Will Tuttle, Ph.D., is an American original, a visionary scholar-artist and spiritual pilgrim. Tuttle is the author of a new book, The World Peace Diet: Eating for Spiritual Health and Social Harmony (Lantern, 2005), in which he presents what is probably the most comprehensive case yet for eating a diet, and creating a society, free from cruelty and violence.
A pianist, composer, educator, and author, Tuttle has performed and lectured widely throughout the United States and Europe. His doctorate degree with highest honors from the University of California, Berkeley, focused on educating intuition in adults, and he has taught college courses in creativity, humanities, mythology, and philosophy. He has a broad background in both Eastern and Western meditation traditions, and is a Dharma Master in the Zen tradition. Devoted to planetary awakening and to creating uplifting, healing music, he has created six beautiful CD albums of original piano music. He currently travels with his wife, Madeleine, a visionary artist from Switzerland, providing concerts, lectures, workshops, and exhibits, and their intuitively-inspired personalized music and art portraits for individuals and couples. He is co-founder of Karuna Music and Art (www.willtuttle.com) and The Worldwide Prayer Circle for Animals (www.circleofcompassion.org).
In this interview with Dr. Daniel Redwood, Dr. Tuttle speaks of his personal evolution as an artist and spiritual seeker, and then addresses in depth the central focus of his book, the idea that cruelty to animals (particularly farmed animals) sets a tone in our society that plays out in interpersonal violence, war, and environmental destruction. It is a provocative thesis, one that merits the attention of all who claim to value life.
DANIEL REDWOOD: When you were in your early 20s, you and your brother set off on a pilgrimage across America. What were you were looking for and what did you find?
WILL TUTTLE: This was back in 1975. I was looking for a deeper understanding of myself. I wanted to grow spiritually, that was the main thing. During my college years, at Colby in Maine, something had awakened inside me, and I deeply yearned to get to a higher level of consciousness. So I talked about this with my brother Ed, who is two years younger than I am, and I was delighted to find that he had the same feeling that I did. So we took to the road in a quest for enlightenment. We walked many hundreds of miles, from New England all the way to The Farm in Tennessee, and from there down to a Zen center in Alabama.
I would say that I made some pretty amazing discoveries for myself during those months. The first was a sense of inner joy that began bubbling up inside of me, that didn’t have any reason at all. I think that because I was finally living my own life and being true to myself, I connected with this deep sense of joy that I feel is inherent in us as humans. I also discovered that we could live without money [laughter]. We were really trying to consciously practice what Jesus taught, when he said, “Seek ye first the kingdom, and everything else will be added unto you.” We were always taken care of, somehow. We were willing to do what we could to help people and we found that we could live without money.
REDWOOD: So you were depending on the kindness of strangers.
TUTTLE: Yes! And apple trees and squash plants. There was a sense of abundance as we found old gardens and apple trees and pear trees, and just kind of lived on what we could find. People would give us food as we went along, too.
I also discovered, for the first time, that fishing is cruel. I remember we tried fishing once after about a month. We had been doing a lot of meditation and though I’d often fished in my younger days, I found that now I just couldn’t bear killing these fish after I’d caught them. Suddenly, for the first time, I saw them as beings and not just as things. But I thought that because I needed my protein, I had no choice. So I killed them and we ate them. But that’s when I started questioning the idea of eating animal foods. Also, we found people who were vegetarians, actually vegans, something I had never discovered in my life before that point. Real live vegetarians. We ended up at The Farm in Tennessee, which had about 800 people, and they were all vegans. So that’s when I became a vegetarian. I saw that people could be healthy and happy as vegans. And their motivation was not health, it was compassion for animals.
REDWOOD: When you stayed over at people’s houses, or at The Farm, were you there as a guest or did you work?
TUTTLE: We were focusing on meditation. We would walk into a little town and very often we would meet someone. Sometimes we’d go to a church if we didn’t meet anyone, and ask the minister if we could just sleep on the floor of the church. They saw us as pilgrims, I think. We would be off for the next town the next morning, and they would usually give us something to eat. We would always say that if they’d like us to help out with something, we would. Sometimes, we would help paint the church or do something else to help out. But sometimes people just wanted to help us. Quite often we’d meet people who wanted counseling from us. At The Farm, we were part of one of the work teams. We were printing Ina May Gaskin’s book, Spiritual Midwifery.
REDWOOD: A decade or so after your American pilgrimage, you lived in a Zen monastery in South Korea where you awoke each day at 2:40 a.m. and spent many hours in meditation. What was that like, and what was it like returning to America afterwards and re-entering a society different in so many ways?
TUTTLE: It was a huge cultural shift for me to go over there and live that way, as a monk with a shaved head and a different name. I think the walk I took, the pilgrimage when I was 22, really set a different trajectory in my life. From that point on, my life was focused on living in meditation centers quite a bit, studying spiritual teachings. The experience in Korea was a natural extension of that, but it was very intense. I took a vow of silence for 90 days and focused on my inner practice. It was a great opportunity to do that among kindred spirits. It was the second time I lived in a vegan community. Again, there were no animal products eaten or worn.
It was unthinkable even to kill a mosquito. This was a community that had practiced this for 700 years. It felt like it just seeped into my bones, this ethic of ahimsa, of nonviolence toward other living beings. When I came back to this country, it was a shock to see, first, how independent everyone is from each other, the sense of separateness in which we’re all individuals moving around in our lives. Over there, there was much more of a sense of group cohesion and being part of something larger, a community. Back here, I was struck by the speed of our culture and also the abuse of animals that seems to just cover the landscape in our advertising everywhere.
REDWOOD: In your book, The World Peace Diet, you describe and endorse a diet like the one you just mentioned, a plant-based diet with no animal foods. The book provides a good deal of information documenting its health benefits. But I was very interested that the primary rationale you offer for the diet is not about health. It’s about the moral dimensions of how we relate to animals. Why should this matter to people?
TUTTLE: It’s an immense and pressing question. What you’re talking about is the core of the book. I would say that it should matter to people because people want, more than anything, to be free, to be happy, to be loved, to be at peace, and to be able to fulfill their purposes. And yet by dominating and systematically confining and abusing animals for food, we not only destroy the animals’ freedom and happiness and peace and innate purposes, but we simultaneously destroy our own, even though we don’t realize it.
Our cruelty and violence towards animals for food inevitably boomerangs, and we suffer in countless ways because of it. Basically, the animals are not able to retaliate like other people can, so our violence goes out towards them and it retaliates against us. It’s an ancient, well-recognized, and unavoidable universal principle: what goes around comes around. As we sow, so we reap. And yet we’ve been taught that the animals’ suffering doesn’t matter. But we know in our bones that it does matter, and I think this makes us all very uncomfortable. That’s why I think it’s taboo to discuss it or even think about it.
REDWOOD: Most people who eat animals and animal products are not directly engaged in the raising or slaughter of the animals. It’s done by others. So how do you reply to someone who says that they wouldn’t want to do it themselves but they don’t have a problem allowing other people to do it for them?
TUTTLE: It’s like when I was in college, I remember hearing about the bombers who were going over the villages in Vietnam. They’d fly back after dropping bombs on villages and they wouldn’t see the blood hit the wall, so to speak. They would fly back to their stations and wouldn’t feel anything. And the generals who gave the orders also would not feel anything. But if they actually had to kill the villagers directly, maybe they wouldn’t be able to do it. I think we’re in the same position when we purchase animal foods. We don’t see it, and we’re desensitized and disconnected from it. There’s an elaborate system in place to keep us, at all costs, from seeing the violence and the abuse that these animals endure, both before they’re slaughtered and while they are slaughtered. If we went to check out from the grocery store, and said that we wanted some pork and chicken, and then right in front of us the woman at the counter grabbed a pig and a chicken and stabbed them, we’d say, “No, I don’t want that!”
REDWOOD: What we eat involves much more than satisfying our hunger and the need for nutritional sustenance. It’s about connection to memory, family, ethnicity, and so much more. Why do you think some people spend their entire lives eating the foods they were given in childhood, while others make major changes?
TUTTLE: I think our culture forces us as children to eat animal-based foods through its primary institutions: family, education, religion, medicine, government, and business. All of these institutions enforce the practice of eating animal foods. Our parents teach us to do it like their parents taught them to do it. Every species teaches their young what to eat, and it’s maybe the most essential thing that they teach. So for us, at a very deep level, it’s hard to question what our parents, our culture, and our community tell us to eat when we are just little babies. As soon as we lose our mother’s breast, we’re starting to get animal foods. So the idea that we should not eat animal foods is threatening to us at a very deep level, as well as threatening toward our social life.
It’s very difficult for most of us to take the suffering of animals seriously enough to be willing to not fit into the crowd, because we are typically trying to please our friends, our family, our colleagues, and our superiors at work. And so to choose not to partake of our culture’s food is a difficult thing for most people. I think it takes enormous ethical maturity on some level to actually do that. Maybe it takes just knowing directly what the animals go through. I’m not sure why it is that some people can change and most people don’t seem to be able to. But I think that it’s mainly because we are forced into it as children and it gets its hooks into us very deeply, and this continues all the way through our lives. The pressure is unremitting.
And yet the spiritual teachings of the world’s religions are always pointing to the idea that we really should “leave home,” that we should question our culture’s assumptions. Jesus taught that, Buddha taught that, and a lot of other teachers taught that. Not necessarily the religions themselves as they’re practiced by the masses, but the teachings if you read them directly. They always encourage mercy to those who are vulnerable, and not just living the way the authorities in the culture tell us to live. I think the only way our culture’s ever going to move in a positive direction is by us questioning the underlying assumptions that promote violence.
REDWOOD: Along those lines, you’ve written that the abuse and killing of animals is a central fact of our civilization and yet there will never be world peace as long as people are eating animals and animal products as foods. How did you arrive at this conclusion? And do you feel that this outweighs other violence-promoting factors like greed and the lust for power?
TUTTLE: I arrived at the conclusion partly by a lot of inner listening and meditation practice over 30 years. It took a long time for me to attain some of these understandings, looking both into my culture and also into my own consciousness. I find in myself a tendency to discount the suffering that I cause to others. I can see it in myself, I can see it in our culture, and I can see how easy it is to discount the suffering of those who cannot retaliate. So I think that because of my many years of veganism, and of visiting stockyards and viewing undercover slaughterhouse and factory farm footage, combined with the meditation and a lot of scriptural study of the world’s religious traditions, that I began to see connections that it seems most people just don’t ever see.
At the moment, I feel like a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Though there are many voices addressing the issues of conflict and peace, and many voices addressing our abuse of animals, The World Peace Diet is the first book to explicitly make the essential connections between these, and to expose the hidden core of our culture. Our mentality of violence is pretty plain to see, and I think that when people read the ideas in the book, they feel very touched because the way we treat our animals for food is hidden, and it may be the last taboo in our culture to actually bring it into public discourse. We instigate cruelty and conflict every day, three times a day when we sit down to a meal, and we don’t like to have it questioned.
REDWOOD: Who are some of the people that have raised this question in the past?
TUTTLE: I am not by any means the first person to arrive at this conclusion, and I am always glad, when I do research, to discover that people like Pythagoras, St. Francis, Da Vinci, Tolstoy, Einstein, Gandhi, and many others have basically come to the same conclusion. I think what’s unique in my approach is that it’s the first time it’s been systematically discussed and elaborated from many perspectives. The psychological, physiological, spiritual, historical, and even cross-cultural perspectives. Usually it’s been stated as a little aphorism. But I went into depth. I think that if we explore deeply into the millions and millions of seeds of violence that are sown daily by our food choices, that it’s extremely naïve to think that these seeds just disappear into thin air.
My idea is that we are what we practice, and so if we practice three times a day not showing mercy to animals, we become masters of the art of disconnecting from what we’re actually doing. The other things you’re talking about, greed and so forth, aren’t things that we routinely practice over and over again like we do with daily meals, where we have to disconnect from what we’re doing so regularly and profoundly. This is the reason it works itself so deeply into our consciousness.
I remember, for example, that when I was getting my Ph.D. at U.C. Berkeley, and my masters degree before that, that I read hundreds, probably thousands, of books and articles on our culture’s problems and dilemmas and all the ways we could address them. And in all that reading, never did I come across even one sentence that stated that the driving force behind the dilemmas we have—the wars, the addictions, the breakdown of the family, crime, the devastation of the environment—could be related to the mentality of our food choices, the mentality of exploiting beings and of seeing them as mere things. It’s such a taboo to discuss it! Our natural compassion is so ashamed of what we’re routinely doing to animals.
I think that it is this culturally-inherited mentality of seeing beings as mere commodities that is by far the strongest driving force in creating the problems we have today. We force ourselves to become unconscious of the suffering we inflict on animals for food, but this unconsciousness comes at a terrible price. As a culture, we are numbed and desensitized by our daily food choices and actions, and the harm we inflict on animals comes back to haunt us in countless ways. Whatever it is we most forcefully ignore, will turn around and control us the most. I think this is something we are forcefully ignoring continuously, and so it controls us. And whatever we do to the animals, we end up doing to ourselves.
Every time we shop for, prepare, and eat foods that are sourced from animals we directly instigate unnecessary violence towards animals that feel pain, just like we do. We know that they feel pain. The actions that we take when we do this come back to us as heart disease, cancer, drug addiction, suicide, war and terrorism, stress and confinement, and alienation. This mentality of seeing beings as commodities then insinuates itself into every aspect of our relationship with nature and with each other, and doing this over many generations, we have created systems that are now dominated by powerful corporations that basically see us the same way we see animals. And we have become, in a sense, directly confined and enslaved by our own actions. It really comes down to the unyielding truth that whatever we would want for ourselves, we must be willing to give to others. As we commodify others, we become commodified. As we reduce others, we are reduced. As we confine others and steal their purposes from them, we find ourselves confined and we lose track of our own purposes.
On the other hand, as we bless others we feel blessed, as we love others we feel loved, as we encourage others we are encouraged. As we give to others, we feel given to and supported. I think this is especially true of the beings we call animals. They are so vulnerable in our hands. So whatever we would have for ourselves, we must be willing to give to them.
REDWOOD: You may have already answered my next question, which is about how you would characterize your spiritual beliefs at this point. Is there anything you would add to what you just said?
TUTTLE: It’s such a big question. The basic idea is that spiritual life consists of two primary aspects, the inner and the outer. And in our culture, especially in most of the progressive spiritual movement, we tend to emphasize consciousness and to not emphasize conduct or behavior. We have a situation where we think that as we evolve spiritually, we will naturally and automatically act in more loving and harmonious and ethical ways. So I hear it quite often as I travel around and do lectures at progressive churches and centers, that when people’s consciousness becomes higher, they will naturally stop causing suffering to others, and they’ll naturally become vegetarian or vegan and so forth. But I believe that we will not raise our consciousness until we change our behavior because our behavior keeps our consciousness at a certain level. In order to spiritualize our consciousness, we must also spiritualize our conduct. And again, the basic conduct that we engage in three times a day that has devastating effects on other beings is eating. Where we can make the biggest progress in our spiritual life is by living the teachings, the ancient spiritual teachings of kindness and compassion toward those who are vulnerable, in our daily choices. To the degree that we don’t do that, to the degree that we don’t question our culture’s assumptions, and instead act in ways that are predatory towards other animals, we harden our hearts and make it difficult for ourselves to do anything but stay on a plateau spiritually.
REDWOOD: You are the healthiest looking man over the age of 50 that I have ever known. Is it the vegan diet? The meditation? Good genes?
TUTTLE: Well, I’m asked that quite often. People see me and think I’m in my 30s. I’ve never been that concerned about my health. I’ve been eating vegan since I was 22 or so, and mostly food that’s organically grown. I think that’s part of it. Maybe the meditation, two hours every day at least. Tai chi, yoga, exercise and lots of piano playing probably all contribute. I like to swim every day in lakes and streams and oceans. I love water. I also think that just having a positive mental attitude is an important thing. I love the Earth, I love my life. I love the opportunity that I have in this life to create and to express and to try to help others and help the animals.
Veganism is seen by many as a negative thing – like you can’t do this, you can’t buy that, you can’t eat this and so forth. It’s really just the opposite. It’s an incredibly joyful, empowering, positive way of living, because it’s based on seeing beings as beings and not wanting to harm them. It just brings joy to every cell in me to look out on the Earth and the birds and the fish and feel my kinship with all of them. I think the most essential teaching is the interconnectedness of all life. So I’m not concerned about my health so much as helping the health of others, and I can’t think of any better way to do that than through veganism, which is an attitude of kindness and respect toward all other living beings. The opposite of that view is a view that sees others as commodities that can be used. We don’t even have a word for that in our culture. But it’s our culture’s basic attitude, the idea, for example, that if we experiment on rabbits and cause them pain to develop a human drug, then we’ll be healthier. To me, we’ll never get healthier by taking away the health of other beings; it goes against all the universal principles. In order to be healthy, we have to promote the health of others. We’re all connected. So the more I can help others to be happy, to feel joy, to feel peace, to be blessed, the more I will feel healthy. But I don’t need to focus on my own health. I want to focus on helping others.
REDWOOD: You’ve been a traveling musician-composer for many years. Your performances on the piano were the way I first became aware of you. They bring forth a beautiful combination of strength and beauty. How do you see your music and its role in your life path?
TUTTLE: I think music has given me the incredible gift of deepening my consciousness to become aware of, and be sensitive to, the underlying rhythms and harmonies and melodies of the Earth and her creatures and of our culture and of myself. I love to be able to be a vehicle to express the beauty and the harmony and the uplifting music that I hear, really, surrounding this planet. It is a music of love and of joy and peace, because that’s our true nature. And so I can play music and, in a sense, the music contains all these ideas that I’ve been talking about. The idea that our purpose is to bless others and that the more we bless and care for others, the more we’ll be blessed and cared for. But I can say these things in the language of music and no one can argue with me about it. It just goes out as music and on some level people can hear it, not consciously with the intellect, but at a deeper level. The music has helped me not only to discover that but also to express it in ways that reach more deeply than words can ever reach, because music is a language of intuition and speaks straight to our hearts. When I traveled to Russia or to Ecuador or to other places where I couldn’t speak the language, I could just play the piano and we would all find the barriers between us melting and feel such a sense of deep love for each other, and so I think the music will always be a big part of my life.
Daniel Redwood, a writer for the past 25 years, practices chiropractic and acupuncture in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Dr. Redwood is the author of the textbook, Fundamentals of Chiropractic (Mosby, 2003), and is Associate Editor of The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. A collection of his writing is available at www.drredwood.com. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.
©2005 Daniel Redwood