Last week I completed a mini personal challenge of 7 days without eating meat. It’s the second time I’ve done such a thing recently, both conducted mainly as experiments into how easy I would find it.
For a while now I’ve been considering my stance on meat eating. I’ve been a carnivore my whole life, and never really gave it much thought. I guess I started considering it when I started going out with a vegetarian, but she has never been preachy nor particularly interested in ‘converting’ me. I think the main influence from her has been that since we started living together I began to cook less and less meat until I stopped completely. It became impractical to cook separate meals so often, and as I began eating the same food as her I became exposed to the different ways you can prepare meals without meat. As such, I have bought and cooked meat about twice in the past 4 years or so.
My philosophical viewpoint on meat-eating first began to change as I explored Buddhism. It’s a common misconception that Buddhists = vegetarians, but there is no such ‘rule’ or ‘precept’ that forbids the eating of meat. It is true, however, that Buddhism tends to vegetarianism. The reason being that at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching is compassion for _all sentient beings_. We also have the first precept, which is “I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life.” Now, this can be interpreted in different ways. Technically, eating meat is not the taking of life. The person at the slaughter house does that. But others argue that by eating meat you are creating the demand for that slaughter to happen.
As it is, there is no compulsion for lay Buddhists to abstain from meat. It is more common for monks and nuns, however, to do so. This isn’t so clear cut either, though, as with the myriad schools and sects of Buddhism ideas differ. It is often taught that monks and nuns should avoid meat, but if they are offered it, should not turn it down.
I practice in the Kagyu school of Buddhism, and recently the head of the Kagyu, His Holiness the Karmapa, ordered that Kagyu monks, nuns and their monasteries and centres become vegetarian. He has stressed the importance of abstaining from meat for Buddhists and has encouraged it amongst lay followers.
Last year I saw a series of talks by Drupon Rinpoche on the generation of compassion during which he spoke of the practice of contemplating that due to countless rebirths, everyone you encounter has at some stage been your mother. Or as His Holiness the Dalai Lama puts it:
the Tibetan Buddhist tradition teaches us to view all sentient beings as our dear mothers and to show our gratitude by loving them all. For, according to Buddhist theory, we are born and reborn countless numbers of times, and it is conceivable that each being has been our parent at one time or another. In this way all beings in the universe share a family relationship.
The Karmapa references this when advising on vegetarianism
If a Mahayana practitioner, who considers all sentient beings to be like their father or mother, eats the flesh of another being out of carelessness and without any compassion, that is not good. So we need to think about this and pay attention to it. All of us Mahayana practitioners, who accept that all sentient beings have been our mothers and fathers, need to think about this. For that reason, it would be good to decrease the amount of meat that we eat.
This is to be taken by Buddhists as a statement of reality but also a powerful practice for generating compassion for all beings. Animals included. As I pondered this, I couldn’t help but escape the fact that eating a beings flesh is not very compassionate.
This planted a seed in my head. This seed then spurred me to consider the topic from a non-religious direction, and to investigate the ethics of eating meat. This reoccured to me when I was watching the movie “Samsara” last year. There is a sequence in a chicken factory where you see a conveyor belt of chickens being sucked up into a machine alive. The scene hit me like a punch to the gut. The more you learn about how animals are treated before they get to your plate, the most you must face up to, and consider your opinion of those creatures.
I keep coming across more and more stuff which challenges my habits. There’s a great documentary called King Corn about two guys who decide to grow an acre of corn and follow it into the food system. The sequence on cattle feeding is disturbing, outlining how for quick and cheap meat, cows are fed corn which their stomachs cannot handle. They are fattened up and kept alive just enough to keep them going til slaughter. If they are not slaughtered, the damage the corn does will kill them anyway. They also barely get to move, so live their lives being force fed to the point of death.
I also discovered David Foster Wallace’s classic essay “Consider The Lobster” – ostensibly about the Maine Lobster Festival, but really about the ethics of boiling live animals for your pleasure. He writes:
Is it not possible that future generations will regard our own present agribusiness and eating practices in much the same way we now view Nero’s entertainments or Aztec sacrifices? My own immediate reaction is that such a comparison is hysterical, extreme—and yet the reason it seems extreme to me appears to be that I believe animals are less morally important than human beings; and when it comes to defending such a belief, even to myself, I have to acknowledge that
(a) I have an obvious selfish interest in this belief, since I like to eat certain kinds of animals and want to be able to keep doing it, and
(b) I have not succeeded in working out any sort of personal ethical system in which the belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient.
For me these two points hit home hard.
I am not a vegetarian, but intellectually I now more or less agree with the stance. Thus I am now attempting to wean myself off meat. The main stumbling block are occasions when I eat out and my own selfish and lazy tendencies. Most pressing is that I am somewhat of a picky eater (although a lot better than when I was younger), and in particular my distaste for cheese and eggs. These are problematic because from my experience of my girlfriend’s dealings with the world as a vegetarian, cheese and eggs are a common options. Again, these are only really issues when eating out – and more acutely when getting sandwiches for lunch (If there is a Subway nearby, however, this problem is solved thanks to their veggie pattys). The common response to this is “go vegan”, and that may be a long term option – but it still doesn’t solve my problems when trying to eat away from home. It also doesn’t help that Ireland is only slowly coming to offering decent options for vegetarians. I’ve seen numerous occasions where my girlfriend rolls her eyes at the bog standard veggie meals offered. I have noticed a sea change though, even pubs and the like getting in on the action with veggie burgers of various styles being offered.
To my end, I am following a few guidelines to help me significantly reduce my meat intake:
- No meat at home. This is pretty easy, and I’ve become well used to cooking curries and stir frys and the likes without meat. I’ve also become quite fond of meat-replacements like Quorn and Cheatin’.
- Making packed lunches more and more.
- If I’m eating out and I like the veggie option, I try and go for that. Also, if I know there are veggie options nearby at lunch for instance, I go for that. This will mean putting my heart before my stomach. Even if prefer the chicken dish, if I like the veggie, dish I’ll order that.
- Red meat is out. This is a common enough tactic I believe – to gradually reduce the meats you consume. Beef will be first.
I’m not trying to become preachy in all this. I mean, I’m not a vegetarian. But I have caught myself giving out about meat consumption, even whilst I am eating chicken. It’s a personal choice, but one which I am grappling with a lot now. But I am finding it harder and harder to justify eating meat. If I really think about what I am chewing, and I consider the life of that creature, it troubles me.