Bhante Sujato quotes
Bhante Sujato (Anthony Best) is an Australian Buddhist Monk. In 1994 he left his music career to take higher ordination in Thailand in the forest lineage of Ajahn Chah. As well as living for several years in forest monasteries and remote hermitages in Thailand, he spent three years in Bodhinyana Monastery (Perth) as secretary of Ajahn Brahmavamso, and over a year in a cave in Malaysia.
On the Pali Nikayas and Agamas
The Pali Nikāyas have been one of my formative influences, right from my first days as a Buddhist. The Dhamma they embody is clear, rational, balanced, gentle, and profound everything one could hope for.
But it is easy to fall into a kind of Pali fundamentalism. The texts and language are so pure and precise that many of us who fall in love with the Nikāyas end up believing that they constitute the be-all and end-all of Buddhism. We religiously adhere to the finest distinction, the most subtle interpretation, based on a single word or phrase. We take for granted that here we have the original teaching, without considering the process by which these teachings have passed down to us. In our fervour, we neglect to wonder whether there might be another perspective on these Dhammas.
Perhaps most important of all, we forget if we ever knew the reasons why we are justified in considering the Nikāyas authentic in the first place. While it is good enough for most faith based Buddhists to believe that their own scriptures are the only real ones, this will not suffice for a disinterested seeker. Any religious tradition will try to validate itself by such claims, and they can‘t all be right. These conflicting claims led the early researchers in the modern era to examine the evidence more objectively.
I started out this essay by criticizing Pali fundamentalism; but we must also beware of becoming pre-sectarian fundamentalists! The teachings of the various schools are not just a sheer mass of error and meaningless corruption, any more than they are iron-clad formulations of ultimate truth. They are the answers given by teachers of old to the question: What does Buddhism mean for us?‘ Each succeeding generation must undertake the delicate task of hermeneutics, the re-acculturation of the Dhamma in time and place. And in our times, so different from those of any Buddhist era or culture of the past, we must find our own answers. Looked at from this perspective, the teachings of the schools offer us invaluable lessons, a wealth of precedent bequeathed us by our ancestors in faith. Just as the great Theravādin commentator Buddhaghosa employed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Nikāyas, many of the greatest Mahāyāna scholars, such as Nāgārjuna, Vasubandhu, and Asaṅga, based themselves securely on the Āgamas. By following their example and making the effort to thoroughly learn these Teachings we can understand, practice, and propagate the living Dhamma for the sake of all sentient beings.
Eating meat requires the killing of animals, and this directly violates the first precept. Eating meat is the direct cause of an immense quantity of suffering for sentient beings. Many people, myself included, struggle with the notion that a religion as categorically opposed to violence as Buddhism can so blithely wave away the suffering inherent in eating meat.
Let’s have a closer look and see if we can discern the roots of this problem. There are a few considerations that I would like to begin with. We live in a very different world today than the Buddha lived in, and Buddhist ethics, whatever else they may be, must always be a pragmatic response to real world conditions.
Animals suffer much more today than they did 2500 years ago. In the Buddha’s time, and indeed everywhere up until the invention of modern farming, animals had a much better life. Chickens would wander round the village, or were kept in a coop. Cows roamed the fields. The invention of the factory farm changed all this. Today, the life of most meat animals is unimaginable suffering. I won’t go into this in detail, but if you are not aware of the conditions in factory farms, you should be. Factory farms get away with it, not because they are actually humane, but because they are so mind-bendingly horrific that most people just don’t want to know. We turn away, and our inattention allows the horror to continue.
The other huge change since the Buddha’s time is the destruction of the environment. We are all aware of the damage caused by energy production and wasteful consumerism. But one of the largest, yet least known, contributors to global warming and environmental destruction generally is eating meat. The basic problem is that meat is higher on the food chain as compared with plants, so more resources are required to produce nutrition in the form of meat. In the past this was not an issue, as food animals typically ate things that were not food for humans, like grass. Today, however, most food animals live on grains and other resource-intensive products. This means that meat requires more energy, water, space, and all other resources. In addition to the general burden on the environment, this creates a range of localised problems, due to the use of fertilisers, the disposal of vast amounts of animal waste, and so on.
One entirely predictable outcome of factory farming is the emergence of virulent new diseases. We have all heard of ‘swine flu’ and ‘bird flu’; but the media rarely raises the question: why are these two new threats derived from the two types of animals that are most used in factory farming? The answer is obvious, and has been predicted by opponents of factory farming for decades. In order to force animals to live together in such overcrowded, unnatural conditions, they must be fed a regular diet of antibiotics, as any disease is immediately spread through the whole facility. The outcome of this, as inevitable as the immutable principles of natural selection, is the emergence of virulent new strains of antibiotic resistant diseases. In coming years, as the limited varieties of antibiotics gradually lose their efficacy, this threat will recur in more and more devastating forms.
So, as compared with the Buddha’s day, eating meat involves far more cruelty, it damages the environment, and it creates diseases. If we approach this question as one of weights and balance, then the scales have tipped drastically to the side of not eating meat.
As well as broadening ethics in this way, I would suggest we should deepen it. Ethics is not just what is allowable. Sure, you can argue that eating meat is allowable. You can get away with it. That doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing. What if we ask, not what can I get away with, but what can I aspire to?