Saturday, January 23, 2010

Is there meat in that bowl?

One of the first questions I am frequently asked when I identify myself as Buddhist is, “You’re a vegetarian then too, right?” And I reply, “No, I’m not.” This sometimes elicits the question, “But aren’t Buddhists supposed to be vegetarian?” And I reply, “No, we’re not. Many are, but it’s not a requirement of the faith.”

Whoop! Whoop! Danger! Danger! Someone has breached the code! Lockdown sequence has been activated!

Yes, I am sure that is how some of my Buddhist compatriots would respond to such heresy, as many Buddhists cannot differentiate between Dhamma and being a vegetarian. For some Buddhists, one must be vegetarian or one cannot be a Buddhist. I find such categorical statements preposterous. To really determine whether Buddhists ought to be vegetarians as well, one has to be sure to be asking the right question. Because the Buddha taught that if you ask an unskillful question, then you will get an unskillful answer, and unskillful answers do not help you along the path.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a wide variety of opinion on the topic. Take a look at this post at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt, where blogger John asked people to share their perspective on the First Precept and whether it demands a Buddhist to be vegetarian. The responses there run the gamut, most leaning toward vegetarianism as either an outright requirement or as an ideal to strive for.

But when it comes to the attraction of Buddhism, I don’t want potential new followers to get hung up on the vegetarian thing. I don’t want someone to decide to not explore the Buddha’s teachings because they like their hamburgers rare and they may even – Oh My Freaking God! – like veal (probably the most cruelly produced meat product out there).

Before I go on, I provide this disclaimer: I eat meat. This morning for breakfast I had bacon and organic free-range eggs fried in bacon grease, plopped on pancakes smothered with real butter. I eat meat almost daily, mostly pork and chicken, sometimes fish, and occasionally beef. I like my beef thick, juicy and rare (I prefer my men more like chicken).

The issue of vegetarianism is mostly concerned with what the First Precept means, which directs practitioners to avoid the deliberate killing of living creatures. This obviously means, some say, that we should not eat meat or other animal products because this leads to killing living creatures, not to forget the often inhumane treatment animals go through in husbandry.

By logical extension then, I should also not drive, nor ask anyone to drive for me because such activity could lead to the death of an animal; I should oppose driving and the use of all public transportation by anyone because such activity does, on a daily basis, result in the death of animals (humans too). By virtue of this information, the mere fact of my using any form of motorized transportation knowing that it may result in the death of an animal an intentional act. So if I used a motorized method of transportation and that use resulted in the death of an animal, I intended that animal to die; hence, I have violated the First Precept.

An oh, by the way, I should oppose electricity also because the number one cause of power outages is squirrels; squirrels gnaw on the insulation around power lines, leading to the squirrel’s electrocution and loss of power to the area served by that power line. Therefore, my use of electricity frequently leads to the death of animals, so I should become Amish if I want to faithfully follow the First Precept. Except, well, hmm, I don’t know any vegetarian Amish.

In my view, the above logical extension is absurd.

There’s a discussion on Access to Insight that addresses the question, “Are Buddhists vegetarian?

“Although the first of the five precepts, the basic code of ethical conduct for all practicing Buddhists, calls upon followers to refrain from intentional acts of killing, it does not address the consumption of flesh from animals that are already dead.”

Some may say this is a rationalization, and I don’t deny that. But even the Vinaya is cautious about how monks should act when someone drops meat into their alms bowl. And it’s clear too in this explanation in the Vinaya that the Buddha acknowledges that lay Buddhists eat meat. They had to eat meat to survive.

This, of course, raises another line of reasoning. Today, is it reasonable for people to presume that personal survival requires the consumption of meat? The obvious answer to that is no. It is much easier now to be a vegetarian than it was years ago, and it is certainly easier to be vegetarian by choice in a developed nation than in an undeveloped nation. But does that mean the First Precept requires one to have a vegetarian diet?

When I go to the supermarket, all the packages of meat I see there are going to be there whether I am a meat-eater or vegetarian. I was not personally responsible for the killing of these animals. Again, some may argue that this is a convenient rationalization. If fewer people ate meat, then less meat would be available, leading to fewer animals being raised solely for meat consumption. This leads to less suffering.

Or does it? What happens to the people employed by the meat processing industry? Will there be enough jobs for them if the one they have disappears? How does the loss of their job relieve suffering for them? What happens to the economic structure when all the ancillary businesses involved in meat production have to shut down because everyone decided that eating animals is bad? And what of the animals that were bred solely for meat production purposes? Is their suffering really alleviated when their primary protector is not longer concerned with their well-being? They have no natural defenses against predators. Many couldn’t feed themselves on their own because they are completely dependent on the food the farmer gives them. And even if the farmer, or someone, continues to feed and care for them, what economic benefit comes out of that to the farmer? How does one afford to feed all these animals? Without someone continuing to feed and protect these animals, they would continue to suffer; perhaps even more so as many would simply die of starvation.

Not so simple is it? Of course, the above scenario simply isn’t going to happen. The world isn’t going to become vegetarian. We can, as individuals, make that choice. And for many, it’s the right and good choice. For others, striving toward a completely vegetarian diet as an eventuality is the right and good choice. But to assert that vegetarianism is a sin quo non of being a Buddhist is just as much an unskillful attachment to a fabrication as is my attachment to a perfectly cooked beef tenderloin.


  1. I have known quiet a few families here in rural Virignia that rely on meat they get hunting to get their families through the winter. I'm not a vegitarian either, in fact right now I'm enjoying a nice polish sausage.

    Like you said eating meat does not make one un-Buddhist. I never had thought of those other consiquences either.

    Nice Post!

  2. Thanks! There are similar issues with the rationalizations some use to "liberate" animals, not so much here in U.S., it's more common I think in Asia. When folks let caged animals out, like pet birds and such. They don't realize that rather than alleviate the bird's suffering they are increasing it because now a bird that has no natural skill to forage is forced on its own to survive. So much for metta.

  3. i love sausage. :)

    oh, but about vegetarian or vegan eating, yes this is a very good post, richard. the issue is made complicated by our deeply interdependent nature. nature itself is about a balance of creation and destruction. if i were to follow the 1st precept at the cellular level i would die as i would have to give up my immune system. we murder other life forms all day every day in our blood stream.

    i only make that point to show that no matter how large you think about this topic, or how small, it is an inter-related issue. it is, in fact, one of life's mysteries that you have to live your way thru rather than think yourself out of.

  4. Great Post! I was surprised at the amount of different viewpoints concerning being vegetarian.

    I sort of put my consumption of meat in the same category as my consumption of booze. I have noticed that my drinking has decreased in leaps and bounds since I reinstituted my practice. It wasn't conscious decision but more of an organic process.

    I am in flux and my lifestyle will reflect that. I just don't want to get hung-up on the minutia such as vegetarianism or drinking a beer at happy hour...or during dharma drinks.

    Simply can't force Dharma on people. If they accept it then they grow and evolve (evolving does not infer a movement towards a perfect state but rather one that adapts with environment) to something slightly different than before.



  5. @zenfant, it is so true that we as humans cannot separate ourselves from nature. We talk about what is natural as if anything that has to do with man is unnatural. If we're so unnatural, why the fuck are we here?

    @John, so true you cannot force Dhamma. Which is the point that so often gets missed in the Kalama Sutta, and that is the Buddha said to not even believe what he said at face value: go out and test it; when you see that it works, then make it part of your life.

  6. I find that the rationale for not eating meat is more about a pre-scientific POV on what is alive and what isn't, and what suffers and what doesn't. There is some evidence that plants know some sort of pain and suffering too, and of course we step on bugs and run over things all the time. As well, those vegetable and fruit raising farmers have to kill mice and rabbits and deer and insects too, or else the crop wouldn't be as profitable and plentiful.

    The truth is, it is a part of the karma of being alive that we gotta eat other things to stay alive. We don't get to make energy from the sun like our plant friends do (lucky them). However, I do believe in overdoing the humane treatment of all things, from plants to primates to cetaceans and people too. You don't just kill something because you want to, and you don't mistreat what you're going to eat. I also believe that if you couldn't bring yourself to kill it, then you shouldn't be eating it in the first place.

    But then I'm a Shin Buddhist, and we Pure Landers tend to have an aversion to Precepts as a way of liberation. For us, Precepts are an excellent guide to life, but even the Buddha needed the grace of a little girl with rice pudding to help him towards Liberation when his precepts failed him. Other Power helps us along as much as our own efforts, and sometimes when our Self Power fails, Other Power brings us a bowl of rice pudding too, and we go on and ever onward towards the Other Shore.