generosity and good intentions of my hosts that I dug in. I did so gratefully and wholeheartedly.
The one time I truly struggled with this was when our good friends, the Amaikes, took us to one of their hometown’s premier tourist attractions, the Toyama Fish Paste Museum. Fish paste, we learned, is made by putting fish through a fancy blender and then baking the goop until it gels into a Play-Doh-like cake.
Our generous friends shelled out for the museum’s VIP passes. Not only did we get to see an exhibit on the rich history of fish paste, we got to decorate our own fish-shaped fish-paste cakes. Draped from head to toe in protective plastic, we were led to a sparklingly sanitized room where we were each given a fish-paste cake and tubes of colourful icing to decorate it. Or so we thought. Turns out the icing was just more fish paste.
For a vegan, it was like a Stephen King storyline – being egged on to apply clown-like makeup to faces made out of fish pulp. Even so, the Amaikes’ tremendous generosity and kind intentions outweighed my uneasiness. I said an extra long prayer and did my best to make a masterpiece out of this odd mulch.
As delicious as the food was in Japan, I was happy to return to a meat-free menu in Canada.
I was surprised, though, by how inconvenient eating vegan suddenly felt.
While there were often meat-free food options available overseas, foods without egg or dairy were much scarcer. In the absence of anything vegan on the menu, I’d go for whatever dish wasn’t fish or flesh. That’s how I came to have a chocolate sundae for brunch en route to Nagoya.
I’ve had a tough time getting back on track after our Japan trip. That difficulty has been a forceful reminder of the power of momentum, and of how much of a struggle it can be to regain it once you’ve lost it.
I got a good taste of this years ago while running my first marathon. Aching and out of steam three miles from the finish line, I deliberately slowed to a walk for exactly one minute, figuring the short rest would be just what I needed for a strong finish. When my 60 seconds were up, I tried speeding up but quickly flamed out – running seemed twice as hard as it had just a minute before. So I gave myself another 60-second break. Then another, and another, and ended up walking most of the last two miles.
So, believing myself wiser after that disappointing finish, I pledged that I’d never let myself lose momentum again.
What a crock of shit.
Several more years of running taught me that momentum was made to be broken.
I’m don’t dismiss its importance. The momentum that comes from consistent practice is invaluable in staying on track, whatever the goal.
But shifts in momentum are a certainty. That’s the reality for any runner who’s ever missed a training session due to illness, or injury, or laziness, or an emergency, or a sudden change in priorities. That’s the reality for anyone in any endeavor.
Dharma teachers and running coaches I’ve heard speak on the subject have shared similar thoughts.
You’ll build more momentum, they say, simply by recognizing you’re going to lose it from time to time.
Jack Daniels (the running coach, not the booze) has been particularly helpful during my switch back to a vegan diet.
In his book Daniels’ Running Formula, he outlines his “10 basic laws of running.” Three of the 10 – “Expect ups and downs,” “Be flexible in training to allow for the unexpected,” and “Don’t train when sick or injured” – acknowledge that momentum must inevitably be lost and rebuilt.
He really gets to the heart of it when he writes that rest days are just as important as running days. They’re a part of training, he stresses, not something outside of it.
I’ve heard seated meditation discussed in a similar way. Distracting thoughts don’t derail you from meditative practice – they’re a part of it.
The message I take from all this is to be wary of adopting an all-or-nothing approach to whatever the challenge at hand. Accepting a loss in momentum as part of the overall effort, rather than something that works against it, may be the more helpful attitude.
It’s at least something I can chew on without accidentally swallowing a chunk of squid.