Friday, June 14, 2013

Perceiving the Precepts and Buddhist Carnivores

A constant and necessary part of my job is critical analysis - looking for flaws in arguments. Clients, colleagues and opposing counsel try to persuade me with a chain of reasoning that leads to a conclusion they want me to accept. They naturally emphasize the strongest links. I naturally roll out my electron microscope and scrutinize the weakest ones.

Although I try to phrase “you’re wrong” in the nicest possible way, nobody likes to hear it. Emotion aside, critical analysis is simply a search for the truth. Better to have a few ego feathers ruffled than find out the hard way.

I've been doing this for as long as I can remember – in school, in science, in law, and in everyday life so much that I've gotten used to my brain’s incessant little contrarian quips. Make a pronouncement and I’ll take a pot shot at it before the words are out of your mouth.

“All crows are black…” “What about albino crows?”

Useful in the courtroom, perhaps, but a decided handicap in polite company.

Whether I want it to or not, my contradict-o-meter starts going crazy whenever precept #1 of the Bodhisattva Precepts (Do not kill or cause suffering to other beings) or #2 (Do not take what is not given) occurs in the same thought as eating or using animal products.

My train of thought goes something like this:

It is not necessary to eat animal products to be healthy. Period.

Eating animal products creates a demand for animal products.

Producing animal products for food almost always involves killing animals and/or causing them to suffer.

Therefore, eating animal products almost always causes unnecessary suffering and offends the first precept. Animals don’t give us their flesh or milk or eggs voluntarily. We take them because we can, and this offends the second precept.

If the Bodhisattva goal is to relieve suffering everywhere, causing unnecessary suffering is exactly the opposite.

I'm quick to admit that not every case is black and white – just most cases.

If eating animal products were necessary for health, then we would have a real ethical dilemma, but it isn't, so most of the time, we don’t.

There are truly difficult occasions when insisting on strict veganism may cause suffering.  When one parent is vegan and the other eats meat, they have to reach a truce over what kind of food their young child will eat. Other situations, e.g. not offending your host, can often be avoided by giving a little advance warning.  I don't think people really want you to go against your conscience – after all, who would insist that a Muslim or a Jew eat pork or an abstainer drink alcohol?

There are arguments in favour of using leather, e.g. boycotting the sweatshops that make non-leather shoes, but I'm not inclined to agree that putting poorly paid people out of work altogether is a good thing, and from what I've read, the suffering caused by the leather industry is of a different order of magnitude.

One of my Zen heroes is Robert Aitken Roshi, for many reasons. A big one is his direct speech about taking compassionate action. In Miniatures of a Zen Master, he wrote:

The Dharma is pure and simple. 'Do not kill.' Denial of this truth can be convoluted and complex. 'Git along little doggie,' chants the cowboy affectionately on the way to the slaughterhouse. 'Do your patriotic duty,' advises the leader on this or that side of a war. Come on! Start at the beginning. Killing is killing. Build your case there and make your presentation there, if you have the fortitude.

Using animal products, or not, is an individual choice.

We can't judge each other's choices because we don't know what is in each other's hearts and minds.

I'm just saying what's in mine.


  1. As always, David, a thoughtful and careful post. I so appreciate the clarity of what you put out there always. Thanks, and metta.


    1. Thank you so much, Roselle. Speaking out on behalf of our mute cousins takes me a bit outside my comfort zone and I appreciate the support. Metta back.

  2. David - Thanks for this clear and thoughtful essay. I was reminded, first, of the figure of speech known as procatalepsis, in which the speaker anticipates an opposing argument and refutes it. I was also reminded of the story of the Dalai Lama ordering steak from room service during a stay in a New York hotel. As I recall, it was reported that the Dalai Lama eats meat for practical reasons. In the part of the world where he lives, vegetation is insufficient to sustain a vegetarian diet.

    1. Thanks, Ben. I wasn't aware of that. Of course my picky mind wonders, since I believe it takes about ten pounds of plants to make one pound of meat, how there can be enough arable land to grow plants for animal food but not human food ;), but I'm sure there's a reasonable explanation. I enjoy your work over at One Time, One Meeting.

  3. Although I'm not an attorney I too have held critical thinking as a virtue and guide to set things right. There is no doubt that causing harm to others should never be condoned. But sadly so many find it easy to bend other-wise universally accepted rules of kindness. It seems that the world has been refashioned by this thoughtless to the point that indifference or ignorance has become the norm. From the war on nonhumans to the greed that causes human exploitation, lazy (non)thinking causes immense, needless suffering. How can the violent wrongs ever be repaired if we refuse to inspect for the errors? (Sigh... But clearly you know this.)

    By what you've eloquently written here and before I can (and do) judge what's in your heart - With full admiration and respect. Thank you.

    1. So true, Bea. I suspect that almost all of us recognize illogical thinking if we give it our attention, but we don't want to look, for a variety of reasons. I have to confess that after watching Earthlings, I didn't want to watch any more animal suffering videos for quite a while.

  4. Thanks for this thoughtful post David, good to think about judgement and justice - I think what you describe about yourself is simply intelligence. Harming other animals is against the law, choice is only in play by how we're letting harm or cruelty be defined. Funny how actual killing ever got to be overlooked as cruelty. Yes, the sorting out starts, the closer we get to the "pure and simple", of the dharma.

    1. Thank you, Susan. Yes, the sorting out - funny how I feel twinges of guilt pointing out the thoughtless actions of others - makes sense, I guess, since we're all connected - and it wouldn't do to get complacent!


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