Tell us briefly how a man born with a “normal” name came to go through life with the name “Light”.
I was given the name Burton; a name which originally meant Bright Raven or Fortified Homestead. In my time, however, it had no meaning and was just a two syllable sound. I thought, “what if I could take a name that had meaning and purpose in my life; a name that would inspire me?” I chose Light to inspire me to bring brightness and clarity into my own life and into the lives of those around me. We hear our names more than any other word and I thought that a name should once again have meaning to us. And moreover, a meaning that can elevate our lives and the lives of others just by hearing it.
So that we’re on the same page, how do you define ‘veganism’ or ‘vegan living’?
Obviously, veganism is living a life that does not rely on the use of animal products and byproducts. It also means not supporting practices that involve the exploitation of other animals, as in entertainment and experimentation, and any breeding or selling of other animals. It means living a life of ahimsa or harmlessness; extending the golden rule to other animals as well as humans.
What inspired you to be a vegan pioneer at a time, pre-internet, when information was not available?
My wife and I had promised to each other that we would seek the truth in life and that, when discovering those truths, we would live them. With that idea in mind, we went to see a movie in which was depicted some of the insanity and injustice in the world. One scene in this film showed four men wearing waist-high wading boots, swinging sledgehammers at the head of a bull who was screaming in pain.
Those four men were hitting this bull as hard as they could. It took many blows before the poor bull dropped to the ground and died. They then butchered him and ate him. When my wife and I left the theater, we knew then and there that we had encountered the truth of the cruelty it takes for the making of meat, whether by sledgehammer or stun gun. Murder is murder.
What has propelled you to endure as an unwavering vegan for 50 years?
Simply stated: the horrific plight of the animals; not only so-called “food animals” but every animal in the world. I couldn’t, and will never, turn away from that truth.
What has preserved you for 50 years; lifestyle, environment, mindset…?
My wife and I formed a family with those friends of ours who became vegan when we explained the principles behind the choice. We left the city and became countryfolk, living with nature, away from a man-made, hectic, stressful existence. We always aspire to follow our conscience and to take the right, honest, truthful path.
When we began, the diet was thought to be lacking in protein and that it would lead to weakness and death. Today, of course, the truth of its health benefits is becoming more widely known.
The vegan food choices today are unlimited and delicious, but in our early years, the variety of food was sparse indeed. It was difficult to find a vegan loaf of bread, or a substitute milk. There weren’t any available in groceries, and there were no health food stores. We eventually experimented with nut milks made in a blender. We settled on sunflower milk, reasoning that sunnies had been grown on a plant that turns to face the sun the entire day, and therefore should be healthy. Spending time in the sun has always been an important part of our lives.
Have you taken supplements? If so, which supplements?
Vitamin B12. Vitamin D I get from the sun. All other nutrients I derive from my food.
What do you have to say to all those people who, 50 years ago, said that you wouldn’t survive eating as a vegan?
I can’t say anything because most (if not all) of them have not survived.
What words of wisdom do you have for newbie vegans?
You have made a choice that will remain one of the best choices of your entire life. That choice has made you one of the forerunners of the human race. You can take rightful pride in your decision.
What would you say to “ex-vegans”?
It’s impossible to be an “ex-vegan” unless one was never really vegan to begin with. One can choose to eat a vegan diet for many reasons, but one becomes truly vegan for the most basic ethical reasons — that is, the opposition toward, and refusal to be a part of, the cruelty imposed on all animals. Since that cruelty and injustice continues, becoming an “ex-vegan” would require the betrayal of our fellow animals and one’s own ethical stand.
Tell us about some specific relationships you’ve had with other species, and how they shaped your thinking/living.
Before being vegan, I had the opportunity to just sit near a bull for an hour or so. While looking into this animal’s eyes, I saw tears running down his cheeks. I asked myself, “why is he crying?” The answer was immediate: This species was suffering through a Holocaust of incalculable proportions. I believe it was this incident they gave me my first thoughts of compassion toward these animals that eventually led to my becoming a vegetarian.
Another encounter with an animal’s plight came when I was at a large feed store and I heard a scream coming from the back outside. The screams sounded like those of a woman being violently attacked. I raced around the large building to see if I could help and discovered a pig being hoisted up by the leg to be weighed on a hanging scale. If one has ever heard the screams of a pig, one could easily understand why I thought they were the screams of a woman. The fact that this pig was only being weighed made me consider what a pig slaughterhouse might sound like.
My relationships with other animals are too many to mention, from lifting turtles across the road, to saving a deer from an eight-lane highway, to rescuing caged birds, rabbits and other imprisoned creatures.
My relationships with dogs—I’ve had scores in my life from childhood to the present—would take reams of paper to describe. I believe that if there are angels on this planet, with unlimited loyalty and love, those angels would be dogs.
For as long as I’ve been vegan, every dog I’ve cared for has also been vegan and they’ve done very well eating that way.
Our very first vegan dog, whom we adopted in the early seventies, we actually named Vegan, both for the fact that she was, and in order to help that word to become familiar.
Take a stroll down memory lane, to events you attended or were part of, that were part of the greater animal rights movement. Can you shine a light on a few of these outstanding events in the movement?
I recall the first animal rights gathering we attended on a university campus. We were 30 young, strong vegans at the time. We were described as “the cavalry” by the other participants, who included Ingrid Newkirk, Alex Pacheco, Alex Hershaft, Chas Chiodo, and other yet-to-be well-known activists. Many at the event were vegetarian rather than vegan, and some were even giving speeches about nonviolence along themes such as saving the whales while serving tuna salad on the buffet table, and speaking of Ahimsa while wearing leather shoes. We put those inconsistencies to the test of reality and many went from vegetarian to vegan from that event.
One of the great thrilling moments of my life came in 1990, when Sun and I attended the first March for the Animals in Washington. Standing on the upper steps of the Capitol Building and looking down Pennsylvania Avenue to see throngs of people, for as far as the eye could see, remains to this day one of the memorable scenes of my life.
Our two vegan celebrity banquets are also highlights I shall never forget. With the help of my nephew River Phoenix and Top 40 radio star Casey Kasem (both of whom were vegan) Gentle World produced two celebrity banquets, where we served 21 main dishes of 21 ethnic origins. Our theme was “to inspire those who are an inspiration to others” by showing the influencers of the day how delicious vegan food could be. We hosted such celebrities as Sidney Poitier, Sheena Easton, Danny Glover, Drew Barrymore, Alan Thicke, Earl Holliman, and many others. This wasn’t a fundraiser. Everything was free of charge, from the food to the valet parking (we knew we needed to go first class.) We had so much food that after the event we filled the freezers of the likes of Steven Spielberg. These events (held in two successive years) hopefully influenced a change of heart and mind for those who attended and partook of the delicious food.
Those banquets remain among the proudest moments in Gentle World history, along with the publication of our books, and the launching of our vegan restaurant in Maui, Hawaii. We named the restaurant ‘The Vegan’, for the purpose of making that word and concept familiar to people. Over the entrance, we proudly hung the shingle ‘one million saved’.
You must be proud of your nephew, actor and activist Joaquin Phoenix – any thoughts on the subject?
I am indeed proud of my sister-in-law Heart’s son Joaquin, both for his incomparable acting ability and also his courageous stand on animal rights issues. I believe that his compassionate views and stand for the animals will have a greater long-lasting effect on this planet than the Oscar he so deservedly won.
Make some comparisons between what it was like being vegan 50 years ago and being a vegan now, in 2020. Has “The Vegan Movement” come a long way baby – or – going slower than you would have imagined?
The vegan movement has both come a long way and is going slower than I imagined. 50 years ago, in 1970, I optimistically believed it would take the United States ten years to veganize. After all, the reality of the situation and the clear choice to change it were, and still are, obvious. I didn’t consider people’s unwillingness to look at the obvious.
On the bright side, we have come a long way. The word vegan and vegan people have come from total obscurity to worldwide awareness. Watching the thousands of people on this planet marching for, and demanding, rights for other animals and seeing vegan food choices and vegan products in general becoming ubiquitous creates in me more optimism for the future of humankind than anything else I find happening in the past 50 years.
Being one who respects animals, how do you deal with living among the general population who fund the violent assault of other species and are fine with assaulting and killing animals?
I see hope in the changes that have come to be so far and can realistically envision a country and a world free from the abuse and assault and killing of our fellow animals. Of course, I wish it to be sooner than later.
In conclusion, share with us a precept, a maxim, (a general truth, fundamental principle) in the form of a quote.
“There is no force powerful enough to stem the tide of an idea whose time has come. We can no longer, in good conscience or in good health, continue to exploit animals for food, clothing, entertainment, experimentation or for any other reason. The vegan concept is not a fad that will pass with time. It is a necessary shift in thinking, that will lead to a heightened empathy and concern for others. It is the expansion of compassion, which is the single most important step in the next evolution of humankind. A compassionate human nature is essential if we are to evolve; and we must evolve, if we are to survive.”
Finally, a statement to the world, on your 50th veganniversary:
As long as you falsely believe that your lives depend upon the enslavement, torture, and killing of other sentient beings, so shall you treat your own human sentient beings.
The peace all people claim to desire requires the understanding that peace must begin within each individual self. The golden rule: do onto others as you would have them do onto you—a basic tenet of all religion—must be recognized to include not only human animals, but other animals as well.
As we observe the Golden Anniversary of Light and Sun’s shared pledge to observe the Golden Rule, we invite our readers to reflect with us on these five decades of trailblazing accomplishments: from the publication of Gentle World’s pioneering recipe book way back in 1981, to the tremendous success of The Vegan Restaurant on Maui Hawaii, to the development of the two vegan educational centers to which we still welcome visitors today.
To celebrate this tremendous milestone, we reached into our archives to share with our readers this interview, captured ten years ago at our New Zealand location, when the Gentle World team was celebrating Light and Sun’s 40th veganniversary!
In this 25-minute segment, Light and Sun share the story of their own vegan awakening as a newly-married couple in Upstate New York, as well as reflecting on how becoming vegan affected their lives and their perceptions of the world around them, while also giving an inside look into how Gentle World came to be.
Note: We wish that the video and audio quality were better. However, the message is, as one would expect, inspirational. We offer our appreciation to those who helped us to capture this material and finally make it available to the world. Special thanks to Joe Avery, Sarah Hilliard, and Aaron Lanuza.