Vegetarian Buddhist? How unusual.

May 21, 2012 in buddhism, dharma, yoga

jungle buddhaDespite having strong personal feelings on the topic and I think a pretty clear head about it culturally, I haven’t written about vegetarianism in modern yoga and Buddhist practice in this forum, though I have in others. I’m inspired to now because of a question that was asked at the end of a training I just finished, and because meat-eating is a debate in the larger culture in ways that I haven’t seen since the 70′s (when I wasn’t debating). I know it’s a charged topic when I feel compelled to write that I still love you whether you read my newsletter over a chia seed smoothie or a bowl of steaming bone broth. No judgment. Ok, a little: you’re all nuts. Herewith, yogis, the Final Answer to a vexing ethical quandary!

My friend Ari Nessel, a bright, committed yoga teacher, vegan activist, dad, and sustainable business wallah asked the question: about the Buddha’s teachings on eating meat. The answer he received, as is the annoying norm in our community, was equivocal. “Everyone has to find out what’s right to do for themselves.” While this is a reasonable interpretation of the core ethic of not taking anything on faith but finding out for oneself (ehipassiko), it also evades the question. We rely on the texts for guidance that can shake us out of the trance of our habits and conditions in so many ways – why not in this one? So…

In the Pali canon, the Buddha discusses meat-eating in two ways: as part of Wise Action and Wise Livelihood, which are relevant for both monastics and lay people, and in the Vinaya, or monastic discipline. As a part of Wise Livelihood, “business in meat” is prohibited, and basic non-harming (ahimsa) includes both not taking life nor encouraging others to do so. Ahimsa is often glossed as “protecting life”, and vegetarian yogis in Asia and the west tend to interpret it this way (as I do, btw). The Vinaya, on the other hand, requires that monastics maintain a close connection with the broader community, and forces them to receive alms food every day. As the primary ethic here is to take whatever is offered, Vinaya monastics eat meat when offered. To not do so out of a preference would disable the system. This seeming clarity is complicated by lineages of monastics who observe the Vinaya to various degrees of specificity, and who adapt to local custom, such as in Tibet. Thus the common question about the Dalai Lama (as if he is representative of all of Buddhism AND a perfect practitioner, neither of which he claims…) eating meat. Regardless, here’s what he says (basically that being veg is best, and he’s encouraging Tibetan monasteries to be vegetarian, but his doctor has told him to eat some meat, so he does).

The Mahayana scriptures are much more vigorous in their denunciation of meat-eating, as in the Lankavatara Sutra, which expressly forbids it. This vigor is not separate from the rise in alternative sangha (community) structures where going for alms was not a primary practice. Some Tantric streams of practice (both Buddhist and Hindu) recognize meat eating in a ritual context, and some practice it as a gesture toward the non-duality of pure/impure, as in the Kularnava Tantra and other “left-hand” traditions, where deliberate flouting of social conventions is a practice device. (I wonder how that practice works in a liberal, hedonistic culture like ours, where being veg flouts social convention more than eating meat, even in my yoga and Buddhist communities.)

Basically, the Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist scriptures are clear in condemning meat-eating on non-harming grounds except in the monastic alms practice. However, there are some interesting philosophical issues:
Non-harming in Buddhism hinges on a conception of “sentient beings” who might be harmed. Traditionally this means anything conscious, including animals, insects, and spirits, but in some systems also means plants and even “non-living” objects. And our bodies are 90% microbes and 10% human cells. The dividing line between animals and non-animals is not as clear as we think. How does a complex idea of sentience affect our clarity about who is being harmed in an action?

Of course, the environmental costs of both livestock and vegetables, heck, of breathing, are such that beings are harmed. This recognition leads, for some of my friends, to backyard vegetables and/or livestock, avoiding the pollution of shipping and having to go into Whole Foods so much. (Whew!) The homesteader’s solution is thus one of the most defensible ethical positions for meat-eating, though as a yogi you still have to reckon with taking life. But it’s arguably the least environmentally-harming diet around.

Of course, “harm” includes me, and this is the most common defense of meat-eating I hear: personal health. It is a struggle for many yogis to reckon with their own physical health and the possibility that eating meat could help. It does seem to help some folks find more energy, health, balance. A question for practitioners is: is it worth it? Is my health worth the killing of these beings? For many it is. How does this decision situate my own worth in relation to other beings? It is human-centric, and literally self-centered. Is that a problem?

Lastly, I’ll say that I’ve just been talking about the specifics of Buddhist and yoga texts as they relate to the issue, not taking it on as a universal ethical issue. (I can easily imagine an ethic that says that since I am an animal and part of the food chain, that it is just as natural as anything to kill and eat another animal, especially when done consciously and sustainably. Why not? How special do I think I am?) I’m not arguing for or against vegetarianism as a choice, but want to speak to western yogis looking to classical texts for guidance. We don’t need to idealize these historically-conditioned texts, but if we take many of the challenging teachings they offer as valuable to us and then ignore a specific one, I do think there may be some unexamined preferences at play.

The decision of how to eat is intensely emotional and conditioned for many of us, and many yogis I know either ignore the teaching of ahimsa as it relates to meat-eating, or decide that reasons external to the specific teachings (like personal health) take precedence. And for those of us who think we’re observing ahimsa, ethical complexities persist (like the universal culling of males from dairy herds, which makes even an Indian-style lacto-veg diet complicit in deaths, or the environmental costs in shipping protein-dense tropical foods around the world). The point is not to figure out the absolute best ethical diet and then make everyone observe it. The point is to find where we’re suffering and causing others to suffer, and begin to wake up to the causes of suffering: greed, aversion, ignorance. Letting go of greed – for energy, health, blamelessness, flavors, whatever… – we might find a very different relationship to our food. That inquiry is for each of us to find out, but if we want advice from the texts we source our practice in, it’s there, and it’s not so ambiguous, really.

I hope that your practice with food, body, culture, environment, yoga, ethics, and the great mystery of life and death is a source of joy, inquiry, and wisdom for you on the Path. And may all beings be well.