Category Archives: buddhism

V for Vegetarian

“But what do you eat…?”
“…er…. food…?”

In much the same way that there are deaf people with a small d and the Deaf community with a big D, I am beginning to think that there is vegetarian cooking with a small v – which is all about  meat and the lack of it – and Vegetarian cooking with a big V which is about actual Vegetarianism.

It seems to me there are five types of meat-free cooking.

Aphra’s guide to vegetarian food

1 – Something that’s “almost but not quite entirely unlike meat” (with thanks to Douglas Adams)

Expensive factory-made vegetable protein that passes itself off as cheap factory-farmed meat. These are Seitan, Quorn meat-style pieces, Soya mince, and so on. I loathe these on principle but am ok with them in practice. Mr Behn is a vegan and quite likes them

These represent a style of cooking I was never fond of in the first place; I never did use cheap factory-farmed meat for a start (I used cheaper cuts of meat for sure, but went for good meat usually from independent butchers).

But there’s more to my dislike than that.  There’s an element of selling-out here: there is so much more to vegetarian cooking than pretending to be chunks of meat. For me, this is the vegetarian equivalent of the choice I made to become “one of the lads” when faced with sexism in the workplace. It’s like changing your accent to fit in. It’s accepting normative pressure to be or do something you are not, instead of celebrating something real and much richer.

2 – Even better than the real thing, baby (with apologies to U2)

Well -ish.

There’s a category of vegetarian food which copies meat dishes rather than chunks of meat, and some of these are surprisingly good.  Meat eaters (including me) are surprised by how good Linda McCartney’s vegetarian sausages are. They’re no match for artisan-crafted Cumberland sausages made out of Gloucester Old-Spot pork by an independent butcher, but they are better than most cheap sausages.  (Q: Why do butchers put bread in the sausages? A: Because they can’t make both ends meat. Boom-tish.) Likewise McSween’s Vegetarian Haggis and Simon Howie’s Vegetarian Haggis are as good as meat haggis without the apparent ikk factor. (Haggis is one of the few things I miss: I was never frightened by offal).

Not everything is as successful as these; I’ve had vegetarian haggis that’s been little more than mashed beans. But aiming for meat dishes rather than aiming for meat gives the manufacturers more room for maneuver.

3 – Tribute dishes

These are ones prepared in the style of meat dishes, but unashamedly substitute non-meat ingredients. Don’t look for steak or seitan in a mushroom and chestnut suet pudding. My tendency to use lentils instead of mince puts my lasagne and moussaka into this category.

This isn’t always successful: for years mushroom strogonoff was the default vegetarian option on most pub menus, (mushrooms are apparently “meaty”… no I don’t get it either).

This approach still betrays the thinking that goes “start with meat and work out from there”.

4 – If the meat is in teeny tiny pieces, is it necessary at all?

A lot of dishes, especially mess-in-a-bowl ones, really don’t need meat: risotto, jambalaya, many kinds of curry, chowders, and so on. I can get four meals for six  people out of one chicken (roast, pie, risotto, soup) I know damn fine you don’t need chicken to make a good risotto.

I’ll grant you bacon and ham; there’s no real substitute for teeny tiny bits of bacon and ham as in pea and ham soup, though I do sometimes fry sunflower seeds in soy sauce for small crunchy salty bits to sprinkle on things.

5 – Ta dah! – Vegetarian Food!

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you…. capital V- Vegetarian Food. Food that doesn’t give a toss about meat. Food where meat would be an intrusion. Food that didn’t start in someone’s mind with meat and work out from there. There is so much of it, and it’s so goddam delicious. And that’s what hurts.

There’s starter veggie food that everyone knows about but doesn’t think of as veggie because it’s comfort food: Mac and cheese, Fried egg sandwich, Beans on toast, Bubble and Squeak, Cheese on toast, Eggs Florentine, Baked Potatoes.

Then there’s a whole swathe of Indian, Greek, Moroccan and Lebanese cuisine: Chana Masala (chick-pea curry); Dolmades (rice or aubergine in vine leaves); Hummous (c’mon, you know what hummous is); Baba Ganoush (always sounds like the witch in a Russian fairy story, but it’s an outrageously delicious smoked aubergine dip); and a wide range of beans in every variety of savoury dressing both hot and cold.

The point about all these dishes is that they don’t need meat.  It’s not missing – it’s irrelevant.

I appreciate that meat substitutes have a place – some vegetarians miss meat and others like Mr Behn find they add variety to their diet. But I see no reason to imitate cheap meat badly when you can celebrate the amazing range of Vegetarian food really well.

How to plan a Vegetarian main course

The trick with Vegetarian food is mixing two or more kinds of protein; so rice and pulses (chick-pea curry with rice),  pulses and grain with dairy (lasagne). It’s a knack, it’s easy once you get the hang of it. And it stops you thinking “meat and then what…..?”

Some rants  – Blue Cheese, Goats’ Cheese and Tofu

While I have your attention, let me share the warm hatred I have in my heart for goats’ cheese. This is the mushroom strogonoff of our times and I’ve had enough to last my one and only lifetime.  Goats Cheese Tart,  Salad with Crumbled Goats Cheese, Grilled Goats Cheese on a Red Onion Marmalade are lazy lazy thinking by chefs who think “if it doesn’t have meat it must have cheese”. And I just plain don’t like the flavour of blue cheese in cooked food. Bored, bored, bored of these two.

What not to serve a vegetarian on Christmas Day

Goats cheese on roast veg, with roast veg – how to sadden the heart of a vegetarian on Christmas Day

Finally there’s tofu. Tofu is compressed soya beancurd and varies in texture from cheese-cake to cheese. It’s nothing like cheese in other ways, and saying “tofu is a substitute for meat” is like saying “ferries are a substitute for trains”. They do different things in different circumstances.

But saying you dislike tofu is meaningless. There’s almost nothing there for you to dislike. It’s an ingredient (like flour), by itself it tastes of nothing (like flour),  it gets its flavour from what it’s cooked with (like flour), it works well when it’s marinated (ok, this is where my analogy breaks down) or when it’s smoked. So don’t bung tofu into your recipe instead of meat and then complain about it. Treat it with respect and it’ll treat you.

I am sorry about those rants; I just had to get them off my chest.

About being a Vegetarian

I shouldn’t be irritated when people who eat meat ask what we eat in our largely vegan household. Mr Behn is vegan. Me, I don’t eat chunks of cheese, buy milk or cream, or eat eggs, but I’m a vegetarian not a vegan because I cannot face having to read every single label of every single product forever. Plus I don’t actually like Oreos.

I rather enjoy telling people “Mr Behn’s never eaten meat” because he was raised vegetarian by dippy hippies, but apparently his family weren’t completely vegetarian until he was a toddler. He did try to eat chicken as a training exercise for going to China. (Note the unpleasant use of the word “try”). So the truth is “he’s never consciously digested meat”, but it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

I don’t actually know when I became a vegetarian.

I was raised by women who were adults during the war (both wars, in the case of my grandmother) so I learned to treat meat with respect because you won’t get it at every meal. My grandmother’s macaroni cheese was a wonder to behold, involving soft-boiled eggs and a breadcrumb topping.

They raised me to be fussy carnivore, preferring good meat (free range, from independent butchers) though not necessarily expensive cuts (I can and did stew neck of lamb, casserole rabbits, stuff hearts and cook belly pork with butter beans and apples, as I said offal held no fears for me).

So easing back from meat three times a week, to once a week, to once a fortnight was easy.  I don’t know when I last ate meat.  I do know when I finally identified as ‘a vegetarian’ rather than ‘someone who eats vegetarian food’: it was when a cafe gave me bacon with my pancakes and maple syrup and I felt sick at the smell.

A series of small epiphanies



For a while I’ve been planning  a talk about what it’s like to be  what Skeptics call “a Woo” and about my journey from there to being one of the folks running Skeptics on the Fringe.

“Woo” is a term I dislike for a bunch of reasons, mainly because labelling people makes it too easy to stop thinking about them as people and stereotype them. No-one should do that to anyone, but we are Skeptics, dammit: we should think, especially when we are complaining that the defining group of this other group is that they don’t think.  Irony, much?

I had a couple of hours of driving to do tonight, appropriately enough  visiting Ash Pryce founder of Edinburgh Skeptics and then Keir Liddle founder of Skeptics on the Fringe.  I used the time to sketch out the structure of the talk and identify the key points I want to make.  It’s now sitting as bullet points on my laptop.

I hate bullet-points because PowerPoint doesn’t kill presentations, bulletpoints kill presentations. I prefer slides – if they are used at all – to be images rather than words.  The bullet-points will become my speakers notes. I could even use this as an opportunity to learn Prezi.

So I need to get some images together.  This glamour-girl from the 1920s in my grandmother.  Come to the talk when I eventually give it and you’ll see why she’s there. Somewhere I have a supercute pic of my dad with me slung under his arm when I was about two years old, and if I can find that I want it in the slides, failing that there’s one of him in what looks like a bishop’s mitre.  I think I still have my O’level certificate somewhere.  And I want to include some book covers, some podcast logos, stuff like that.  As it says here, the talk is about a series of small epiphanies.

It’s going to take a chunk of time to put together yet, but I hope it will explain why intelligent and rational people are still attracted to Alternative Medicine, reincarnation and similar things, that it will interest scientists and atheists lucky enough to have been raised that way, that it will reassure skeptical activists that skeptical outreach really is worth it, and explain why Phil Plait was right when he said Don’t be a Dick.

I’ll be keen to do this talk at Skeptics in the Pub and other appropriate events once I’ve finished the slides. Contact me via if you’d like to discuss dates.

Ho, ho, bloody ho

OK – I am going to whinge now.

It takes more than one day to prepare for Christmas, though not much more.

My Christmas preparations are modest compared with many people’s (an evening each for the pudding, the cards and the tree, and an afternoon for buying presents if you pick your emporium well, and an evening to wrap them). They are also expressly designed to keep me out of shops and to avoid giving money to Amazon.

However, if done, ’tis best done early. And this year circumstance, exhaustion, commitments and illness have prevented me doing the things I enjoy (decorate the tree, go to midnight mass, make a pudding for next year) and have made the ones done out of duty stressful and late.

If I can’t do things I enjoy with people I love, then my ideal Christmas really is a cheque given to Shelter or Streetwork, (and these days to my local Foodbank) and a retreat with the Buddhists so I can rest, think, and re-calibrate myself for the year ahead.

Merry Christmas. Next year om mani padme hum.

And yet, it moves

Milky WaySomething that I’ve been struggling with for a while is the idea that consciousness is just a physical function. Like farting, but different. This is the logical conclusion of the ideas in “Reincarnation, a critical examination” a book I read on anticant’s recommendation.  It’s a book I found to be cogent, coherent and all too probable.

For the sake of amicable discourse let us accept that I couldn’t find a logical flaw in the book’s argument that consciousness is a function of the brain and that there is no evidence for any part of us surviving after death. You are of course as entitled to your own views about the immortality of the soul as I am; I am not going to try to persuade you of anything one way or the other and I’d appreciate it if you’d show me the same courtesy in return.

DNAI’ve been struggling with the idea that I’m just a by-product of my own existence ever since I read the book, and today I could finally articulate it :

Consciousness – our sense of self – isn’t an entity in its own right, it’s an effect, a result, it is ends rather than means. In fact, it’s less than that: it’s a side-effect, a by-product. As the DNA store puts it: DNA is life, the rest is just translation.

It is lurchingly disorientating to realise that consciousness is  incidental. Dawkins of course is explicit that evolution is about survival on the level of individual patterns of genes not on the level of entire genomes, still less on the level of consciousness or any other abstract idea. I’ve been able to accept that we are Bede’s bird, flying though the firelit hall out of darkness and back into darkness, but I find it hard to hold on to the idea that the bird itself is, as I said, a side-effect.  I’ve been like a dog trying to catch its own tail for weeks.  I find it almost as hard to understand this idea (and not just the words it’s expressed with), as I’d find it to see the back of my own head without a mirror.

This is an idea as subversive, maybe even more subversive, than the heliocentric solar system, and it’s an idea of the same kind.

Oh well.

Brief candles

Focusing your mind on the eternal candle flame…I am feeling giddy at the moment.

I commented in a previous post that “The only school of “alternative” thought which I have not yet found to be intellectually undermined is the Buddhist approach to re-incarnation” and Anticant obligingly provided me with an antidote. I’ve been reading “Reincarnation: A Critical Examination” by Paul Edwards on and off since it arrived.

I’ve always thought a Hereafter was at least possible, and for a lot of my adult life I’ve considered it to be probable. There’s internal coherence to the Hindu and Buddhist world views, but they fall down when you test some of their underlying assumptions using nasty practical empirical science. (The one world-view that has never made any sense to me whatsoever is paradise, judgement day, heaven and hell). So during my adult life, my position on life after death veered from the conclusion that reincarnation made absolute sense to dragging it along like a comfort blankie while I got on with my real life. I think I even put Buddhist down on the 2001 census. I certainly wasn’t going to put Jedi.

Buddha with View by Sean DugganI like Buddhism. I like its practicality. The techniques it teaches, such as meditation, produce real quantifiable changes in the people who practice them. I like the idea of the soul taking several lifetimes to explore different things. I like the idea of karma, that every action has a consequence and that you cannot escape the consequences of your acts. (This is very different from the judgement / punishment view of Christianity, where there is an external deity keeping score. Karma as consequences is more mechanistic and simpler, like a law of nature rather than the whim of a petulant despot). I look around me and I can see karma working on a small scale, and I was comforted by the idea that it worked across lifetimes too. I like the idea that I chose my own parents, that I might get a second chance with lost loves, that I might yet be a mother, that I can catch up next time with what I don’t do this time. I’ll miss Buddhism, but oddly enough I am more interested in it now, not less.

Buddhism, or a Buddhisty theory of reincarnation, provided answers to the questions that I asked, and the aforementioned comfort blankie of course.

Edwards argues simply and fairly clearly that:

  1. there is no credible evidence for reincarnation and even the best cases evaporate into delusion, wishful thinking or fraud under close examination
  2. the mind requires the brain to exist, and consciousness does not survive the death of the brain

Comfort blankies - do not forget to boil them to keep them sterile, otherwise they can harbour germsEdwards also deals with things like Near Death Experiences, (feelings of warmth, love and total understanding, culturally specific spiritual figure at the end of a tunnel of light, etc); Astral Travel (which he debunks as bunk); remembered past lives, (which never produce information not available in this one), and so on.

Ultimately, of course, it comes down to a matter of belief, but religion is essentially a ritualised version of “here be dragons” and as science maps out more and more of the unknown, the remaining dragons are left balancing on smaller and smaller islands. Edwards argues that the dragon of reincarnation no longer has a foot to stand on. Being an Oriental Dragon, it has no wings and cannot fly. Or that’s my metaphor, and I’m sticking to it.

I am trying to absorb various truths. When I die, I’ll go out like a candle. There are no second chances, if I don’t do it this time then I won’t get to do it at all. The people who I know who’ve died have stopped. And the big one: life really is a bitch and then you really do die.

The Dalai Lama and Desmond TutuAs well as the truths, I now have all sorts of other questions swirling in my mind. How can morality have merit if it is merely a human artefact? What practical meaning remains to the word “spirituality”? What merit is left in Buddhism if you take out reincarnation? Does this mean the Dalai Lama isn’t cool any more?

Oddly there is one question I am pretty clear on which is why are there no pre-20th century cultures which are entirely irreligious?

It seems clear to me:

  1. that religions provided creation myths and an explanation for why stuff happened and
  2. that religious belief provides just enough of an advantage to individuals and societies in times of crisis for there to have been a very slight selective advantage in a strong religious faith.

Dawkins is such an evangelist for atheism that I rather like the idea of religion providing an evolutionary benefit. It seems highly likely to me that dogs have gods.

At the moment I veer between two contradictory feelings. Sometimes I am shocked by how dramatically the stakes have been raised: as the the saying goes, “there ain’t no justice, just us”. We cannot rely on any external checks and balances to iron out the world’s problems. If we don’t sort it out here and now, then it won’t be sorted out, and that’s not all right. And then I veer towards nihilism: in the long run we are all dead and nothing is remembered. How can justice matter if the victims can neither know nor care?

It is this spinning around which is making me giddy.

Edwards’ book, incidentally, is irritating in a number of ways. It is printed on very odd paper and the whole thing turns into two parallel tubes when you are reading it. It is appallingly badly proof-read, which is unforgivable in a second edition. He promises to discuss various subjects such as childhood prodigies and extremes of talent, but doesn’t, and he fails to discuss Out of Body experiences at all, refering the reader in toto to Susan Blackmore. It is however also fun, witty and sarcastic. I just wish it had been better edited. Or edited at all, really.

Lost for words

I’ve set myself the task of writing something here every day – or every weekday at least. The challenge of course – as with most things on the internet – is content. I have to find something interesting to say every day, and something interesting to other people. Because, of course, whatever I say must be interesting, challenging, witty, incisive and intelligent. And, ego and vanity aside, whatever I say should be worth other peoples’ time to read.

Some years ago I went on a Buddhist retreat over Christmas. I’d still recommend it as a good way to spend Christmas or New Year. I was one of the few people I knew that year who lost weight. On retreat we meditated and prepared food and walked and slept and listened to stories about the Buddha and cleaned the retreat centre and were generally simple and spiritual and vegan.

By far the most interesting part of it, for me, was the 36 hours we spent in silence. Eating in communal silence is simple enough. You tend to take more care of people: you check to see if they need the salt or the pepper and if you are stuck at the wrong end of the table from the egg-free salad dressing, you just touch your neighbour gently on her arm to attract her attention and point. Sharing chores becomes calm and companionable when you communicate softy with touch and with sign language. It’s all very pleasant.

The really interesting thing, however, is what happens when you don’t have to socialise; when you don’t have to babble about what you are doing, or ask friendly questions, or empathise with a tale of woe, or listen to someone else’s anecdotes. You don’t have to scrabble around to fill those social silences. The space that you are in becomes physically companianable, and mentally or emotionally stress-free.

Of course, the silence can have side-effects. All the stuff you’ve been drowning out, not saying, denying, suddenly has a space to come out in. You may break down in tears because you are not clamping down on whatever it is that wants to cry out.

But the most interesting thing is that words suddenly have value. You don’t squander them on social-oil and small-talk. The odd thing about those 36 hours of silence, was how much more gentle and honest the silent signals were, when the noise of words did not get in the way.

The mindfulness of cats

The cats fascinate me, particularly in the summer.

They step delicately out of doors and enter whole-heartedly – whole-bodiedly – into the outside world. You can see them react to every sound, savour every smell, watch for every movement and every change of light. They seem greedy for physical sensations. When they are outdoors it is as if they are swimming: every sense is fully immersed.

They are fully in the moment – practising the mindfulness of being outdoors. They sun themselves; they luxuriate as they twist and turn, rubbing their shoulders in the dust; they drink in the flavour of the breeze. They watch, and listen, and kill things.