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 it might be hard to let in another point of view. Nevertheless, I hope for just a moment you can put your ideas aside and just listen. You can always come back to them later if you want.
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 our 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. 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.
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.
Fighting Outside vs Fighting Inside
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.
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?
No, 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 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 be enough to end the meat factory, here’s another question: Even if all meat factories are abolished, does that mean that cruelty is abolished, cruelty removed?
No. 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. The cruelty I hate 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.
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?
All cruel acts, all injustices, all wars are caused by the same seeds of anger, hatred, greed, laziness, carelessness, 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 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 this 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.
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.
I decided then to simply eat whatever was put on my plate. By doing this, I could see directly that this was a decision whose effect was not harmful, but beneficial and helpful; and which showed only more respect and more gratitude for what was provided for me. I knew inside that it was the right thing for me to do.
We do not consider that we are voting with what we buy or what we eat. We vote by our thought, we vote by our intentions, we vote by what we do.
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, 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.
As before, it all comes back to what is happening in your mind, what your intention is.
The problem with morality outside
A very important point to realise in all this is that we cannot have our morality on an external object, and have it fixed on our inner intentions and thoughts at the same time. 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?