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Eat Your Vegetables!

Dear Brian, 

I am thinking about converting into Buddhism. To me it just feels right. Although after listening to your introduction about the 5 Precepts, I find it hard to follow the 1st and the 5th. 

I have been to Iraq and fortunately I wasn’t put in a position to take another person’s life. I don’t think that I could live with myself, although many others didn’t have a choice… Since then I don’t feel comfortable harming a life, great or small. My problem lies in my being a vegetarian. My wife has hard enough of a time getting me to eat my vegetables now. I know that the mass suffering and the mass murder is very wrong, and I also know that by choosing to eat meat that I condone the chaos. At the same time right now I can’t imagine being a vegetarian. 

For the 5th Precept, I do drink an occasional beer and have a coffee almost daily, but neither excessively. I usually find myself the designated driver. My question is, can I call myself a Buddhist when I have problems with the fundamental elements if Buddhism? Perhaps later in my life I will correct these problems, but for now I am at a loss for what to do. 

I appreciate what you are doing, and look forward to your thoughts about the matter.    
My Response:
The short answer is that Buddha didn’t say anything about being a vegetarian.  Actually, according to legend, he died from eating spoiled pork. Then again, back in those days, they didn’t have factory-farms, and animals lived a much more “natural” life than they do now.

Here are what I consider the important factors to consider when deciding about vegetarianism:

The food chain and the chain of life are intertwined. No matter what you eat, something dies. There’s no way to avoid that. When judging what kinds of things we eat, it usually boils down to how “sentient” the creature is.

We don’t eat other people. Yes, it’s illegal, but it’s primarily because we can empathize with other people. We recognize that they are sentient and intelligent, and they react just like we would in most circumstances. We wouldn’t want to be eaten, so we don’t eat others of our own kind.

Chickens, cows, pigs, and other food animals are less intelligent than humans, and are generally eaten by most people. On the other hand, how many Americans would eat a dog or cat? Dogs and cats are, in our society, often seen as part of the household, part of the family, and possibly even as surrogate children in some cases. We would never eat one, yet in other countries, where cats and dogs are held in less regard, they often become meals. Are American dogs more evolved or more sentient than in other parts of the world? Of course not– it’s just a matter of perception.

Plants are (we must assume) less intelligent than animals, but they are undoubtedly alive– and we eat them all the time. We have to eat something and plants are the fursthest thing down the list that is edible.

A huge number of people in Asia identify as Buddhist… Do you suppose they are all vegetarians? Definitely not!  Still, keep in mind, many monks and very devout Buddhists choose to be vegetarians, mostly due to the reasons you have mentioned. It seems that the more thought and focus you put into the subject, the more likely you are to choose vegetarianism. Again, that’s a choice, but it’s not a choice that most Buddhists make.

Personally, I’ve always thought that being a vegetarian would be the best thing for me, but I fully admit, I don’t have that kind of willpower. I certainly wouldn’t judge anyone for being in the same situation. Do I feel guilty for eating cheeseburgers? Yes, but feeling guilt is a post for another time.

Thanks a lot for the email!

1 comment to Eat Your Vegetables!


    A reader emailed me this (I had comments turned off by mistake!):

    I just read your post about vegetarianism. My husband had been Buddhist and vegetarian for about 10 years and since I have married him and read about Buddhism, I have also converted. I have had no problem switching to vegetarian meals, in fact it is easier than messing around with dead animals! I use Morning Star Farms and Gardein products. The Gardein chick’n strips pass as real chicken. I use my favorite meat recipes and I substitute Morning Star or Gardein. It has really simplified my life. I enjoy Burger King’s vegetarian burger and Taco Bell’s vegetarian cantina bowl of rice & beans or bean burritos. The only time I have eaten meat in the last 3 years is when I am in a situation where there isn’t really an alternative so my first choice is fish and second choice is chicken. I have not had any beef or pork for 3 years. I would never eat lamb or mutton, as I had a pet lamb I bottled fed and she considered me her mother. I do eat eggs and cheese, but this does not kill the animals, but I know on some farms they do have a difficult life. Over the last year, my health has improved. I used to get my annual cold in the winter, but the last three winters I have not been sick at all. So….just some food for thought!