Friday, July 4, 2008

Vegetarianism IV

Some Problems With Being Vegetarian
One of the reasons why I only became vegetarian recently (and even now not 100% so) is the hypocrisy and inconsistency I observed amongst so many vegetarians. The awareness of this and the irritation it caused prevented me from seeing intelligent, thoughtful vegetarianism’s consistency with the Dhamma. In 1996 when I visited Hong Kong and Taiwan I stayed in many Chinese Mahayana monasteries. I was always welcomed with the greatest courtesy but inevitably the subject of diet would come up. As is fairly typical of vegetarians, my hosts were fixated on food and about the only thing they knew about Theravada was that Theravadins will eat meat. When I was asked, and sooner or later I always was, ‘Are you vegetarian?’ I would truthfully reply, ‘No I am not. But while here (Hong Kong or Taiwan) I am adhering to your discipline.’ This answer was often followed by a long, usually polite but sometimes reproachful, lecture about how uncompassionate it is to eat meat. While fingers were being wagged in my face I couldn’t help noticing that nearly all my hosts were dressed in silk robes and I happen to know that approximately 50 silk worms have to be boiled alive to make one square inch of silk. I also noticed that all the banners, hangings etc. in the monasteries’ shrines were likewise of silk. One monk delivered his lecture to me while sitting on what could only be described as a throne, flanked by the two of the biggest elephants tusks I have ever seen, each intricately and exquisitely carved with images of Kuan Yin and other bodhisattvas. Both these tusks were still creamy-white indicating that their original owner had only been slaughtered a few years ago. Another thing I noticed was the furniture. You may know that running down the eastern side of Taiwan is a chain of very high mountains and that these are covered with thick forest made up of the most magnificent ancient trees. What you probably don’t know that it has become the fashion in Taiwan to have furniture made out of these trees. A table may consist of a huge cross-section of a trunk a foot or more thick and the five or six chairs around it can be made out of cross-sections of smaller trunks or large branches. The attraction of this type of furniture is the often gnarled outer surface of the trunk slabs and the age-rings within them. I hardly need mention that this furniture is extremely expensive but as Taiwanese temples tend to be very, very, very rich, they usually have at least one or two sets of this furniture. One incredibly lavish temple I visited had five such sets in the visitor’s hall and one in the vestibule of each monk’s room. Another must-have I noticed in many temples is huge twisted gnarled tree trunks, sometimes including the roots, with Bodhidhamma or Kuan Yin carved into them. None of the gung-ho vegetarian monks I met seemed particularly concerned about their role in decimating Taiwan’s ancient forests by having these beautiful but completely unnecessary and destructive luxuries.
But by far the worst thing I saw in Taiwan was the attitude towards pets. The Taiwanese are busy absorbing Western middle-class values and tastes but like all new-comers they still haven’t got it quite right. So of example, everyone wants a fluffy adorable puppy, kitten or bunny but they are not yet schooled in what to do with them once they get them. Three month later or when the animal has grown up and is no longer cute they loose interest in it. This is particularly true of dogs who are often confined in tiny cages. Some of these caged dogs are put at front gates so they will bark when anyone comes. I recall looking down several streets and seeing one of these tiny cages at nearly every gate and hearing their occupants howling with boredom, barking incessantly and whimpering for attention. As in middle-class Taiwanese homes so to in Taiwanese monasteries. In one temple I saw two adult Alsatians locked in a cage barely big enough for them to turn around and in the 3 weeks I was at this temple they were never let out once. Worst still, the abbot of this temple, a rather formidable man, is well-known as an outspoken and crusading advocate of, you guessed it, strict vegetarianism – no milk, no eggs, no animal products at all. Both his Alsatians suffered from severe rickets because being a vegan himself the abbot had imposed his fetish on his dogs when they were puppies by refusing to feed them milk or meat and now their legs are all bowed and bent. Having said all this I should point out that generally I was impressed by the vigour of Buddhism in Taiwan and that the country has an active animal rights movement. My problem was only with the Buddhist vegetarianism.
I’d have to say that a good number of the vegetarians I have encountered suffer from a similar lopsidedness - an almost obsession with meat and its consumption and virtually no interest in any other kind of cruelty to animals or the environment which they need to live. For many people, just not eating meat is enough – and from a Buddhist perspective it is not enough. You could be a scrupulous vegetarian and be thoughtless, unkind and uncaring about other beings. Vegetarianism is good but if it does not go hand in hand with a compassionate regard for all human and animal life it’s just another food fad. So if you are going to be a vegetarian be an intelligent one.
This subject is still not exhausted so there will be more tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

'Vegetarianism is good but if it does not go hand in hand with a compassionate regard for all human and animal life it’s just another food fad. So if you are going to be a vegetarian be an intelligent one.'
I totally agree with you , bhante.

I notice there is another group of vegetarians.
( Probably they also make sure the water use to wash the vegetables are free of ants)
They will go all out to ensure that their dishes are prepare in utensils that has never come in contact with meat.
They would just throw away the whole plate of vegetables untouch.
This wastage of food is absolutely unneccessary when there are millions of people starving everyday.. Personally i felt, to waste food is a also a disrespect to life.

Being a vegetarian does not mean you are free from causing any death. No matter what we do, whether conciously or unconciously, we have cause the death of living organisms.
(E.g kill hundreds of ants while walking, accidentally stepping on a snail or some other bugs)
Being a vegetarian, we are only reducing the damages create.
Full stop.

dmkorman said...

Although I have been a vegetarian for a decade, I acknowledge that my food "comes from the suffering and death of many different beings."

To produce my fruits and vegetables directly and indirectly kills many small creatures as jessicatang notes. I am not sure that it is more virtuous to kill many small creatures than one large one. I have read that if one is going to eat meat, it might be better to slaughter one cow that will feed many, than to have to slaughter many chickens to feed the same number. Of course that ignores the issues of how many smaller organisms are killed in the raising of the chickens and the cow, etc. That investigation and inquiry can go on (literally) ad nauseum.

I am a vegetarian because I do believe it is healthier for me and this earth, but it is only a matter of degree. I want to mitigate harming and killing other beings. To think that I could eliminate harming and killing other things would be blind, arrogant and incorrect.

David ( said...


Very good points and I agree with most of it. But with all due respect, much of it falls under the fallacy of 'False dilemma' whereby an argument is made by attacking the messenger who asserts a certain 'X' instead of the validity of the agrguments / points.

It is true some vegetarians can be hypcritical and "holier than thou" but the same can be found in meat eaters too. Some meat eating Buddhist complain that vegetarians are "attached" to their vegetarianism and get mad and upset when they see people eating meat. The same could occur among meat eating Buddhists who can get mad and upset when vegetarians talk of the First Precept. Anger can come to anyone, meat eater or vegetarian. It is the attitude of both that need to be changed and purified.

David S.(not the same as the other David who posts here, see my pic.)

David ( said...


To add to my last post:

To your credit, you did see this as you noted:

"The awareness of this and the irritation it caused prevented me from seeing intelligent, thoughtful vegetarianism’s consistency with the Dhamma."

My point about the false dilemma should be / is directed at more of the meat eating Buddhists who continue to use those arguments against vegetarians, instead of focusing on the issues.

David S.

footiam said...

It may not be hypocrisy but ignorance.

Unknown said...

Patrick lee s juan

Hypocrisy in Buddhist monks strict
on vegetarianism regardless of other living beings suffering is not in congruency of the teaching of Buddha and for that matter a simple case of commonsense judgement is essential. Extremism is a sin towards moderation of deeds and thoughts. False pretense of faith is self defeating.

Unknown said...

Anyone ever thought of eating fruits alone? It seems to be the only food that it given freely by the life giving it!