It might seem odd, even hypocritical, for an environmentalist and Buddhist such as myself to come out in favour of eating meat. There are many great reasons to practice vegetarianism and it’s a personal choice that I respect. I’ve noticed that at social gatherings the topic comes up frequently and there’s a growing awareness of dietary diversity. I think it’s great that people are willing to accommodate each other now more than ever.
Another thing I notice, though, is that when people talk about eating meat they often express guilt, like it’s not the socially evolved or politically correct thing to do. So in today’s post I’d like to share some of my thoughts on the topic and explore the discourse around vegetarianism.
I’ve taken a shot at being a vegetarian and it wasn’t my thing. Ultimately, I just don’t believe that eating meat is wrong. Not only do I not feel bad about it, but it’s a conscious choice that reflects my understanding of how I fit into the natural order of things.
To start with, animal rights are important to me. No, really – they are.
I’m not a big fan of PETA but I do use their search engine to identify cruelty-free companies. Some might say it’s a contradiction for me to be concerned about testing on animals while, well… eating them (and enthusiastically, at that!). Following are some valid questions along with my best crack at what I trust are sensible answers.
“But aren’t you a Buddhist?”
In spiritual traditions that sanction a carnivorous diet there tend to be rules around how it should be approached. Of course, in some religions it’s altogether forbidden. Many (and possibly most) Buddhists are indeed vegetarian. Buddhism teaches ahimsa – the principle of non-harming – and of course this is part of the more fundamental teaching that it’s wrong to kill. However, there are many variations of Buddhist practice. Some Buddhist texts discuss the concept of “clean” meat and some Tibetan Buddhists including Tenzin Gyatso (the Dalai Lama himself) are not vegetarian. Ultimately, if a Buddhist is truly concerned about contravening the texts and teachings on this matter, the safe bet would be to cut out meat entirely or to only eat certain types of meat as directed. It’s evident why anyone regardless of persuasion would believe that killing is wrong, but the Buddha had a much more nuanced understanding than categorical dos and don’ts. Surely there are instances in which it might be acceptable. Personally, I’m satisfied that nutrition and hence sustenance are good reasons, in keeping with certain conditions which I’ll address further below.
“You’re an environmentalist, right?”
Much has been reported about the ecological impact of Western meat-heavy diets. I think it’s fair to say that we eat way too much meat and need to cut back substantially. Livestock do contribute to global warming by releasing an awful lot of methane, which is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. There’s no getting away from the fact that the list of environmental impacts is long, but it’s important to ask why. For me the overriding problem is the way we produce food – namely factory farming and industrial agriculture. Methane emissions can be largely attributed to the diet that livestock are fed. Cows simply shouldn’t be fed corn, soy, or other grains because they can’t properly digest these foods, so I’m happy to see that grass-fed beef is becoming increasingly accessible. While this means that more land will be required for pasture, less land will be necessary for the crops dedicated to this feed. Monoculture or cash crops themselves are bad for biodiversity and involve the use of GMO seeds, pesticides, herbicides, etc., all of which are prevalent in this model of food production. This system treats both animals and plants as just another raw input or commodity. The only value they’re assumed to have is in the profit they generate and that’s not a healthy, mindful or ethical way to nourish our bodies or participate in the processes of nature.
“Shouldn’t we know better by now?”
While I think it’s legitimate and commendable that many people are analyzing their food consumption and make changes out of consideration for animal welfare and our environment, it’s also part of a popular trend. There’s a degree to which being vegetarian, and vegan even more so, gives one an image boost in some circles. But honestly, I don’t see why it should. It’s one thing to use persuasion to further important causes; it’s another to wear one’s vegetarianism as a badge. You’re vegan? Okey dokey. But really… so what? It shouldn’t be an excuse for self-congratulation.
I simply don’t believe that observing a vegetarian diet makes one a better person. Part of my reason for saying this is the logical insinuation inherent in such a belief. Is vegetarianism actually a criterion for enlightenment and civilization? Did our non-vegetarian ancestors just not know any better? What about indigenous peoples who not only live off the land and depend on animals for their survival (food, clothing, etc.) but have woven the existence of these life forms into their very cosmologies? Are these people somehow less evolved than modern vegetarians? Certainly not. There’s no correlation whatsoever between a culture’s propensity to eat meat and their evolution as human beings. In fact, it’s the societies that live closest to nature, firmly embedded within it, that are most involved in hunting animals.
Why do such people have a profound understanding of and respect for animals and yet see nothing wrong in eating them? It’s a matter of cultural paradigm that involves a deep and complex appreciation for the interdependency of all life forms on our planet. Relationship is key. So is an understanding of the origin and meaning of life.
Organic matter is composed of both plant and animal matter. It’s not as though Mother Nature places dead plants and dead animals in different compost bins; it’s all part of one cyclical system. All organic matter originates from the same plant-animal process of death and rebirth. We can follow a vegan diet, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but understanding the process of life on this planet means understanding that even the plants we eat ultimately come from both plant and animal sources. Any separation of the two is entirely illusory. It’s socially constructed.
“How can you kill something you love?”
Quite simply, life is death and death is life. We as a species would have never evolved to the present had we not eaten animals. We are animals. We can choose whether to eat other animals (at least those of us who feel being vegetarian wouldn’t be detrimental to our health) – but having that choice doesn’t say anything about what that choice should be. When we observe carnivores or omnivores we see that there is some natural law whereby they never cause unnecessary suffering, and yet they don’t hesitate before eating each other alive. Nature doesn’t ‘think’ that this pain or death is wrong. It’s just part of life. It’s part of nature itself.
From a Western modern anthropocentric standpoint, death is bad. But every spiritual tradition teaches the cyclical nature of existence and treats life and death as interchangeable. Even in Judeo-Christian religions that place human beings above other species, nature is still understood as being simultaneously destructive and creative. The idea of resurrection and the salvation it supposedly brings is based on the reality that death is life.
It’s the practice of cooperation and respect that determines the dignity of relationships between entities. I have a feeling that the deeper our disconnect from nature, the easier it is to forget this. There’s something about vegetarianism that for me personally would represent a kind of implied separation between myself and other forms of life on Earth, as weird as that might sound. I just don’t feel guilty when I eat meat. Instead, I’m grateful for that sustenance.
“Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides.”
– Lao Tzu