As we discussed in the Step 4: Code of Ethics, one of the five moral precepts instructs us not to kill living creatures. As beginner Buddhists, we may be confused and concerned about whether eating meat violates this moral precept.
While Buddhists or anyone for that matter can eat meat, that doesn’t mean that you should.
Giving up meat or at least reducing your consumption is likely more in line with the spirit and doctrine of Buddhism. And many people find that as they progress along the path towards inner peace, they have a natural tendency to move toward vegetarianism. However, there is not an unanimous agreement among Buddhists worldwide on this point and it is certainly possible to be a good Buddhist and not be a vegetarian.
The decision to be a vegetarian or not is a more complicated question than initially meets the eye. Your decision should be made individually, after investigating and considering the environmental impacts and suffering involved under both options.
What can we all agree on?
Let start with what everyone can agree on. We need animals: the tame ones for companions and to love, and wildlife to preserve our fragile ecosystem.
We can also agree that a major tenant of Buddhism is to develop a compassion that is all embracing and undiscriminating. The moral precept that instructs us not to kill without a doubt prohibits the hunting animals, i.e., directly being responsible for causing their death. We should strive to see the world as a unified whole where each thing and creature has its place and function.
How have humans impacted the natural environment?
unquestionably, the human being as a collective species are exploiting nature to the max and squeezing every last drop out of it without putting anything back. The results?
The air and rivers are becoming polluted and poisoned, many animals and plants are heading for extinction, and the slopes of mountains have become barren and eroded. Before we destroy or upset natures delicate balance, we should be very careful. We should strive to develop a little more respect for all life instead of having this crush, kill and destroy mentality.
What are the arguments for becoming a vegetarian?
We should not be under the illusion that animals raised for slaughter by multinational corporations using modern methods are living a carefree life on the farm. On the contrary, multinational corporations use assembly-line methods of production where animals are treated like machines.
These factory farms are concerned about high production and low cost – not with the welfare of the animals. The cruelties include extreme overcrowding and confining, stress and anxiety. As a practical matter, it is impossible to raise animals for food on a large, cost-effective scale without inflicting suffering.
What are the arguments for having meat in your diet?
It is true that when you eat meat you are indirectly or partially responsible for killing a living creature. However, it is believed that Buddha was not a vegetarian and that he did not teach his disciples to be vegetarians.
Buddhist scriptures say that being heartless, arrogant, greedy makes one impure, not the eating of meat. Here, it’s easy to see how one could eat meat and have a pure heart just as one who does not eat meat could have an impure heart. Buddha’s teaching emphasize the quality of your heart over the contents of your diet.
Consuming meat does not necessarily mean that one approves the killing of animals, nor does it necessary mean that bad Karma will result. As we discussed in The Law of Karma post, Karma is an intentional act and its result. Among meat eaters, few likely associate their hamburger or chicken tenders with a live, suffering animal. As living beings strive to survive, those that succeed inevitably do so at the expense of other living beings.
Contrary to popular belief, eating vegetarian food still indirectly involves the killing of animals such as rabbits, squirrels, monkeys, and billions of insects and other ‘pests.’
How is that possible? The vast agricultural fields need to produce vegetarian products such as wheat, rice and vegetables require the clearing of vast swathes of natural vegetation and animal habitat. After clearing, farms typically spray their crops with large amounts of insecticides and pesticides so that the vegetables arrive on our plates without unsightly holes or blemishes in them.
Just imagine the acreage required to grow enough coffee beans to satisfy one person’s daily coffee habit. Also, imagine if the whole world became vegetarians, animals would multiple in massive numbers. This could quickly become a threat to humans, which would likely lead to animals being killed as they overtook our living areas or posed a risk to our safety.
Reasonable minds can differ
Trying to compare the environmental impact and amount of suffering between a vegetarian and a non-vegetarian diet is a complex endeavor with no definitive outcome. We can likely all agree that both have an environmental impact and cause suffering to living things.
While one of the five precepts is do not kill, it also follows that we should not cause another to kill or harm any living creatures. Furthermore, one would definitely have developed a high level of compassion if they chose to avoid meat out of concern for animals and not wanting to be involved in the cruelty of modern industrial farming.
The key is to be mindful of your actions
Buddhism is not a religion of blind belief. Ignorance is not bliss and does not lead to inner peace. In fact, Buddha urged his followers not to believe solely in the written words of some wise man, but to accept as true what you agree with using your own reason and experience, after thorough investigation.
Regardless of whether you are a vegetarian or not, you should consider the indirect suffering involved in bringing meat, grains, fruits and vegetables to your table.
If we look beyond what we eat, we see that animals have been killed to provide leather for belts, shoes, handbags, couches, the oil for soaps we use and a thousand other products as well. It is impossible to live without, in some way, being indirectly responsible for the dead of some other beings.
Every day, as you clean your kitchen or work in your garden, you are very likely to kill some insect that happens to get in the way. As Buddhist, we should not be blind to these realities. How are we to realistically deal with this genuine problem? The point is not whether we can observe all the rules of morality all of the time.
The point is that if the rules of morality are an appropriate way of carrying out principles of equality that are worth believing in, then it is our duty to follow these rules as much as we possibly can. It is indeed impossible to follow the rules of morality absolutely; but we should do our best to follow the rules of good conduct. If we want to live at peace with ourselves and others, then we must respect the life and welfare of all living things.