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Vegetarianism and lay buddhists
June 18th, 2013 (April 14th, 2014)

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Vegetarianism and lay buddhists

It has been brought to my attention that my position vis-à-vis vegetarianism might not be very visible. Indeed, I took position several times but the titles are not necessarily 'obvious':
• 58'45'' of food for thought!
• BUDDHISM and our attitude towards NATURE?
• karma is often misunderstood
• do bananas grow locally where you live?
These are still relevant posts today. Below is another presentation:

The first precept is to refrain from killing, and this is commonly understood as refraining from killing any sentient being, not just human beings.

Karma in Buddhism relates to intention, so voluntary killing is routinely interpreted as 'bad' karma. Once of the 'defences' of meat eaters is that meat at the meat counter has not been killed by them, or even for them specifically.

But the meat in a supermarket has been killed for a consumer, so buying it makes one the cause of the killing. If it had been clear no one was ready to buy, the meat would not have been made available… It's a cop-out to say "this particular meat has not been killed specifically for me".

That being said, and most notably for any modern layperson (the audience of this post), is vegetarianism a 'must' for any buddhist?

If the Buddha did not prevent monastics from eating meat in general (MN 55) except ten particular types (human being, elephant, horse, dog, snake, lion, tiger, leopard, bear and hyena (V 1:218)), then he clearly was not advocating for laypeople to abandon meat-eating. The Buddha, on one particular occasion, specifically refused suggestions by Devadatta to institute vegetarianism for the monks (V 2:197, 3:172). It is rather clear that the interpretation of "do not kill" as supporting vegetarianism is a Chinese later development, not the Buddha's intention.

"Taking life, beating, wounding, binding, stealing, lying, deceiving, worthless knowledge, adultery; this is stench. Not the eating of meat." (Sn 2.2).

The interesting point for me is that the Vinaya is an extremely 'practical' set of rules, created and amended based on adaptation to context, rather than metaphysics. Most notably, the Buddha explicitly cared about the opinion of the alms-donors and some rules exist only because they were expected by supporters rather than because they make much sense in buddhist terms. 

A classic case is the rainy season, which was made very useful for training and preservation of the teachings, but initially was simply a copy of the Jains' rule. The Jains consider karma is about all acts (not just intentional acts) and did not travel during the rainy to reduce involuntary killing of young animals and insects, etc. This became expected of religious people, so the Buddha appropriated the rule to keep the support of alms-givers. Funnily enough, the reason behind the rule is explicitly about involuntary killing, so we know for sure that in relation to buddhist karma, this makes no sense. Or does it? Let's have a look.

"It's all about intention" to justify vegetarianism (in relation to karma) is also often a cop-out: it is not as if killing was context-less, it is not as if inter-dependence magically was irrelevant here… Killing one animal might actually reduce suffering overall.

"It's all about intention" is also a cop-out if it comes from pretending the indirect killing due to vegetarianism (e.g. by taking animal habitat away to grow vegetables) does not count because there was no intention to kill.

The main sense one can give to the rule on rainy season and involuntary killing in relation to karma is that direct killing is obviously intentional but involuntary killing might also be tainted by a wrong motivation manifesting in the form of negligence. Negligence is usually called "ill-will" in Buddhism, and stands as the opposite of "right effort". "Right effort" is usually associated to meditation, but in my understanding it goes much beyond the cushion… Zen calls this the 'going beyond', i.e. applicability in every moment!

To pretend that "involuntarily killing animals" is okay —by destroying their habitats or resources (other food, other animals, water), or using pesticides or even specific types of natural predators to chase pests (e.g. falcons to chase other birds and some rampants)—strikes me as a case of 'negligence': not making the effort not to kill. And why not making the effort? For one's own benefit (food), including the benefit of a self-serving narrative to avoid feeling bad and to feel superior and holy. I think there is great hindrance in this!

Yes, Buddhism associates 'karma' to 'intention', but in my view that means calling us to focus and work on our intentions. It does not provide an easy cop-out, "oops, sorry, I didn't mean to" (which all too easily is a sign of negligence). Typically, "oops, sorry, I didn't mean to" should be followed by wanting to repair, compensate, learn and adjust… rather than a sense that it's okay (or simply "karmically-free" because unintentional).

This being said, several Mahāyāna sutras clearly argue against meat eating.

For example, the Nirvāṇa sūtra states "One who eats meat kills the seed of great compassion" while the Angulimaliya sūtra states "Mañjuśrī asked, 'Do Buddhas not eat meat because of the tathāgata-garbha (universal buddha-nature)?' The Blessed One replied, 'Mañjuśrī, that is so. There are no beings who have not been one’s mother, who have not been one’s sister through generations of wandering in beginningless and endless saṃsāra'."

If this a case where impermanence is to be used to argue that what might have been acceptable at the time of Gautama Śākyamuni has no reason to be acceptable today, because circumstances changed?

In my views, there are a few points which are complicated.

One is plants are recognised as having one consciousness (touch) out of the classical six. I don't see anything that would justify that killing one aggregate (made of one 'consciousness', but it's not just 'one', there's no entity, it's a bundle of streams) is better than killing one aggregate (made of six 'consciousnesses', but it's not 'six', there's no entity, it's a bundle of streams). We need to be extremely careful on this, because reification of sense-media is clearly a mistake… It would arise quite clearly if I started justifying that killing a blind person or a deaf person is not as bad as killing a six-senses person… Buddha-nature has no reason not to apply to plants in the grand cycle of life: the stream of consciousness of a plant is not inherently condemned to endlessly be reborn as a plant.

I think we should also pay attention that the rules are training rules. The first precept is not "do not kill" (ever, no exception, based on some metaphysical extreme!), the first precept is "refrain from killing." This is important to me because this is about paying attention, not about feeling 'right' or worse 'righteous' for following a rule. This is classically denounced in Zen, a monk is not superior to a layman: the moment one becomes arrogant out of "ticking the box" of a list of rules, the intention is pretty unwholesome. The point of the rule is to pay attention and keep paying attention, this is about looking at "things as they are". Anyone who would stop looking at this question out of "I'm vegetarian, I 'know' that's the right thing to do" has lost it, in my opinion. "Don't know", anyone? Vegetarianism out of habit or certainty is definitely not following "don't know". This has to remain a question alive in our heads. We need to be prepared to admit exceptions, to admit that a particular situation requires meat-eating even if it usually doesn't or even never did so far…

It is true that meat trade is however explicitly listed as "wrong livelihood" (AN 5:177), but given the other sūtras we have, I think this should not be taken as an absolute (a classic restraint in Buddhism!). I think the reason behind the condemnation of meat trade is that one easily gets into a habit when it's one's business, one's trade… The merchant easily loses sight of how the meat is killed, how much is necessary, etc. The merchant stops paying attention to the animal and the requirements of the situation, and starts focusing maybe too much on making money, on killing as much as he can sell (without questioning where the money comes from, or how it will be used —maybe even for a sacrifice rather than eating!)… The danger, I think, is in stopping to pay attention, rather than the trade in and of itself.

Finally, I'd like to address a difference between monastics and laypeople. Some rules imposed on monastics make little sense, but they nonetheless have value.

Their value is in training a monastic into accepting "things as they are" and getting out of the "I know better" or "why can't I do this-or-that, if I want to?" What the rule is about almost doesn't matter, what matters is that the monastic obeys the context (s)he stepped in, this-or-that particular monastery at this-or-that point in history… That's the context, and the monastic has to accept it is not negotiable, no matter how much the ego would like to.

Now, to take these rules out of context is just that: "out of context". This is quite unlikely to lead to "don't know", or to "seeing things as they are" or to "responding appropriately to the situation at hand". The rules have no value intrinsically. There is no 'inherent' trait of wisdom, or bodhisattvayana or anything!

So a layman should not take on vegetarianism "just because monks do." That's projecting a sense of 'superiority' on monks, which is invalid; that's also the ego 'cherry-picking' the rules that apply, which is wholly different from the context of the monastery (where the rule is imposed against the will of the ego, i.e. in order to put the ego down, instead of nurturing it); in a way, this might even be "lust for enlightenment".

"Neither abstaining from  flesh or fish, nor fasting, nor nakedness, nor tonsure, nor matted hair, nor dirt, nor rough skins, nor the worshipping of the fire, nor the many immortal penances in the world, nor hymns, nor oblations, nor sacrifice, nor observance of the season, purify a mortal who has not conquered his doubt." (Sn 2.2) The Buddha states clearly that ticking boxes and looking holy is not what it's about.

Our path is in "not knowing", paying attention, definitely not in ticking boxes. For me, that's what the Buddha pointed to when he rejected vegetarianism (including for monks). The point about the meat not being killed "for the monastic" is both a rejection of "hindu sacrifice" and indeed a call for not killing. But his rejection of vegetarianism calls for paying attention to what's appropriate response, rather than ticking a box: appreciating that a family shares their food with you is more important than ticking a box about a precept… The precept matters, but it matters in how it supports us to pay attention: there is no ultimate 'good' or 'bad' in Buddhism. There is 'wholesomeness', which is context-dependent.

My (admittedly 'personal') interpretation of the whole debate is as follows:
• "things as they are" requires to see that we need sustenance, we need food. The Buddha rejected asceticism (he discovered the Middle Path, between asceticism and indulgence)!
• killing plants is not inherently 'better' than killing animals. And while producing meat requires some waste (food and water for the animals), the meat industry itself is also one of the most effective at using everything in an animal: the meat is sold, but much of the rest is used too, be it skin or internal organs, to produce leather goods or food for other animals or sausages, etc.
• the point of the rules is to pay attention to what we eat, where it comes from, and the intention behind the production.

As such, my conclusion is that what matters is not to waste, it matters more than being vegetarian:
• wasting any food (vegetarian or not) means wasting the destruction of habitats for other sentient beings,
• wasting food means wasting the killing of beings (highly evolved or not) which were killed with no awareness of a purpose,
• wasting food is nurturing the mental fabrication that killing an 'inferior' being (a plant, one sense instead of six) is 'irrelevant', a mental fabrication that is likely to later be expanded and justify the killing of animals (e.g. by debating they have only five senses, instead of six) then the killing of other human beings…
What matters is to pay attention to things as they are: we need food, but we can pay attention (without prejudices, or ticking boxes of certainties) on how we source the food, how much we source, what we source it for, why is it an appropriate response to the context at hand…

In our current modern societies,
• waste is ultra common,
• over-eating / obesity is common (waste through the digestive system),
• under-eating / anorexia is common (salad-picking waste)…
If the buddhist message tells us something about "not knowing", about not clinging to certainties and rules, about responding to here&now without prejudices from the past (a rule appropriate in the past is not automatically appropriate now, and vice versa), then addressing waste and nutritional balance might well be the Middle Path (rather than following the Vinaya from 25 centuries ago, or practicing monastic rules as laypeople). Rejecting hunting as a 'sport' seems rather adequate too.

Personally, I do not promote nor reject vegetarianism in relation to buddhism. I think it is a relevant question of our times, and it is very much about intention but without blinding oneself on "doing the right thing"… I think it is not only relevant but a serious deep question, and this in my view is the perfect example of a topic we should keep questioning rather than attempting to provide a solution "once and for all", a certainty.

I think "refraining from (food) waste" should be a modern precept for laypeople:
• Around 35 million tons of food waste was generated in the US, in 2010, 97% of which was thrown away into landfills or incinerators;
• More than 14% of households in the U.S. were "food insecure", in 2009, meaning they did not know where their next meal would come from (and I don't think it's particularly great conditions for spiritual work…);
• Food in landfills generates methane (a greenhouse gas);
• Wasted food means wasted money for businesses and residences, reducing money supply to other wholesome initiatives;
• It is estimated that £12bn a year is wasted across the UK at home (nearly 10% of weekly shop i.e. on average, each of us throws away 120kg of food a year), it is obviously worse once you include restaurants too (reaching up to 33% waste: what's not eaten from the menu but was prepared) and supermarkets (selling only good-looking fruits & veg. means throwing many no-longer-perfect-but-still-eatable)…

#Buddhism   #Dharma   #vegetarian