Interviews with Vegan Veterans is an ongoing interview series where I get to pick the brains of long-time vegans and give the world access to the knowledge, wisdom and understanding that they have spent decades accumulating.
Sitting calmly in the crossroads of veganism and Buddhism is a long-time vegan and animal-rights activist with an outlook we could all afford to learn something from.
In this concise but powerful interview Albert shares with us his thoughts on meat-eating Buddhists, the details of the science-based vegan diet fuelling both himself and his dog, his wide array of different styles of activism and other nuggets wisdom that only a dedicated long-time vegan could share.
Albert making friends at a Madagascan lemur sanctuary in 2012.
Let’s start with the basics. Who are you?
Albert Mah, I was born in 1950 in Malaysia. In 1982 I visited Perth for a holiday and liked the climate and the slower pace of life compared to bigger cities. Fortunately, I found a job as a petroleum geologist and decided to migrate immediately and have been living here since. I've been vegan since late 2008, prior to that was vegetarian from 2002.
When you got started, did you think you’d be vegan for this long?
Yes, when I turned vegan I decided it was for life.
My switch over to vegetarian was immediate and so too was my subsequent switch to vegan. I did my homework before switching by reading nutrition information from plant-based and vegan physicians and dieticians which is readily available nowadays on the internet.
Why do you think you stayed vegan for this long while others didn’t?
Commitment to the animal cause and a lifestyle that maintains good physical and mental health. I exercise by taking my dog for walks twice a day, practice mindfulness meditation, get good uninterrupted sleep and have a supportive circle of friends and neighbours. I also cycle and am active outdoors. I pace myself in what I do so that I don't burn out.
What do you feed your dog? Is he vegan too?
I adopted a greyhound rescued from the racing industry four years ago. He is seven now and he eats VeganPet and V-Dog food, both of which are vegan. He also eats home-cooked vegetables and selected fruits such as bananas, apples and pears (seeds removed). His health is excellent.
Both Albert and his rescued dog Larry easily keep healthy and fit while living vegan.
A lot of ex-vegans online say that they got really sick on "a vegan diet". What are your thoughts on this?
A sudden change of diet can make the body react adversely with withdrawal symptoms just like a drug addict going cold turkey feels like dying. Change should be phased in over days and weeks. I have never got sick from my whole food plant-based diet without added oil, salt and sugar.
Can you tell us a little more about how you eat?
I prefer to prepare my meals so that I know what goes into them and mostly eat at home. I cook mostly whole foods such as brown rice and fresh vegetables.
I like a warm lunch and dinner. I eat fruits raw only and don't like cooked fruits. I'm not into juicing or blending. I avoid desserts, cakes, chocolates, biscuits, potato chips and lollies as main meals should suffice. Sometimes I snack on nuts. No gluten intolerance.
I'm starch-based and don't use any oil, salt or sugar in my cooking. That also means I don't fry my food and avoid junk food. Eat clean and live clean.
Albert and vegan-friends in 2019 after successfully completing a triathlon and placing third in their category.
What do you usually eat in a day?
I have 2 main meals consisting of brown rice or wheat noodles plus green leafy vegetables cooked with tofu, carrots, tomatoes. Sometimes I steam broccoli in addition.
During the day I'll snack on fruits in season which can be apples, pears, oranges, mandarins, grapes, stone fruits, mangoes, persimmons etc. I eat breakfast only if I'm hungry which is wholegrain bread with peanut butter or cereal with plant milk. I might eat some nuts as a snack.
I drink plain green tea throughout the day. I don't drink soft drinks, alcohol or smoke. I have been eating like this regularly for years.
The only vitamin supplement I take is B12, one 1000 mcg tablet twice a week. I add ground flax seed and nutritional yeast to my food daily.
The first ever Asian Buddhist Animal Rights Conference in 2016, held in South Korea. From left to right: Albert Mah, Dr Chamith Nanayakkara, Venerable Hai Tao, Andy Garcia, Cassidy Kim and Ananda Mahakinda. Everyone pictured excluding Venerable Hai Tao were involved in organising the event.
You are Buddhist, right?
Yes, since 2000. At first I learned and practiced the Theravada teachings and then after about 6 years I learned and practiced the Tibetan teachings. Having practiced both, I decided to take the best of both and be non-denominational and just practice and call myself a Buddhist.
The core teachings of the Buddha are all the same among the different schools of Buddhism. All the major religions spread out through different geographical areas inhabited by people of different cultures and it's inevitable that variations will develop. So rather than looking for differences we should look at the similarities, which outnumber the differences. What is more important is whether we are practicing selfishly to benefit just ourselves or practice selflessly to benefit all beings including ourselves.
The idea of keeping only the best makes most sense to me also, what were the best teachings that you got out of them?
Buddhism emphasises kindness, compassion, altruism and universal love for all living beings. It also asks us not to kill, harm or cause suffering, to respect all life and not to take what does not belong to us. We have to understand that killing is the stealing of life. If we practice Buddhism with sincerity and develop all these virtues then they logically lead us to live a vegan lifestyle.
Why you think some people who claim to follow the teaching of Buddha still support the abuse of animals?
Buddha's teachings are clear but humans are imperfect. Our attachments to habits, customs, traditions and sensory pleasure easily cloud and obscure our thinking and judgments.
Albert Mah and James Aspey - two vegan activists both avidly into Buddhist meditation, pictured here at a Cube of Truth event in Sydney, 2018.
I understand you are pretty active in the vegan community and the Buddhist community here in Perth?
In the vegan community, I'm committed to vegan outreach such as regular participation in the Anonymous for the Voiceless Cube of Truth events and university open days. I also attend public protests, direct actions and slaughterhouse vigils. I support animal sanctuaries, animal charities and am a member of the Animal Justice Party. I give meditation and mindfulness sessions at The Peace Tree to mainly vegans, but is open to all. Here we learn how to deal with negative emotions and stress.
In the Buddhist community, I'm the Perth chapter leader of Dharma Voices for Animals, an international organisation of Buddhists working for animal rights. I'm also on the advisory board of Dharma Voices for Animals and a Sunday school teacher of Buddhism with the Buddhist Society of Western Australia.
You certainly are very active, Albert! What has had a greater positive impact on your life, veganism or Buddhism?
Probably both in roughly equal measure. I was a Buddhist first before turning vegetarian and then subsequently vegan. The Buddhist teachings on compassion and universal love were the catalysts for change.
Would that make Buddhism the most influential thing that turned you onto veganism?
Clearly there are practicing buddhists who are also still practicing carnism. What do you think was different in yourself that allowed you to make this connection that others seem to lack?
Buddhism encourages critical investigation with an open mind to identify those truths that lead to the benefit and happiness of all living beings. So by allowing the mind to be fully open and amenable to change and to consider all issues from as many viewpoints and angles as possible, plus with kindness and compassion, one can easily make the connection with living a vegan Buddhist way of life.
Have your views on Buddhism changed since you started practicing veganism? Or vice-versa?
My views on veganism haven't changed and neither have my views on Buddhism. If compassion and universal love are practiced sincerely they lead the practitioner to live a vegan lifestyle.
Albert giving a tired pig some much needed love at Greener Pastures Sanctuary, near Waroona, WA.
Whats the biggest challenge you’ve ever faced in regards to being vegan?
Being accepted. We are not understood. Currently we are a small minority and face the weight and power of the non-vegan majority in our daily lives. We have to live with the oppression, discrimination and contempt.
Have you ever been bullied or made fun of because you're vegan?
Not in front of me, but probably behind my back, and that would be from work colleagues and friends. It's not within my control, so I let it go.
Beautiful. I imagine that attitude would help a lot with activism too, and mentioned you do a few different types, do you have a favourite?
My favourite is the Cube of Truth by Anonymous for the Voiceless. At Cubes we get to meet people face to face, engage with them, hear the emotion of words, see facial expressions and body language. This kind of engagement enables us to see the effectiveness of our outreach and we know immediately whether we are effective with that particular person or persons. Emails, phone messages and social media cannot show us facial and body expressions nor the nuances and emotions of speech.
Please tell us how, it at all, doing activism has affected you as a person.
Doing more activism makes me more motivated and determined to continue with this mission.
Would you classify yourself as a "militant vegan"?
Not militant - but assertive, yes. I believe in non-violent direct action and in no way can that be regarded as militant.
Do you have any non-vegan friends? Do you think being vegan has ever affected any of your relationships?
Yes, I have non-vegan friends. Quite a few have distanced themselves from me but if that's the price to pay, I'm very comfortable with that.
Albert participating in the Bassendean to Busselton Ride, 2017 - a 3 day bike ride to raise funds for CanTeen, which supports young people living with cancer (and are not involved with cancer research).
If you could say one thing to yourself when you first went vegan, what would it be?
Welcome to the bright side of humanity. There's no turning back.
Do you have any other advice for newer vegans, anyone doubting that veganism is right for them or anyone thinking about going vegan?
Your conscience is your moral compass and tells you what's right or wrong.
Do you have any advice for vegans wanting to get into activism, or any vegan doubting that activism is right for them?
Do it for the welfare and happiness of all living beings. You have the power to change lives in a world burning with injustice, cruelty and disrespect for life.
Anything you want to say to Buddhists who still consume animal products?
Follow the spirit of the core teachings on universal love and compassion for all living beings. Let them be your guide in what you eat, drink and do.
Albert's dog Larry having a snack - I guess even vegan dogs still crave things they are not allowed.