The Accidental Vegetarian

Going back and forth on the question of whether or not to eat meat? For a spiritual practitioner, it’s something to chew on.

Recently I was invited to spend the weekend at a family dairy farm in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia. My hosts greeted me with a banquet-prepackaged sweet n’ sour tofu with boiled carrots for me, burgers and steaks for them. Like many people, they assumed that since I am a student of Buddhism I must be a vegetarian, which I am for the most part. But I was tempted by those steaks, and the next morning when the house filled with the smell of bacon, much to their amusement, I found myself unable to resist. Pigs are gentle, smart, and proud, and they have an alarming similarity to humans when it comes to DNA. But I decided to eat that crispy piece of pig, thinking I was doing it as part of my Buddhist practice, not in spite of it.

I’m doing my best to walk Siddhartha’s path with my vision firmly fixed on defeating dualistic thinking such as happy and sad, heaven and hell, us and them. Along the way, I’ve been told by some Buddhists that this philosophy extends to the food I consume as well. The rochig (Tib.), or “one taste” doctrine, one of the highest of teachings in the Vajrayana, holds the view that samsara (cyclic existence marked by suffering) and nirvana (liberation from cyclic existence) are ultimately one. According to my understanding of this doctrine, one could eat substances without discriminating between good and bad, delicious and disgusting, ethical or unethical-whether it be a plate of slugs slathered in barbecue sauce or a scoop of fresh guacamole. I have to admit that it’s going to take a lot more practice for me to perfect that kind of pure vision. In the meantime, though, I find myself picking and choosing from the various schools of Buddhist philosophy as they suit me-bacon tastes good so I use the “one taste” argument from the Vajrayana to justify eating it. But if I were asked to go out and kill the pig first, I would become an instant Mahayana or Theravada Buddhist, most of whom abstain from eating meat.

It’s because of my shortcomings in the commitment department that I don’t feel comfortable walking around advertising my spiritual practice by proclaiming, “I am a Buddhist.” Similarly, I don’t say, “I am a vegetarian.” I have yet to find my inner fanatic on either front. Instead, I dabble. True vegetarians, like religious practitioners, can be fundamentalist extremists, bombing foie gras factories, declaring jihad on veal eaters, and organizing guerilla attacks on ladies wearing mink stoles. On the other hand, there are many who are all talk and no action-not practicing what they preach. I am lost somewhere in the middle. I say “lost” because of my inexact motivation. For the most part my path is unexamined; I am simply following my instinct, and my instinct is to forget about nonduality and avoid meat. It’s kind of gross to put something dead in your mouth…even if it tastes good.

It’s difficult to make arguments for eating meat. Most meat-eaters play the protein card. Others don’t feel macho unless they find flesh on their plates. They insist we are natural-born killers and have been since our Neanderthal days. I’ve also met many longtime vegetarians who “force” themselves to eat meat once a month or once a week because their Chinese or Tibetan doctors said it was necessary to help “ground” them. Their motivation is self-preservation. I do not know the science behind ground beef’s grounding properties, but I do know that many strict vegetarians seem frail, lacking in color, and susceptible to a light gust of wind. This may be because many vegetarians tend to subscribe to a number of other nutrition philosophies, constantly tinkering with their digestive systems-chugging slimy green drinks, swallowing pills and tinctures, scrubbing their colons. Personally, I feel that a little toxicity is good. Along with all the bacteria in my intestines, it helps protect me. It’s like homeopathy. Homeopathy is also my rationalization for drinking margaritas and smoking the occasional cigarette.

True vegetarians are usually quite clear about their motivation. On the sectarian front we have environmentalists who can recite statistics about the acres of farmland it takes to support one beef cow, the resulting nitrogen pollution, and the depletion of underground water supplies. Looking at it from the point of view of the relationship between human biology and the planet, even the most zealous Atkins dieter has to realize that we all run on carbohydrates; it is our basic fuel. All animals eat plants or eat animals that eat plants. The Atkins dieter, by the way, is the complete opposite of the fundamentalist vegetarian. During the first two weeks on the Atkins diet, one consumes almost nothing but animal products. I admit that I tried it once when I was looking to drop a few pounds. It worked, but my fridge looked like a morgue, my tongue tasted like a cow patty, my digestion quit-and soon after so did I.

There are vegetarians motivated by compassion-strict Hindus, many types of Buddhists, and animal rights activists-who do not wish to harm other beings. In the original teachings of the Buddha, taking life is the first of the negative actions to be avoided. And according to some texts the karmic repercussions of taking life-a standard sentence of 500 lifetimes in an intermediate hell-comes to everyone involved; from the butcher to the one who orders a Big Mac. Although the butcher gets the lion’s share of the bad karma. Even the highest Tibetan lamas are not above reproach. In his classic, Words of My Perfect Teacher, the great eighteenth-century Tibetan yogi and sage Patrul Rinpoche chastises carnivorous lamas who accept offerings of meat and devour “piles of the still quivering ribs of yak until their mouths gleam with grease and their whiskers turn red.” He warns that they will be reborn in the ephemeral hells where they will have to pay back with their own bodies. Yet some of the most learned, authentic lamas I know eat meat. They must know something I don’t.

There are other reasons to quit eating meat. Heart-attack candidates heed the reports that connect meaty diets with coronary artery disease as well as other degenerative diseases such as obesity and diabetes. Clean freaks might choose to eat low on the food chain to avoid eating what other things eat. Aesthetes and those who have seen artist Sue Coe’s Porkopolis series, depicting the American meat industry at its most gruesome, stay away from meat because it sickens them just to look at it.

But most meat eaters choose not to look. I actually have a little respect for those hunters and fishermen who are willing to look their dinner in the eye before they eat it. They are either brave or heartless or both. But as you skate down the aisle of your supermarket’s meat department, the grisly reality of your bacon’s origin is completely concealed by the sanitized packaging and presentation. Neat little geometric piles of pink and white with fancy labels camouflage the suffering and sacrifice they require. Eight billion animals give their lives to feed Americans every year. What would happen to sales if the meat department was decorated with images of cows wading through pools of coagulated blood, chickens crushed into forty-one-cubic-inch cells, geese being force-fed until their livers burst, pigs squealing on the conveyor belt?

In India, the butchers sit at the markets with skinned carcasses, usually goat, and slice off pieces as needed. It seems more honest than a Happy Meal; it allows us to face the death involved and makes it more personal. Indeed, putting a being inside your own being seems to me the most intimate act one can perform, more than sex even, because as my teacher once said, “at least in sex it comes back out again.”

Being a Buddhist doesn’t give one the license to condemn those who choose live monkey hearts over those of an artichoke. If you look closely, Buddhism doesn’t endorse any absolute moral codes of conduct. Different teachings apply to different people at different times. It is all up to the individual and so much depends on their intention. Patrul Rinpoche said, “What makes an action good or bad? Not how it looks, nor whether it is big or small, but the good or evil motivation behind it.” And that motivation is not always apparent. One teacher told me that we can never truly judge something by appearances or even actions; one’s view or motivation is the final reference point to determine whether merit is deserved. For example, Adolf Hitler was reportedly a vegetarian. Does that make him a good person? The yogi Tilopa sat by a river killing and eating fish. Does that make him a bad person? I will never know Hitler’s motivation, but according to the teachings, Tilopa was motivated by his wish to liberate the fish. He was killing out of compassion.

Unfortunately, many nonvegetarian Buddhists fool themselves using Tilopa’s example to justify their habit. They say things like “this pork chop is lucky to be eaten by me because I’m making a karmic connection and praying for its liberation.” But I think that is disingenuous and actually may result in more negative karmic residue than being honest and saying “I am giving in to desire.” That is more direct and shows awareness. Just be clear about your motivation; don’t sweeten it by thinking you are being some kind of savior.

My friends have advised me that it is better to eat little parts of big animals than lots of little animals. A plate of shrimp requires a dozen lives. But one pig or cow can satisfy a whole crowd of stir-fry fans. The bacon I ate last week came from a pig who lived in the backyard. The milk in our steaming mugs of coffee came from the same family of cows that we had hooked up to the milking machines earlier that morning. It was a luxury most people in the modern world will never know. I thought about the being whose life was taken to satisfy me as I lifted the fork. I hesitated before I could actually take a bite. I hadn’t eaten any flesh for the better part of a year. Like sex or city living, when you take a long break from eating meat, it’s hard to imagine physically going through the motions again. I admit it tasted very good. But by the time it began its passage through my digestive system, I started to regret my indulgence. I didn’t want to be so in debt to the pig. I didn’t want it to be part of me. I couldn’t help but imagine the flesh becoming part of my flesh. Instant karma.

Searching within myself, I can only find that the motivation behind my abstinence is nothing but simple repulsion. It’s not very noble, I know. And I am easily swayed by desire. All this makes me slightly uncomfortable, and my instinct is to sweep it under the carpet. But as I continue listening to and contemplating the teachings, this discomfort will hopefully guide me in developing my view. For the time being, rather than labeling myself a vegetarian or nonvegetarian, I will emulate my friend Robert, who coined the term “Vajra-tarian”-a mix between a Vajrayana Buddhist and a vegetarian. I will not seek out a plate of Miss Piggy, but if faced with it I will not make a big scene. I’ll just keep chewing on it.


  1. says

    Interesting read, no simple answers! As the Buddha said (words to the effect): 'Work out your own salvation.' I am always curious though about the type of comments like "but I do know that many strict vegetarians seem frail, lacking in color, and susceptible to a light gust of wind" because I personally don't know any vegetarians or vegans who match this kind of stereotyped image!?! (Including myself) And there are also copious examples of world class athletes, weightlifters even, who are either vegetarian or vegan.

  2. Jess says

    This is a great article. It really cleared up some questions I've had about the different practices and their manifestations. Noa is a fun writer, a teacher who makes me laugh. Perfect!

  3. beth says

    Like Puerhan, I am neither frail nor pale nor excessively thin. On one hand, everything (and everyone) is food. On another hand, I choose not to eat meat because I know I would not be able to make a mammal or a fish into food. I respect the integrity of those who "look their dinner in the eye before they eat it" but cannot and would not care to emulate them.

  4. Adriana Lisboa says

    From Thich Nhat Hanh's "The Heart of the Buddha's Teachings" (Parallax Press): "We have to look deeply to see how we grow our food, so we can eat in ways that preserve our collective well-being, minimize our suffering and the suffering of other species, and allow the earth to continue to be a source of life for us all. If, while we eat, we destroy living beings or the environment, we are eating the flesh of our own sons and daughters. We need to look deeply together and discuss how to eat, what to eat, and what to resist. This would be a real Dharma discussion."

  5. Aparna Pallavi says

    Thanks Noa, for taking up this subject. To eat meat or not to eat is I think a deep dilemma for everyone sensitive. I admire those who turned vegetarian and liked it and could stick to it, and I know lots of healthy vegetarians. But it is not that easy for everyone. I turned vegetarian at age 24 after reading about abatoirs, only to fall heavily on my face after 12 long years because even after all that practice, my body, and palate, brought up for 24 years on a daily diet of fish and eggs, supplemented with meat frequently, had failed to adjust. I suppose the Buddha resisted making vegetarianism a must out of compassion for us imperfect ones……

  6. Martin says

    I found this article very disappointing. To add to above comments about ‘frail and excessively thin’ vegetarians, I was also shocked about the line ‘True vegetarians can be fundamentalist extremists’ or else ‘all talk no action’. In fact I found much of the rest of the article a mixture of copping out and self-indulgent comforting. But I guess I’m not being constructive. There were at least some moments of genuine reflection and questioning which is to be admired in the modern world. I can understand the dilemma on this issue for some people but I just wish the article was a bit better researched and a bit more balanced as it is such an important issue on many levels. But then again, perhaps I’m just being a fundamentalist vegetarian.

  7. Dianne says

    I also do not know pale vegans and personally know healthy vegan weight lifters. Hilter was not a vegetarian. He had pulverized bull testicles as his "green smoothies". Hitler being a vegetarian is a myth and according to Robert Payne, his biographer, he ate all kinds of meat, including squab. His Chef, Dione Lucas, also verifies this in her book. Please stop proliferating this myth.

  8. angela says

    How about just doing the right thing? People keep looking for a right way to justify doing a wrong thing. If it was o.k. than this would not even be a conversation. These sentient beings came here for their own reasons, and it was definitely not to be killed for a 20 min meal that is not even meant for humans. Eating animals is eating violence…these animals are killed against their will and it is extremely sad and no matter how you look at it…it's a product of violence!

  9. Asia says

    This is really disappointing. I get the idea that we all have choice…but should we still have choice even if it is inflicting another beings quality of life? Science is proving repeatedly that animals are not good for us to eat. When I sit and observe all of this from the outside, it makes no sense. It is a barbaric practice. I meet spiritual people who still eat them. I would think that if somebody truly works from a state of a higher consciousness…they would have more compassion for these beings. Black slavery was legal in the early part of the century…did that make it right? These animals are being raised in true concentration camps. What does that do to the energy influences on earth. There are 28 billion slaughtered a year in the U.S alone…what a crazy impact that would have on all energy fields on earth. When eating that poor being…we are ingesting the fear hormones. We talk about love for all humanity…This is basically speciesism…kind of like racism. Should we not be respecting all life? It would be amazing to see even just one spiritual teacher besides Ghandi and Buddah…actually defend these poor beings. It is so heartbreaking to see this barbaric practice justified. It is harming the animals, the planet, and us humans! It takes 16 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of meat. Totally not sustainable. It makes zero sense to be eating them. Karma is karma and I cannot understand how enslaving the vulnerable for a meal can be justifiable. How can someone actually believe that getting enjoyment from someone else's misery is acceptable. It truly amazes me. I thought that we are suppose to be part of the solution not the problem!