Sangha Sister Lisa Burke’s Travels to Peru

Hello Dear Sangha Friends, 

I am writing to update you on my stay in Lima and to share some of that richness with you.

I have been in Lima, Peru for 14 weeks now.  I return to Vermont in a month.  Our household is strictly vegan.  I have been given an opportunity to learn how to eat a plant-only diet that provides all the nutrients necessary and have availed myself to the compelling correlations between eating plant-based and those of climate change, the suffering of animals and the global demand for meat, fish and dairy.  The Hamje’s who have lived here for 35 years, are part of an organization called Climate Healers who champion this lifestyle, knowing it is the way forward to restore planetary health.  I have learned that the negative impact of animal agriculture, turning forests into grazing areas, and wanton trolling of the oceans, easily surpass fossil fuels in terms of effects of climate change! These are the biggest threat to the planet right now, not fossil fuel extraction and use, as is widely touted. 

The animal agriculture industry has to all but cease in order for the planet to recover and for climate warming to reverse.  Unfortunately, the industry is protected by laws that make it illegal to expose the deplorable conditions inherent in so many facets of the business.  It is covert. The truth of this backdrop of suffering, disease and destruction is the force that will destroy our very existence.  We are in the midst of a mass extinction of terrible proportions.  I am not an early adopter of these ideas, by any means, so keep asking myself, “Where have I been?”  

Lima is a sprawling city of 10 Million.  It is an easy going culture with many aspects of the city infrastructure appearing conscious and sane to me.  People walk more slowly, touch more readily and are friendly and excited to meet people from “Estados Unidos” (United States).  Teenagers are well represented and integrated as opposed to young people who often are treated like “the other” in the U.S.  Here, teenagers appear purposeful as they pass by with the same conduct as everyone else.  I surmise that since most families are intact and upward mobility is less of a value here, there is a basis for a calm, secure demeanor in people of all ages.  Suicide, overdosing and gun violence are all but non-existent here.  I often think of how many of our young people in the U.S. are hurting themselves and hurting others.  BTW:  The unrest here that has been world news, has had almost no impact on life in the city.  The demonstrations were tolerated by the government and eventually quelled. I believe there is still some effort on the part of the demonstrators to keep the tourist industries disrupted in well-known areas like Cusco, where Machu Pichu is located.  

I’ve been to the outskirts of the city on many excursions with a group of young vegans.  They have organized their efforts, among several other projects, around educating women to cook vegan in their pre-existing Community Kitchens.  The concept of Community Kitchens is well established here as a traditional means of sharing the wealth, if you will.  They are partially government subsidized.  Woman actually display a license in these extremely basic kitchens.  The hardscrabble communities in the surrounding hills are a result of a mass migration out of the highlands where a communist gorilla group was terrorizing the people about 20 years ago.  The poverty is indescribable.  Yet, life has a normal feel.  It is a privilege to be included and graciously welcomed.  I am attaching a poem that I wrote about my experience in the Ollas Communes Veganes (Community Vegan Pots), and some photos.

Some of my excursions require me to be in a series of vans, buses and taxis for several hours.  Peruvians drive like maniacs!  However, the crazy, swift, and tight movements required to drive in city traffic is remarkably ordered.  Though no one uses air-conditioning in their vehicles and it is hot and congested, I have very rarely observed upset on the part of any driver.  I have not seen one accident since I have been here but have witnessed hundreds of vehicles come within inches of each other while vying for position in moving traffic.  There is aggression and skill but no road rage!  

One of the impressive social organizations here is the implementation of a gentle policing that takes place called Serenazgo.  The root word being serene.  This uniformed, unarmed force is visible throughout the city.  Their very purpose is to maintain serenity in the city.  They are primarily on foot.  In each district of the city the Serenazgos can be found sitting in small, white buildings that have expansive glass windows and are clearly marked with a phone number.  Otherwise they make themselves available and visible by walking around their area. These light-weight police are called if a barking dog is disturbing the peace, their presence is needed in a neighborhood park, or to deal with minor issues with vagrants and so on.  My host relayed a story of being visited by a pair of Serenazgo when their neighbor was unhappy about a tree that was dropping leaves over a shared wall.  A couple of Serenazgo showed up at their door to sit down with my hosts and make up a contract that was to be followed once agreed upon by both parties.  Their visit was reportedly pleasant and the execution of the contract skillfully done. 

I had the opportunity to see the Serenazgo in action one afternoon while sitting at a chocolate shop enjoying some cocoa with my hosts.  A beggar was approaching the tables at the shops.  When he approached our table, three Serenazgo calmly ambled over, with their arms folded behind their backs.  One was a woman.  Moving very slowly, they slipped between the man and our table, calmly asking him to move along with their backs to us and their front to the beggar.  He continued to verbally object, but they were unimpressed.  As a unit they helped him change direction toward the street.  They followed him as he repeated his attempt to beg at another outside establishment.  They calmly repeated their approach encouraging him move along.  The man then entered into a shop, where the Serenazgo did the same thing.  Eventually, with zero anger nor upset, the slightly unruly man was ushered toward the curb where he reluctantly crossed the street, presumably to start all over again in the domain of another district of Serenazgo.

It was brilliant!  I could only wish that we in the United States possess the cultural trust in authorities to do no harm, enough so that such a system were possible!

In contrast to my outings to the Community Kitchens, I am living in a gorgeous, 10 bedroom casa in the city of Magdalena which is a district of Lima.  Long story there, but the house was purchased for 35K USD about 35 years ago!  My housemates are the couple who own the house (Wisdomhaus) and right now a young woman who helps with cooking from NJ.  Several people from the U.S. have come and gone since I’ve been here-all with similar objectives as my own.  Which is to understand more deeply this model of community living and to embody the ethic of a vegan lifestyle.   A couple from the Netherlands will be here soon and a man from the Philippines is coming to have dental work done, as there is a fully equipped dental office in the house!  

On a final note, the work of Donella Meadows, whom some of you may have known, is folded into the Climate Healers literature.  My return seems synchronistic, knowing that such a great mind and contributor to the urgent message about the warming of the planet was the neighbor of Brahm and Bineke in Hartland!  I ask myself, “Where have I been?” as I delve into the books and documentaries and discussions on the subject.  And where have I been that I failed to integrate Thay’s teachings on the need to be vegan as a response to climate change?  Where was I when he so clearly stated this in his letter to his community in the year 2007?

Livestock grazing now consumes somewhere in the range of 70% of crop lands, while 80% of the total sales of pharmaceuticals are to abate disease in animal agriculture.  The over use of antibiotics is jeopardizing the life saving capacity of this type of medicine.  I remember this warning when my children were young.  That was 40 years ago!  I had no idea that animal agriculture and fisheries are dependent on this proportion of antibiotics to mitigate the inherently unhealthy practices in the industry.   

I am eager to engage with you all around the question of how we should live in the face of the dire consequences of our current, world-killing paradigm. My entry point into veganism was my concern for the natural environment.  For some, veganism is found for health related reasons.  Most of the young vegans I have met in Peru are vegan out of their love and empathy for animals.  By watching some excellent documentaries and being privy to the discussions and motivations of the young vegans here, I have had bit of an epiphany.  It is the reality of a disturbing backdrop to every day life that has put my convictions into a new perspective.  I do not want to live in a world that tolerates the secret mass killings of animals every hour of every day.  It is no different than having a concentration camp behind a tall hedge in the neighborhood!  Somehow, in me, the heart space for the enormous collective suffering inflicted through animal agriculture on land and at sea, has been opened.  It is a relief to declare this.  It is a more honest way of being and gives voice to a fundamental sense of right and wrong that energizes me and gives me hope.  Going vegan is a joyful movement of joyful people!

I believe that human’s ability to disconnect from reality is a by-product of the way we must kill to eat.  As a philosopher friend of mine put it, “Civilization began when humans started practicing “Totalitarian Agriculture”, which was the practice of killing anything that competes with one’s crops…insect, plant, animal, or even human.  It seems to me that we have been living in a totalitarian culture, competing with and killing anything and anyone that gets in the way of our national, and largely economic interests.”  J Lorenzen.  It is a complex subject.  But, I have decided that I don’t want to live in a world that secretly carries out a holocaust on non-human animals when it is not necessary for our survival.  One of the questions that has been asked here is, “Would you deliberately hurt an innocent animal?”  I don’t know anyone who would answer yes to this question.  Yet we participate in just that when we eat animals raised for slaughter or use nets the size of football fields to dredge the oceans killing whole ecosystems.  The oceans are in the process of dying themselves.  And we need them to breathe.   

How did we convince ourselves that our emotions and capacity for suffering is somehow more real or impactful to ourselves than for other animals?  Are we, in fact, eating the equivalent of our beloved pets when we eat animals?  If so, how can we reconcile this type of hypocrisy within ourselves?  Wild animals, farm animals and creatures from the sea feel pain, joy, equanimity and sadness.  If we fail to have sensitivity to this, what is it that will finally wake us up? We are the holders of the power.  We can make real choices that lead to justice, repair and to joy in the world.

I know that the greater Upper Valley community is home to thousands of people who consider themselves as responsible and informed citizens.  I look forward to figuring out ways to speak about the possibility that we can abandon the destructive killing machine of animal agriculture and over fishing and live in the confidence that is to be found in having made that decision.  I believe that we are capable of creating something greater in its positivity than the world has ever known before.  The fog of consumerism that we have all participated in is being lifted person by person.  We must reject what is being sold to us when cruelty, ignorance and greed are the driving force behind any given product. I am looking for the strength to look the truth of what is happening to our environment, square in the face.  We need to support each other as we engage in creating a society that is capable of making critical correlations, then abiding them by changing our habits.  My intention is for my daily life to reflect the discovery of these correlations as best as I can.

I have joined a group called 1 Million Vegan Grandmothers.  Its mission is to harness the loving energy of grandmothers, grandfathers and others to shepherd our animal, plant and mineral family to safety using our earned wisdom, and in preparation for our departures from this physical world.  

Should you be interested, I have included links related to these subjects below.  There are links to documentaries on the Climate Healers site.  Climate Healers, A Million Vegan Grandmothers, and T. Colin Campbell’s (author of The China Study) site is are below.

I know that one of my challenges is to stay heartened and inspired as I find my voice in a new developing epoch.  I don’t want to preach, yet feel so young in my passion and desire for change that I may be doing just that!  May I find my way with that challenge!  Understanding we can no longer afford to believe that we are separate from nature, many things come into focus.  As scary as theses times are, I am clear that the changes that are coming bring potential for a world of new communities with values more aligned with my own.  May we learn to share, to consume less, and to listen more so that we can attune ourselves to what the planet herself is telling us she needs.  I hold that vision for myself and for future generations as I know you all do as well. 

 I very much look forward to my return and to being with you again.



Before I Celebrate

If I were to back up 

from the sight of the young woman

bending over a heap of torn bags 

from where she picked through garbage 

I might have thought I’d found 

the deepest poverty of my lifetime.  

But I can no longer find it.  

Her willingness to focus

on the details before her 

is not unlike my own as I travel 

with anticipation to the hardscrabble 

hillsides outside of Lima.  

It does not come with the hungry stray cat 

that meows at my knees as I eat. 

It does not come with the blind boy 

whose sister feeds him by the open door 

nor when neighbors bring their dented pots 

and plastic containers to be filled 

with a meal without shame.

It does not come as the children skillfully 

break the fall of the football with their forearms. 

It does not come when the older child calmly

escorts the toddler away from where she stands 

in the middle of the goal.  It does not come 

with the sight of the one who watches

among the tattered trash.

In the open air are those who know 

these children well.  A chicken pecks, 

slime clings to a puddle, the haze 

never lifts.  Millions live in the scant shadows 

of their sheen-bereft shacks.  A sea 

of sepia scales dropped from the backs 

of dragon shaped mountains, rooftops 

overlap one atop the other 

as far as the faint horizon 

where further mountains 

contain the same.

The dusty corrugated roofs,

the rocky roads, the dull stone stairs 

do not strive.  The people 

climb up the roads, move slowly 

down the steep steps from their homes, 

where collarless dogs are free 

from interventions of social order,

there seems to be no eagerness, 

no new ideas, no engineering, 

no trajectory.  

I cannot compete 

with the untroubled acknowledgement 

from the women cooking

in their Community Kitchens, 

when I do not speak their language. 

The warmth of their smiles, 

the fully blossomed humor, 

curiosity unimpeded by what has arrived 

on their doorsteps, a nimble presence 

is offered as I accept in helping

to chop onions, slice potatoes 

or to stir a giant pot.  

Though I stand alone 

as I might stand anywhere

I am here, as ordinary conversations

place me on this particular piece 

of dusty ground, a chance meeting 

commences. My new companion, 

the insight there is nowhere else to go.

A Million Vegan Grandmothers

Climate Healers website.