Monday, April 19, 2004

Speaking of Food

If you want a dismal experience, log into any general Buddhist discussion group and bring up the topic of vegetarian diet. Shortly you will find people who had moments before been deep in cordial, searching discussions of Nagarjuna's verse, people with years of real practice behind them, calling each other murderers and liars. People leave in huffs, never to return. People who ordinarily would never dream of disparaging another group's practice declare that whole swathes of Buddhists are not in fact Buddhists at all. The only other hot-button topic at all like it, among Buddhists, is abortion, but abortion at least is not a denominational issue: there are people who fall into either side of that debate in every Western Buddhist group that I know of.

But the vegetarian/carnivore split, in the West (presumably the East, too, but I don't know much about that), falls largely between the Zen and Theravadin practitioners, on the one hand, and the Tibetan practitioners, on the other. This is not to say that there are no vegetarian Tibetan Buddhists: there are plenty of them. But they don't feel that vegetarianism is critical to Buddhist practice -- if they did, the fact that the Dalai Lama eats meat would be terribly disturbing. Likewise I sure there are plenty of people who eat meat among the Zen and Theravadin folk, but I assume they mostly take it as read that they're incurring bad karma by doing so, that they're doing something that violates the precepts of their path.

The difference is generally explained by the fact that so many Tibetans were nomads and herdsmen: there's not much else to eat, in some of the high places of Tibet. In his exile in India, H.H. the Dalai Lama decided, so the story goes anyway, that now that he was in a place where vegetable food was abundant, he really should become vegetarian. He gave up meat. Very soon he became quite ill, and his doctors implored him to eat meat again. So now he eats meat every other day. "I'm virtuous half the time," he says.

My experience giving up meat has been pretty much like that, except that I cave in a lot sooner. I would like to give it up. I feel I should. All the old texts are perfectly clear on this. Buddhists aren't supposed to take life. That other people do my killing for me doesn't seem to me to let me off the hook -- in fact, if anything it makes it worse: not only am I causing these animals' deaths (leaving aside for the moment the conditions of their lives, which are in many cases much more distressing than their deaths), I'm also encouraging other people to incur bad karma. (In Tibet, I'm told, the butchers are Muslims: I've never quite understood the reasoning by which that makes it all okay.) But the two times I've tried giving up meat I've lasted about 36 hours before I surrendered. The last time I found that I was a menace on the road: I simply couldn't drive -- couldn't track where the car was, in the lane -- couldn't remember where I was going or how to get there. It was a harrowing experience, and not one I'm eager to repeat.

But I cherish a small, secret hope that if the present change in my diet works out -- I've cut out red meat -- that I'll be a step closer to stopping eating meat altogether. That I'm at least edging in that direction. We'll see.

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