On January 1st of this year, I became a vegetarian. I didn’t want to abstain from meat (roasted chicken and New York Strip were my favorite), but Project Conversion began with Hinduism and therefore I had to surrender my desire for warm, moist, seasoned flesh. Now, to say that every Hindu is a vegetarian is like saying every Jew eats kosher. Not the case, but because much of the Hindu system of beliefs revolve around ahimsa (non-injury) and the ideal that food bears different energy levels ranging from tamas or negative (fats, heavy sweets, etc.) to rajas or agitating (intense spices and meat) to satvik or positive (fruit, vegetables, yogurt), I had to adopt the lifestyle. The adjustment was tough and health professionals usually recommend a gradual progression toward vegetarianism, but I not only survived the month without meat…
I decided to keep rolling.
Buddhism developed within Hindu culture around the 5th century B.C., in fact many Hindus regard the Buddha as one of Vishnu’s incarnations, and therefore the Buddha lived among such cultural practices. The Buddha enjoyed meat prior to his Enlightenment, and many contend that he ate meat afterward because he only ate what was offered to him. The controversy remains throughout Buddhism’s history however, whether or not consuming meat is, well, kosher.
Every Buddhist is different and so the practice of vegetarianism varies across the landscape of Buddhist thought. The argument on both sides are able to pull evidence from the Buddhist texts regarding the matter. I will present an overview here.
- Simple. The Buddha ate meat. Next?
True. The Buddha ate meat because he took only what was offered to him. This is how Buddhist monks sustain themselves: by the offerings of others. In fact, the Buddha died because he ate bad pork given to him by a devotee.
- A pro-meat Buddhist might say to the vegetarian: “Okay, you refuse meat because you do not want to kill. But what about all the creatures ripped apart by the harvest of your fruits and vegetables? What about the billions of insects poisoned by pesticides?” Gotta hand it to pro-meat on that one. Sure, we vegetarians refuse meat due to non-injury, however we do so without realizing the cost of avoiding said meat. Is one cow worth 1,000 insects? Something to chew on.
- What about the products we use everyday, such as soap, leather, some fabrics, etc. which cost sentient lives to produce?
- According to the Nipata Sutta, an early Buddhist text in the Pali Canon, the Buddha is said to describe immorality as the source of impurity, not one’s diet (though he did insist on moderation).
- Because one does not directly kill the animal for consumption, one is not directly accountable for the animal’s death.
- Compassion. If one cultivated compassion for all life, then one would refrain from eating meat.
I have to admit, there’s a lot going on in Buddhism that supports compassion. In the Dhammapada the Buddha says:
All tremble before the rod of punishment; all fear death; likening others to oneself, one should neither slay nor cause to slay.
- Oh, that wasn’t strong enough? says the vegetarian. How about Right Living, the fifth part of the Eightfold Path?
Right Living (or occupation) is often described as avoiding the following trades: dealing in arms (weapons), living beings (slave trade, trafficking, etc.), flesh (meat), intoxicating substances, and poisons. The professions also include being a soldier, fishermen and hunter. Why would the Buddha ask us to refrain from such occupations if he didn’t want us to avoid meat?
- You do not need meat to survive, and the creature wants to survive, therefore meat is (usually) only consumed for taste and pleasure. Whose wish is more important?
This argument comes back to compassion. If we place ourselves in the shoes of the cow being raised and slaughtered for food, can we really justify the practice of eating flesh?
So these are the arguments for and against the consumption of meat. In reading several passages attributed to the Buddha, he would probably ask why we are arguing over the issue to begin with. To the Buddha, the Path gives rise to compassion as evidence to the Buddhist’s journey. Does compassion mean that one abstains from meat or that one is simply mindful of the animal’s pain in order to become food and therefore moderation and respect arises? We could go either way, however the Buddha would consider this debate a distraction.
Personally, I think I’ll stick with my current vegetarian path. My family and close friends like to tease me because they know how much I enjoyed meat in the past. The longer I stick this out though, the stranger things get. We all know that when one loses one of our five senses, one or more will increase in sensitivity. For last month or two, the same phenomenon is happening with me.
I can smell a steak or piece of BBQ chicken grilling from any house on my street.
This heightened sensitivity isn’t doing me any favors though. I can handle the smell most of the time, but there are occasions where I feel like I’m about to go freaking Cullen on whatever cooked flesh is within arm’s reach.
The urge gets so bad, that sometimes I have to walk out of the house and “cool off.” It’s crazy, and I’ve considered just saying “Screw it,” and go back to my old ways. But then compassion kicks in. I picture animals being herded into stalls, growing up with the sole purpose of being slaughtered, and all for my pleasure.
Can’t do it. But this is a personal choice and I don’t judge anyone for choosing this lifestyle. Okay, you’re bloodthirsty beasts, but I mean that with love. Really.
In hindsight, this reminds me a lot of yesterday’s post about abstaining from sex. A lot of folks got defensive about their indulgence in sex (glad to see our libidos are alive and kickin’!), but I see a definite correlation between abstaining from meat and sex (no pun intended). Neither are required to sustain us, however both are linked with pleasure.
The Buddha taught us that relinquishing our desires (for everything) automatically results from the path toward Enlightenment and Nirvana. Hmm…The Buddha ate meat, but did he desire it? If he were truly Enlightened, then no. Some interesting curves here.
I fully expect my carnivorous pals to jump me on this one, but hey, it’s cool. I only ask that if you draw blood that you don’t go all feeding frenzy on me.