Tuesday, January 02, 2007

KILLING THEM SOFTLY: The Buddhist Rationale for Eating Animals

On a recent lecture tour, the Dalai Lama dined sumptuously on lamb at a chic Bay Area restaurant. Earlier in the year His Holiness partook of chicken soup at a seder. Nepalese Buddhist monks have been known to enjoy burgers, fries and shakes at American diners. Gelek Rinpoche, a Tibetan spiritual leader, proclaims, “We Tibetans like to eat meat. We don’t care if it’s healthy or not—we like it.” A zen teacher once stated three times during a workshop, “Buddhism is not vegetarianism!”

While that may be true, vegetarianism, for many, is an ethical practice based on non-violence and compassion toward animals. In that respect, Buddhism occupies common ground with ethical vegetarianism. A fifth century Sutra urges, “If you see a person about to kill an animal, you should devise a means to rescue and protect that creature.”

Religious groups from the Jains to Seventh Day Adventists practice ethical vegetarianism. Buddhist scripture likewise exhorts us “to dwell compassionate and kind to all creatures that have life.” But how many Buddhists break this commandment and violate the prime directive of unconditional, pure loving-kindness to all creatures? Surely, the volitional act of eating murdered, mutilated animals stands in direct contradiction to the Bodhisattva vow, “All beings, without number, I vow to liberate.”

In his spiritual teachings, Buddha never advocated a vegetarian diet. He and his cousin, the “devious” Devadatta, once argued over the proper diet of monks. In an attempt to wrest power and create a schism in the faith, Devadatta forbade fish and meat, and ordained that monks lead an austere lifestyle. But Buddha, as narrated in the Vinaya, prevailed. He insisted that monks never refuse almsfood, and felt that gourmand, self-absorbed vegetarians were more “at fault” karmically than mendicants who ate meat served to them.

The Blessed One indisputably indulged in animal flesh, enjoyed it, and did so “blamelessly” by ascribing three instances in which meat should not be eaten: “when it is seen, heard, or suspected [that the living being has been slaughtered]” specifically for the person. Buddha was thus able to justify the inherent barbarism of flesh eating by claiming to be merely third-party to the act. Buddha thus decreed, “with no evil in the heart, no indulgence of appetite,” that his followers no longer had to trouble their consciences; they could now eat their victims “blamelessly”. But no matter how you cut the carcass, it’s complicity, a shared responsibility for the deaths of innocent beings that no amount of scriptural exegesis can rationalize.

In the Jivaka Sutta, Buddha insists one can be a good Buddhist, and still eat animals whose flesh was knowingly taken, when done with “a mind imbued with loving-kindness.” His vague prescription of non-attachment also helped—so long as one’s attitude conformed to non-attachment, eating and killing animals was no longer verboten. The taking of a life became okay if one was not “tied to it, infatuated with it, and utterly committed to it, seeing the danger in it and understanding the escape from it.” A Buddhist holy man noted recently, “The important thing is the quality of your heart, not the contents of your diet. . .one who eats meat can have a pure heart just as one who does not eat meat can have an impure heart.” (Never mind the victims’ hearts!)

What right do humans have to enslave, torture, massacre and eat animals? Certainly, dependency on animal protein is a given in many traditional or marginal areas where being vegetarian would mean starvation. These people have little choice but to kill and eat animals to survive. But what about the Dalai Lama, who eats meat behind the facade of “doctor’s orders”? What about untold other Buddhists living in Western-style cities who eat animals knowingly killed for the purely selfish sake of gastronomic pleasure? Why cannot these Buddhists, who live in places where viable nutritional alternatives exist, simply swear off eating and killing animals?

Roshi Philip Kapleau’s A Buddhist Case for Vegetarianism “picks a bone” with the faithful who eat animals without blame or guilt. Dharma heir Bodhin Kjolhede laments how these Buddhists are merely masking their true motivation “with the pleasing fragrance of such Buddhist concepts as ‘non-attachment’. . .it is sad to see how many American Buddhists are managing to find a self-satisfying accommodation to eating meat.” Sagaramati wonders how a self-respecting Buddhist can practice the teachings of Buddha by endeavoring to become kinder and more compassionate to all beings, and yet deny an ethical connection between the unkind and decidedly non-compassionate treatment of animals and the corpse on one’s plate.

It all comes down to a simple question of need versus desire. Let’s put aside for a moment the assertion that all things being equal, “a carrot is the equivalent of a cow”. Let’s forget for a moment all this stuff about attachment and non-attachment, transcendence of guilt, and purity of intention, and think for a moment about those least able to speak up for and defend themselves—the attachees! If one can honestly do without, do without! Being vegetarian palpably helps to reduce pain and suffering in the world. Why be complicit in the deaths of innocent beings for no better reason than to indulge in bloody flesh and sate some base gastronomic lust?

Some argue that eating animals is excusable because to worry and fuss too much about it all is “ to be attached” to straitjacket world views. Other defenders wave off innumerable harmful consequences of a flesh diet by couching the issue in a liturgical context, making it an exercise of attitude, discipline and questioning practice, instead of moral behavior. Well, something fails to compute here. Where is ahimsa, the non-violent ethic of least harm in a Buddhist’s daily life?
Purification of the mind and heart is the essence of the Buddhist journey to Nirvana. As one becomes less and less attached to earthly misery and suffering, one ultimately comes to accept all things as equally worthy of supreme love and compassion. This noble, if highly abstract ideal, fails to address the concrete, solid, material world that most of us dwell in. What of rampant hatred and murder, violence and injustice? Transcendence might well be the answer. What can a single individual do, after all?

In the realm of diet, a lot! A single individual can manifestly begin right at the kitchen table, picnic basket, and restaurant. A single individual can directly alleviate pain and suffering of innocent living beings. This is the vegetarian imperative; not surprisingly, it is a Buddhist virtue and ideal as well.


STELLA Aldrin gasped for breath. Her small capsule was nearly depleted of oxygen. A fading Holographic Pinpointer showed a half-buried object near Luna Sector II. Stella’s eyes were buzzing, her head was spinning, and she was barely able to make sense of the “sacred epitaph” that was rumored to lie under the blanket of dust deposited by the polluters who ran the abandoned thermoelectric conversion plants which once brought power to Old Moon Tellurians early in the twenty-first century.

Tedd Armstrong, like his lover, was also an amateur archaeologist. They had been searching for the relic during their final days of their third honeyearth vacation in the outback of the Luna Veldt. Two previous expeditions had failed to turn it up; countless treasure-seekers had risked death in the dry, remote Mare looking for the “epitaph”. Its fetching price on the Trans-Galactic Black Whole Market was no secret.

Stella and Tedd knew it bore a profound message, inscribed in Paleo-Anglican some five-hundred years ago by pre-mutant ancestors; it was supposed to be some sort of gesture of pre-halocaust goodwill, or so they imagined. Stella fancied it to be the ultimate riddle of the Sphinx, a message to humans encoding secrets of stellar evolution, the key to expanding Tellurian consciousness to spiritual levels of Magico-Technology. The two were determined to locate it once and for all. They were in the right place, but the wrong time was running out.

Stella strained to decrypt the hologram and make sense of the illegible message:


Tedd was furiously making an adjustment to the holocomputer. “We should have this cryptogram decoded in a flash!” he said. “And what is that “ank” all about anyway?”
Stella messaged her temples, closed her eyes, visualized: “What’s any of this all about? Were the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Rosetta Stone, Capra’s Quark Conundrum, or Mayan Infiniti-Calendrics as difficult to decipher as this ancient plaque?”

Stella felt tears welling up. Tedd was a lump of frenzied emotional energy. Just a short year ago they had come to Livingston, Luna to begin a new life after Telluria became too polluted. They landed cush jobs, too: researching Spinoza’s phyto-replication biota theory to create oxygen on Luna—long considered an eccentric’s fantasy, but recently met with a degree of success owing to Stella’s chance discovery of photoautotrophic bacteria near the CO2-bergs of Sere Mare.

Before the events leading up to the end of the world as everyone was about to know it forever and ever, Tedd and Stella had been vacationing in the magnetic outback, deep in the Forbidden Zone of Velikovsky’s Volcanic Veldt. Four centuries ago, in the celestially perturbed year of 2076, this archaeo-explorers’ paradise became impossible to visit, indeed, the entire Old Moon was off limits for the next 398 years after a series of unimaginably severe convulsions on Luna caused by meteoric bombardment, castoffs no doubt from Bode’s Fragmented Planet (formerly known in the New Dark Ages as the "Asteroid Belt"). Tedd and Stella were considered lunatics for wanting to visit the Veldt, but such was their determination and desire to locate the epitaph.

During their explorations of the Veldt they found two rare sparkling tectites that would fetch more than diamonds back on Telluria. They poked around at abandoned Phase IV Tri-Plenipotentiary colonization projects. They visited the confounding Cairns of Caleidi, monuments composed of robin’s egg blue and sunflower yellow crystal balls stacked hundreds of feet high, left by a mysterious and largely unknown ancient star-trekking culture from the Multiverse’s “West Bend” (or so goes the generally discredited theory of Wurm Hool, a German astrophysicist who in 2020 discovered the Cairns and claimed to have met the Caleidians as well.)

Macabre as it was, a highlight turned out to be wandering on their sore knees, absorbed for hours, in the labyrinth catacombs of the extinct Proserpine Android Vole cult (discovered in 2039 by psychistorian, Cayce Mitchell IV). Their life on Luna was exciting, and this was the crowning moment of their achievements—until the one, sudden brutal moment when they received news that a sickening nuclear conflict had erupted on Telluria, the land of their birth, and now had spread to Luna like a cancerous contagion. All the hopes, dreams and visions of humankind up in nuclear smoke and megaton brimstone.

Tedd and Stella learned from the reports that the war raging on Telluria was much worse than the Quasi-Armageddon of 2076. That abominably idiotic conflict had erupted over renegade, crazed nuke-nations armed with plutonium molotov cocktails. After the Seventeen-Year Depression (from 2030 through 2047), the world’s pressure cooker blew its lid and hell broke loose. But how on Telluria could it have happened again? After so many years of peace and prosperity fostered by the compassionate embraces of the Luminous Orwellian Visionary Ecstatics? LOVE had divided the post-nuclear world into Tri-Plenipotentiary states consisting of the Soviet Hegemony of Independent Territories, the Plutocracy of Indoamerican Socialist States, and the Federation of United Circum-Afrikkan Kingdoms. In theory, this division of pwer was an experiment with utopia, positive steps toward the eradication of nuclear weapons forever. A great step forward in evolution, lessons learned by little boys, you don’t play with fire without getting burned. A heralding of a Golden Age of irenic co-existence of cultures, with the sublime goal of respect for and harmony amongst all living beings on Telluria. The killings, massacres, butchering and warmongering mayhem were barbaric pastimes of primitive people. Humans were even going to become vegetarians! That’s what LOVE wanted you to believe anyway.

Everyone on Telluria had perished already—everyone, that is, except the Pinnacle Dignitarians and a handful of wealthy C.S.D.s--Cryogenic Sperm Donors, comfortably ensconced in bomb-proof chambers in deep set North Atlantic trenches. It was now Luna's turn. A sentimental verse rang in Stella’s head: I pray for one last landing on the globe that gave us birth let us rest our eyes on fleecy skies and the cool green hills of earth. Tedd mused cynically on the “doubly-wise” species: Homo sapiens sapiens, who didn’t even survive a fortieth of the amount of time the dinosaurs reigned, let alone the cockroaches. Now, such a laughingstock, ecce homo, no better off than those vanquished Proserpine voles who lost their sanity, then their lives, in a complex, sightless maze of dead-end tunnels.

Tedd punched some esoteric dials on a modular dash panel, activating the Scrambler. “Stella, let’s get out of this capsule now, go take a look at ourselves. We’re about cooked on oxygen anyway.” They beat their brains out still wondering about:


“And do what with it if we actually do find it?” she sighed. “Donate it to a museum?”

They figured they had about twenty minutes left before Luna blew up or yo-yoed off its gravitational orbit to fling forever through the chartless depths of the galaxy. Tedd maneuvered the Scrambler through an obstacle course of tectite-twisted metal—rubbish from old Apollo and Icarus missions. Three ancient Tupolev LEM wrecks perched nearby on the rim of Caldera Crater like gargoyles watching over eternity. The epitaph had to be around here somewhere. The Holographic Pinpointer had located it in this vicinity.

They tore across the unforgiving Lunascape. Off in the distant horizon, the jewel of heavens, Old Earth, was rising in pitch-black space like a half-doused ember, emitting smoky plumes and streaks of sporadic fireworks in blood-colored brilliance. Stars seemed to be falling from their positions.

Tedd ground the Scrambler to a halt. There were still maybe a few minutes left to solve this minor archaeological enigma. But who would give a damn anyway?


The grand deception of a “utopian” society was at long last exposed. . .and no one, not even the famous Cosmic Eavesdroppers from Ubujumaka Iimashtaqqopowoqq, the “CB” satellite handle station ten trillion nanosecs from Barnard’s “Spook” Star, knew or cared about the demise of Tellurian civilization. It was almost anticlimactic, this long-awaited Final Extinction (Final Solution?). There would be no encore, no curtain call, no more cool, green hills. Only a voided world envisioned by Lord Byron a half millennium ago: “Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless—a lump of death—a chaos of hard clay.”

Tedd lowered himself onto the surface of the Veldt, whispering cynically, “That’s one small step for a human, one giant blunder for humankind!”

Stella calculated the coordinates. “It’s over there!” she cried. “I know it. We can make it before our oxygen runs out!”

“What’s the use? We’re gonna be blown to smithereens anyhow,” said Tedd.

Together, they bounded toward the site once known as Eagle Landing in the archaic Sea of Tranquility, beyond a low, sinuous ridge that looked like a Komodo dragon’s tail. They sloughed up and over the slippery slopes, compelled by an impatient urgency to discover the message before they died. Suddenly an explosion rocked Luna. An empty horizon flared up in a hideously beautiful thermo-nuclear glare of reddened madness: the smell of hell.

“My love,” said Stella, half-deliriously, “civilization is a sham, a hoax! Let’s meet in the next world! It will be better, I promise.” In their final moments, Stella and Tedd embraced in an eternal loving gaze. Then they made their way over to the shimmering Sea of Tranquility and stumbled to their knees at the foot of Old Glory. All around them bombs burst soundlessly in the stratosphere, eerily illumining their surroundings, giving proof through the night that the plaque was still there.

Stella swiped at the dust with a tired hand, uncovering the message of the epitaph, the long-forgotten promise left by her direct ancestors. Dying, she whispered,