On a recent lecture tour, the Dalai Lama
dined sumptuously on lamb at a chic Bay Area restaurant. Earlier in the
His Holiness partook of chicken soup at a seder. Nepalese Buddhist
monks have been known to enjoy burgers, fries and shakes at American
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."
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.
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.