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One of the first questions people ask me about Buddhism, and one of the topics becoming more and more of an issue in the American psyche, is a question regarding diet. Are all Buddhists vegans? Are they vegetarians? Do you eat meat? Why? The answer is no, not all Buddhists are vegans or vegetarians.

Eating meat can be good for the soul

By Contributor Pearce Fujiura

One of the first questions people ask me about Buddhism, and one of the topics becoming more and more of an issue in the American psyche, is a question regarding diet. Are all Buddhists vegans? Are they vegetarians? Do you eat meat? Why? The answer is no, not all Buddhists are vegans or vegetarians.

I eat meat, and I enjoy it. But the last question “Why?” is a trickier one to answer. I will endeavor to explain this dietary and lifestyle decision and the exact role Buddhism plays in it.

Many Buddhist are vegetarian or vegan, and many of these individuals choose to abstain from eating meat because of reverence and respect for the reincarnated souls within the life that we share this earth with. Others still choose not to eat meat because they believe it perpetuates suffering in animals and people, or that it is bad to consume the negative energy of that creature's death. These are very legitimate ideas, which I can understand completely. However, I have chosen a different path.

I believe there is nothing inherently negative about consuming meat. I see it as a natural part of our being. Our bodies are designed to consume many different types of foods and convert them into energy. We have developed teeth and metabolisms specifically designed to utilize meat along with fruits, vegetables and grains. Denying our bodies one form of fuel is denying ourselves a piece of our nature. A spider is not wicked for eating the fly, nor is there malice in the bear's consumption of fish. In my interpretations of Buddhists teachings I have found it is important to understand and embrace the physiology of the body in order to understand one's existence. It is counterproductive to my enlightenment to fight a part of my nature.

Before the Buddha achieved enlightenment he spent years denying his body nourishment of any kind, bringing himself to the extremes of starvation, attempting to remove the needs of his body from his mind. At this point the Buddha came to the realization that he needed to nourish his body to allow his mind to reach a state of tranquility necessary for complete understanding and enlightenment. Once he nourished his body, enlightenment became possible. In this story of the Buddha's enlightenment, it explains how austerities can become a hindrance to enlightenment. Perhaps it is a bit extreme to consider a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle an austerity. However it is a lifestyle of denial, which I believe is in direct opposition to the lessons outlined in the story of Buddha's enlightenment. For the Buddhists who believe they should avoid consuming negative energy, I say this lifestyle may be folly.

A fundamental element of Buddhism is the interconnectedness of all things alive, dead or inanimate. Avoidance of suffering is desperate and futile; our lives are equal parts birth and death, hallelujahs and holocausts, and everything in between. Separation from places, entities or events is merely a product of perception. With that in mind I say you can no more avoid the consumption of negative energy than you can avoid the inhalation of carbon dioxide. It is everywhere, effectively inseparable from our lives. The key is to accept its existence and thrive because of it instead of despite of it.

When Mara (the Buddhist equivalent of the devil) confronted the Buddha under the Bodhi tree, Buddha did not ignore him or deny his existence. He accepted Mara's presence and responded with peaceful resolve, weakening the perceived power of Mara over the world around him. No meal, person, or plot of land is completely devoid of negative energy, therefore our time as Buddhists should be spent trying to accept the existence or suffering whilst striving to rise above it. While choosing what to eat may not seem like a profound religious decision to everyone, it can be a powerful tool in building spiritual resolve. I choose the life of a Buddhist omnivore purposefully; I wish to nourish my body and embrace my place in this world of suffering. With this action I intend to find a path of understanding that elevates beyond self, suffering and perception. With acceptance of the cycle of life, suffering, death and rebirth I can see beyond the transient powers they hold.

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9 comments

  1. Hanane Neff-Loutf

    Hi Pearce, thanks for sharing this with us.

    Do you think that Buddhists who eat meat are more likely to live in the USA? I don’t know if the environment plays in that choice.

    Hanane

  2. Ernesto Tinajero

    You post reminded me of a recent piece on NPR
    http://www.npr.org/2012/02/28/147038163/the-new-indian-pariahs-vegetarians
    As India’s upper classes become wealthier, meat eating has gone up. Interesting and I am not sure what to think about it,. Any thoughts, Pearce Fujiura

  3. We’re actually on the verge of “vat-grown meat” which — admittedly — sounds kind of disgusting, but there is no actual, conscious creature involved the production of this protein rich and (from what I’ve read from scientists who’ve tried the stuff) tasty food. Many think it could revolutionize how we feed the world. Any thoughts on this Pearce?

  4. Very interesting philosophy, thank you for sharing it with us.

  5. I think that the prevalance of Buddhist omnivores definately regional, there is likely a lower percentage of Buddhist eating meat in India, Nepal, and perhaps Vietnam. However, American Buddhist probably eat less meat than Japanese and Chinese Buddhist who consume a great deal of fish and other seafood.
    I suspect that you’d find many of the dietary choices amongst Buddhist from different countries to be a result of cultural traditions as much as religious traditions.

  6. I am excited to hear if the synthetic meat is nutritious, economical, and palatable. If that is truly the case I suspect that I along with many others may seriously re-evaluate our diets. It could bring a new meaning to the phrase “I don’t eat anything with a face”.

  7. That was a very interesting article. I think it highlights a totally seperate issue in the social psyche, the importance of status. India has a long history of social and cultural stratification, as time passes and those class lines blurr and change some of the social pressures still remain. The article specifies that a majority of Indians do not eat meat, it is just that amongst a “higher” socio-economic group that meat has become a cornerstone of the menu. I believe that the vegetarian/vegan ideals of the religious minority has changed little, but the principles of the affluent and upper class have been altered as a result of increased global/western influences.

  8. Whoops. I meant to write “religious majority” NOT minority. Changes the entire meaning of the sentence!!!

  9. I am sorry, but i only see justifications for what you like to do. No arguments, just excuses. Secondly i disagree completely that the main reason is because of the soul or the animal, its more about you, my experience with vegetarianism began when i recognized it would make my mind clearer, and in doing so cleanse myself. So i did it and thats what happened, animal products lean you towards living as a pusha (animal-man). My intuition is way better, and it seems as if it strengthens meditation as well. Then, there is another point, we are not designed to eat meat! oh yes we can eat it like killer whales can eat rotten food, but that doesnt mean there metabolism is made for that. If you study human, herbivore and carnivore anatomy , and that includes metabolism, you’ll see humans are identical to herbivores in every sense (and i mean the stomach juices, the length of the intestines etc etc ). i believe meat eating comes from the fact that when human nomads had to move long distances, they would starve so they’d have to find new meals and basically adapt (but that never changed their anatomy). Having said this, my teacher words embody my perpestive of this topic and he always said to us, eat what you like to eat, what you feel you should eat, never become vegetarian by forcing your nature, if it changes so be it. WU-WEI

    Btw if buddhism is a doctrine, i’m not a buddhist.

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