Buddhism Offers a Potent Philosophical Reason to Cut Meat Out of Your Diet


The following is an excerpt from The Reducetarian Solution: How the Surprisingly Simple Act of Reducing the Amount of Meat in Your Diet Can Transform Your Health and The Planet, edited by Brian Kateman, essay David Barash. 2017 © Reducetarian Foundation Inc. TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Buddhists are often assumed to be unworldly, wrapped up in their own personal enlightenment, sitting cross-legged in deep meditation and thus, indifferent to the “outside” world. Although in some extreme cases this may be true, the reality is that engaged Buddhism has a lengthy and noble history, beginning when the Buddha is said to have gone out into the world for the benefit of “all sentient beings.”

There are many reasons for everyone—even non-Buddhists—to reduce their consumption of meat. But those wanting to add a potent philosophical reason for doing so, especially one that is remarkably consistent with modern science, would do well to consult the astoundingly modern wisdom of an ancient Eastern tradition.

Among the key precepts of Buddhism is the concept of interdependence— pratitya-samutpada—the message that there is no “inside” as distinct from the “outside.” (What did the Buddha say to the hot dog vender? “Make me one with everything.”) It is the eighth century Indian scholar and philosopher Santideva who left us perhaps the earliest clear statement deriving ethical precepts from Buddhist teaching. “Just as the body, which has many parts owing to its division into arms and so forth, should be protected as a whole,” he wrote, “so should this entire world be protected, for it is differentiated and yet it has the nature of the same suffering and happiness.” David McMahan points out that similar statements can be found in East Asian texts, such as the writing of Korean monk Gihwa, from the early fifteenth century: “Humaneness implies the interpenetration of heaven and earth and the myriad things into a single body, wherein there is no gap whatsoever. If you deeply embody this principle, then there cannot be a justification for inflicting harm on even the most insignificant of creatures.”

Arguably one of the first Buddhist precepts is ahimsa, or non-harming, a notion that has long been interpreted to refer to living things generally, not just to other people. The English word compassion, crucial to Buddhist practice, is significant in its derivation as well as its meaning. It originates in the word passion, which refers not to erotic desire but to “suffering,” as in the Christian usage—the “passion of Christ.” Compassion therefore bespeaks “suffering with,” and is intimately related to “awareness of being connected.”

Suffering with, however, has not always translated into identifying with, especially among people reluctant to acknowledge their connectedness with the animal world. "In an aversion to animals," wrote the early twentieth century philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin, "the predominant feeling is fear of being recognized by them through contact. The horror that stirs deep in man is an obscure awareness that in him something lives so akin to the animal that it might be recognized." In effect, then, the widespread fear of being connected to animals is due in large part to an often-unacknowledged awareness that there may be a connection between man and beast.

Although Buddhism is unquestionably more bio-friendly than the Abrahamic Big Three (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), it was never nature worship, especially not in its earlier, formative stage. Thus, traditional Buddhist teaching identifies a hierarchy in nature, with animals located below humans, although connected to them. At one point, the renowned 5th century Buddhist commentator and sage Buddhaghosa noted that there is more “demerit” in killing a large animal than a small one. In other words, killing an elephant generates a greater karmic burden than killing a mouse, which in turn is more burdensome that killing a fly. This isn’t so much because the elephant is especially valued relative to the mouse, but rather because it takes more energy—and thus intention—to kill a larger animal. In addition, monastic Buddhist law holds that killing a human is a far greater offense than is killing an animal, even though traditional Buddhists also maintain that any creature could have been one’s great-great-grandmother. (I wouldn’t eat any of my immediate ancestors, although I do sometimes eat meat.)

No human society is without admiring references to animals. We are told to soar like an eagle, be as strong as a bull, busy as a bee, and so forth. But it is one thing to be like an animal, and quite another to face the idea that humans and animals are deeply and irrevocably united via our anatomy, physiology, behavioral inclinations, and our literal evolutionary heritage. The modern Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh goes beyond the teaching of earlier Buddhists and urges us to face those facts of intimate connectedness, reminding us that having done so, we are compelled to behave differently as a consequence. Important words for everyone, but especially those committing to a life with less meat:

“A human being is an animal, a part of nature. But we single ourselves out from the rest of nature. We classify other animals and living beings as nature, acting as if we ourselves are not part of it. Then we pose the question, ‘How should we deal with Nature?’ We should deal with nature the way we should deal with ourselves! We should not harm ourselves; we should not harm nature. … Human beings and nature are inseparable. Therefore, by not caring properly for any one of these, we harm them all.”

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