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Violence and the First Precept

Question:

I know you’ve been over the Buddhist diet a million times but I have always been perplexed about the justification of not adhering to a vegetarian diet by the many Buddhist lay people in Asia. I personally am not a vegetarian but I hate unanswered questions.

Anyway, I happened to notice that the Wikipedia version (terribly reliable source, I know) of the Five Precepts words the first precept as: “To refrain from taking life (non-violence towards sentient life forms)”. Is that “sentient” part of the phrase why many Buddhists eat meat? I have been struggling with this precept, and deciding whether or not to consider myself a Buddhist, because I believe that eating meat sparingly is natural and so is killing to eat, no matter what sort of organism you are. I also think all vertebrates are sentient and I love animals. I believe in practicing subsistence hunting/fishing/gathering and I think that it is probably less karmicly-damaging than eating a cow or a chicken from a factory farm. I am also willing to accept the consequences of my actions in regard to what I eat and how it gets on my plate.

Another reason I struggle with the First Precept is because I believe in self defense and the right to bear arms. I would not hesitate to defend myself, my family, or the people I work with. However, if I want to adhere to the Five Precepts should I shoot to disable (this goes against what I have been taught, which is shoot to kill because a.)it requires less skill b.)the person you shot could sue you even though they were in the wrong when you shot them)? It is doubtful that I will ever have to use lethal or sublethal force to defend myself or others so should I stop worrying about it and be prepared to accept the consequences of my actions on a Buddhist level (as well as the personal and social consequences I have already chosen to accept by using firearms)?

Answer:

To start with the last part of your question first, it’s generally considered acceptable to defend yourself and others when necessary, at least when lives are at stake; killing over property would not be justifiable, at least not in my opinion.

As far as eating meat is concerned, that bit on sentience has always been hotly debated. Did Buddha really say that, and even if he really did, exactly what is sentience? Which creatures have it and which don’t?

Historically, monks would not kill animals for meat. They generally raise food in gardens in their monasteries as well as take in donations from the local laypeople. Certain orders were forbidden from anything other than begging for food. If they were given meat, they would accept it and eat it without reservation. According to the old stories, Buddha himself accepted this situation, but again, that is debatable.

I’m not going to judge one way or the other. I eat meat, but I think I’d feel better about myself if I didn’t. It’s one of those things I’ve been thinking about doing for more than a decade. I don’t cook, and eat way too much junk food, so it is going to be difficult for me to switch. But I will… someday. I really cannot justify it for myself other than basing it solely on convenience, and that’s obviously not the right answer.

I’m going to leave this one up to the readers to comment and answer. Are you a vegetarian? If not, how do you justify that?

11 comments to Violence and the First Precept

  • mirthquake80

    i am a vegetarian and feel confident this dietary choice reflects my reverence for all life, my body, and good stewardship of the earth. however, i recognize that humans are by nature omniverous. i don’t fault a cat for eating a rat; nor would i fault a person for eating what comes naturally to her/him. i think sometimes vegetarians get too preachy about this issue instead of recognizing the range of values [religious, cultural, etc.] influencing what and how we eat. if, as a buddhist, you are not totally comfortable with eating meat, it seems selecting meat products where the animals were treated humanely is a good middle ground, whereby you reduce the amount of suffering you cause via your diet.

  • Mat

    I was brought up vegetarian by my (non-buddhist/non-religious) parents. I never questioned being vegetarian, just simply accepted that my diet didn’t include meat or fish. I was allowed to eat meat and fish if I wanted (my brother still does). As such I was never particularly political or passionate about being vegetarian (especially in comparison to many of my friends who converted to being veggie in their mid teens) and even went fishing for many years (in the UK most anglers return the fish we catch, they are not for eating – we just enjoy fishing as a sport). But I was definately a vegetarian and never would eat meat or fish. But it didn’t particularly bother me if someone else did.

    However, after starting my buddhist practice and sitting a Insight and Metta retreat I realised 2 things:

    (1) I could no longer continue to fish (something I had been increasingly uncomfortable with over the past few years due to the suffering I felt I was inflicting on the fish).
    (2) That I could never consider eating meat or fish – only the reason now was not because I was vegetarian (I was effectively veggie by default), but because of the suffering I felt was connected with this.

    I feel that my practice has allowed me to more deeply connect with other beings and this is the reason I do not and would not eat meat or fish. For me its very important, but I know of many others who struggle with this as they grew up eating meat. It could be argued that its far easier for me as I haven’t had to make any great changes. I feel that following the precept of not causing suffering (as well as the others) is a great protection and allows my mind to be far more at peace as my inner and outer worlds are less in conflict with each other.

  • Jeffrey R. Smith

    Meat? As it was in my childhood, meat was almost as good as chocolate. May’ve been better, had it been also difficult to get ahold of. And the family preaches of their greens, they’re always on the plate, dispeopotionate as they may be. So, this transition to vegan I do take upon myself, aware that it’ll be up to I to supply the soy products that I’ll require on visits.
    I’m still in the transition, slowly I’m weaning myself into the vegan diet. It’s not too difficult, if do it in steps. As I’ve rolled away from meats, look healthier, feel healthier, and in my drawn out recovery, that too is gaining speed.
    Guess not in a position to praise vegitarian/vegan diets too much, as experience I am shy on; but if the results of the transition are any indication of things to come,Wowza!!!

  • April

    I recently wrote a response to this question. I don’t think anyone read it because it was posted to a very old thread, so I will just copy and paste what I said there here (it took me forever to type):

    Buddhism encourages thinking for yourself, and not blindly following what anyone (even the Buddha) thought was best, so I fail to see why it matters if the Buddha was vegetarian or not. That said, if you truly believe in non-harm, and avoiding causing suffering to the greatest degree possible, I can’t see how you wouldn’t be a vegetarian (if not vegan, giving the troubles with modern factory farming).
    As for the argument that plants suffer too, I would agree that harming plants unnecessarily is not good, but I object vehemently to any argument that the “suffering” of a non-sentient life can compare to the suffering of a sentient life; when the latter feels pain, fear, and a very obvious desire to live. Secondly, I’m troubled with a strange assumption that people seem to have that you must either kill plants or animals. In reality, animals raised for meat are obviously living their entire lives eating other plants. Eating vegetarian foods will actually result in fewer plants dying (in addition to fewer animals dying, of course), because animals won’t be unnaturally brought to breed excessively so that people can appease their taste buds.
    At any rate, vegan and vegetarian foods are extremely tasty (not to mention, generally healthier), and as time passes the foods available to vegans are becoming increasingly more similar to non-vegan/non-vegetarian foods in terms of taste.
    ***

    I want to comment on the post that suggests that because we are still animals, that we shouldn’t have to make moral choices about meat eating-
    I am perplexed whenever I hear this argument, because it‚Äôs so contradictory in some very fundamental ways. The first is that there‚Äôs an assumption that other animals do it, so it must be ok and “natural”. Of course, though, in reality, only SOME other animals do it. Many animals don‚Äôt eat other animals at all, so it‚Äôs not the case that you‚Äôre simply siding with all other animals, you are only siding with those other animals who do eat animals. Secondly, some other animals do a plethora of other things that humans would never do, and which humans would find obnoxious. We don‚Äôt say ‚ÄúI will eat that animal because some other animals eat other animals, and I will pee on myself to attract a mate, because some moose do it.‚Äù No- we have the ability to think, and to derive from logic and thought what would be the best way to live. Let‚Äôs not pretend now that humans can just do as other animals do and let that be. A bird doesn‚Äôt think it‚Äôs superior because it can fly, and a lion can‚Äôt- the bird is just realizing its potential. Similarly, a human who uses their ability to think and employ logic in a unique capacity is not necessarily exerting it‚Äôs superiority over other animals; that person is also just realizing their potential. Indeed, I would argue that being vegetarian is recognizing that you are NOT superior to other animals. Might does not make right, and anyone who has ever seen video footage from inside a modern factory farm, cannot with a pure and honest heart say that there is anything ‚Äúnatural‚Äù and inherent in supporting such actions. I must also add that it is quite objectionable that one would argue that, because humans have been doing it for so long, that it must not be stopped. In almost every single other way, most humans accept and embrace change and ‚Äúprogress” in life. We use modern technology, we develop laws in accordance with emerging global norms and evolving senses of morality, etc. Why, then, should such a crucial moral issue be forced into an ideological realm of immutability and unchanging centrality? It makes no sense. And, at leastfrom a health view point, almost all real medical practitioners would agree that a well-planned vegetarian/vegan diet will allow one to live at least as long as an animal-eating person (and, in fact, I believe it is said that vegetarians live an average of 7 years longer than animal-eaters), so it certainly can‚Äôt be argued in terms of health for most people. Plus, honestly, most people have been selfish since the beginning of time. Does this not mean that selfishness is not positive, and that people shouldn‚Äôt try to be the best, most aware person they can be?

  • Abe Simpson

    I respect anybody for eating a sensible and healthy diet.

    I find it interesting that people focus on meat versus no meat. The reason I say that is that the way food is grown, harvested and distributed is quite costly to the lives of sentient beings and not just the ones that are being eaten. 🙂

    The precepts must be looked at holistically as well was finitely.

    Herbicides, pesticides, genetic manipulation, hormones, antibiotics, unsustainable harvesting, poor irrigation practices,destruction of natural habitat, fossil fuels, and unfair trade all contribute negatively to our world and cause harm to sentient beings, all of these can be used in the production and distribution of our food.

    The only way to fully control the quality of your food is to grow, gather, raise and kill our own food. This isn’t any more reasonable than eating what ever you want.

    The Buddha taught that there is a middle way, this is for diets too. All things in moderation.

    I would suggest that while humans are omnivores, as proven by the type of teeth we have, our primary food source should be vegetable, not meat. It seems to be very American for meat to be our “main course” with vegetables being our “sides”.

    I am not just a meat eater, I am a hunter and fisherman. But I am not a trophy hunter, I am a very holistic person and have a strict etiquette.

  • Gadget

    I agree wholeheartedly with Abe up there, holistic approach must be taken on foods. I have been both vegetarian and meat-eater in the last ten years but either way I have always looked at the major impact of my purchasing choices on the wider world. If I can get local, organic produce direct from farmers markets with as little packaging as possible why would I use the carbon emissions to fly foreign produce in? I have a real issue with many veggie & began alternative proteins due to the ecological carnage caused by clearing rainforest etc to plant soya crop. You would only eat 1 animal but you may inadvertently kill 50 for your soya product!

  • Ren

    I am pretty new to Buddhism. I am trying to develop mindfulness in all that I do. I try to really be aware of my food as I eat it: to really smell, taste, feel it. To pay attention to what I am doing and stay in the present moment. But I have to shut down that mindfulness in order to eat meat. I’ll leave it to others to debate the ethical implications, but to me, meat is just disgusting, if you think about it. It’s a dead body. That might not bother some people, but… ugh!

  • April

    Actually, the VAST majority of soy beans being grown in the Amazon are being used to feed cows.
    http://www.rainforests.net/therapeoftherainforest.htm

    Cows and livestock will eat a LOT of it, in order to produce (pound for pound) much less food usable to humans. (Plus, not only is it erroneous to imply that soy beans in the Amazon are being grown for humans, but even if you wanted to believe that, you could still just opt for rice-based alternatives like rice milk.) Additionally, not only is that a problem of meat eating, but much of the Amazon and world in general is suffering the effects of global warming, which is very directly tied to pollution related to raising animals to kill for human consumption. Carbon dioxide from cows has a worse impact on global warming than transportation-related pollution, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

    I agree that organic local foods are better, and I also try to get those as much as I can, but to do that and to pretend that you’re not still causing a lot of harm to the environment (not to mention compassion) when you eat animals is misguided at best.

    And, yes, the Buddha called for a “middle way,” but I don’t think saying “oh well, it’s natural to eat animals” is the middle way at all. If you want to continue living, you must eat something. If you eat a plant, you’re still causing death. By continuing to live on a vegan or vegetarian diet, you’re living a true middle way, because even though you cause some death, you’re minimizing the death and suffering in the world drastically.

    As for teeth, I never understood this point. So if you really think that your teeth make eating meat natural, how would you explain that vegetarians live an average of 7-10 years longer than meat eaters? Besides, almost EVERY other animal that eats meat, has much sharper teeth than humans. And, if you really like biology, you might want to consider that our digestive tracts are extremely long- every other animal that eats meat has a short one to prevent meat from decaying inside their body, whereas non-meat eaters have longer ones. Plus, I don’t get the “natural” point, unless you’re Christian, and believe that God wants you to eat animals. I’m sure Darwin would be more convincing…

  • April

    Actually, sorry to have two posts in a row, but I wanted to add something to that “natural” claim- I don’t understand why eating animals (especially factory farmed animals) is really about the only thing humans want to care about being “natural.” What is natural? Is natural when you undergo chemotherapy, or have a life-saving surgery that involves removing parts of your body, or taking pain killers? These are things almost all of us would do if we needed to, and no one talks about how blatantly “unnatural” almost all medical interventions inherently are. Or is natural just doing as our ancestors from thousands of years did? That is, dying in our twenties, having our teeth rot out when we’re about 10, and wandering around naked?

    Additionally, in response to Abe’s comment on respecting “healthy” lifestyles, I would say that any lifestyle that will have a scientifically-proven increased chance of earlier death is probably not too healthy; and the idea of a lifestyle that results in the death of MANY more life forms (plant and animal alike) is by definition unhealthy. Or, at least, I would like to think that death is unhealthy. I think part of the problem is that people like to think of “health” only as it pertains to them, and not to other lives and the ecosystem as a whole.

  • David

    Having read all the posts above I am reminded of something I recently saw in a Buddhist store, it read. Eat healthy, don’t drink, lose weight, die anyway! Enough said? Whatever you do, do it mindfully and respect the choices of others.

    I sometimes feel that you can use any part of a scientific argument to further your side without using the whole picture, after all 87.5 % of statistics are lies. Or are they? As Buddha is said to have said, really on your own experience. Believe in yourself and you will make the right choice for you, without that you are not really being you, you are being led!!

    Namaste

  • Abe Simpson

    The definition of herbivore, ominivore and carnivore is based on the shape and orientation of teeth. Specifically in mammals, it is a reference to the presence or absence of the carnassial pair and their degree of shearing action. The reason carnivores have small digestive systems is not related to meat rotting, but relates more to the need of herbivores to ruminate complex plant materials, which requires a more complex digestive system. Omnivores are somewhere in the middle in length of digestive system relative to the others.

    The statistic quoted on vegetarians living longer isn’t vetted out in the scientific journals. According to studies published in the Journal of Nutrition, mammals with omnivorous diets live the longest, followed by vegetarians then strict meat eaters. When I say mammals, I mean rats, dogs, & monkeys submitted to these trials. Animals that didn’t live long regardless of their diet. 🙁

    The above statement is science. It has no bearing on how you should practice daily life as it pertains to your diet and it does not try to convince you of one answer or the other. It is simply a set of definitions and the observe of a outcome based on a parametered study.

    Like I said originally, I respect anybody for eating a sensible and healthy diet. If you can be healthy on your diet and are not consuming food that is produced in a destructive manner, than you are doing the right thing. If you are not healthy and the food you consume contributes to the destruction of the environment or causes suffering, then I ask that you reconsider your diet.

    People who have healthy diets and healthy lifestyles may live longer. Unless they are hit by a car. Then they don’t.

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