Buddhist Organisations Need To Promote Vegetarianism

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By Guptila de Silva

Vegetarianism has been a bit of a thorny issue among some Buddhist traditions and more often than not, when people question the position of Buddhists with regards to vegetarianism it is dismissed as something inconsequential or even not relevant to the Buddhist practice.

But can a religion that uses Ahimsa (non-violence) as a corner stone of its practice simply ignore or brush aside the role of worsening torture and cruelty to animals caused by modern day factory farming methods? Should Buddhists turn a blind eye to this ever increasing cruelty to beings that share this world with us?

It is said that the Buddha himself intervened to stop mass slaughter of animals on at least one occasion, and of course, urged the lay followers to abstain from killing (and harming) living beings1 as one of the fundamental steps towards enlightenment.

The difficulty is what position one should take in interpreting the spirit of this precept. Does this mean as long as one personally does not kill, one is keeping the precept? Or does this mean much more encompassing, refraining from all possible activities, which might lead to killing or harming living beings?

While interpreting the spirit of this precept one also has to bear in mind the vast social technological and economical changes that have occurred since the time of the Buddha.

What should be the position of Buddhists, and in particular Buddhist Organizations, be in response to the mass slaughter of animals for human consumption and spiraling cruelty towards other species of beings with whom we share this planet?

This article proposes that all Buddhists and Buddhist Organizations at least should promote the idea of vegetarianism in order to reduce killing and cruelty to animals.

Traditional Buddhist Positions

The approach to vegetarianism is different among Buddhist communities due to the various cultural influences and traditions.

We have Mahayana Buddhist communities who practice strict vegetarianism perhaps mainly due to the core teachings of the Mahayana Buddhist ideal of helping all sentient beings. These monks and nuns do not appear to have any problems with support from the lay communities whose traditional diet generally includes many varieties of meat.

Then we have Theravada Buddhist communities where offering of cooked animal flesh to monks and nuns is not considered a major issue. However, it is interesting to note that offering of meat and meat products is less prevalent in countries influenced by Hinduism – e.g. Sri Lanka where Buddhism is somewhat influenced by Hinduism, offering of meat is not the common practice (but offering of fish is more acceptable), whereas offering of beef, pork etc is more common in countries such as Thailand where the influence of Hinduism is far less.

It is also interesting to note that in countries such as Sri Lanka, most forest monasteries are strictly vegetarian. The lay supporters do not even offer fish or fish products which is an integral part of traditional cuisine.

Vinaya rules specifically prevent monks and nuns consuming certain types of meats – eating the meat of humans, elephants, horses, dogs, snakes, lions, tigers, leopards, bears and hyenas considered to be for the purpose of self protection (avoiding danger from wild animals when walking through forests and jungles) and self respect. Also, monks and nuns are required not to accept meat if they are aware that the animal(s) were killed specifically for the purpose of making the offering.

There are some Theravada monasteries here in Australia that do not explicitly request offering of vegetarian food but the message is conveyed in a subtle way to discourage the lay people from offering meat. It appears at these monasteries the lay people have no problem accepting this position. Quite clearly the monks and nuns in these monasteries were using their influence to promote compassion towards all living beings at the expense of being seen as 'transgressing' Vinaya rules in a strictly technical sense.

Recently, I visited a forest monastery in Australia where the offerings of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes are separated and placed on different tables. It was quite interesting to note that in this monastery, lay people offered far insignificant amount of meat dishes compared to vegetarian dishes!

I also recall seeing on a website of a certain monastery about their position in consuming meat. In this write up, the Vinaya rules associated with consumption of meat was very clearly articulated but reading between the lines I felt that this was more a justification or even an invitation to continue supplying meat for consumption of monks and nuns. No doubt compassion towards living beings are considered slightly less important compared to keeping a cultural tradition alive at these monasteries. I am glad to note that this particular website has recently taken off this page hopefully with the long term intention of moving towards vegetarianism!

Traversing the Spectrum

All Buddhas supposed to have summarized their teachings in three simple statements - abstain from evil actions, cultivate good actions and train ones mind.

Killing or harming living beings, of course fall into the category of evil actions which must be stopped. Cultivating kindness and compassion to all living beings is part of the cultivating good actions. First, of course, one has to try to abstain from killing or harming living beings and then one can further improve or refine on this by being kind to living beings and avoiding harm and cruelty to them.

It is interesting to note that proponents of animal welfare (most of who probably aren't Buddhists by the way) such as Lyn White, have embraced this very idea and are calling for 'humans to act as best as they can be'.2

For most Buddhists, and equally non-Buddhists, this is not a problem. Being kind to animals, especially pets or domesticated animals, is just as easy as not killing them for many people in this world. In fact, most will find it impossible to watch animals being killed by others let alone killing animals by themselves.

Some time ago, I sent an email to my friends about a video available on Youtube titled, 'Earthings' which gives graphic descriptions on how humans inflict cruelty on animals – not just killing for meat consumption but also raising them for animal products, entertainment and scientific research. Most of the people I sent the email to later told me that they could not bring themselves to watch such horrific cruelty on video and hence did not even want to watch it!

Link - Earthings

Yet, somehow, we do not appear to have a problem, moral or otherwise, consuming meat as long as the animal has been killed by others. Our compassion appears to come to an abrupt halt when others do the killing for us.

We tend to justify this dilemma simply by coming out with clever arguments like, whether one eats meat or not animals will be killed anyway, one cannot correct injustices in this world or if everyone stops eating meat what would happen to the meat/fish industry? and so on.

Supply and Demand

Of course, no one is under any delusion that if one becomes a vegetarian that the killing of all animals will come to a grinding halt overnight. However, the fact remains that even a few people becoming vegetarians can make a significant difference to the number of animals being killed.

For example, WikiAnswers claims that, in the US in 2008 the number of cattle, pigs, chickens, layer hens, broiler chickens and turkeys slaughtered in total was 18,573,833,400 (18.5 billion). That is 35,338 animals slaughtered every minute in the US alone. That excludes fish.

Assuming only 150,000,000 people (50% of the US population) consumed meat this would mean over 120 animals per year being killed per person in the US alone.

If we become more conservative in our calculations, and take the position that 50 animals will be saved per year per person around the world then even a small group of people abstaining from consuming meat would amount to a significant saving of lives. Bear in mind that this is a highly over simplied number just for the sake of this argument and reality the savings of lives will be far greater.

It is not just the saving of lives – it also helps reduce untold cruelty that goes along in raising animals for meat production.

So the statistics are very clear – even one person becoming a vegetarian or even making a conscious effort to reduce the consumption of meat will have a significant impact on the lives of the animal and their well being.

So, what is stopping us taking a more compassionate attitude towards animals? I put to you that it has to be our inability to part with the desire for the taste of meat although we may be willing to show compassion to animals by not killing them ourselves.

Killing will still happen

Those who use the argument that 'killing of animals will still happen anyway therefore why bother?' should only ask themselves how come most countries do not kill dogs and cats for meat? It is simply because most people love dogs and cats and therefore do not want even to entertain the idea of hurting such lovely creatures let alone killing them for consumption. Those who have had pet cows, goats, chickens etc most likely feel the same way about these animals.

Essentially, killing will still happen simply because people want that process to continue not because of some mysterious force of nature. We want that process to continue because it fulfills a need for a particular type of a taste or a need for some form of nutrition, which we believe, rightly or wrongly, we cannot get otherwise.

Protein Factor

Many use the argument of lack of protein can affect human health if we did not consume meat. This probably can be a valid argument in remote parts of the world such as in the Himalayas or in some desert habitats, but by and large there is an abundance of products, which can be used as protein alternatives in most countries especially in the developed countries.

Ironically, most animal slaughter is done in the developed nations of the world with the rest of the developing world catching up fast with this cruelty.

Intention is what matters

There is no argument that the intentions behind killing and eating meat are significantly different and that those who eat meat do not do so with the intention of killing animals. However, it is also clear that eating meat directly contributes to cruel methods of farming and killing of animals. Therefore, any attempt at avoiding eating meat to reduce the cruelty and killing of animals amounts to actively developing compassion – one of the cornerstones of the Buddha's noble path. Hence when and where possible all Buddhists should be encouraged to avoid eating meat or at least reduce the consumption of meat.

Forcing the view on others

Another often used excuse for Buddhist organizations not opting to go vegetarian is due to the fear or not wanting to, force their views about consuming animal flesh on others. Superficially, this looks a very sound and a noble argument.

However, there are plenty of other instances where Buddhists do force their views on others – for example, Buddhist organizations do not allow the sale of alcohol, gambling or other forms of dubious activities to raise funds although preventing such activities will no doubt will force our view on others who may see them, rightly or wrongly, as harmless.

Similarly, helping reduce animal slaughter, while may have some impact on those who prefer to eat meat, undertaken with the right intentions will result in a good outcome.

No Vinaya rule

People often say that the Buddha did not lay down a Vinaya rule prohibiting eating meat as a defensive argument. This is probably right – that the Buddha did not specifically proscribe eating meat but then the Buddha also did not proscribe many other forms of human activities, some of them which even did not exist at the time of the Buddha – for example, the fact that Vinaya does not ostracize bull fighting does not make this cruel activity acceptable to Buddhists. In fact, it should be the responsibility of lay Buddhists to condone such actions where possible with the hope of putting an end to them.

While lay Buddhists certainly do not have to follow the confrontational path of organizations such as Sea Sheppard, Greenpeace etc we certainly should not maintain the silence when mass scale cruelty takes place and take non-violent action to alleviate the suffering. Moving towards vegetarianism certainly is a small contribution we all can make to stop mass scale killing of animals. For some, no doubt, this will be a sacrifice of a tasty dish but when considered this sacrifice in the context of suffering and cruelty the animals have to go through, it will become a noble deed.

Historical perspective

While strictly adhering to the word of the Buddha is a noble act, as Buddhist we should also view issues in terms of today's socio-economic conditions. Urging people avoid consumption of meat may not have been such a major issue in the days of the Buddha where it is highly unlikely that abattoirs and large scale animal farming would have existed. People would have killed animals for meat on a needs basis rather than the need to fill the supermarket shelves as done today.

'Animal Auschwitzs' which kill billions of cattle or modern day hatcheries where young live male chicks are put through the grinder for meat (as only female chicks are used for egg industry) definitely would not have existed during the time of the Buddha.

Would it be too unreasonable to assume that such a compassionate person like the Buddha would have made a more definite stand on the consumption of meat had he lived today?

Traditions cannot be changed

An often used excuse is, that some cultural traditions where offering of meat is the norm cannot be changed or is, almost impossible to change. There is no doubt that this is a hard thing to do but Buddha's own life and those of his followers were full of stories and anecdotes where traditions were challenged and were successfully changed for the sake of development of wisdom and compassion.

The Buddha's own work in social reform are classic examples where he boldly and skillfully challenged the traditions however sacred they were considered to be at the time – two of the greatest events of course, were the ordination of women and low caste people – certainly a very radical reform in a society which held very definite and uncompromising views on such matters.

I have heard a story where Ajahn Chah helped a traditional Thai fisherman abandon his profession so that he could lead a better, more harmless, life. Obviously the great Thai master did not think that helping people become more compassionate is a difficult thing to do.

People come first

Yet another justification for continuing a non-vegetarian life style in Buddhist organizations is the argument that by going fully vegetarian we may disappoint the supporters who are non-vegetarian and who are happy providing deliciously cooked meat dishes.

If the guiding principle is people's welfare why is that we do not even think of the poor souls who day in day out have to kill animals for a living? Why doesn't our compassion extend to those people who have to slaughter animals and are unknowingly making such bad kamma but is just limited to some supporters who get the pleasure out of cooking meat dishes and offering them to the Sangha?

I presume that there may be a few supporters who misguidedly believe that offering more expensive meat dishes to Sangha will bring them a lot more merit than if they were to offer a vegetarian meal. But then isn't it time that such Organizations challenge these views just like what the great teacher did?

Obligations of the laity

As discussed earlier, in strictly keeping with Vinaya, monks and nuns cannot be expected to set guidelines as to what type of food should be offered by the lay people. While some monks and nuns have used their personal skills to guide the lay supporters towards compassion by encouraging them to offer only vegetarian food it is impossible for us to expect such an approach would work in all cases.

However, on the other hand the lay supporters clearly can make a choice – there is nothing preventing them from making the organizations they belong to become more humane and compassionate.

Ajahn Brahm, the Abbot of the Bodhinyana Monastery in Perth, Western Australia, in one of his talks3 quite succinctly summed up the options available for the laity. In his talk he said, “Monks may not exercise choice when it comes to food and that is much harder than being a vegetarian. Nonetheless, we may encourage vegetarianism and if our lay supporters brought only vegetarian food and no meat, well...monks may not complain either! May you take the hint and be kind to animals”. As Buddhists we should ask ourselves, why the lay Buddhist supporters are hesitant in acting upon this hint?

Clearly the lay Buddhist supporters can set a more compassionate standard and they have an obligation to do so.

Compassion for our environment

By becoming vegetarians not only we show compassion to animals but also we will be contributing to the healing of our global environment. There are enough research showing the highly adverse impact of modern day animal farming methods on our fragile global environment. It is claimed that almost 80% of the grain harvested in the world goes to feed animals in factory farms while so many millions of people around world are starving. Thus, any reduction in the consumption of meat is also a way to show compassion to our environment and to future generations of human and animals in this world.

The negative effects of animal farming for food consumption is mind boggling. The effects of animal farming on the planet earth is succinctly shown in the documentary titled 'Cowspircay' which is freely available on Youtube.

Link - Cowspiracy

All or Nothing

I guess one of the problems of making a shift towards vegetarianism is due to having high expectations or ideals – people wanting it to be all or nothing.

This does not have to be so. It is certainly not only impossible but also undesirable that such major shifts in habits be undertaken straight away. However, if this is done in smaller steps so that the entire community is behind such a noble cause then such a course of action is likely to succeed and accepted by all supporters.

What is important is to take the first step and continue moving forward so that the organization can help prevent cruelty to animals.

For example, firstly the membership can be alerted to the fact that in keeping with the principle of universal compassion, the organization prefers to offer only vegetarian food for its monks and nuns. Most organizations will be surprised how well its membership will accept such a position – all it requires is a bold person to make the first call.

As time goes by, serving non-vegetarian food will become a rarity and eventually it will come to a point where no one will want to offer non-vegetarian meals to monks and nuns.

With regards to fund raising events, Buddhist organizations can make a significant impact by making its food fairs and fund raising dinners vegetarian events. If Buddhist events can take place without serving alcohol, gambling and other sleazy activities, why is that vegetarian events are considered such massive obstacles?

One of the Vietnamese Centers in Canberra regularly run food stalls to raise funds at public events and guess what? They only offer vegetarian meals. In fact they also run a restaurant (which is aptly called, Karuna Restaurant) which offers vegetarian meals which is popular among the local community. Those who doubt the ability to raise funds without the sale of meat should consider meeting the abbot of this monastery who has undertaken massive building projects at this location.

Let's get the ball rolling

All we do not have to wait for the entire world to agree to go vegetarian before we can start doing something ourselves. In fact, we do not need to wait for all Buddhist communities to agree to this – we can start the process locally – within our communities, irrespective of how small or big they may be.

It is as simple as taking the following three steps;

1- Discourage consumption of meat, which can be promoted by the local community leaders, committees and ideally with the blessing of the members of the Sangha.

2 - Committees taking an active role in discouraging the offer of meat to monks and nuns

3 - No 'blood money' to be raised by selling meat dishes at Buddhist food fairs and social events.

We need is the commitment of a group of people to make it happen so that lives of animals can be spared every year and in the process Buddhists can develop greater compassion and greater letting go of desire for meat which will all help towards their spiritual goal.

There is no doubt that we all contribute to killing of animals in some form or the other, whether we are vegetarians or not – everyone agrees that fruits and vegetables are grown by killing billions of insects. However, it is equally true that simply by cutting back on our craving for meat we could simply save some millions of life. In a world where animal farming and cruelty to animals is growing at a ever faster rate shouldn't we Buddhists set the example by promoting vegetarianism? Just for the sake of compassion towards these innocent animals who share this world with us?

The case for supporting vegetarianism is so eloquently and convincingly put forward by Phillip Wollen, former CEO of Citibank at a public debate4 - when significant numbers of people, most of whom are non-Buddhists, are actively promoting animal welfare, do we still need to convince our Buddhist communities to promote kindness to animals by asking them to reduce consumption of animal flesh by becoming vegetarians or vegans?

I urge you to read this article carefully and consider actively promoting vegetarianism or at least reduce the consumption of meat for the sake of the innocent animals who otherwise will have to lead a miserable life and have a torturous death in order to become food for our consumption.

* About the author: Guptila de Silva is a SriLanka born Buddhist living in Australia. He does not belong to any organization which promotes vegetarianism or any animal welfare groups although he is sympathetic to most of their views and actions.

1_The first of the five precepts lay Buddhists are to undertake is to not kill living beings.

2_Watch Lyn White's (CEO of Animals Australia) public address Link

3_http://www.dhammatalks.net/Books6/Ajahn_Brahm_What_the_Buddha_say_about_eating_meat.htm

4_Best Speech Ever! Former Citibank CEO Phillip Wollen owns the stage - Link