Wait A Minute! ~ REFUTATION

Some time ago, I came across a little booklet that had been written with the stated purpose of “analyzing and studying straightforwardly” the question of vegetarianism from a Buddhist point-of-view, but which soon turned into a vicious attack from a sectarian angle. I have written about vegetarianism several times before, but I feel I must do so again, in order to try to counteract such blatant prejudice.

The word ‘vegetarianism’ is regrettably awkward, as it implies an ‘ism’, like a religion, rather than something one undertakes or observes voluntarily, from the understanding that it is the right thing to do; however, we do not have a better word at this time, so we will continue to use it here.

Before I begin, perhaps it would be helpful to explain—for those who are not aware of it—that some monks (and some lay-people, too)—mainly those of the Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese forms of Mahayana Buddhism—are vegetarians, while others—mainly of the Theravada school, but also the Tibetans—are not. This has long been a point of controversy and even contention among Buddhists, with some blaming others for lack of compassion, and others insisting that the Buddha did not consider vegetarianism important, and even ate meat Himself! Both parties quote scripture to support their standpoints.

To respond to the above mentioned booklet in full would require another book, which might become boring, so I don’t intend to. The title is: Issues of Vegetarianism: ARE YOU HERBIVORE OR CARNIVORE? by Jan Sanjivaputta of Indonesia. For those who are interested, and who might obtain a copy, it was reprinted for free distribution by W.A.V.E. in Kuala Lumpur; it is worth reading, if only to see how other people think.

The Preface contains the words: “After considering the background, objective, practice, effectiveness and validity of Vegetarianism discussed in this writing, Buddhists should be able to find a method of settlement which is wise and based on the Dhamma”. The writer clearly has a conclusion already in mind, and we find it at the end of the book, thus: “A fool likes to raise frivolous questions and be choosy about what kind of food is to be eaten, whilst a wise man is more attentive and considers how the food should be eaten mindfully, without arousing mental defilement”. Well, it’s easy to call other people fools and consider oneself wise, but it is hardly wise to do so; moreover, it should be borne in mind that, just as Compassion should be balanced by Wisdom to prevent it becoming emotional and misguided, so wisdom should be offset by Compassion to prevent it becoming cold, heartless and merely a thing of the head.

Perhaps I am biased, as a vegetarian myself, because I think that becoming so is the logical thing for someone aspiring to the Buddha’s Way, and I will explain why I think so, without quoting scripture to support me. As I have stated elsewhere, I feel that religion should rest upon reality—that is, not based upon belief, but upon things we can verify for ourselves, upon things that form part of our experience of life. Let us—for the time being—leave aside what the Buddha is reported to have said or not said about vegetarianism, and whether He ate meat or not; I do not accept, wholesale, all that is written in the scriptures, because I want to find out, for myself, instead of merely believing or following. It is not a condition, when we become Buddhists, that we must believe certain things; there are no articles of faith—as in other religions—that we must subscribe to and accept. The Buddha’s way is not an end in itself, but a means to an end; it is not something magical, like ‘Open Sesame’ or ‘Abracadabra’, the mere uttering of which—it is hoped—will bring about miraculous results, but something to be tested, and which helps us to understand reality in the Here and Now. The Buddha expected us to think for ourselves and to test His teachings in the crucible of daily life, not to become His slaves and mindlessly repeat everything He said, word for word.

Let us look at this problem—and it is a problem, a big problem, for the animals—by the essence of the Buddha’s teachings—that is, in terms of Cause-and-Effect. We can all see, for example—without believing—that animals are being slaughtered in great numbers now, not 2,500 years ago; people do not eat ancient meat! And why are they being slaughtered? This also we can see, without belief and without referring to the scriptures: they are slaughtered for their flesh. And what is their flesh for? We can see this, too: the flesh of the slaughtered animals is for eating. And who eats the flesh of these slaughtered animals? Not me, because I decided to abstain from eating meat as a protest against killing. I am not boasting here; I do not think that abstaining from eating meat will make me pure or enlightened; it is not as easy as that (if only it were!)

By putting it this way, I do not mean to be flippant but merely to point out how clear and undeniable the process is. The animals are killed for those who eat their meat; how can we avoid this fact? It’s no use trying to hide behind the old excuse that, “Well, I don’t kill the animals; I only buy the meat from the butcher”, or “I only eat what is offered to me”. That is like trying to hide behind a chopstick, and convinces no-one! Ask the butcher why he kills and he will tell you, quite honestly, that he does so in order to sell the meat, as that is the way he earns his living. Tell him that, according to the Buddha, butchery is wrong livelihood, as it causes pain to the animals: do you think he would change his work? Could we persuade all the butchers in the world to give up killing? Of course not, but just suppose it happened, and there was no meat for sale: people would not be able to buy or eat meat unless they killed the animals, fish or fowl themselves. They are able to do so only because butchers kill animals; but the butchers kill the animals only because people buy and eat meat; the chain of causation here is very clear, except, perhaps, to those who don’t want to see it and always look for excuses to go on eating meat. The fact that Sanjivaputta writes so vehemently against vegetarianism indicates that, deep inside him, he has some doubts about it; maybe he feels guilty about eating meat and seeks to cover it up. He talks about compassion in a distorted way, and says we can feel compassion only for living animals but not for meat, which is no longer living! “Whether its meat is eaten or not”, he says, “the animal has already died, and will not come to life again. The underlying objective of all the Buddha’s teachings is to relieve oneself and other creatures from the suffering which is being or will be experienced, not the ‘suffering which has passed’, for past suffering cannot be altered”. Doesn’t he know how meat comes to be not living? Is he so naïve?! He says the animals have already died, but this is not so; they have been killed! Would he eat the flesh of animals that had died naturally? He says the approach of the Theravadins—assuming that all Theravadins are meat-eaters, like himself, which is not true; Venerable Narada, a foremost and famous Theravadin monk, was a very strict vegetarian—is more effective in reducing the killing of living things than merely abstaining from eating meat, as they—the Theravadins—exhort people not to kill. “ ... the lives of animals can be saved not by forbidding the eating of their meat or considering their meat as dirty, but by referring to the value of life, and fighting for the basic rights of animals. There is no doubt that the way taken by Theravada to overcome the dilemma of animal slaughter may be stated as a direct method of solution. This is totally different from the method proposed and adopted by the vegetarians, which may be considered as an unfruitful method, a ‘seeming salvation’ of animal life”. What strange logic! He assumes that vegetarians do not explain to others the real reason for their being vegetarian, or that they do it only for their own ‘merit’ and not from concern for the animals. But in this, he gravely errs. He says, “The effective way to reduce the killing of animals is to provide the people with information about the Dhamma. It is only in this way that they can really understand that the value of life is important for all beings, including animals”.

To denounce killing, and exhort people to feel compassion, but at the same time to eat meat, is hardly likely to convince anyone. Theravada has been the dominant form of Buddhism in Thailand for almost a thousand years, but it has not had the effect of helping people there to respect life to the point of not killing animals and birds; the trade in endangered animals and their skins in Thailand is well-known and of great concern to Wildlife organizations; outsiders looking on must get a very negative impression of Buddhism from Thailand. There are about 300,000 monks there, and most of them eat meat. Many innocent animals would be spared every day if the monks there decided to tell the people not to offer them meat or fish! And, before anyone comes up with the old objection to this, saying that a monk is not allowed to be choosy and say “I like this; I don’t like that”, but must accept whatever is offered to him provided he does not see, hear or suspect that the animal has been killed especially for him, let me say that, if the monks requested people to offer them only vegetarian food, they would not be asking for themselves, but for the sake of the animals, for animal rights. Buddhism there would become much more alive and dynamic than it is; at present, it seems that—as far as the average Thai Buddhist is concerned—it is little more than a thing of tradition and not meant to be understood and lived by. Buddha-images there are of far greater importance than trying to understand and live by the Dharma. How sad that this great spiritual way has become largely a matter of idolatry and superstition!

The correct way to look at the subject of vegetarianism is from the point-of-view of the animals, as they are the ones who are being bred and killed for their flesh. We cannot bring the slaughtered animals back to life, it is true, but can think about and understand why they were slaughtered in the first place, and do something to prevent others being slaughtered in the future; we are concerned about the living.

Buddhism is quite unlike Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It does not hold that animals were created for our use, but teaches respect for the rights and feelings of all living things. Ask the animals what they think about it; what do you think they would say?

Unwilling to accept the obvious, some people might still argue: “But humans have always eaten meat; it’s natural for us; moreover, most animals eat meat, too—stronger animals eat weaker animals, big fish eat small. This being so, why shouldn’t we eat them?” Reasoning like this reduces us to the level of the animals and we would have no choice but to follow the law of the jungle: Kill or be killed. Although humans are animals, we are a higher kind of animal than the others. A tiger must kill and eat meat in order to survive; it could not suddenly decide: “I’ve had enough of killing and eating meat; it’s time for me to become vegetarian”. It kills in order to eat, but we cannot say it is evil because of that, as it has no choice. Only when we have the power of choice does the question of good and evil arise.

Humans have that power; had we not, there would be no possibility or purpose of trying to follow a spiritual way. As far as we know, animals cannot empathize with humans; they do not have this capacity, or not much, anyway. We, however, can empathize with and feel compassion towards animals; we can identify with them, and have therefore a greater responsibility than animals, and much more opportunity to grow and develop; animals live by nature and evolve slowly; we humans went against nature millions of years ago, and took our development into our own hands rather than waiting for the slow process of evolution to guide our steps (the fact that you are reading what I have written is a sign—just one of countless—that we have gone against nature). And even though, through ignorance, we have made lots of mistakes and brought our planet and everything on it to the brink of disaster, we are able to think about this, too, and hopefully will be able to correct it before it’s too late. So, unless we are willing to live like animals and abandon our human progress in totality, we cannot use nature as an excuse for eating meat.

It is true—as Sanjivaputta says—that it would be hard to find any food that somewhere along the line has not involved the deaths of living beings, but this does not invalidate vegetarianism, as he appears to hope for; it is not a matter of all or nothing. Clearly, he thinks that all vegetarians are concerned only about themselves—their health, purity, merit, etc., things that might motivate him, but which are not—or should not be—a Buddhist’s reason for being vegetarian. A sincere Buddhist observes the effects of his actions upon others, and if he realizes that they cause pain, he tries to refrain from them. If he cannot completely succeed in this—and he cannot, of course, simply because being alive becomes the occasion of pain to others in one way or another—he tries to lessen and minimize the pain he inadvertently causes; he tries to cause as little pain as possible as he passes through the world. But he is not dismayed or deterred by the fact that he cannot completely succeed, and will not say to himself: “There’s no point in even trying”. And if, unknown to him, there is meat or fish in the food that someone offers him, he will not castigate himself or lose any sleep over the matter as he knows the meaning of the words of Jesus: “It is not what goes into a man that makes him impure, but that which comes out of him”; he doesn’t think he has committed a sin and rush off to the nearest ‘sacred river’ to purify himself and pray to the gods for forgiveness. He does not think of meat as ‘impure’—like the brahmins of India—but of the way flesh becomes meat: the slaughter of the animals and the pain and terror involved. He knows that all beings desire happiness and do not want to suffer, just like he himself. He sees himself in others and others in himself, and knows that the pain of one is the pain of all, and vice versa; we are interconnected and do not live alone, by and for ourselves; it is simply impossible to do so. The vegetarianism of Mahayana Buddhism is based upon the Bodhisattva ideal, and is not for oneself but for others. Later on, long after vegetarianism—or any other practice, for that matter—has ceased to be a practice and become just a spontaneous expression of one’s understanding, one will not think in terms of ‘self and others’.

Often, in the West or in countries like Malaysia and Singapore, when there is a large gathering of Buddhists of different sects, the printed programs contain words like: “A vegetarian lunch will be served”, thereby making it acceptable to all; anyone may eat vegetarian food, regardless of their religious affiliations. The late Venerable Hong Choon of Singapore used to host meetings of the Inter-Religious Council at his temple, where everyone—no matter what or why their dietary restrictions—could eat freely the vegetarian food; Hindus had no fear that the food might contain beef, nor Muslims or Jews that it might contain pork; vegetarian food unites where other food divides.

Sanjivaputta raises the issue of “artificial meat, made of wheat-flour kneaded with other ingredients in such a way that its taste, texture and smell are exactly the same as real meat —even a cook would have difficulties in differentiating the artificial from the real meat”. He finds this incongruous, and goes on to say: “Many questions should be asked of the vegetarians who are interested in and have an appetite for such artificial meat. How does the idea and practice of artificial meat production relate in terms of religion? If the eaten food is artificial meat, is the attained purity also not artificial purity? Is such a practice not just the same as an effort to cleanse one mental stain by giving rise to another mental stain which is more loathsome? Furthermore, can this not be considered extreme hypocrisy?” Again, he reveals his misunderstanding by his conviction that vegetarianism is undertaken for the sake of personal purity. He is right, however, in saying that purity is not so easily attained; if it were, then cows, horses, buffaloes, sheep, rhinoceroses, elephants, buffaloes and other herbivores would all have haloes around their heads! But personal purity—or gain of any kind for self—is not the motive behind vegetarianism, as I have tried to show. The purpose of artificial meat is to meet people halfway, so to speak, and gradually wean them from eating meat; for many people, to change abruptly from a meat-based diet to a vegetarian diet would be too much of a shock to their system; some people can do it, but most would find it too hard. I admit, however, that I feel uneasy about such food, and prefer vegetables as vegetables or flour as bread rather than disguised as meat.

Maybe as a way of being at peace with their eating of meat, some monks say that when they finally reach enlightenment, they will remember and assist those animals whose flesh they have eaten to also become enlightened, but I find this argument not worth considering. Does it mean they will help only those beings whose flesh they have lived on, and not others? Is their compassion so conditional? And how do they propose to find those animals in the future, anyway, even supposing they do become enlightened, which is not sure? This is merely an excuse—and a very transparent excuse at that; they are fooling no-one except themselves. Would it not be better to abstain from eating meat instead of trying to rationalize it, particularly in places like India, where it is not difficult to get vegetarian food?

There are—it is true—several misconceptions about vegetarianism. Some people seem to think that vegetarians must be free from diseases like cancer, heart-disease or diabetes, but this is not so; they are also susceptible to such diseases, though maybe not to the extent that meat-eaters are. There is also the widespread belief that just because a person is vegetarian, he must therefore be more spiritually developed than non-vegetarians, with less ‘fire’ and passion in his blood, but this is also not necessarily so. Vegetarianism does not make a person good, because he has done nothing good thereby; he has merely abstained from eating meat as a protest against killing. It is a not-doing rather than a doing, even though it has a positive effect. Hitler was a vegetarian, but it did not make him good, and any positive effects from it in his case were completely nullified by the evil of his life.

An Australian monk named Dhammika, who I met in Singapore some years ago, once told me that when he was walking down a street in Macau, he passed a slaughter-house, and the anguished cries of the animals therein so moved him that he decided to become vegetarian, which he had not hitherto been. The animals spoke Dharma to him and he responded.

On the other hand, I was once told of a high-ranking and well-known Tibetan lama who, while on a visit to Melbourne, was taken for dinner in a restaurant, where he ordered steak; the steak was not cooked according to his liking, however, so he had it taken away and another one brought. Not only was this wasteful, but it showed a complete lack of regard for the animal from whom the steak had come. The fact that it was reported to me indicated what the reporter thought of this.

A Malaysian disciple of the same lama (‘lama’ means ‘teacher’, not ‘monk’; a layman may be a lama as well as a monk), sharply asked a vegetarian, as if she had done something wrong: “What for is your vegetarianism? It won’t make you holy, you know!” The young woman never imagined that it would make her holy. That was his mistake!

To sum up: I stand with the animals on this issue, and would like to reiterate that it should be seen from their point-of-view—objectively, not subjectively—rather than ours, as it is they who are being killed for their flesh. It is a matter of Here-and-Now, a case of what is right rather than who is right. We do not need the flesh and blood of animals in order to live; they do!

N.B. In June 1997, I went to Indonesia, where I was told that Sanjivaputta is a monk—a Theravada monk—who stirred up such strong feelings in his homeland by his book that he is now living in virtual exile in Bangkok. Not only this, but apparently he used to be a vegetarian himself.

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