We eat meat sometimes. Even though we’re Buddhist.
We have met many people who are surprised at this, believing that all Buddhists are vegetarians. This is not actually the case; although some schools of Buddhism practice vegetarianism; it is not forbidden to eat meat in Theravada Buddhism. This article is an attempt at clearing away some of the confusion around this topic.
People tend to have strong opinions about this, and for some it might be hard to let in another point of view. We are not trying to convert anyone to our point of view or attack the choices of anyone as to what they buy or what they eat. We simply offer this perspective to consider for those who are interested in hearing it.
The Precept of Non-Killing
As Buddhist practitioners, there are five rules, or principals of morality, that we follow very seriously. They are called the Five Precepts and there is full explanation of them in this article, but briefly they are: No stealing, no lying, no alcohol or drug, no sexual misconduct (in this community we are also celibate with no sexual activity) and no killing.
When I say that we are serious in following these rules, I mean that we follow them with absolute strictness and complete determination. “No killing” means that we do not intentionally take the life of any living creature, no matter how small, and no matter what the circumstances. We consider the lives of all living beings to be of equal weight; a tiny insect that feeds on a cabbage leaf is no less insignificant than a dog or a deer or a human being. It too has a body and mind, it too loves its life and fears death, it has hunger and thirst and needs to feed itself, and has to work hard to do so – it fears death and flees from danger. It is really not very different from ourselves.
And so, no matter how inconvenient it is for us; we do not kill – if we have an apple that has a worm in it we carefully cut around it; if there are bugs eating our potato plants, we go and pick them off, one by one, and bring them elsewhere rather than using any lethal method to harm them. In growing our own food and keeping to the precept of non-killing as we do so, we have the joy of being able to directly give “freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression, to uncountably many living beings.”
Even if it’s the end of the world and we are lost in the woods in winter with no other food to survive, we will choose to die rather than take the life of other living creatures to feed ourselves. That is how strong the commitment to keeping this precept is.
And yet, this does not extend to vegetarianism. Somebody who protests the act of killing by refusing to eat meat is considered no more moral in this teaching than somebody who accepts to eat whatever is put on their plate.
This is not without reason, and the reason is not that we think there is nothing wrong with the meat industry, nor is it that we are simply too lazy or too fond of meat to give it up.
The precept of non-killing
Let us talk briefly about the precept of non-killing. What is the definition of “killing”? To kill you need three things: a) a living being b) a means or a weapon with which to kill c) the intention inside you to remove the life of a living being.
We should also ask, why do we kill? Out of what intentions do we kill? It can be out of desiring comfort – swatting a mosquito because it is disturbing one’s comfort, for example. It can be as a pleasure, as a hobby, like going hunting. It can be out of fear, in a situation of danger, or out of anger or hatred, a desire for revenge, or out of greed for money.
Always it is with a selfish intention that one kills. We never kill out of goodness.
The harmful thing, the wrong thing, is the intention – not the end result that the life of another is ended.
If, when walking down the street, I do not see some ants on the pavement in front of me and I step on them, the ants die, but it was not my intention to kill them. This action is not wrong, otherwise in order to avoid doing wrong actions I would have to just stay in my room and never leave. But If I have a hatred for ants, I see an ant and I decide to step on it intentionally, wishing for the death of that ant, then it is a wrong action.
What are we protesting against?
Let’s say I want to protest against meat factories, so I become vegetarian. Why am I protesting? Think about it. What is my motivation?
There might be several reasons, but the main one behind all the others is that the meat factory has made me angry, and I want to stop it, to get rid of it. (We are not discussing here other motivations for being vegetarian such as being more eco-friendly, or for reasons of health, as they have nothing to do with the teaching of the Buddha or the precept of non-killing, and are a different topic.)
And what makes me angry? What is wrong in the meat factory?
Is it the building itself? Or the humans who work in it? Is it the machines that are used in it? Is it even the fact that beings are dying?
No, as in the example above with the ants on the street, what is wrong in the meat factory is none of these things – these are just objects. What is wrong, and what motivates my act of protest, is the cruelty that goes on in the meat factory. It’s not the building, but the cruel purpose for which it is built. It’s not the machines, but how they are used. It’s not even the fact that beings are dying – beings die in their millions every day.
It’s the cruelty that I want to stop; the cruelty that I want to remove.
Setting aside for the moment the question of whether refusing to eat what comes out of a meat factory will really put an end to the meat factory, here’s another question: Even if all meat factories are abolished, does that mean that cruelty is abolished, cruelty removed?
No, it is not. Getting rid of the meat factory does not get rid of the thing that made me angry enough to protest against it in the first place. Slavery in the United States was ended long ago – that cause has long been forgotten and replaced by others, other cases of cruelty. Cruelty is still existing in a thousand other places, and will reappear in many more later. I’ve just removed one of its expressions, one of millions of places and disguises in which cruelty appears. The cruelty in the world is not reduced at all.
And further than that; I still have the seed of that same cruelty inside myself. All the worst things about the world – all the war, all the killing, all the injustice, the horrible things that we wish would not happen, are caused by what?
The causes of wrong actions
All cruel acts, all injustices, all wars are caused by the same seeds of anger, hatred, greed, laziness, carelessness, fear and many other ugly things, that are alive inside me and everyone else on this planet.
Sometimes they are taken a little further or repeated often until they have great and terrible effects instead of small ones, sometimes they stay small and hidden for a long time, but they are still exactly the same evil, the same ugliness; no matter where they are, no matter what costume they wear.
Just as I can’t wash anything if my cloth is filthy dirty, it’s useless to try to solve the cruelty of the world if I still have the seed of cruelty inside me. As long as I have anger, greed and carelessness inside me, it’s as if I am still participating in some way in all the worst things that people do to one another: all those big invasive weeds I see everywhere in the garden all grow from the same seeds that I have in my own hand.
So: if I really hate cruelty, if I really want to remove it, how do I go about doing that? Where do I start?
In fact, there is one place, and one place only, where I can remove the cruelty and anger and selfishness in the world: and it’s here, where it is born, in this mind. Somebody else’s greed or cruelty I can do nothing about. It’s this one that appears here and now in this mind that I have the chance to remove.
This is what this practice is about, this is what meditation is for: constantly choosing right over wrong, looking to remove all impurities inside and replace them with qualities, all the time, every moment.
When I do this, when I remove anger inside, when I remove greed inside, when I remove carelessness inside – now I am no longer participating in all those things that are caused by anger, caused by greed, caused by carelessness.
I am fighting against war, against killing, against greed, against slavery, against ill-will, against abuse, all at once.
That’s why all our attention in this practice, and its code of morality, is on our mind: on our intention, and whether it is right or wrong, helpful or harmful.
For example, when we apply this to the question of eating meat: If I were to, on purpose, go to buy a lot of meat every time I went to the supermarket because of approving of the meat industry and the killing that happens in it, and wanting to promote it and support it – then this would be wrong, this would be acting out of greed or of hatred, out of selfishness.
If someone is just buying food out of wanting to feed their family, however, or to give to the homeless man around the corner who has nothing to eat, it is not out of greed, it is not out of hatred, it is not out of selfishness, it is not out of an intention of harming. It therefore cannot be a wrong action.
Becoming an omnivore – one small story
When I first arrived to work as a volunteer with this community, I was eating a vegetarian diet, and for a long time I accepted that the long-suffering cook (who was already quite overloaded in her work) would need to make a separate meal for me whenever she cooked with meat. She did so always cheerfully and with good grace, never showing the slightest hint of resentment at the extra work I created for her. Into her cooking she poured all her love and energy; she wanted everything she cooked to give the people who were staying a sense of being appreciated and loved, that with each meal she was thanking them for the work they did.
As I considered this subject I began to question myself: what am I doing? I was vegetarian because of a wish to help the world to be better, but by continuing to stick to my vegetarianism here, I was helping nothing and nobody. The effect was not beneficial to anyone – it only created one more problem and put one more load on the shoulders of someone who had only ever treated me with kindness and compassion.
Cases where one should not eat meat
There is a story from the Buddha, where some monks go and ask him about eating meat; and whether accepting a meal with meat in it is wrong or not. The Buddha replies that in general there is nothing wrong with eating a meal whether with meat or without meat. What makes eating the meal wrong is if you are greedy when you eat, or when you are pissed off because someone gave you something you didn’t want, or if you eat with any other impurity inside.
Nonetheless, he also explains that are three cases where you should NOT accept a meal with meat in it: if the animal is seen being killed, heard being killed, or suspected as having been killed especially for you.
For example, I would never order lobster in a restaurant, because I know the person will go and kill it right then especially for me; so if I order lobster, I will deliberately and knowingly cause the death of this being.
Similarly, if I go to the port specially to buy fish so that they will be freshly killed from the sea – this is wrong, because I’m happy that it has been killed NOW; I take pleasure in the present killing of this living being. It’s still not exactly the same as killing the fish with my own hand, and it is not as bad an action, but it’s a wrong and harmful thought to have inside me. Whereas, if I’m at the grocery and I see a packet of frozen meat in front of me, there is no reason and no condition there for me to feel happy at the death of this animal; and nothing I do now will change anything for that animal.
As before, it all comes back to what is happening in your mind, what your intention is.
The problem with morality outside
It should be made clear: we do not believe that it is “wrong” to decide not to eat meat, for whatever reason. The problem arises when vegetarianism becomes part of one’s morality. To believe that eating or buying meat is a wrong action comparable to lying, stealing or committing adultery is a problem for the one who aims to practice rightly the teaching of the Buddha: in that it creates a block to right understanding of the teaching. Why?
Simply because it means that one is locating one’s sense of right and wrong in an external action, rather than inside in the intention of one’s mind.
As long as I associate wrongdoing with a particular object, I will not be able to see clearly what is right and what is wrong inside.
For example, if my code of morality is vegetarianism, I will not see greediness in someone who spends half their income on buying fancy and expensive organic vegetarian ingredients, but cooks only for themselves – they eat vegetarian, therefore they are doing good! I will not appreciate the generosity in someone who spends an afternoon cooking a big chicken curry for the people in their community to share – they are cooking meat, therefore they are doing wrong. My attention is focused on the “bad” chicken of one, and the “good” vegetables of the other, and not on what is driving them inside.
It’s so much easier to see and point out the wrongs in the world outside you, than it is to look at your own self and see it as it is. It’s not easy to work to completely give up all greed, anger, jealousy, everything wrong inside; it’s not easy to look at oneself and see what ugliness is there.
It would be nice if I could fight all the darkness that springs from the mind by becoming vegetarian, but I cannot. It’s not as easy as that.
Because I do not want to fall into doing what is easy, rather than following my aim of fighting impurities and replacing them with qualities, I do not practice vegetarianism, because this would be putting my morality, my sense of right and wrong, outside: in what I buy and what I eat, rather than fixed on this mind and what is inside: Good or bad? Right or wrong? What is it now? What do I choose?