Westerners who know little of Buddhism often associate it with vegetarianism. Zen monks in Japan are mistakenly thought to subsist on a diet of nothing but brown rice. A book of “famous vegetarians” features an image of Shakyamuni Buddha on the cover, but it makes no mention of Adolf Hitler, despite his well-documented vegetarian eating habits. As we see in this issue’s “Debate on Food and Practice,” our assumptions about Buddhism and vegetarianism are not always correct.

Tibetans in exile are notorious for their love of Big Macs. Their general predilection for red meat is often explained by the agricultural limitations of their snowcapped country. Yet their Burmese neighbors to the south keep their monks well-supplied with pork, which they believe to have been the last meal of Shakyamuni Buddha—never mind that tainted pig meat may have been the cause of his death.

As contemporary Buddhists apply the dharma to such subjects as euthanasia, abortion, organ donation, or genetic engineering, the dharma wheel is energized by fresh investigations into “what the Buddha really taught.” The need for reexamination enters the food debate most urgently because of the conditions associated with modern slaughterhouses. Their inhumane mechanization—along with the extravagant exploitation of land relegated to animal feed—has catalyzed a worldwide campaign against meat-eating. Boycotting the animal industry addresses spiritual considerations for some activists, but not for all. What characterizes this debate for Buddhists, however, is not its new dimensions, but its antiquity, for the controversy over what Buddhists ought to eat is as old as Buddhism itself.

The Buddhist menu differs from one culture to another—and usually includes flesh foods—but Buddhist history is filled with voices that opposed the accepted culinary customs of their time and place. Yet these voices need not go beyond the parameters of Buddhist teachings for their arguments, for Buddhism itself provides ample material for both sides of the debate. Moreover, it is the Buddhist teachings themselves, beginning with Shakyamuni Buddha, that have placed one’s choice of food within a spiritual context.

While Buddhism is hardly unique in giving primacy to the sacredness of life, the inclusion of “all sentient beings” is so central to the Buddhist view that, contrary to Western religious traditions, the right to subjugate animals to human needs, even for survival, cannot be taken for granted. The First Great Vow—to save all beings—is a natural response to suffering, the first of the Four Noble Truths. The first precept, “Not to kill,” is therefore something more than a moral injunction. Its implications are as broad and deep as all of Buddhism. For this reason, even the most erroneous assumption about Buddhism and vegetarianism reveals some core of truth.

The Bodhisattva Vow “to save all sentient beings” is compelling precisely because it cannot be honored in any literal way, nor apprehended with the intellect alone. If we don’t kill cows, we kill carrots. If not carrots, then rice. Is the distinction between killing animals and vegetables borne of compassion, or of anthropocentrism? We have to eat and those who choose meat are not necessarily “pro” killing. Even the Buddha’s behavior was circumscribed. Politically, he may have gone as far as possible in rejecting the animal sacrifices common to the India of his day; forbidding meat altogether might have antagonized the ruling Brahmin priesthood in ways that might have stopped Buddhism dead in its tracks. How much of his response to food issues was informed by compassion for all living beings, and how much was mere diplomacy? We don’t know. After 2,500 years we find ourselves with no easy answers.

As we consider anew the question of what to eat, the question gnaws at us. It makes us uncomfortable, pushes us further to investigate our ideas of self and other. One sentient being, alive, dead, raw or cooked, can push us into the great mangle of living and dying and being born, where there is no ultimate safety and no pat response. What’s eating us? Perhaps the question itself is the true legacy of the Buddha.

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