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Buddha Dharma 101

Originally published in VegNews Magazine, November 2007

By Will Tuttle, Ph.D.

One of the biggest frustrations for vegans and animal protection activists is the widespread use of religion to justify human cruelty to animals. Religion, as the cultural institution devoted to the spiritual and ethical dimensions of our experience, should be relied upon to guide us reliably toward compassion and nonviolence in our relations not just with humans but with animals as well.

Thus, it’s interesting to see how Buddhism as it increasingly penetrates our culture and comes to be discussed and practiced by ever-greater numbers of spiritual seekers across the globe addresses our culture’s deeply ingrained traditions of violence toward, and exclusion of, animals.

The central Buddhist teachings emphasize practicing nonviolence and compassion to all sentient beings, and awakening to the complete interdependence of all living beings, and the interconnectedness of the welfare of all beings. Nevertheless, many well-respected Buddhist teachers are fond of saying that if a Buddhist monk is offered meat, he should consume it. This fondness for perpetuating this idea is attributable to a desire to make Buddhism palatable to a highly carnivorous society. However, it does a disservice to the Buddhist teachings by falsely portraying them, and reduces the positive transformative impact of these teachings.

This meat-eating accommodation also goes against the Buddha’s explicit teachings. In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha says to the assembled monks, “If one sees that there is much meat, one must not accept such a meal. One must never take the meat itself. One who takes it infringes the rule.” In the Brahma’s Net Sutra, he says, “Disciples of the Buddha, should you willingly and knowingly eat flesh, you defile yourself.” These teachings are repeated emphatically in Mahayana and Zen scriptures. The cardinal precept in Buddhism is not to kill, and animals are always explicitly included in this injunction.

The Buddha often warned lay people not to cause animals to suffer and be killed for food, so the possibility of monks being given meat to eat was remote. In the Jivaka Sutta, for example, people are warned against giving meat to monks: “If he offers to a Buddha or a Buddha’s disciple what is not allowable, in this fifth way he stores up much demerit.”

As people yearning to bring more kindness, sustainability, health, and harmony into our world, it’s important to understand the tendency to compromise our beliefs in social situations and see how it operates, and to do all we can so that no one ever puts a hunk of animal suffering into anyone’s bowl. We’re all on a spiritual path, after all, whether we know it or not.

Will Tuttle, Ph.D., composer, pianist, Zen priest, and author of The World Peace Diet, is cofounder of Karuna Music & Art and of the Prayer Circle for Animals and Circle of Compassion ministry.

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