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April 1998
Killing Them Softly: The Buddhist Rationale for Eating Animals

By Tom McGuire


On a recent lecture tour, the Dalai Lama dined sumptuously on lamb at a chic Bay Area restaurant. Earlier in the year His Holiness partook of chicken soup at a seder. Nepalese Buddhist monks have been known to enjoy burgers, fries and shakes at American diners. Gelek Rinpoche, a Tibetan spiritual leader, proclaims, "We Tibetans like to eat meat. We don't care if it's healthy or not. We like it." A Zen teacher once stated three times during a workshop, "Buddhism is not vegetarianism!"

While that may be true, vegetarianism, for many, is an ethical practice based on non-violence and compassion toward animals. In that respect, Buddhism occupies common ground with ethical vegetarianism. A fifth century Sutra urges, "If you see a person about to kill an animal, you should devise a means to rescue and protect that creature." Religious groups from the Jains to Seventh Day Adventists practice ethical vegetarianism. Buddhist scripture likewise exhorts us "to dwell compassionate and kind to all creatures that have life." But how many Buddhists break this commandment and violate the prime directive of unconditional, pure loving-kindness to all creatures? Surely, the volitional act of eating murdered, mutilated animals stands in direct contradiction to the Bodhisattva vow, "All beings, without number, I vow to liberate."

What the Buddha Said

In his spiritual teachings, Buddha never advocated a vegetarian diet. He and his cousin, the "devious" Devadatta, once argued over the proper diet of monks. In an attempt to wrest power and create a schism in the faith, Devadatta forbade fish and meat, and ordained that monks lead an austere lifestyle. But Buddha, as narrated in the Vinaya, prevailed. He insisted that monks never refuse almsfood, and felt that gourmand, self-absorbed vegetarians were more "at fault" karmically than mendicants who ate meat served to them.

The Blessed One indisputably indulged in animal flesh, enjoyed it, and did so "blamelessly" by ascribing three instances in which meat should not be eaten: "when it is seen, heard or suspected [that the living being has been slaughtered]" specifically for the person. Buddha was thus able to justify the inherent barbarism of flesh eating by claiming to be merely third-party to the act. Buddha thus decreed, "with no evil in the heart, no indulgence of appetite," that his followers no longer had to trouble their consciences; they could now eat their victims "blamelessly." But no matter how you cut the carcass, it's complicity, a shared responsibility for the deaths of innocent beings that no amount of scriptural exegesis can rationalize.

In the Jivaka Sutta, Buddha insists one can be a good Buddhist and still eat animals whose flesh was knowingly taken, when done with "a mind imbued with loving-kindness." His vague prescription of non-attachment also helped, "so long as one's attitude conformed to non-attachment." Eating and killing animals was no longer forbidden. The taking of a life became okay if one was not "tied to it, infatuated with it, and utterly committed to it, seeing the danger in it and understanding the escape from it." A Buddhist holy man noted recently, "The important thing is the quality of your heart, not the contents of your diet. . . one who eats meat can have a pure heart just as one who does not eat meat can have an impure heart." (Never mind the victims' hearts!)

What right do humans have to enslave, torture, massacre and eat animals? Certainly, dependency on animal protein is a given in many traditional or marginal areas where being vegetarian would mean starvation. These people have little choice but to kill and eat animals to survive. But what about the Dalai Lama, who eats meat behind the facade of "doctor's orders?" What about untold other Buddhists living in Western-style cities who eat animals knowingly killed for the purely selfish sake of gastronomic pleasure? Why cannot these Buddhists, who live in places where viable nutritional alternatives exist, simply swear off eating and killing animals?

Roshi Philip Kapleau's A Buddhist Case for Vegetarianism "picks a bone" with the faithful who eat animals without blame or guilt. Dharma heir Bodhin Kjolhede laments how these Buddhists are merely masking their true motivation "with the pleasing fragrance of such Buddhist concepts as 'non-attachment'. . . it is sad to see how many American Buddhists are managing to find a self-satisfying accommodation to eating meat." Sagaramati wonders how a self-respecting Buddhist can practice the teachings of Buddha by endeavoring to become kinder and more compassionate to all beings, and yet deny an ethical connection between the unkind and decidedly non-compassionate treatment of animals and the corpse on one's plate.

Looking for Ahimsa

It all comes down to a simple question of need versus desire. Let's put aside for a moment the assertion that all things being equal, "a carrot is the equivalent of a cow." Let's forget for a moment all this stuff about attachment and non-attachment, transcendence of guilt, and purity of intention, and think for a moment about those least able to speak up for and defend themselves -- the attachees! If one can honestly do without, do without! Being vegetarian palpably helps to reduce pain and suffering in the world.

Some argue that eating animals is excusable because to worry and fuss too much about it all is --to be attached -- to straitjacket world views. Other defenders wave off innumerable harmful consequences of a flesh diet by couching the issue in a liturgical context, making it an exercise of attitude, discipline and questioning practice, instead of moral behavior. Well, something fails to compute here. Where is ahimsa, the non-violent ethic of least harm in a Buddhist's daily life? Purification of the mind and heart is the essence of the Buddhist journey to Nirvana.

As one becomes less and less attached to earthly misery and suffering, one ultimately comes to accept all things as equally worthy of supreme love and compassion. This noble, if highly abstract ideal, fails to address the concrete, solid, material world in which most of us dwell. What of rampant hatred and murder, violence and injustice? Transcendence might well be the answer. What can a single individual do, after all? In the realm of diet, a lot! A single individual can manifestly begin right at the kitchen table, picnic basket and restaurant. A single individual can directly alleviate pain and suffering of innocent living beings. This is the vegetarian imperative; not surprisingly, it is a Buddhist virtue and ideal as well.

Tom McGuire lives in Oakland, CA.


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