Not long ago a Zen teacher, during the course of an introductory workshop, stated three times, vehemently, “Buddhism is not vegetarianism.” He later argued that to be vegetarian is a kind of attachment. What are we to make of such assertions?

First of all, let us agree that Buddhism is not vegetarianism. Neither is it “virtue,” “peace,” or “wisdom,” or any other word or concept. To identify it with anything at all is to reduce what in essence is limitless. In fact, Buddhism isn’t even Buddhism.

But now let us leave the safe world of negation and consider living practice. How are we to understand the long tradition of abstaining from flesh foods in Buddhist temples in India and throughout the Mahayana countries of China, Korea, and, until recently, Japan? Were all those generations of abbots simply mired in a collective delusion? Those who suggest that vegetarianism can be dismissed as peripheral to the Buddha’s teaching need to account for this practice that has endured over the centuries.

For inhabitants of polar regions, vegetarianism would indeed be attachment—and one that would cost them their lives. In Tibet, too, where little can be grown, meat is a practical necessity. And even in tropical underdeveloped countries where resources are meager and distribution limited, maintaining a vegetarian diet could become a disproportionate concern, demanding much of one’s time, energy, and money.

But those of us living in modern, industrialized countries in North America, Europe, and Asia are blessed with a vast array of food choices. Most of us are able to obtain an abundance of nonflesh foods that can keep us robustly healthy our whole lives. With such a variety of nonanimal foods available, who would choose to support the slaughter mills and foster the misery involved in factory farming, by continuing to eat flesh? There are those who fear that without meat or fish their health would suffer (the irony!), others who may be unaware of how enormously the meat industry contributes to the misuse and waste of global resources. But for most meat eaters, I suspect that the habit of eating animals is simply too pleasurable for them to stop. They know the reasons to give it up, but won’t. What’s more, rather than being honest with themselves, too many such people mask their true motivation with the pleasing fragrance of such Buddhist concepts as “nonattachment.”

To go on eating animals while knowing it is unnecessary, then, is usually just attachment to one’s selfish preferences. But vegetarianism can also be attachment. It depends on one’s state of mind. After twenty-five years of refraining from eating meat, I no longer think of myself as “vegetarian” (though the label is still convenient to use in some circumstances). I just don’t eat flesh foods. There is really nothing special about this, least of all any painful deprivation. My teacher Roshi Kapleau has always warned, “Don’t give up meat; let meat give you up.” When a diet, whether vegetarian or macrobiotic, becomes a dogma to which we cling and gives rise to self-righteousness and judgmentalism, it also becomes our bondage. But one can also get stuck in the notion of “freedom”—and that is an attachment that can cause vastly more harm to other sentient beings.

Can we maintain a nonmeat diet for reasons of compassion and still be free of attachment to it? In the Platform Sutra, the Chinese patriarch Hui Neng relates that after inheriting the dharma from the Fifth Patriarch, he spent years in seclusion with a group of hunters. “At mealtimes,” he tells us, “they cooked meat in the same pot with the vegetables. If I was asked to share, I replied, ‘I will just pick the vegetables out of the meat.'” Was he, then, attached to vegetarianism? And if refraining from eating flesh foods is itself an “attachment,” does it follow that refusing to give up flesh foods shows nonattachment?

It is sad to see how many American Buddhists are managing to find a self-satisfying accommodation to eating meat. Some airily cite the doctrine of Emptiness, insisting that ultimately there is no killing and no sentient being being killed. Others find cover behind the excuse that taking life is the natural order of things and, after all, “the life of a carrot and that of a cow are equal.” The truth is, though, that as humans we are endowed with discriminating minds that we can use to educate ourselves to the implications of our volitional acts and to choose those foods that minimize suffering to living beings.

Our aspiration in Mahayana Buddhism, inasmuch as we can speak of an aspiration, is to liberate our innate compassion and fulfill the Bodhisattva Vows. In the first of those vows, “All beings, without number, I vow to liberate,” we commit our compassion to all beings, not just humans. Eschewing meat is one way to express that commitment to the welfare of other creatures. Once we leave habitual preferences behind and forgo nimble rationalizations, the issue of vegetarianism comes down to a question of need. If you need to eat flesh foods to sustain your life or, in extreme cases, your health, do so, and do so with awareness and gratitude. But if you don’t, why contribute to unnecessary suffering?

Find other perspectives on food and practice in our special section: Meat: To Eat It or Not

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