Buddhism & the meat question

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  October 2012: (Actually published on November 1,  2012.)

by Wolf Clifton

A recent activist letter-writing campaign protested against a chicken teriyaki dinner hosted by a west coast Buddhist temple.  As a Buddhist and a vegetarian,  I was appalled at the notion of a Buddhist establishment condoning and actively supporting the slaughter of chickens.  Even more appalling was learning that this event was by no means an anomaly.  Dozens of Buddhist temples have recently hosted chicken teriyaki dinners–especially on the west coast,  but all over the U.S. and Canada. . Such dinners are not only complicit in producing enormous suffering for living beings but also defy the spirit of ahimsa and the bodhisattva ideal,  profaning and disgracing the teachings of the Buddha. . The value of ahimsa,  or harmlessness,  is the basis of the First Precept of Buddhism–“to refrain from killing living beings,” and therefore is the foundation of Buddhist morality. There has never been any doubt that “living beings” includes not just humans, but animals as well (in addition to various unseen supernatural beings). Within the Mahayana, one of the two major schools of Buddhism, numerous scriptures are explicit in their assertion that eating meat is a violation of the First Precept.  For instance,  in Chapter 7 of the Nirvana Sutra,  the Buddha states,  “One who eats meat kills the seed of great compassion.”  The Angulimaliya Sutra teaches that, “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 samsara [the cycle of rebirth]…Therefore,  one’s own flesh and the flesh of another are a single flesh,  so Buddhas do not eat meat.” . It is true that scriptures of the Theravada school, the other major sect, portray the Buddha permitting his disciples to eat meat. However,  this is only on the condition that it is not “seen or heard or suspected” that an animal was purposely slaughtered for their food.  It is important to recall that early Buddhist monks lived on donations,  and as such made no financial contribution towards the production of meat. This justification obviously does not apply to the purchase of meat in an economy based on supply and demand, in which every purchase of chicken finances the future slaughter of another chicken. In the latter case, one is thus directly responsible for the taking of life;  far from merely suspected,  it is known (if not seen or heard) that an animal was purposely slaughtered for one’s food. . That economic participation in animal slaughter is karmically equivalent to slaughtering animals oneself is spelled out explicitly in the Jivaka Sutta,  which lists the meat trade as one of five wrong livelihoods for a lay follower.  Therefore, even if one follows the Theravada scriptures over the Mahayana, the circumstances in which the Buddha permits meat-eating clearly do not apply to this case.  In a modern context,  the Theravada interpretation would probably limit spiritually acceptable meat consumption to eating roadkill. . Beyond the issue of eating meat itself,  one also must consider the horrendous conditions that chickens (and other animals) suffer in modern factory farms and slaughterhouses.  Suffice it to say that the descriptions of various hells provided in Buddhist scripture–in which damned souls are imprisoned in darkness, tortured mercilessly, butchered and boiled alive–could easily apply to the practices of the modern meat industry.  The Mahayana ideal of the bodhisattva–an enlightened being who postpones nirvana for him/herself out of compassion for others–calls on Buddhists to intervene to prevent or reduce suffering wherever it is encountered. Famous bodhisattvas such as Kuan Yin and Ksitigarbha are said to have descended into the hells to save beings trapped there.  Ksitigarbha in particular is said to have vowed that he would never accept nirvana for himself until all the hells had been emptied.  If judged by their conditions,  factory farms and slaughterhouses are clearly hellish,  but rather than easing the suffering of their occupants, serving chicken teriyaki dinners merely endorses and economically supports the perpetuation of these hells on Earth. . If the chickens have been sourced from so-called “free range” producers rather than factory farms,  their suffering is less,  but a lesser hell is still a hell.  Serving these tormented beings for dinner is not merely ignoring the bodhisattva ideal:  it is actively defying it. . One cannot realistically demand that every Buddhist temple should require lay members to be vegan,  or vegetarian,  or even actively promote vegetarianism. Even in most Mahayana scriptures (let alone Theravada),  the Buddha requires vegetarianism only of monastics.  Nonetheless,  there is an enormous difference between allowing lay members to eat meat and actively encouraging them to do so.  The former can perhaps be excused as a concession to human weakness;  the latter,  however,  is a clear violation of Buddhist morality and the bodhisattva ideal, and goes against all that Buddhism has ever stood for. . Buddhist temples should be able to replace chicken teriyaki dinners,  and other events that serve meat,  with dinners based on the many widely and easily available vegetarian foods (including meat analogs),  which would be equally fun for members and attractive to non-members,  as well as compassionate toward all forms of life and truly representative of the Buddhist message.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR         Currently completing a degree in religious studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville,  Tennessee,  Wolf Clifton has also studied Asian religions in Bali,  Okinawa,  India, and Deer Park Zen Monastery in California.

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