We eat meat sometimes. Even though we’re Buddhist.
It’s something a lot of people find difficult to understand. We can understand that it might seem a bit strange, and everyone has such strong opinions about this topic that it is 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.
Most people have a list of things they really can’t stand in this world. If you’re young and think of yourself as conscientious, it’s probably things like the meat and dairy industry, any industry that relied on burning fossil fuels, and fast food chains. At least that was the case for me. In my mind I was constantly fighting them, furious with them, at war with them.
As we are realistic and see that we can’t change the whole world just by wanting it to be different, for many people the only good thing we see we can do to change things is to be vegetarian. I tried to avoid eating animal products, plus I used plastic as little as possible and eat only healthy food; believing that this made me a better person.
And yet, I looked around and saw that people still killed animals, (and one another); people still continued to burn fossil fuels, use water and create greenhouse gases literally like there was no tomorrow. There was so much cruelty around and nothing I could do would stop it.
A lot of people, especially young people, have this mindset – we stick to our anger at the world, make a quality out of it, almost a religion of it. We might not be able to change the situation, but at least we can be angry about it! That was how I thought, with a kind of desperation of one who knows she is powerless.
One day quite soon after I arrived, I remember very clearly hearing somebody say this: “When you have hatred inside you for something, for example – you’re part of the war, because war is built on hatred, made of hatred, born from hatred and anger and greed. So when I decide to remove this from myself, it’s like I’m removing a little bit of the war in the world. I’m refusing to be part of it.”
Everything evil in the world has a cause, a root. Not only is every war built on the hatred, fear and greed of people, but every industry that practices cruelty exists because the people leading that industry and those that are involved in it are driven by their selfishness and greed.
And I too have laziness, greed, fear and hatred all inside me, at one time or another.
So, when we insist on fixing on some outside action, such as eating or buying meat with a view to remove money and power from the industry, we are actually missing a lot of the point. What hope is there to get rid of any terrible world industry, or war, if we are carrying the same seeds inside ourselves that give birth to war and cruelty?
Don’t go trying to sweep the streets of the city clean if your own house is covered in filth – you only carry your dirt into the street with you. Clean up your own house first. Start by removing the shit from your own mind.
In order to do the work we need to do on ourselves, we have to be very clear about what is right and wrong, and where right and wrong actions take place. If you think carefully about it, you will see that all right and wrong actions are born in one place and one place only, and that is in the mind, where our intention is. If our intention is good and pure, our action is good; if our intention is wrong, we are doing a wrong action.
Eating any meal, for example, whether with or without meat, has no wrongdoing in it by itself; but if it is eaten with greed, ingratitude for the person who cooked it, or with hatred inside, then there is wrongdoing there.
All our attention in correcting ourselves has to be on what is happening in our mind; if it is on what we eat, then we are blocked from seeing clearly what is right and wrong and how to change and improve.
Neither do we consider that we are voting with what we buy. We care more about the direct effect our good actions of generosity, compassion and selflessness can have on others, (and on ourselves), than we care about whatever influence our few dollars may or may not have on the market for food or anything else.
When I had been here for about two months, I was still allowing the long-suffering cook to prepare different meals for me because I was vegetarian. Already overloaded, yet she never complained and went to great lengths to create a separate meal for me every day.
As I stopped seeing right and wrong in my food, and began to locate morality in the mind instead, I started feeling quite ashamed about this.
I saw that by refusing to eat certain foods, I continued to cause needless trouble to someone who only wanted to help me. If I agreed to eat whatever was put on the table, I would remove one extra load from her shoulders. That was the only difference it would make. Eating what was on the table would be a good action, not a wrong action.
Still, to be honest, I held onto my vegetarianism for a surprisingly long time – it had become part of my identity, part of how I defined myself; and it was hard to decide to let it go, even when holding onto it no longer made any sense.
There will still be people who will question whether this is really correct in Buddhism, whether this is really what the Buddha taught. There are indeed some schools of Buddhism that practice vegetarianism, despite the fact that the Buddha specifically explained that in general there was nothing wrong with simply eating 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 there 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 freshly killed from the sea – this is wrong, because I’m happy that it’s 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 thought to have inside me. Whereas, if I’m at the grocery and I see a packet of meat in front of me, there is no reason for me to take any pleasure in the death of that being. As before, it all comes back to what is happening in your mind, what your intention is.
Many people are vegetarian because they think that they are an essential link in a chain that begins with killing a living creature, and they want to avoid being part of that chain.
If this is our point of view, we should also remember that living beings are killed all over the place, in their thousands and millions, for the food we eat – and not only the meat. Non-organic vegetables are sprayed with toxic chemical pesticides. Organic vegetables are sprayed with pesticides too, or other weapons are used. We have to remember that there is all that deliberate killing of millions of small, but still living beings.
(It is unnecessary, too, because it is quite possible (just a bit less convenient) to grow vegetables and fruits while keeping the principal of non-killing. We do it here, in this community.)
If we really want to be part of no chain of killing at all, we will have to stop eating vegetables and grains as well as meat, and even the water we drink has been treated in such a way as to kill living beings, so we will have to stop drinking water too.
What we want to understand and see for ourselves is exactly this truth: This world is a world of suffering. It is a world in which, just by existing, just by being here, we cause the death of other creatures.
Being born here we are part of a chain of death, a chain of suffering, like it or not. Not eating meat won’t change that, and whether we accept it or not won’t change anything either. We can only choose not to kill, not to deliberately take away life ourselves of our own intention. That rule we follow absolutely and will not bend it for anything at all.