Open Letter to VegNews publishers from Dr. Will Tuttle
August 30, 2010
To Joe Connelly, owner, VegNews, and
Colleen Holland, owner, VegNews
Cc: Elizabeth Castortia, senior editor, VegNews
Dear Joe and Colleen,
Madeleine and I appreciate your taking time with us Thursday afternoon to discuss the controversial article you have published, "Supreme Mystery," and it goes without saying that we applaud VegNews magazine’s work over the past ten years to raise consciousness about the multiple benefits of vegan living.
I'd like to start by addressing your statement that everything in the article has been fact-checked. First of all, fact-checking is not necessarily reliable; the sources of so-called facts are often incorrect for many reasons. Some of the greatest lies foisted on the public have been "fact-checked" by "experts" (like the U.S. invasion of Iraq because of the "certain"presence of weapons of mass destruction, or blaming Oswald for killing JFK, and I could easily go on and on about this). As another example we know a couple who were visiting a large state park on the shores of Lake Michigan, and went skinny dipping briefly on a completely abandoned stretch of beach, but were spotted through binoculars from a police boat far out on the lake, and arrested for "public nudity" even though there was no public within miles! The judge, realizing the absurdity of this, subsequently reduced their sentence to littering, even though they had spent the afternoon picking up litter that was in the vicinity of the beach!
If an investigator were to later read the police record, and reported the "facts" that they were exposing themselves publicly, or that they were litterers, he or she would in fact be spreading untruths.
As someone who’s taken advanced study of both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies for my Ph.D. at Berkeley, and taught college-level courses in epistemology (the branch of philosophy that studies truth and how we know what is actually true), I am acutely aware of the problems of ascertaining objective “truth.” This could be a long lecture which I won’t go into except to make a few points that are relevant to our Supreme Master Ching Hai case.
As an example, if, after running this Supreme Mystery article, you were to get, say, 50 negative letters, and only 5 positive letters, you could print the 5 positive letters and ignore the 50 negative letters, and you would very effectively communicate to your readership the impression that people generally liked the article. This would be deliberately deceptive and unethical in terms of honestly communicating with and respecting your readership and community. However in terms of fact checking, it would be easy to contact each of the 5 senders of the positive letters you received, and check the people, see that yes, they really do exist, and yes, they really did write the letters, and so forth. So from one level, everything “checks out,” and no one can argue that these 5 people did in fact do this. However the act of deliberately covering up the 50 negative letters is an act of deception and thus is himsa, or violence. Veganism is, at its core, a philosophy of ahimsa, or nonviolence. Violence is the root of our bondage and the misery we inflict on each other, and it begets further violence.
I maintain that your "Supreme Mystery" article is violent and deliberately abusive in its calculated and intentional ignoring of huge amounts of available evidence, and cherry-picking what you want to emphasize. Linking Supreme Master with bomb threats, child beatings, and executions is serious, and it is extremely irresponsible journalism. She has probably several hundred thousand people worldwide who could claim to be her students or followers. They are doing phenomenal work overall, and I don’t think anyone could seriously dispute that, especially anyone who is vegan or cares about hungry people and the Earth. However, it’s patently absurd to hold her responsible for every single person, and what they might say or do. To associate her and her movement with violence is ludicrous and is itself an act of violence.
For example, I have given three World Peace Diet facilitator trainings, and have now about 65 people who are certified to facilitate WPD study groups around the U.S., and they are doing some wonderful work, each in their own way spreading the message of veganism and compassion for all life in their communities. With only 65 people, there may be some who are doing or saying things I might find inappropriate - am I responsible for their behavior? Someone could come along and do some investigation and discover that they are my students, and write an article linking the World Peace Diet with their inappropriate behavior in order to tear down the vegan message I’m trying to spread. It would all check out, factually, but be deceptive journalism that is basically attacking veganism, probably with an agenda of some kind.
In your case, I really don’t know what is motivating your attack on SMCH, but my feeling is that it’s like the ancient wisdom teaching from India of the 5 blind men and the elephant – each blind man only touches one part of the elephant and they argue with each other, one claiming that the elephant is a rope, another a wall, another a hose, another a column, another a large thick leaf (tail, side, trunk, leg, ear). You have grabbed, for example, the tail and are claiming, quite sincerely, that this elephant is a rope. You can do your fact-checking as a good researcher and yes, it’s round, and 1.3” in diameter, and 1.9 feet long, etc., etc., and you can confidently proclaim that an elephant is a rope and you have proven it, and you’ve checked the evidence 3 times very carefully. You don’t intend to be violent; you have just grabbed the tail of the elephant and think that that’s all there is to it. The elephant is far greater than just the tail, and probably doesn’t mind if you think in your mind that she’s just this tail. She knows what she is. It’s your blindness that prevents you from seeing the elephant’s larger reality.
This is in no way a judgment of you or the blind people. We are all blinded by our cultural upbringing in countless ways – another lecture I won’t go into! Suffice it to say that our unique cultural blindness imprisons us in many delusions, and going vegan is just the very first tiny step in escaping the cultural indoctrination that imprisons us.
Going along with this is the important discovery in the fields of sociology and anthropology that no researcher can ever understand a group by being outside of it. This is an enormously important paradox to understand. The objective observer has been proven to be a myth at the most fundamental level in physics – to observe something is inherently to affect it; we are interconnected with the world we see (create via our perception which is influenced by our mentality and attitudes) – we are not separate from it. To the dismay of conventional materialists, the emerging paradigm recognizes what we all know in our bones – we cannot understand a social, religious, or ethnic group as an outsider. There is only one way to understand it, and that is to be in it! And being in it, we lose our objectivity (which we never really had!).
Just as someone who is not a Muslim will never understand Islam, and someone who is not a Jew cannot fully understand Judaism, and someone who is not black cannot understand fully what it is to be black, someone who is eating the standard American diet cannot fully understand what it is to be vegan. We understand this. To understand what being a vegan is, one must take the plunge. Someone can look from the outside and make all kinds of judgments and proclamations about it, but they will never understand it. The same is true obviously of the SMCH community. What it seems you have failed to do is to make an effort to get to know the SMCH people in an authentic way. One interview with a nervous student is hardly enough to go on. When I asked David Smugar about the interview he said that you asked him if he’s in a cult. This is insulting and will bring out the worst in anyone. These kinds of interview tactics are well-known in old-paradigm, abusive journalism. I’ve experienced them myself, actually, when a publication wants to make veganism look bad. It’s easy for the media to create a distorted image when they control the language and images they give to the public. This is a power that is easily abused.
For example, look at the image of Supreme Master Ching Hai that you use – it says it all – you could have easily used a photo of her that portrays her positively; she is actually an attractive woman, and people would connect with her as a person. It would be hard for them to believe the misconceptions you are foisting on them. So you doctor the photo and make her into an object, something non-human, something witch-like. Turning a being into a thing is the essence of violence, and it is the essence of what veganism protests against; it is what allows us to kill 75 million animals daily for food. You are doing this to her, it seems to me, and this is abuse of not only her and her community, but of your readers as well, and seems to me to be manipulative.
You normally use flattering photos of the people you write about, and this is what people have loved about VegNews magazine. This is what is so surprising to me. VegNews has grown and prospered and contributed to the growth of the vegan movement because you have expressed love and support. Love is an energy of expansion, and it is empowering and leads to cooperation and positive transformation. I believe this has been the secret of your success. With this article, you suddenly switch roles and attack, criticize, mock, demean, slander, and accuse --- not the meat, dairy, egg, leather, wool, pharmaceutical, or entertainment industries – but the person who has arguably been the proximate and sufficient cause of more people going vegan than anyone on the planet, and her team of tireless, self-sacrificing, kind-hearted workers. This violence is an energy of contraction; many people are contracting violently in the wake of this article. It creates a chilling effect on the whole movement. People feel betrayed. Who will be attacked next by VegNews? The macrobiotic cult? A certain raw food guru's impassioned followers? Some yoga teachers are now giving Satsang and only “self-proclaimed” gurus do that! Code Red! Watch out for the VegNews police! The subtext of your article is that you will attack other vegans for trivial reasons – no one is safe. This is extremely toxic. Inflicting public ridicule on someone is one of the worst things we can do to them. It is cruelty. This is the real “extremely questionable behavior” you ironically accuse her of. You are much more the ones in control of many others and abusing your power, in my opinion.
Your article reminds me of the somewhat common practice by corrupt media to publicly accuse a candidate for office who they oppose of a violent or perverse act, like they did with Ron Dellums (Democratic congressman from the East Bay) back in the 90s, insinuating that he had sex with his niece. The candidate cannot fight this, because saying, “I did not have sex with my niece” is in itself a degrading thing to have to say. It’s an effective tactic of public humiliation used to manipulate popular opinion.
I think you underestimate your readership. Vegans are not comfortable with these heavy-handed tactics. You seem to think it’s just an experiment that you’re conducting, and the people hurt by your experiment don’t matter – you want to see what kind of result you get – how many people write pro and con letters. This cavalier attitude toward the pain and cruelty of your actions for your experiment is also reminiscent of animal abusers. They do the same. I was troubled that you seem unconcerned about the pain you’re causing, like people saying that the animals they eat don’t suffer too much; it’s not so bad for them, really.
The first thing that Ken Williams said about the article is, “It’s because she’s Asian.” Whether your attack is racist or not in your own minds, it will definitely be perceived as such. I immediately thought it seemed racist. It’s also sexist, with Lai’s deprecating remarks about the absurdity of Supreme Master Ching Hai’s motherly advice, and the insulting gossip about her having a baby at a young age, among other things.
We went in to the Loving Hut in Westfield Centre Friday for lunch (which proclaims “vegan” to everyone coming through the food court), and the first thing the woman said to me was did I see the VegNews article. I said yes, and she said it was so surprising and said that everyone thinks it’s a disgusting article. She said they think VegNews has been paid off by the meat & dairy industries. I’m sure a lot of people will be thinking this, actually. She said that the SMCH people have been all telling each other to support VegNews, to buy and subscribe to the magazine and help VegNews to spread the vegan message. “Now what do we do?” she said. I think you should go in and talk with the Loving Hut people. Do they strike you as people who are mind-controlled vegan zombies? To imply that they are seems to me to be silly and insulting.
I believe you have made a major blunder with this article. I still can’t fathom how it happened; ironically, I think it’s probably the “group-think” that often takes place in organizational environments where people all go along with something they wouldn’t do on their own. (Ironically, what we accuse others of we are usually doing ourselves.)
As I write in The World Peace Diet, our culture, like the archetypal tragic figures of Greek mythology, suffers from two character flaws that will inevitably bring a downfall: hubris and obtuseness. These lead to violence and increased suffering, and with all due respect, I think we have to guard against them always. There is also an unconscious (or conscious) tendency to engage in control dramas that allow us to suck the energy and attention of others to increase our own energy, and it’s an addictive process. What SMCH seems to do is get energy directly from the Source, the universe, and her students do this also through inner discipline and mind training (which you ignorantly mock in the article), and that’s why she is able to be a remarkable fountain of creativity and allow resources and creative ideas to flow through her to bless many beings. It seems clear that people with untrained, self-centered minds vibrate at a lower energy level, and consciously or unconsciously try to steal energy from others. Newspapers and magazines often do it by reporting violence and creating controversies. It’s old-paradigm us-them, fear-based action. VegNews may be getting energy (like me taking the time to write this long letter) by acting violently, but it is sucking energy from others, rather than generating energy like it's done in the past. With this article, VegNews has switched from a life-culture to death-culture orientation, and it’s pretty obvious to see the consequences.
The ironies abound. You accuse SMCH of spreading fear because she’s concerned about the effects of animal agriculture on the climate and environment, but you use your platform to spread fear into the entire vegan community. The subtext is that people who are working hard and effectively to spread veganism should be feared (and shunned) because they are dishonest, greedy fear-mongers. Disdain, mockery, and accusation ooze from many sentences in the article, from the “quote” signs you put around everything to the choice of sarcastic words. How can this lead to anything positive?
A close reading of the article reveals that even if all the accusations against Supreme Master Ching Hai are factual, which is highly doubtful, there is really nothing of substance that she is being charged with. Beyond the article's mass of insults and innuendo, it's obvious that VegNews' implication that the SMCH community is a cult is exceedingly weak. Not even one person could be found who claimed to be manipulated, dominated, or deceived by this woman, and there are hundreds of thousands, even millions, who can easily be found who will thank her for her kindness, generosity, and testify to her loving help to them in their lives. She has never claimed to be better than anyone, but asserts continuously that we all equally have the spark of divine consciousness within us, and that our task is to purify our minds and actions to better extend the light of love to all living beings. Hardly sounds like a cult.
In my years in spiritual communities, I have seen countless cases of spiritual teachers abusing their power. They want to be supported by donations. They want people to serve them. They easily get arrogant. In my 20 years of watching the SMCH movement and getting to know the people in it and befriend them and see the miracles they are working because of their love, hard work, dedication, and mental discipline, I have found a new faith in humanity. Here is a teacher who supports herself financially through her creative, uplifting expressions of beauty (some of which have been positively received by Vogue and Guebelein, though you insultingly demean them to “seemingly random arts”), who is the only major spiritual teacher on the planet with the guts to call for and work for veganism, who will tolerate no corrupt inner circle of followers, who completely takes care of herself, and who never asks anyone for anything. I've thought to myself that only a woman could be such an effective spiritual teacher. Do you know any religious, spiritual, or charitable organization with such a high standard that they won't accept donations, and turn around and donate virtually all the funds they earn to feeding hungry and destitute people and animals, and spreading the vegan message of compassion?
We should honor this. She never claims that she is special or is God’s direct contact any more than anyone else is. Though she is called Supreme Master, this is only because she's attained what we can all attain. She unremittingly repeats that we all have the master power within us, that we are all able to contact the divine transpersonal dimension directly, and that we are all essentially equal. Saying that she is a “self-proclaimed ‘chosen one’” is just not true. Like the Buddha and many Zen masters who teach that we all have the Buddha-nature, she emphasizes our capacity to live authentic, meaningful lives. “Supreme Master” is just a literal translation of "Wu Shang Shih," what her early students called her, and doesn’t carry the negative connotation in Chinese that it does for some people in English (with our slave/master heritage, etc.).
It's important to remember that the SMCH community is probably about 95% Asian. There are SMCH communities on all six continents, but they are primarily formed by people from Vietnam, Formosa, China, Korea, and other Asian countries. These Eastern cultures have fundamentally different orientations from our Western culture, and looking at the SMCH community through the lens of Western preconceptions is bound to create misunderstandings. Two major differences spring immediately to mind.
One is that Eastern cultures are more group-oriented, and our Western culture is more individualist and self-oriented. The submergence of the individual ego in cooperative service to a community effort to benefit all is the ideal in the East, whereas in the West, the ideal is the elevation of the individual ego through its competition with other individuals to attain its personal ambitions. It's hard to understand this, actually--for me, the visceral shock of returning from Korea where I lived in a monastery as a Zen monk to this culture where everyone is essentially an isolated individual, rather than an integral part of a larger group, helped me to understand myself and my culture better. Seeing the SMCH community functioning so benevolently and harmoniously, we Westerners can't figure it out, and instinctively project our cultural neurosis, viewing them as reduced or controlled, when in fact they are experiencing a joyful cooperation that we may rarely experience.
The other major difference is that in the East there is an ancient, time-honored recognition that it's possible for humans to awaken spiritually and attain transcendent states of consciousness. This vivid, living tradition in the East of honoring these people who through their inner discipline and commitment have scaled the heights of human consciousness naturally brings a deep respect for their ability to guide, bless, and inspire others. In the West, we have unfortunately lost most of this tradition, and so we often tend to view a recognized teacher or master with distrust instead of respect, especially if she's a female and doesn't fit neatly into the boxes we have in our minds. While these observations are of course necessarily generalizations, they may help us to understand why we may so easily misjudge the SMCH community. There are other cultural differences as well that further exacerbate the situation, and all this requires us to practice ahimsa, the core value of veganism, which means abstaining from violence toward others not just in our actions and purchases, but in our words and thoughts as well.
In sum, through all these forces, VegNews has, it seems to me, been unfortunately duped into writing a misleading and insulting article that has knocked a hole in our vegan boat, and I think action is required to stop the leak and clean up the mess.
I urge you as the responsible parties to make amends to prevent the situation deteriorating further--to apologize publicly at the very least. I have found out that the SMCH community feels shocked and betrayed, not surprisingly, though they have remarkable inner discipline and are doing the wise thing, which is to return insult and accusation with love and understanding. You cannot really hurt them. They are vibrating at a higher level, so to speak. They may be disappointed and saddened, though, as many vegans are, because time is short and the stakes are high, and vegan momentum has been building. It is the animals, hungry people, the Earth, and future generations who bear the brunt of this momentum being lost by our movement's errors. As we harm others, we harm ourselves.
I applaud your devotion to the vegan cause, and respect you as my friends. I would leap to defend you if you were similarly unjustifiably maligned. I trust that you, as vegans, denounce violence toward animals and humans, and embrace kindness and understanding. I see you filled with love, peace, joy, and see all of us celebrating our lives in freedom, cooperating with each other and with the purpose we have for our life. We have a mission on this Earth to reduce violence and increase wisdom and the divine feminine respect for, and nourishing of, all of life’s expressions.
This wound can heal if you act decisively now.
Thanks for deeply considering all this, and so much more which is left unsaid.
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