The familiar arguments in favor of a vegetarian diet are usually based on issues of either health, environment, ecology, or—from the Buddhist point of view—of compassion. Of these arguments, some are easier to dismiss than others. Take health, for example. The fact is that very few people (apart from South India where vegetarianism is part of the culture) have been able to maintain a pure vegetarian diet for any extended period of time. A vegetarian diet often results in various ailments and general weakness for even the most nutrition-conscious.
It may be possible to give up red meat for long periods, making do with fish and chicken, but giving up animal products entirely invites health problems for most people. Because this is not generally admitted, people have a vague feeling of guilt about their diets. But if you look around, you will find very few true vegetarians. In fact, I caution anyone against attempting a purely vegetarian diet, or, at least, if you do, be aware of possible problems. And guilt has no place here. After all, how can you hope to work toward the benefit of other sentient beings if the way you are living makes you too weak or sick to do anything useful?
The question of compassion can be tricky also. After all, sentient beings are going to die anyway, and perhaps some of those deaths will serve the needs of others, proving to be beneficial in their way (or so the argument goes). Not to mention that, I have yet to meet a Tibetan lama from the lowest rank to the highest who is a vegetarian.
Environmental/ecological arguments are somewhat more convincing, although, despite a proliferation of very intelligent books on this subject, it remains difficult to convince individuals that even an occasional omelet or hamburger can make much difference globally.
But there remains another approach to vegetarianism, specifically Buddhist in nature, which, for me, is the most persuasive. Here, I mean vegetarianism as an actual practice. You need physical stamina to undertake this, and, if you have it, count it as a blessing. In vegetarianism-as-practice we view all sentient beings—fish, birds, cows, bugs, etc.—as equal to ourselves. This becomes a practice to develop equanimity to all sentient beings (even the delicious ones). By not eating these other sentient-being life forms, we hope gradually to view them in a wholly different light—not as potential meals, snacks, and delicious flavors for our own appetites and pleasures, but as beings worthy of consideration equal to ourselves. This is a slow process: after being a vegetarian for thirty-five years I still occasionally catch myself regarding fish as food. But my own view has changed enough so that now I truly believe it possible to transform our habitual mental patterns through this practice and to arrive at a perception of fellow sentient beings that is in complete accord with a Mahayana Buddhist point of view.
Put simply, equanimity is a powerful opponent of the self-cherishing and self-grasping that are at the root cause of ignorance. According to the Noble Truths taught by Shakyamuni Buddha, this ignorance is the cause of suffering. Viewed in this way, we see the importance of equanimity in the Buddhist path and in our lives—how vegetarianism is proposed not on moral or ethical grounds (i.e., “you shouldn’t eat meat because it is wrong”), but as a potentially powerful tool for our own spiritual development.
It may be possible to undertake this practice gradually. Done consciously, or as a method of self-transformation, perhaps a less than perfect vegetarian diet could still be beneficial. Not in terms of health or environment, but beneficial toward awakening an equaniminous view of those sentient beings with whom we share, for a moment, this world system/universe.
This is my practice and this is my hope.
Find other perspectives on food and practice in our special section: Meat: To Eat It or Not.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters