by Wayne Ren-Cheng
I’ve been reading “Hoofprint of the Ox” by Master Sheng-Yen. A wonderful book of Chan Buddhist wisdom from a highly respected contemporary Master. Like the times I go to flea markets and garage sales without any particular thing I am searching for, I never read books on Buddhist philosophy or practice looking for a particular point of view that will substantiate my own worldview. One takes the fun out of digging through other people’s stuff, the other takes the wisdom out of reading. For instance I encountered Master Sheng-Yen’s teaching of counting out-breaths as an initial meditation practice. This is not a view that I agree with as I have experienced that it can become confusing and frustrating for many beginning Western meditators. Then I came to a line that leapt off the page and into my conscious mind and joined the worldview that is held by my unconscious mind, “In the Mahayana tradition, all sentient beings (and even the leaves and grass!) are identical in nature to Buddhas.” The words and the ideal arises from the Tathagatagarbha doctrine, the Indian Buddhist philosophical concept of Tathagata-Womb in which all beings are equally discoverable in their Buddha-nature.
For many months the second most viewed post on the website has been “Buddhists Eat Meat”. The point of the posting revolves around the Jivaka Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya #55) where the Five Instances relevant to a Buddhist eating meat are taught. These are: if a specific living thing is requested, if the living thing is being mistreated or mishandled, if the intent was the animal was killed directly for the consumption of the monk, if the living thing is nervous or frightened, if knowing any of these things have happened and the person eats the meat anyway. In any of these instances either the consumer, the provider, or both will accumulate demerits. The sutta further offers that if one wants to make a case for their own choice of vegetarianism it smust be from the platform of loving-kindness and equanimity, not from a misguided idea that the “Buddha said so.” Whichever we choose, herbivore or carnivore or omnivore we must remain mindful of our interconnection with everything around us. As part of our daily practice we must develop an awareness of those connections and what we eat can be an opportunity to practice. Before each meal take a moment to respect the journey that whatever you are about to eat took to get to you. Take the time to honor all life.
I know many committed, sincere Buddhist practitioners, monastic and lay-people who are omnivores. They eat their meat and veggies. I know just as many committed, sincere Buddhist practitioners, monastic and lay-people who are vegetarians or vegans. They eat their veggies. Some of the vegetarians supplement their diets with an occasional meal that includes fish, cheese and eggs. It is a matter of choice for me, and for them. In my experience whatever their choice they remain committed, sincere Buddhists. This is because they honor all life.
In fact Buddhists, monastic and lay-people all over the world eat meat or drink meat broth in some form. It won’t take you much research to prove this to yourself . . . and that is what experiential verification is all about anyway. Each of them honors all life.
Last year I came across Cat’s Yawn, Vol 1, No. 3, a newsletter written and distributed by Master Sokei-An in November, 1940. There was an article titled “In Emptiness There is Law” in which Master Sokei-An wrote directly about the ‘eating meat’ controversy he experienced when he began teaching the West in 1939. He too offered the Five Instances from the Jivaka Sutta, as well as a poignant story from Master Soyen Saku, a roshi of the Rinzai Zen school, as a guide to a different way of thinking differently about what and how we eat.
Whenever I go to a dinner-party in this country someone invariably asks me, “Does a Buddhist priest eat meat?” I never answer; I merely eat meat when it is served me.
When Soyen Shaku came to America, he was invited to dinner by his old friend, Mr. Abiko, who was living on a California farm. The host wrung the neck of a chicken, roasted and carved it and offered it to his guest.
Soyen said; “Mr. Abiko, did you kill this chicken especially for my dinner?”
Mr. Abiko answered, “Yes, Venerable!”
“I am sorry,” Soyen said, “but I cannot eat it. However I shall touch it with my chopsticks.” He picked up his chopsticks and touched the corpse of the poor bird with them. The host was pleased that Soyen had accepted the offering.
There are four commandments for Buddhist monks which pertain to meat-eating; thou shalt not eat the meat of an animal killed purposely to provide food for thee; thou shalt not eat the meat of an animal whose entire corpse thou hast seen; thou shalt not eat the meat of an animal which has died fighting; thou shalt not eat the meat of an animal which has died of disease.
When you raise chickens in your own backyard, and when they come to you with complete trust and peck the food from your hand, can you suddenly change your heart and twist their necks to provide food for yourself? To eat the meat of a chicken which comes from the butcher is one thing, but I, for my part, could not eat the meat of a chicken which I had raised with my own hands! These commandments were established in accordance with the heartfulness of sentient beings.
Yes, even in 1940 this was an issue. It remains an issue for some. In 2014 it is time to think differently.
You are probably asking what all this has to do with Master Sheng-Yen’s words, “In the Mahayana tradition, all sentient beings (and even the leaves and grass!) are identical in nature to Buddhas.” Well, there are many vegetarians and vegans that promote the idea that all REAL Buddhists must not eat meat. They ground their commitment on the fact that animals are sentient beings worthy of compassion. That is certainly a legitimate view. But . . . don’t all living things deserve compassion? Doesn’t the very planet we live on, which some view as sentient deserve compassion? With compassion being a non-negotiable ideal and commitment in Buddhist philosophy and practice the answer to both questions must be yes.
Let’s take a moment to recognize that some who choose a meatless diet do so for purely health reasons. There is a lot of contemporary scientific and health research that leads to the conclusion that less meat is better for human beings. Some choose to do so because of the research that shows that the masses of cattle and other livestock are inhumanely treated and take up too much land to graze on. There is evidence too that their flatulence harms the ozone layer, increasing global warming. I can’t help but smile about this but there is scientific proof of this, too.
Identical in nature to Buddhas . . . leaves and grass! . . . changes the very nature of the issue. Mammals, fish, insects and such are sentient beings. The Tathagatagarbha doctrine teaches that these beings have Buddha-nature. They have the potential to transcend samsara and find enlightenment. They can become a Buddha. The Jataka Tales: Birth Stories of the Buddha reveal that the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Guatama spent many lives as various animals before he attained awakening. Could he have spent previous lives as a tree, rose bush or lotus? Master Sheng-Yen includes plants as living things with Buddha-nature found in the Tathagatagarbha doctrine. Accepting this requires that the same level of compassion that is given to human beings and all other sentient beings must be extended to plant-life, at this time considered non-sentient (yes, there is anecdotal evidence to the contrary but nothing proven to scientific satisfaction . . . yet). Accepting this also requires an entirely different view of how a Buddhist relates to what they eat. Instead of the dualism of meat is from sentient animals and mustn’t be consumed, but plants are okay because they don’t have sentience . . . it must be a matter of honoring fully what is eaten, whatever is chosen for the meal. In fact, that honoring must go beyond only what died, animal or plant, to whatever being was instrumental in that nourishment reaching the table. We must honor all life.
With this ideal in mind I offer a meal time dharani based on one written by Ryugen Fisher Sensei, the second American Chan Master in the EDIG lineage. It is one that I recite silently, or out-loud when asked to, before any meal or snack, I honor all living things who gave their lives, and all beings whose efforts brought this food before me. May the strength and vitality acquired by eating this meal be used for the benefit of all living beings. Sva Ha!
The basis of the creative re-description of the meal time dharani arose from the first of the Ten Precepts that I live by each moment – ‘I undertake the training of loving-kindness in all circumstances, I will honor all life.’
This worldview makes the carnivore, herbivore, omnivore issue moot. All life is honored for what it brings to us. All life is worthy of compassion. What makes anyone a Buddhist isn’t what is on their plate, it is in the compassion and honor they exhibit toward all life, the living and dead.