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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Buddhism and Vegetarianism: Would Sid Eat Meat?

July 19, 2010

Lodro Rinzler
The Huffington Post
July 17, 2010

Many people look to Siddhartha Gautama as an
example of someone who attained nirvana, a
buddha. Every other week in this column we look
at what it might be like if Siddhartha was on his
spiritual journey today. How would he combine
Buddhism and dating? How would he handle stress
in the workplace? What would Sid do? is devoted
to taking an honest look at what we as meditators face in the modern world.

Every other week I'll take on a new question and
give some advice based on what I think Sid, a
fictional Siddhartha, would do. Here Sid is not
yet a buddha, he's just someone struggling to
maintain an open heart on a spiritual path while
facing numerous distractions along the way.
Because let's face it, you and I are Sid. This week's question:

After a delicious meal recently I saw the carnage
of a leftover turkey and felt great remorse. It
became very clear to me that my family had killed
a living being and eaten it. Unfortunately, it
was delicious. What would Sid do? Would he become
a vegetarian in today's world?

The simplest (and perhaps most satisfying) answer
is yes. I believe that if he lived in today's
world Sid would be a vegetarian. The historical
Buddha was pretty clear that the first of the
five main precepts of his disciples should be "I
undertake a vow to abstain from taking life."

The surprising thing is that the no-meat stance
is not generally agreed upon, despite that
precept. Theravadin schools of Buddhism say that
the Buddha allowed his monastic students to eat
pork, chicken and beef if the animal was not
killed for the purpose of providing food
specifically for them. And that was just for
monastics; lay people could eat whatever sort of
elephant or horse meat they could find. So to be
clear: the act of eating meat was deemed
karmically neutral. The act of killing or having
something killed for you to eat was karmically negative.

Over time though many savvy consumers have raised
a finger and said, "But what about supply and
demand?" At first it may appear that the Buddha
did not buy into that particular logic when
making this decision. Since alms were basically
leftovers from lay households it was argued that
the meat was not directly linked to the monks or
nuns' karma. It's as if I showed up at your home
yesterday and you gave me whatever leftover
turkey you were putting in the fridge. By this
argument I would take whatever you gave me and not be karmically responsible.

Some people may find that argument convincing. I
myself think that it's a bit of a copout; if I
eat the last of your turkey who's to say you
won't wake up the next day, wish it were still
there, and go out and get another one?

Over time different schools of Buddhism have
placed differing levels of importance on
vegetarianism. Certain Vajrayana practices
actually call for the consumption of meat. Add
this religious context to the existing cultural
one (it's incredibly hard to grow vegetables in
Tibet, whereas yaks are all over the place) and
you develop a certain flexibility for Tibetan
monastics. Tibetan Buddhists generally respect
the "three condition" rule, where it's a neutral
act if the meat is not seen, heard or suspected
to have been killed for you. I've also heard a
three hand rule where if the meat is slaughtered
by one person, sold to another, and cooked by
another before it reaches you your karma is not
directly related to the death of the animal.

Even His Holiness the Dalai Lama continues to eat
meat. While some people have taken him to task
for doing so he has stated that his doctors have
recommended it, so he continues to be a carnivore
while still imploring other Buddhists to become vegetarians.

While I understand someone having to eat meat for
health reasons I think that in modern Western
society it's not too hard to be a vegetarian. I
think if our fictional Sid were not collecting
alms but held a job and bought all his own meals
he would likely choose a falafel over a Big Mac.
I personally believe that Sid would hold the life
of animals in such high regard that he would go
out of his way to be a vegetarian.

However, I think that if he were out in the
middle of nowhere at a friend's barbecue with no
vegetarian options in sight he would accept a
burger if it were passed his way. He would then
eat said burger with appreciation in his heart
for the animal that gave his or her life to feed
him and his friends. It's important to not get
too rigid about a set diet but instead feel out
that middle way that allows us to feel and act
healthy. Then our practice can thrive.

As with everything on this spiritual path we need
to determine what makes sense for us. While
discussing becoming vegetarian with my girlfriend
she pointed out that as I am not the best chef in
the world I may find it a somewhat more expensive
lifestyle than a cheap meat based diet. While I
am still on the fence about going cold turkey
(pun intended) I do intend to be more mindful of
my meat intake, relying on meatless options more
readily. For me, that is what makes sense for
now. Best of luck determining what makes sense for you.

* Writer; Shambhala Buddhist practitioner and
teacher; Development Officer, Shambhala International
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