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.
“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.
I'm a content director for a television company, guiding content on Web sites. I'm an avid listener of Frank Zappa and a practicing Buddhist who follows the Theravada vehicle. I'm an insatiable traveler who calls Chicago home.