This post is in fond memory of two men who greatly contributed to my life: my father, and Ipu (Dr. Bernardo Peixoto).
I’ve come down with a cold, one of those sinus filling, lethargy generating viruses that linger. I try not to be too judgmental of myself or the virus, after all, we share this life; maybe we even need each other.
This appreciation for our shared desire to live is a fundamental tenet of the Jain way of life. The Jains seek to do as little harm to all beings as humanly possible. As you might imagine, their diet is somewhat restrictive, allowing only foods that can be harvested without killing plants or animals. Yet, it is truly delicious, and when we are in India we go out of our way to find local Jain restaurants.
Traditionally, Native America has taken a different approach to the problem of eating. I was taught we share Mother Earth with innumerable other beings, all of whom need to live and eat. There is simply no way to move through the world without harming other beings, so the next best thing is to be grateful to, and respectful of, those who die so we may continue to live.
Sometimes animals offer themselves up to feed hungry people. There are countless stories of animals appearing in hunter’s dreams, offering to give up their lives so people might eat. Often the animal suggests a time or place where the hunter will find it. I was told the resulting kill could bring a mixture of sadness, guilt, and joy to the hunter, as well as a keen sense of responsibility for the soul of the dead animal.
I live a very urban existence, far from the traplines and hunting trips of my uncles. I don’t eat much meat, partially as it isn’t particularly good for me, and partially because of the way animals are treated in mass market food production. When I was a youngster I spent summers and some holidays on the family farm, and was expected to help out when a chicken was killed for the dinner table. I try to keep those experiences in mind when I sit down to eat a meal that seems totally removed from the fear and suffering of the animal I am about to consume. It is a way of acknowledging my debt to the animals and plants I eat, for as Ipu frequently pointed out, plants experience fear and suffering at death, too.
We live in a world of mutual relationships, our lives entangled in the lives of myriad others. Under most circumstances, we want to live, to experience the joy of relationship and the drama of the next chapters in our lives. The world is a beautiful place and we are, of course, greatly curious as to what will happen next.
At the end of his life, my father was ready to move on. He wasn’t speaking much, and when he did his focus was on the past and present rather than the future. When he did speak about the future, he let us know he was looking forward to seeing my mom and other relatives. He felt he had a good, long life, and it was time to go home.
Although he has been gone for several years I still miss him. We lived several hundred miles apart, so I tried to phone him regularly to stay in touch. Most of those calls came on Sundays afternoons, and there are still Sundays I reach for the phone.
I imagine he did not see his passing as a sacrifice, although it surely was. He was tired and ready to journey to the next place. His death was a loss to those of us who knew and loved him. It was also an act of generosity that made space for other beings to live on our small, fragile planet. I still have mixed feelings about it.
My teacher and friend, Bernardo Peixoto, died in 2011. I knew he was ill, but wrapped in my own life did not realize the severity of his illness. As a result, I never told him how much he meant to me, nor that, even though we seldom spoke, I thought of him often and with great fondness. Although he, too, has passed into the spirit world, I feel his presence. His wild love of animals, his dedication to his people, and to social and ecological justice, and his courage in the face of inconceivable brutality and loss guide my life.
Today, when I sit down to eat, I will offer my father and Ipu an honored place at the table, and acknowledge the spirits of the plants and animals who have sacrificed so that I may live. As Ipu might say, may it always be so.