I was yesterday on a Buddhist lecture at our local Diamond Way center. Amongst the questions asked the issue of vegetarianism arose again. It is normal on Buddhist lectures that people, especially new to the subject ask questions about eating meat.

There are several reasons why this question is so common. First, it’s because in our culture people associate Buddhism with Hinduism out of ignorance. These two religions come from the same cultural roots, yet are very different in their goals, practices and outlook on world. But I think people ask about eating meat so much because quite soon after starting to learn more about Buddhism they hear all the teachings about sentient beings (term which encompasses everything alive, not only humans), need for compassion towards them and the bad consequences of harming them. And then this strange suggestion appears – you can eat meat, but only if it comes from an animal that has been already killed. Don’t kill animals yourself and don’t eat meat from animals that have been killed specifically for the purpose of being eaten by you, personally. A good example is that you come to your friends out in the country and they will tell you “so, we will kill this sheep or pig especially for you” and you should then say “no, thanks”.

It seems a bit hypocritical on the surface. So, you don’t kill and don’t eat animals that are killed for you – but you can eat a pork cutlet or a beef steak. What about all those animals that are being reared especially for that purpose – some would cry out.

And the Buddhist teachers have different ways of responding to that, but it all boils down to this – once it is a cutlet you can’t help it, no good would come out of the fact that you won’t eat it.

There are some other points here as well:

  1. The fact that the animal and the butcher meet is primarily due to impressions in their minds and possibly is related to their previous unpleasant encounters. Whatever the cause, this has nothing to do with you – with the exception described above when you take ownership of the act of animal being killed for you specifically – or do it yourself.There is no way of going on living this life in this world without harming other sentient beings, because the world is full of them. The nice story about it is of Kalu Rinpoche explaining to a group of veggies that if they drink tea they could have as well be drinking blood – because of all the beings, mostly small and primitive, that have been killed in the process of  cultivating and preparing tea.

    To cut is short – you should do what you can to avoid consciously harming other beings, but the fact is that you can’t avoid it totally because that’s just impossible.

    And plants are sentient being too, by the way. Only with very limited senses. But on the absolute level they are the same as we – limitless space of mind at play, developing various forms.

  2. The question of eating meat or not doesn’t seem to be an important prerequisite to enlightenment – and that’s what Buddhism is all about. To wake up from a dream you can’t concentrate on one or other aspect of it, but on the process of waking up. Enlightenment, they say, is waking up from this dream we think is reality.Buddha Shakyamuni did eat meat (in fact he said to his monks more or less “eat all they will give you”), many other enlightened masters did eat meat.

    Logically, if abstaining from eating meat was an important condition for enlightenment then Buddha would have told something about it, wouldn’t he?

    Tibet is a good example, the Buddhist culture was very strong there and many people did reach enlightenment over the ages – yet natural conditions make meat almost the only nutritional option available there for humans. For all practical purposes the only thing that grows in most parts of this mountainous country is grass. And there are some animals who eat grass. So, either you eat grass or the animals – because there is nothing else to eat.

    Logically, if eating meat would be something that precludes enlightenment no one would achieve it in Tibet, but since many did then it might not be that important.

    This whole concept that something you eat can make you impure in the spiritual sense has been criticized even in our own cultural setting by the guy name Jesus some time ago. Yet, it still lingers on.

Having said all that: if you don’t eat because of compassion for animals – that’s good. Especially, the motivation that drives you is good – it’s in your mind and it’s all about mind anyway. But don’t blame or intimidate others – and above all don’t feel better than others because you do so, because that’s a completely different motivation and would yield a different result.