February 6, 1995
Tricycle: The Buddhist Review
163 West 22nd Street
New York, NY 10011
To the Editor:
Thank you for your debate on meat-eating (Winter 1994), which I found both informative and stimulating. Being a vegetarian of 20 years, I naturally agreed with some of the contributors (especially Bodhin Kjolhede) and disagreed with others, but I found myself frustrated by weaknesses in the arguments and downright shocked by some viewpoints which seemed bizarre and blatantly "un-Buddhist," to my understanding.
I had forgotten and never reflected on the fact that the Buddha himself sometimes ate meat and that he did not require his sangha to renounce meat altogether, though restricting its use. I found Wheeler’s cultural reasons for this compelling -- i.e., that refusing meat put in your begging bowl would offend and embarrass the almsgiver, and that espousing vegetarianism would identify the Buddhists with the Brahmans instead of deemphasizing caste differences. One might also point out that an absolute stance on such a matter of relative value would be inconsistent with the philosophy of "the middle way."
I was also unaware of the Tibetan Buddhists’ "famous" love for red meat, which is disappointing. Although geographic and climatic justifications are given for this (by Kjolhede), as with the usual example of the Eskimos, this argument is no longer valid due to advances in horticulture, nutrition, transportation, etc.
Most thought-provoking was the Buddha’s twofold emphasis on one’s state of mind while eating: first, knowing (seeing/hearing/suspecting) the intent with which the animal was killed; and second, being mindful and nonattached while eating anything. According to Smithers, the first restriction as detailed in the Vinaya applied to all almsfood (not just meat), which means that the monk must not accept any food specifically prepared as alms. But since merit was believed to accrue from almsgiving, I imagine that laypeople cooked a little extra food to give the monks on their regular rounds -- food which would therefore be "wrong" for the monk to accept. Obviously, this whole argument is irrelevant since, in the West and in most parts of the East, living on alms is no longer practiced, and there are millions more lay Buddhists than monks. In the modern service economy, whether "Buddhist" or otherwise, we simply pay others to kill the animals, butcher the meat, and even prepare the meals. It is impossible not to suspect that the meat is prepared for us!
What, then, are we to make of Buddha’s statement in the Cullavaga that "The one who takes the life is at fault, but not the one who eats the flesh"? This to me seems like passing the karmic buck or karmic free-loading -- taking advantage of the fruits of the actions of others while avoiding the moral responsibilities that might adhere. Among the debate contributors, Gelek Rinpoche is the most blatant proponent of this position. On the other extreme, McClellan, rather than passing on responsibility, overemphasizes it to the point of morbidity. Claiming that we’re all (equally) responsible for the meat industry, he entreats vegetarians to eat meat in some kind of ritual that borders on masochism -- all to cleanse ourselves of the guilt of "directly" killing animals which we don’t eat. . . The morbidity evolves into cruelty when McClellan touts Joshu Sasaki’s killing of a fly to startle his students (reminiscent of the older Zen master who killed a cat in an effort to shock his monks into kensho). "Die with the fly," Sasaki says; and Dogen is also cited to justify killing mindfully or "dying with" the victim. My question is, why do we have to kill to feel death? Aren’t there enough real deaths (human and otherwise) happening all the time upon which to meditate? And surely the true "dying" in Zen and Buddhism is moment-to-moment letting go of all of our attachments, thus avoiding being "reborn" the next instant with the same old self.
Buddha’s second emphasis on state of mind is simply right mindfulness and right intent, which applies to all activities. This means not overeating, not being attached to the food or thinking ahead to future meals (as mentioned in the excerpt from the Jivaka Sutta) -- in short, what Stevens calls "enlightened eating" and Smithers "to be awake while eating." Although the Buddha may give primacy to how we do things over what we do, this does not mean that what we do is unimportant -- thus, right action is included in the Eightfold Path. The idea that "being awake" somehow exempts our actions from karmic law is again looking for loopholes. Gelek Rinpoche expresses this as "we can purify our negatives," and McClellan would add "through awareness and compassion." This attitude reminds me of the Catholic belief in absolution in which the sinner repents only to sin again.
Also "shocking" was Philip Glass’s attitude that one person’s action (eating an omlette or hamburger) doesn’t effect the whole world. Besides overlooking the considerable moral distinction between taking unfertilized eggs from chickens and slaughtering a cow, his attitude smacks of the apathy that allows people to drop litter or waste resources or not vote -- "because one person can’t make a difference." Also unforgivable is his way of averting the vegetarian argument for compassion for animals with the facile phrase "they’re going to die anyway." His continuation "perhaps some of those deaths will serve the needs of others, proving to be beneficial in their way" belies an anthropocentric attitude also expressed by McClellan and in Ryokan’s poem that animals "give themselves unselfishly," even joyously, to be eaten. Somehow Glass weaves this into his overall "equanimous view" that "all sentient beings -- fish, birds, cows, bugs, etc. -- are equal to ourselves." But if this is the case, then we are forced to ask why not eat humans as well as animals?
The question of sentience, of course, opens another can of worms. Some Buddhists include only insects and animals, some add in plants and other "animate" matter, while still others (e.g., Tao-sheng and Shih-t’ou) include "inanimate" matter. Unfortunately, one cannot live without eating, which means taking of life (despite the claims of saints and "breatharians"), and in fact our constant interchange with the environment (to which Smithers alludes when he mentions "the mystery of food") reinforces the central Buddhist doctrines of anatman, pratitya-samutpada, and sunyata. But can we not still, as Kjolhede entreats, make choices that "minimize suffering" and eliminate "unnecessary suffering"? This is, in fact, the vegetarian way -- based on the moral discrimination of different levels of sentience, or of evolution of the nervous systems or other biological structures that constitute sentience.
A final point I would like to make concerns the reasons to be vegetarian. Those usually given include ethical or moral, health (including nutritional and anatomical -- i.e, we may have canine teeth but our lengthy intestines are not those of carnivores, which leads to health problems), economic, and ecological. Another important reason which is implicit in morality but rarely brought out is "spiritual," not in a self-righteous sense of doing good, but of feeling good. As Stephen Gaskin once said, "I’ve been to rice-boilings and I’ve been to pig-stickings, and rice-boilings have better vibes." "Vibes" is a fortunate metaphor, because this is a psychosomatic or integrated body-mind issue. One might also cite the Bhagavad Gita, which, in applying to practical life the Upanisadic teachings codified just prior to the Buddha’s lifetime, distinguishes between foods that are pure (satvic), stimulating (rajasic) and rotten (tamasic). The first category is basically vegetarian including dairy products; the second includes meat, fish, and eggs along with spices and alcohol; and the last includes overripe and putrid foods. Needless to say, it is the satvic or lacto-vegetarian diet that is espoused for mental and spiritual purity. And again, it is not only what you eat but how -- eating too much of anything leads to sloth and torpor which are impediments to dhyana and therefore prajna, karuna, and nirvana.
Buddhism has, at least since the time of Buddhaghosa, been summarized as sila-dhyana-prajna, also known as the Triple Discipline. Morality (sila), then, is an essential part -- and many would give it fundamental or foundational role. Of importance to the future of Buddhism in the West and particularly in America is how the current generation interprets and applies these teachings. Such a practical matter as diet provides a useful axis for this new "turning of the wheel of Dharma," connected as it is to our overall way of life and perspective as well as to economy and ecology. It is an issue that touches our daily life and connects us to the entire web of life. Being literally an issue of life and death, the question of vegetarianism should be taken much more seriously by religion, especially one that emphasizes compassion for all sentient life.
Alan Gullette > Essays