Introduction to The Great Compassion

This article is taken from the Introduction to The Great Compassion by Norm Phelps (Lantern Books, 2004).

Buddhism ought to be an animal rights religion par excellence. It teaches the unity of all life; it holds kindness and compassion to be the highest virtues; and it explicitly includes animals in its moral universe. Buddhist rules of conduct – including the First Precept, “Do not kill” – apply to our treatment of animals as well as our treatment of human beings. This would lead us naturally to expect Buddhists to oppose all forms of animal exploitation.

There is, in fact, wide agreement that most forms of animal exploitation are contrary to Buddhist teaching, although crimes against animals are sometimes – inexplicably – treated as minor offenses. Hunting, fishing, animal husbandry, and the use of animals in entertainment are forbidden to Buddhists. But on the question of meat-eating, controversy and confusion reign. Many Buddhists eat meat – although many do not – and monks, priests, and teachers sometimes defend meat-eating as consistent with Buddhist teachings.

Western Buddhists – influenced by a lifetime of the most animal-intensive diet the world has ever known – are especially creative in fashioning Buddhist rationales to justify their addiction to meat, eggs, and dairy. In 1994, in a forum on meat-eating published in Tricycle, a popular Buddhist magazine, Bodhim Kjolhede, Abbot of the American Zen Center in Rochester, New York, and dharma heir to Roshi Philip Kapleau, viewed with dismay these efforts to use the Buddhadharma to rationalize meat-eating. “It is sad to see how many American Buddhists are managing to find a self-satisfying accommodation to eating meat. Some airily cite the doctrine of Emptiness, insisting that ultimately there is no killing and no sentient being being killed.  Others find cover behind the excuse that taking life is the natural order of things and, after all, ‘the life of a carrot and the life of a cow are equal.’” Most of his fellow contributors used the forum to promote precisely the kinds of accommodation to which Kjolhede objected.

This is a critical moment in the history of Buddhism. The next great Buddhist manifestation, Western Buddhism, is still in its formative stage. It has not yet ossified into an orthodoxy that brooks no dissent. There is still time to reject these “self-satisfying accommodations” and tie ourselves firmly to the ethical foundation of the Buddhadharma: boundless compassion for all sentient beings. And it is vital that we do so. Buddhism cannot be true to itself until Buddhists resolve their ambivalence toward nonhuman animals and extend the full protection of their compassion to the most harmless and helpless of those who live at our mercy in the visible realms.

The Great Compassion grew out of a deep conviction that The Buddhadharma calls upon all of us who take refuge in the Triple Gem not to abandon those beings whose suffering and death may somehow benefit us. It is feeble compassion that pulls up short where self-interest begins. The Great Compassion is also intended for animal protection advocates who wish to take part in a dialogue with members of the Buddhist community.  It is, therefore, a book about why – once we have put aside the very appetites and customs that Buddhist practice is intended to help us overcome – the Buddha’s teaching leads us to the realization that we must always strive to harm no sentient being, human or nonhuman, whether or not it is in our selfish interests to do so.

Buddhist ethics are not a legalistic system that allows us to justify behavior on the basis of loopholes, technicalities, or a strict construction of the text. Buddhist ethics are based on motivation and intent. An ethical act is one that is driven by love and compassion and guided by the desire to do the least harm possible to any living being in whatever circumstance we find ourselves. An unethical act is one that is driven by craving, fear, or anger and guided by the desire to benefit ourselves by harming another living being. Thinking like a lawyer or an academic logician and claiming that it is acceptable to harm another sentient being for our own selfish benefit based on hair-splitting distinctions and nimble logic is contrary to the teaching of the Buddha.

After noting that “Ethical conduct (sila) is built on the vast conception of universal love and compassion for all beings, on which the Buddha’s teaching is based,” the Venerable Walpola Rahula, a monk, university professor and social activist who was one of the twentieth century’s leading exponents of Theravada Buddhism, observes, “It is regrettable that many scholars forget this great ideal of the Buddha’s teaching and indulge in only dry philosophical and metaphysical divagations when they talk and write about Buddhism. The Buddha gave his teaching ‘for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world.’”

A trend in contemporary Western Buddhism that is just as pernicious is the growing tendency to treat the Buddha as just another self-help guru, like Wayne Dyer or Dr. Phil, whose lecture series might show up on public television during the pledge drive. According to this school of thought, the purpose of spiritual practice is to reduce stress, lower anxiety, and generally make us better adjusted and less neurotic. Advocates of Buddhism as self-help do not so much deny the importance of compassion as reduce it to a set of mental exercises that fill us with warm fuzzies while having little or no effect on the world around us. The Buddha taught that we cannot achieve our own happiness until we are prepared to sacrifice it for the happiness of others. Buddhist self-help coaches teach that we cannot make others happy until we first make ourselves happy. It is, as the saying goes, a question of priorities.

Most of the discussion about whether Buddhists should eat meat takes place in this kind of moral vacuum. That is to say, it deals exclusively with the mental state of the practitioner and ignores the suffering of animals. As long as this trend continues, the role of veganism in Buddhist practice will never be properly understood. As a way of placing the discussion that will occupy the bulk of this book in its moral context, the first chapter will consider the scale of the killing that our society carries out, while the second will look at the suffering that we inflict upon farmed animals before we kill them.


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