A Buddhist Perspective on Vegetarianism

by Lin Ching Shywan, International Vegetarian Union, http://www.ivu.org/religion/articles/buddhist.html, Published on the Buddhist Channel, Nov 3, 2004

San Francisco, USA -- I have been a strict vegetarian for more than four years now. When I first gave up meat, quite a few of my friends and relatives expressed concern; most people seem to have the idea that vegetarian food lacks adequate nutrients.

And being vegetarian can be a more than minor inconvenience with the amounts of meat and fish that people now eat. Chinese have a traditional notion that foods that are "warming" in nature, like meat, are important for building up physical strength; so in the minds of some of the older generation, one could not possibly get all the nutrition one needed form the "cool" bean greens, white radishes, and so forth that vegetarians favor. In their book, the only things that strengthen the body are foods like tiger phallus, snake blood, stewed chicken and crab in wine.

Before taking the big step, I didn't give nutrition, convenience, or building up physical strength a second thought, since my reason for becoming vegetarian had nothing to do with any of these. I became vegetarian because of my belief in Buddhism.

Why do Buddhists advocate vegetarianism? The main reason is "mercy", and because we "cannot bear to eat the flesh of living creatures." And our belief in karma tells us that we must eventually suffer the consequences of our evil actions. A Buddhist sutra says: "The bodhisattva fears the original action; the myriad of living creatures fear the consequences." This means that the bodhisattva knows the seriousness of the consequences and does not do evil things; neither does he think about the causes of bad consequences. Finally, I also believe that a vegetarian diet better enables one to keep a pure body and mind and this purity is an important foundation of self-cultivation. My conversion to vegetarianism was based on these three considerations.

"Mercy" is an important way of learning to be a better person. Being without mercy is simply incompatible with being a Buddhist. Having a merciful and compassionate heart will show up in all aspects of one's life; but the simplest and most direct way is to follow a vegetarian diet. Think of the intense pain of accidentally stepping on a nail is. So how can one have the heart to eat the flesh of creatures who have suffered the pain of being slaughtered, skinned, dismembered, and cooked? Being unable to bring ourselves to eat the flesh of these poor creatures is an expression of mercy.

The pain of creatures on the road to our table is not some fanciful concoction; it is excruciatingly real. Let us cite the cooked live shrimp and crab that are so popular today as an example. Meeting their end by being cooked in water is like being sent to a boiling hell. Their desperate but doomed efforts to crawl or jump out betray the unbearable pain they experience. Finally they give their life in sorrow as they turn bright red. What a painful end!

Frogs are put through even more suffering than shrimp and crabs. From the first made in their bodies to the time they are swallowed they go through the equivalent of eight different hells: 1. decapitation; 2. skinning; 3. removing the legs; 4. slitting of the belly; 5. frying or boiling; 6. salt, sugar and seasoning; 7. chewing; and 8. digestion and excretion. Anyone who put himself in take place of a frog would be unable to ever stomach another one.

Among the different kinds of suffering the human race can experience, the most intense is certainly that of war. Documentaries of the Nanking massacre and the Nazi holocaust leave few people unmoved and dry-eyed-and most indignant. But humans can go for years or decades without war; animals face suffering and death every day. For meat eaters, every banquet means the death of hundreds and thousands of animals. Is this any different from human war?

Preventing the suffering of living creatures by not using their flesh to satisfy our tastebuds and hunger is the minimal expression of compassion we can offer. We choose not to kill out of kindness, and not to eat out of compassion.

I felt deeply moved upon reading two stories on the theme of mercy; they will be etched forever in my memory. One is recorded in the book "Record of Protecting Life":

When a scholar named Chou Yu was cooking some eel to eat, he noticed the one of the eels bending in its body such that its head and tail were still in the boiling point liquid, but its body arched upward above the soup. It did not fall completely in until finally dying. Chou Yu found the occurrence a strange one, pulled out the eel, and cut it open. He found thousands of eggs inside. The eel had arched its belly out of the hot soup to protect its offspring. He cried at the sight, sighed with emotion, and swore never to eat eel.

This story tells us that the myriad living creatures are not without feeling and intelligence.
Another story in recorded in Buddhist sutra.

A king of heaven was stalemated in a war with a demon, and neither side emerged as winner. As the king of heaven was leading his soldiers back, he saw the nest of a golden-winged bird in a tree by the roadside. "If the soldiers and chariots pass by here, the eggs in the nest will certainly fall to the ground and be scattered," he thought to himself. So he led his thousand chariots back the same road by which they came. When the demon saw the king of heaven returning, he fled in terror.

The sutra's conclusion was that "if you use mercy to seek salvation, the lord of heaven will see it." This story tells us that mercy may not seem like much at first glance, but it is in fact extremely powerful. The Buddhist sutras frequently mention "the power of mercy," from this we know that mercy is indeed a potent force. If a Buddhist wants to learn to use this strength of mercy, he must be like the king of heaven in this story, and be ready to change the route of a thousand chariots rather than let a nest full of bird eggs fall to the ground.

The Surangama Sutra tells us that "if we eat the flesh of living creatures, we are destroying the seeds of compassion." That is, if we do not eat the flesh of living creatures, we are cultivating and irrigating the seeds of compassion," and to "cultivate a compassionate heart," I chose to become a vegetarian; and this is my main reason for doing so.

In Buddhist teaching, volume upon volume has been written regarding cause and consequence, but the basic concept is a simple one. "Good is rewarded with good; evil is rewarded with evil; and the rewarding of good and evil is only a matter of time." Viewed from this concept, we will have to pay for every piece of flesh we eat with a piece of flesh, and with a life for every creature's life that we take. Viewed over the long term, eating meat is an extremely frightening prospect. Before their death, living creatures experience not joy, and not fear, but anger; not complaint, but hatred and resentment. And who receives the "reward" for taking these lives?

It would be difficult to try to prove the existence of this concept of cause and consequence, and it may even sound a bit farfetched. However, in terms of this life, the negative consequences of eating meat include arterial sclerosis, heart disease, high blood pressure, encephalemia, stroke, gall stones, cirrhosis of the liver and cancer. In all these diseases, a link has been established to animal fat and cholesterol.

So the consequences of eating meat are in fact immediate and in clear view. But even if you could still make it from day to day eating meat, the other advantages of being vegetarian-promotion of good health and being free from worry about future negative consequences-to me fully justify the decision to be vegetarian, and constitute my second main reason for doing so.

My third reason is to "purify body and mind." This one might seem to escape logical explanation. An American vegetarian physician summed it up well when he said that "It's good not having to worry about the conditions under which your food died." This statement points out that animals are not always healthy themselves, and before death, they secrete toxic substances. When we eat the flesh of animals, we also ingest disease-carrying microorganisms and toxins.

According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, our bodies contain uric acid and other toxic waste products which turn up in our blood and body tissues. Compared to the 65% impure moisture content of beef, protein obtained from nuts, beans and legumes is markedly purer. Vegetarian food is indeed much cleaner than meat, and it also retains its freshness better than meat. Vegetarian food is in every case cleaner and purer than meat with comparable nutritious value. We know that meat spoils easily, and fish and shrimp begin to become putrid after being left out for just half an hour. Meat and meat products begin to decay after one hour.

Vegetables, on the other hand, can usually e kept for three to five days. Although beans become rancid relatively quickly, the deterioration is very easy to detect and recognize.

One problem with vegetable foods today is contamination by pesticides; but even so, they are still much cleaner than meat. A person who habitually eats pure food keeps his body and mind in a pure state; this follows of course, and is beyond argument.

Another question that vegetarians are frequently asked is, "Why can't you eat scallions, chives, onions, and garlic?" This again relates back to purity. The Surangama Sutra says: "All living creatures seek the 'three kinds of wisdom,' and should refrain from eating the 'five pungent.' These five pungent foods create lust when eaten cooked, and rage when eaten raw." It goes on to say that "Even if someone can recite twelve sutras from memory, the gods of the ten heavens will all disdain him if he eats pungent foods in this world, because of his strong odor and uncleanliness, and will give distance themselves far from him."

This means that pungent foods arouse lust, and give one an explosive temper and one's body a bad odor. These foods are unclean, and if a person's body and mind are not clean, how can he succeed at purifying himself through Buddhism? This is why yet another sutra says: "That which has blood and flesh will be rejected by the gods and not eaten by the saints; all in heaven distance themselves far from one who eats meat; his breath is always foul...meat is not a good thing, meat is not pure, it is born in evil and spoils in merit and virtue; it is rejected by all the gods and saints!"

In recent years, I have spent much time thinking about what I eat; in fact I don't have many great insights on vegetarianism. However, the three reasons I just stated are sufficient to make me feel confident about my choice. Issues like whether a vegetarian diet is more nutritious, whether there is great merit in following a vegetarian diet, whether it can promote world peace, and so forth, are all secondary.

What I strongly believe is that if a person wants to take joy in the Buddhist way and enter into the mercy and knowledge of the Buddha, he must begin at the dining table. There is a British promoter of vegetarianism named Dr. Walsh who once said that "To prevent human bloodshed one must start at the dinner table." Turning back to Taiwan today, one banquet takes a thousand lives; clothing oneself requires minks and silk spun by worms; shoes are made from alligator skin and leather; and lust and luxury are carried to extremes.

To begin one's enlightenment of mercy and cause of consequence at the dinner table in this kind of an environment is perhaps more than a little difficult. The prospects for long-term peace and prosperity here are indeed cause for concern.

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