Very Questionable Food

by Steve Heilig, March 11, 2011

My earliest memory is a hazy but lasting one. I was around five years old at most, with my father, fishing on the beach where we so luckily lived. He caught one, a big silver creature at least as long as I was tall. Once he had it on the sand, he unhooked it and handed it to me, saying “Take this up to Mama so she can cook it for dinner!” I dutifully grabbed its tail and began to drag it up to its final resting place, our barbecue.

But something momentous happened. Just a few paces from the sea, little silver fingerlings began to spurt from the fish's belly. I dropped her tail and stared, aghast, as they wiggled on the sand. Then, instinctively or otherwise, I scooped them up in my hands and ran back to the ocean’s edge, throwing them into the surf. But when I ran back to the big fish there were more! Again I scooped them up and ran to the water. By my third trip I was crying. Something was surely going wrong. But my Papa just laughed and said, “That’s right, toss them back in. We’ll eat them when they grow big next year!”

My dad was right. We did eat many more fish over the years, if perhaps not the exact ones expelled from our catch by her death throes. I went on to became a fairly expert fisherman and even a certified “junior marksman” with a rifle, even though I never shot living things other than cacti. Eating meat of all types was as all-American as any part of The American Dream, which in our case included some very tasty steaks and seafood cooked at ocean’s edge.

That changed for me as I became a more “conscious” teen in the 1970s. Vegetarianism was part of the whole countercultural ethos I embraced, and meat was “murder” and thus out of my diet (I decided this early enough to still be able to say I have never eaten at McDonald’s). A vegan hippie eatery sprouted in our town named simply “Love Animals, Don’t Eat Them” (but was shut down after health inspectors found a live camel licking the peanut butter vat in the kitchen). The then-ubiquitous Hare Krishna devotees in our area proclaimed that “Mankind will never know peace until the slaughter and eating of animals stops!” It was a mystical sentiment but rang oddly semi-plausible as well, at least to me.

Then I read more rational arguments for non-meat diets like Frances Moore Lappe’s seminal Diet for a Small Planet and later, John Robbins’ Diet for a New Planet, learning that the meat-heavy diet might be not only spiritually and physically unhealthy but a root cause of starvation and pollution on earth. Many other admired figures confirmed a no-meat stance, from Gandhi (“The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated”) to Einstein (“Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution of a vegetarian diet”) to Krishnamurti (“Killing an animal is like killing your neighbor; you kill animals because you have lost touch with nature, with all the living things on this earth”) and even such an ultra-rational Western philosophers as Schopenhauer (“Shame on such a morality that fails to recognize the eternal essence that exists in every living thing, and shines forth with inscrutable significance from all eyes that see the sun”). It seemed, and seems, to me that ethics, spirituality, ecology, health, and good politics were all aligned on this issue like few others. And besides all that, I remained very healthy, even athletic, without using meat for fuel.

I came to Buddhist teachings later. Christian and other religious directives to “have dominion” over animals and even to slaughter them in ritual seemed highly suspect. On the diet issue, I had assumed that Buddhism held vegetarianism as the ideal diet, if not an imperative. I was thus surprised to find few clear pronouncements on the issue. My reading was admittedly limited to more popular authors but I did not find much in the original Dharma teachings or in more contemporary interpretations to support vegetarianism. Given the First Grave Precept of “Not Killing” and the many compassionate perspectives on other important issues found in Dharma writings, it seemed that the meat issue was a kind of “elephant in the room” that few Buddhists seemed to want to talk about. But for me, an elephant it was. It was interesting, at least, to learn that eating some meat offered to him is likely what killed the Buddha himself. That legend is not far-fetched either then or now, for meat has always been far more likely to be spoiled and/contaminated with harmful pathogens than other foods. There seemed to be a message there, even if the Buddha apparently never made it very explicit.

Then in 1994, the Buddhist magazine Tricycle published a theme issue titled “Meat: To Eat it or Not.” Now here I will find some clear statements, I thought. But what I read therein reminded me more of Socrates’ disdain for those known as Sophists, who mired themselves in abstractions and circular arguments and avoided honestly confronting real questions. Tricycle then went on to publish a putative Buddhist cookbook with plenty of meat-filled recipes, with but one justification for those: Eating meat can make us more compassionate, for vegetarianism is “playing things too safe” and “isolates us from the experience of other beings.” It was an argument so baldly self-serving as to fail any freshman philosophy test, let along (un)common sense. If we really need to kill something in order to feel empathy and our connection to it, we might as well kill ourselves first and save a lot of misery. Yet I’ve encountered variations on this “reasoning” in other modern Buddhist writings as well.

I am not qualified to elucidate arcane Buddhist doctrine. In more recent readings I have found that leading Zen authors such as Roshi Philip Kapleau and Thich Nhat Hanh have indeed spoken strongly against eating animals (Kapleau authored an entire book on the topic, To Cherish All Life; Hanh warns often of the connections between meat and world hunger, noting that “Our way of eating is very violent”). But I also feel that not much sophistication is needed here. The Buddha, in one of his few pronouncements on the subject, admonished his followers only to eat meat “that the eater has not seen, heard, nor suspected that it has been killed especially for him.” This stricture, while likely pertinent in Buddha’s time, seemed to me of not much practical use in our modern era of industrialized meat production — unless read as a prescription for strict vegetarianism. The Buddha’s guideline could be read to allow either all meat-eating or none. But as almost all meat is now from animals killed for human mouths, if not ours specifically, the latter makes the most compassionate sense. One not need stretch the First Precept very far to feel it prohibits eating meat, for having your killing done for you is hardly better than doing it yourself. All manner of trickery has been tried to get around that fact, such as in Buddhist cultures where an animal is left to die in some way, without any chance of survival, and then eaten without qualm.

The primary point is that Buddhists, of all people, should know better than to do anything which contributes to the suffering and death of other sentient beings. To do otherwise, justifying it with some twist of Dharma illogic, seems hypocritical. The vows taken at the San Francisco Zen Center seem to recognize this in their first admonishment: “If I remember that all living beings tremble when their life is threatened and fear the end of it, I will not kill or allow others to kill” (emphasis added).

Here I must confess: I sometimes still eat fish, and more rarely, other creatures, but then only when such food is offered to me a gesture or gift, and where refusal might be insulting (and most meat tends to make me ill in my guts now, so this is no lapse due to temptation, but rather an attempt at good manners). As already confessed, I’ve killed fish. It seems to me a quantum evolutionary leap from fish to mammals (although research has confirmed that even fish do feel pain). Short of being threatened with starvation, I could not personally kill any of the kind of mammals humans eat, so I don’t eat them. Simple, really. I eat plants with gusto, and would and do “kill” them; anyone who tries to equate the sentience and suffering of broccoli to a cow is also engaging in sophistry and is perhaps trying to justify their own hypocrisies.

This is not solely a personal credo. Not eating meat is a form of activism — a passive one, but boycotts are sometimes effective ways of changing bad practices and policies. We learn increasingly that meat production is a major source of pollution, a consumer of water and other resources, even an indirect factor in human starvation due to useage of so much grain to produce meat. Foregoing meat may seem like a drop in the ocean of suffering, yet how many of our other “right actions” seem similarly limited in scale and impact? Every person who stops eating meat lessens the demand, and in the aggregate one less cow or pig or chicken or lamb or rabbit or sheep may not be bred only to live in misery and then be slaughtered in terror while still young. The Krishna devotees of my youth may in fact be right; how can we espouse peace while, as Einstein also wondered, choosing to make our own bodies a graveyard?

Mark Twain once pointedly remarked that “The human conscience can subsist on some very questionable food.” We should take his warning literally in this case. In our modern world, we practice denial on many levels. The horrors of modern factory “farming” are well documented and nowadays only the willfully ignorant choose to ignore them. The Los Angeles Times examined factory farming and charged that the industry is — contrary to public relations arguments that such practices are becoming more humane — on a “moral race to the bottom.” A holocaust of other species happens daily, largely to feed our appetites — unnecessary appetites at that. The side effects are ecological pollution, ill health among those who overindulge, and hunger among many of the rest. And many of us know all this on some level. Our conscience may not remind us as dramatically as Gandhi's, who reported that he was haunted all his life by the cries from his stomach of a goat he had tasted when young. But we do know on some level. As the luminous poet Mary Oliver wrote about her guilty conscience when she ate meat, “You can fool a lot of yourself but you can’t fool the soul.”

The great California poet Robinson Jeffers, who celebrated the harshness of nature in his immortal verses set on the Big Sur coast, refrained from hunting and fishing as he “did not want to cause suffering to any living creature.” And nobody could call him a sentimentalist of any kind. He just faced reality, comfortable or not.

According to a Wall Street Journal story, my “conversion” to a non-meat diet while young is not unusual, and vegetarianism is again becoming trendy among teens. I remember reading once — I forget who said it — that “One measure of success is found in how well we retain the ideals of our youth throughout our lives.” Most young vegetarians apparently “get over it,” as one annoyed father puts it in the WSJ story. But I wonder how many of them, like me, will forever feel that they have somehow backslid from a worthy ideal.

“So don’t pretend you don’t know what’s happening,” pleaded Tibetan Lama Shabkar 200 years ago, in arguing that animals too had a right to live out their lives in hopes of a better rebirth. “Don’t slaughter your sheep; set them free.” And according to the same tale, when a another Lama tried to justify meat-eating as a way of service in maintaining Buddhists’ lives, “The sheep exclaimed in one voice: 'Oh, no! He is one of those Lamas!’ And terrified, they all ran away.”

Modern animals cannot run away from our slaughterhouses, however terrified, tortured, and abused they may be — or even if they are “humanely” raised and killed. But as humans we do have a choice to not be one of “those.” So here’s a suggestion: Try not to eat anything you would not kill with your own hands. And before you do consider any such killing, look into the eyes of the animal about to die. If you have pets, think of them in the place of the creature you are about to kill. How many of us, given this simple stricture, would still eat animals? Likely — hopefully — the number would be few. And if you are one of those few, that may be another issue to examine. Perhaps your own conscience is subsisting on some very questionable food?

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