All beings fear danger, life is dear to all. When a man considers this, he does not kill or cause to kill.” In light of these words of the Buddha, we may ask, as a person who practices Dhamma, is it appropriate for me to eat meat—or—more precisely phrased for the modern world: When I buy meat at a supermarket or restaurant, or eat meat that someone else has bought, am I causing someone to kill?
The Mahayana scriptures portray the Buddha as being unequivocal on this subject. In the Lankavatara Sutra, for example, the Buddha says, “If, Mahamati, meat is not eaten by anyone for any reason, there will be no destroyer of life.” And in the Brahmajala Sutra, the Buddha states, “All bodhisattvas should abstain from eating the flesh of any and all sentient beings. Someone who eats flesh is defiled beyond measure.”
The Pali Canon, on the other hand, gives a subtler response. A Jain practitioner named Jivaka relayed to the Buddha some local gossip that accused him of allowing members of his order to eat meat from animals that had been slaughtered specifically for them. The Buddha denied the charge with these words: “I say, Jivaka, that there are three instances in which meat should not be eaten: when it is seen, heard or suspected [that the living being has been slaughtered for oneself].” He then goes on to say that when it is not seen, heard or suspected that the animal was killed specifically for him, a monk may eat meat that he is offered as dana (Majjima Nikaya 55.5).
The first thing to note about this “threefold rule” is that it is not really a rule; it is an exception to a rule. The rule, which is implied by the exception, is, do not eat meat unless you are certain beyond the shadow of a doubt that the animal was not killed for you. A compassionate vegetarian diet is the Buddhist norm.
To put this in context, Buddhist monks ate only one meal a day, which they obtained by begging. Renunciates begging for food—Hindus and Jains, as well as Buddhists—were a common sight in ancient India. They made rounds of residential neighborhoods where householders gave them leftover table scraps. When the donation included bits of meat, the meat had been purchased (or the animal slaughtered) for the householder’s family. The same amount of meat would have been bought (or the same number of animals killed) whether monks came begging or not. Monks who accepted meat in their alms bowls were not causing—even indirectly—an animal to be killed.
In discussions about this we have often encountered students and teachers who invoke the threefold rule in defense of meat eating. The meat that we buy in supermarkets and restaurants, so the argument goes, is anonymous; it has not been killed specifically for anyone and therefore, everyone may eat it without concern.
But is this really true? Why are chickens, cows, pigs and fish slaughtered? Obviously, so that people can buy and eat the meat. If no one ate meat, then no one would buy it. And if no one bought meat, no animals would be killed. The animals are killed specifically for everyone who buys or eats the meat. When we buy a package of chicken or order a burger, we are enrolling ourselves in the class of people for whom the animals are slaughtered.
The slaughterhouse worker may not have killed an animal with Joe Smith in mind. But Joe knows that in order for him to eat meat, an animal must be killed. And because Joe is paying someone else to do his dirty work for him, he is causing the slaughterhouse worker to kill a sentient being. In the U.S. today, slaughterhouse jobs are among the lowest paying, dirtiest, most stressful and most dangerous in the industrialized world, and are most often held by people of color with few alternatives.
Since only the act of killing is prohibited by the suttas, some hold the notion that eating an animal is ethically distinguishable from killing one. But the Noble Eightfold Path undercuts this. There, the Buddha defines Right Livelihood as livelihood that does not involve five particular occupations. Slaughtering animals is one of the five, and raising animals to be slaughtered is another.
Most of us are not nuns or monks. We are confronted with what is, for many of us, a dilemma: How do we practice the Dhamma ethically while participating in the life of this complex contemporary world? Here, we have found it helpful to be mindful of the craving for meat. As the Buddha said, “any desire and passion with regard to craving for forms . . . [including] craving for flavors . . . is a defilement of the mind” (Samyutta Nikaya 27.8).
It’s Also About the Environment
The suffering and death of animals and the exploitation of slaughterhouse workers are not the only reasons to adopt a vegetarian diet. First, according to a recent United Nations report, the meat industry causes more global warming (through emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) than all the cars, trucks, SUVs, planes, and ships combined in the world. Second, production of a meat-based diet requires more than ten times the water needed for a totally vegetarian diet. Third, farmed animals produce 130 times as much excrement as the entire U.S. human population. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the runoff from factory farms pollutes our rivers and lakes more than all other industrial sources combined. Finally, a vegan or vegetarian diet has been found to be much healthier than a meat-based diet (see Resources section).
It’s Easy, Just Do It
In twenty-first-century America, living a vegetarian or vegan life is not difficult. A wide variety of appetizing, nutritious food is readily available in most restaurants and supermarkets.
But there is no denying that for some of us who grew up on the all-American diet, the transition can be challenging. Old habits die hard, especially where food is concerned. The good news is that you don’t have to do it all at once. As a first step, Bob became vegetarian (no meat, chicken, or fish). After a number of years he substituted soy milk for cow’s milk. Eventually, he gave up cheese and eggs. Norm began by giving up red meat, tapered off chicken and fish over the next several months, and finally dropped eggs and dairy after more than a year. You can take your time, do it at your own pace, and according to your own style. Develop an approach that will work for you. If you slip sometimes, don’t torture yourself with guilt. Just apply the practice of mindfulness. Reflect on how and why it happened, and apply that knowledge in the future. Books and websites can help you explore how to make the transition (see Resources section below).
What if the Buddha Were Alive Today?
If the Buddha visited a factory farm or slaughterhouse, he would see cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys living and dying under conditions that are too horrible to imagine. Those of us who have seen animals living on factory farms and dying in slaughterhouses can bear witness to the systematic torture of these vulnerable, sentient beings. All this goes on out of the sight and mind of most of us, as we go about our daily lives. What would a farm animal say to us if she spoke our language?
Vegetarianism contributes to the end of suffering for both ourselves and for the sentient beings whom we are no longer causing to experience extreme anguish and death. It is a practice of compassion and a bodhisattva path from which everyone benefits.
For information on the health benefits of a plant-based diet, go to the website for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), www.pcrm.org.
For tips on switching to not eating meat, try The Inner Art of Vegetarianism: Spiritual Practices for Body and Soul by Carol Adams, and The Vegetarian Sourcebook by Joanne Stepaniak.
Excellent videos are available to view online. A good starting point is “Meet Your Meat” and “Grass Walls,” produced by PETA and available at www.meat.org and on YouTube.