Buddhist arguments for vegetarianism

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An article by Shravasti Dhammika

The cardinal virtue of Buddhism is respect for life. This is embodied in the first Precept; not to harm living beings. I use the word ‘harm’ rather than ‘kill’ because on many occasions the Buddha mentioned that we should not just abstain from killing but also from cruelty and violence. For example, he said that someone is unrighteous (adhamma) in body if they “kill living beings, are murderous, bloody-handed, given to blows and violence and are without mercy.” (Majjhima Nikaya I,286). It is clear that killing is against the first Precept but so is pulling a cat’s tail, flogging a horse or punching someone in the face, although these actions would be less grave than killing. So this is the first point; (1) Both cruelty to and killing living beings is against the first Precept.

That true adherence to the Precept goes beyond the individual’s direct physical involvement in harming or killing is clear from the Buddha’s instructions that someone who takes the Dhamma seriously should “not kill, encourage (samadapati) others to kill, approve of (samamunno hoti) killing, or speak in praise of (vannam bhasati) killing” (Anguttara Nikaya V,306). Here the Buddha says that one should take into account even the indirect and distant implications of one’s actions and speech. So this is the second point; (2) Trying to influence and encourage others not to harm or kill living beings and being kind to them oneself would be consistent with the first Precept.

As is often pointed out, the Precepts have two dimensions, firstly to stop doing wrong (varitta) and then to actually do good (caritta, Majjhima Nikaya III,46). In the case of the first Precept its varitta aspect would be avoiding harming and killing while its caritta aspect would be doing what one could to nurture, protect and promote life. This is expressed in the Buddha’s full explanation of the Precept when he said; “Avoiding the taking of life, he dwells refraining from taking life. Putting aside the stick and the sword he lives with care, kindness and compassion for living beings.” (Digha Nikaya I,4).

Again and again throughout his teachings the Buddha asked us to empathize with others, to feel for others. “Put yourself in the place of others and neither kill nor cause killing.” (Dhammapada 129. “Think, ‘As am I so are others. As are others so am I’ and neither kill nor cause killing.” (Sutta Nipata 705). This then is the third point; (3) Feeling and acting with kindness and compassion towards living beings is an integral part of the first Precept.

The Buddha’s teachings of respect for life can be clearly seen in several of his other teachings as well, Right Livelihood (samma ajiva) being but one example of this. The Buddha gave as examples of wrong means of livelihood the selling (and/or manufacturing?) of weapons, human beings, flesh (mamsa vanijja), alcohol and poisons (Anguttara Nikaya III, 208). Although he did not specifically mention it, it is easy to see that the reason why these livelihoods are unethical is because they involve at some level harming or killing living things. So this is the fourth point; (4) Not harming or killing living beings and being kind to them, is an integral part of the whole Dhamma, not just the first Precept.

Another of the Buddha’s important teachings is that things do not come into existence randomly or through the will of a divine being but through a specific cause or web of causes. The most well-known example of this is where the Buddha describes the conditions that give rise to suffering (Digha Nikaya II,55). However, there are other examples of dependent arising – the sequence of causes that give rise to enlightenment (Samyutta Nikaya I,29-32) and to social conflict (Sutta Nipata 862-77), etc.

Using this same principle, we can clarify issues related to meat eating. Farmers do not raise cows or chickens for fun; they do it because they can make a living by selling them to the abattoirs. Likewise abattoirs don’t slaughter animals for fun, they do it to make a profit. They sell their meat to the processors, who sell it to the local supermarkets or butchers who in turn sell it to the consumers. Any reasonable person would agree that there is a clear trajectory, a discernible causal link between the farmer or the abattoir and the consumer. It may be a distant link but it is there. Put in its simplest terms, people would not slaughter animals if other people did not purchase meat. So this is the fifth point; (5) Eating meat is causally related to the harming or killing of living beings and thus is connected to some degree to breaking the first Precept.

Now let us consider the implications of these five points. Avoiding the complexities of the modern food processing and production industries for the time being, let us look at the simple version of it as it would have existed at the time of the Buddha and how it may still exist in some developing countries and perhaps even in some rural areas in the West.

Let’s say that during the Buddha’s time some monks were invited to the house of a devout family for a meal and that they were served, amongst other things, meat. In accordance with the Buddha’s instructions in the Jivaka Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya II,369) they ate the meat because they had not seen, heard or even suspected that their hosts had gone to someone and specifically asked them to slaughter an animal so that it could be fed to the monks. While eating their meal these monks would have had no bloody intentions, no murderous anger, no perverse fascination in seeing a creature have its throat cut. It is likely that they gave no thought whatsoever to where the meat came from or what was involved in procuring it. From the narrowest, most literal, strictly direct interpretation of it, the first Precept would not have been broken.

But this narrow perspective raises, at least in my mind, quite a few troubling questions:

(A) Firstly, as we have seen above, all the evidence shows the Buddha wanted the Precept to be interpreted in a broad manner and to have all its implications taken into account.

(B) If the monks did not directly break their rules, maybe the lay people broke the first Precept in that they “encouraged others to kill, approved of killing or spoke in praise of killing” when they purchased the meat.

(C) Maybe the monks should have given some thought to the implications and consequences of their actions. Did not the Buddha say; “Before doing something, while doing it and after having done it one should reflect, ‘Will this action lead to my own or others’ detriment?’ ” (Majjhima Nikaya I,416).

(D) Although they may not have seen, heard or suspected that an animal was killed specifically for them, the monks must have been aware that it was killed for people who eat meat, and that in eating meat they would fall into this category.

(E) Even if their role in the death of a creature is only distant and indirect, genuine metta would urge one not to be involved in killing even to that extent. The Buddha said; “Just as a mother would protect her only child at the risk of her own life, like this one should develop an unbounded mind towards all beings and love to all the world. One should develop an unbounded mind, above, below and across, without obstruction…” (Sutta Nipata 149-50). He also said we should think like this; “I have love for footless creatures. I have love for the two-footed. I have love for the four-footed and I have love for many-footed creatures.” (Anguttara Nikaya II,72). Saying “It wasn’t killed specifically for me and while I ate it my mind was filled with love” does not sound like the deep, kindly and pervasive love the Buddha asked us to develop. It sounds more like a love restricted by rather narrow concerns.

(F) In a very important discourse in the Anguttara Nikaya the Buddha praised those who care about others as much as they care about themselves. He said; “There are these four types of people found in the world. What four? He who is concerned with neither his own good nor the good of others, he who is concerned with the good of others but not his own, he who is concerned with his own good but not the good of others and he who is concerned with both his own good and the good of others. Of these four he who is concerned with his own good and the good of others is the chief, the best, the topmost, the highest, the supreme.” (Anguttara Nikaya .II,94). And a little further along the Buddha asked the question; “And how is one concerned with both his own good and the good of others?” In part of the answer to this question he said; “He does not kill or encourage others to kill.” (Anguttara Nikaya .II,99). We saw before that there is a casual link between killing animals and purchasing their meat. Quite simply, slaughter houses would not slaughter animals and butchers and supermarkets would not stock meat if people did not buy it. Therefore, when we purchase meat or even eat it when it is served to us, we are encouraging killing, and thus not acting out of concern for others, as the Buddha asked us to do.

The conclusions of all this seems to me to be compelling; that intelligent, mature Dhamma practice would require vegetarianism, or at least reducing one's meat consumption.