On the Boddhisattva path I stopped off for a burger

by Bob Isaacson and Norm Phelps 

The following unabridged article by DVA President Bob Isaacson and DVA contributor Norm Phelps was published in an abridged form in the Fall, 2011 edition of The Inquiring Mind.

Both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions teach the development of two qualities that are essential to the spiritual path. The first is panna, the wisdom that sees through the illusions of the everyday world and achieves direct, intuitive insight into the true nature of reality. The second is karuna, compassion, the desire to relieve suffering and promote happiness. A popular analogy has it that panna and karuna are like the two wings of a bird; without both wings, the bird cannot fly.

While panna turns the spotlight on the practitioner, the goal of Buddhist compassion is to avoid harming and, when appropriate, help sentient beings who are suffering in the real world. The warm glow we sometimes feel when sitting on the cushion practicing the Brahma Viharas of karuna or metta is not, in and of itself, compassion—although it may be very important in the process of developing compassion. Compassion becomes genuine only when it inspires us not to cause harm to others, a point made by the Buddha when he said, “All beings fear danger, life is dear to all. When a man considers this, he does not kill or cause to kill.”[1]

Compassion: One Size Really Does Fit All

The Western spiritual tradition—at least in its mainstream formulation—talks about two levels of morality: a higher level that governs our treatment of human beings and a lower level that governs our treatment of animals. Thus, it is said to be morally acceptable to enslave animals for labor and entertainment and to imprison and slaughter them for food, fabric, and  medical research, while it would be morally repugnant to treat human beings the same way.  Mainstream Western compassion protects the core interests of human beings while only tinkering around the edges of animals’ lives and suffering.

This notion that animals need not be treated with compassion is alien to the Buddhadhamma. When discussing morality and compassion, the Buddha and Dharma  teachers over the years use the inclusive terms “living beings” and “sentient beings,” rather than the restrictive “human beings.” For example, the First Precept, “Do not kill,” has always been understood to apply to animals as well as human beings. In the Dhammapada, the Buddha told us that, “All beings tremble before danger, life is dear to all. When a man considers this, he does not kill or cause to kill.”

Causing Others to Kill

The question that lies behind this discussion is, of course, should Buddhists eat meat? But in light of the Dhammapada, it seems to us that this question can be more precisely phrased for the modern world as: When I buy meat at a supermarket or restaurant, or eat meat that someone else has bought, am I causing someone to kill?

The Mahayana scriptures portray the Buddha as being unequivocal on this subject. In the Lankavatara Sutra, for example, the Buddha says, “If, Mahamati, meat is not eaten by anyone for any reason, there will be no destroyer of life.”[2]

The Pali Canon, on the other hand, gives a subtler response. A Jain practitioner named Jivaka relayed to the Buddha some local gossip that accused him of allowing members of his order to eat meat from animals who had been slaughtered specifically for them. The Buddha denied the charge with these words:

“I say, Jivaka, that there are three instances in which meat should not be eaten, when it is seen, heard or suspected [that the living being has been slaughtered for oneself].”[3]

He then goes on to say that when it is not seen, heard, or suspected that the animal was killed specifically for him, a monk may eat meat that he is offered as dana.

The first thing to note about this “threefold rule” is that it is not really a rule; it is an exception to a rule. The rule, which is implied by the exception, is, Do not eat meat—unless when you are certain beyond the shadow of a doubt that the animal was not killed for you.  A compassionate vegetarian diet is the Buddhist norm.

To put this in context, Buddhist monks ate only one meal a day, which they obtained by begging. Renunciates begging food—Hindus and Jains, as well as Buddhists—were a common sight in ancient India. They made rounds of residential neighborhoods where householders gave them leftover table scraps. When the donation included bits of meat, the meat had been purchased (or the animal slaughtered) for the householder’s family. The same amount of meat would have been bought (or the same number of animals killed) whether monks came begging or not. And no additional meat would be bought (and no additional animal slaughtered) to replace the scraps that were given away. Monks who accepted meat in their alms bowls were not causing—even indirectly—an animal to be killed.

The threefold rule is widely invoked today in defense of meat eating. The meat that we buy in supermarkets and restaurants, so the argument goes, is anonymous; it has not been killed specifically for anyone, and therefore, everyone may eat it without concern.

But is this really true? Why are chickens, cows, pigs, and fish slaughtered? Obviously, so that people can buy and eat the meat. If no one ate the meat, no one would buy it. And if no one bought the meat, no animals would be killed. The animals are killed specifically for everyone who buys or eats the meat. When we buy a package of chicken or order a burger, we are placing an order for an animal to be killed. We are paying others to kill the animal for us. We are enrolling ourselves in the class of people for whom the animals are slaughtered.

The slaughterhouse worker may not have killed an animal with Joe Smith in mind. But Joe knows that in order for him to eat meat, an animal must be killed. Therefore, whenever Joe buys or eats meat, it is his intention, his wish, that an animal be killed. And because Joe is paying someone else to do his dirty work for him, he is causing the slaughterhouse worker to kill a sentient being. The notion that eating an animal is somehow ethically distinguishable from killing an animal because only the act of killing is prohibited by the suttas is undercut by the Noble Eightfold Path. There the Buddha defines Right Livelihood as livelihood that does not involve five occupations.  Slaughtering animals is one of the five, and raising animals to be slaughtered is another.  In this context, the Buddha prohibited participation in the death of farmed animals when the action involved is other than actual killing.

Most of us are not nuns or monks. We are confronted with what is, for many of us, a dilemma: how to practice the Dhamma ethically while participating in the life of this complex contemporary world.

Here, we have found it helpful to be mindful of the craving for certain foods at certain times.

“Monks, any desire and passion with regard to craving for forms is a defilement of the mind. Any desire and passion with regard to…craving for aromas…craving for flavors…is a defilement of the mind. When, with regard to these six bases, the defilements of awareness are abandoned, then the mind is inclined to renunciation. The mind fostered by renunciation feels malleable for the direct knowing of those qualities worth realizing. “(Samyutta Nikaya 27.8)

A desire for meat is the very sort of craving that the Buddhadhamma is intended to help us overcome.

If the Buddha were alive today

Another question that can put this dilemma of living ethically in accordance with the Dhamma is, What if the Buddha were alive today?

If the Buddha visited a factory farm or slaughterhouse, he would see cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and others living and dying under conditions that are too horrible to even imagine. Those of us who have seen animals living on factory farms and dying in slaughterhouses can bear witness to the systematic torture of these vulnerable, sentient beings. All this goes on out of the sight and mind of most of us as we go about our daily lives. What would a farm animal say to us if she spoke our language? But that is not all the Buddha would see. He would also see that we are paying others to kill animals for us. And he would see that those others are most often people of color, including immigrants, usually from Latin America, who have few alternatives and little recourse. And he would see them working at jobs that are among the lowest paying, dirtiest, most stressful, and most dangerous in the industrialized world.

Please see for yourself. Excellent videos are available to view online. A good starting point is “Glass Walls” and “Meet Your Meat,” available at www.meat.org. After viewing the video which gives us a window into what the Buddha would see and hear during his investigation of a factory farm and a slaughterhouse, what do you think the Buddha would say to lay people about buying chicken or beef at a store or ordering it in a restaurant?

It’s Also About the Environment

The suffering and death of animals and the exploitation of slaughterhouse workers are not the only reason to adopt a vegetarian diet. According to a recent United Nations report, the meat industry causes more global warming (through emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide) than all the cars, trucks, SUVs, planes, and ships combined in the world. Second, production of a meat-based diet requires more than ten times the water required for a totally vegetarian diet. Third, farm animals produce 130 times as much excrement as the entire U.S. human population. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the run-off from factory farms pollutes our rivers and lakes more than all other industrial sources combined.

Finally, a vegan or vegetarian diet is so much healthier than a meat based diet.  The website for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) provides a wealth of information on the health benefits of a plant based diet.

Making Our Compassion Real

In twenty-first centuryAmerica, living a vegetarian or vegan life is not difficult. A wide variety of appetizing, nutritious food is readily available in most restaurants and supermarkets. Vegetarians don’t eat just “rabbit food” any more. Although the closer to a “rabbit food” diet we eat, the healthier we are likely to be and the smaller our footprint will be on the Earth.

But there is no denying that for some of us who grew up on the all-American diet the transition can be challenging. Old habits die hard, especially where food is concerned. The good news is that you don’t have to do it all at once. As a first step, Bob became vegetarian (no meat, chicken, or fish).  After a number of years he substituted soy milk for cow’s milk. Eventually, he gave up cheese and eggs. Norm began by giving up red meat, tapered off chicken and fish over the next several months, and finally dropped eggs and dairy after more than a year. You can take your time, do it at your own pace, and according to your own style. Develop an approach that will work for you. If you slip sometimes, don’t torture yourself with guilt. Just apply the practice of mindfulness. Reflect on how and why it happened, and apply that knowledge in the future.

It has been helpful to both of us to reflect on the practice of not eating animals as a dana (generosity) practice and a practice of extending mercy to the most vulnerable sentient beings. On the other hand, punishing ourselves by brooding over the suffering of animals caused/supported by our eating meat before we changed our habits is not helpful. Nor is it helpful to dwell on the times we made less than perfect choices, such as ordering a salad at a restaurant only to find bacon bits sprinkled on the top. What is helpful is to reflect on all the animals spared by our vegan/vegetarian practice.

If you are unable to stop eating meat, chicken, and fish all at once, try:

  1. Eating a vegetarian, or, better yet, vegan diet for one, two, or three days a week,
  2. Eating a meat-free breakfast or lunch every day,
  3. When friends and family visit for dinner, prepare a vegan/vegetarian meal.

It is better to begin taking animal products out of your diet incrementally than not to begin at all.

There are lots of books and websites that can help. Two of our favorite books are The Inner Art of Vegetarianism: Spiritual Practices for Body and Soul by Carol Adams and The Vegetarian Sourcebook by Joanne Stepaniak. Websites that can help you along the way abound. GoVeg, peta.org/living/food/, and VegNews are excellent starting places.

Suffering and the End of Suffering

The Buddha taught that we develop panna by overcoming our cravings. And so, conquering our craving for animal flesh is not only an act of compassion and social responsibility, it is a step on our spiritual path. Vegetarianism contributes to the end of suffering for both ourselves and the sentient beings whom we are no longer causing to be killed or causing to experience extreme suffering. It is a Buddhist compassion practice from which everyone benefits.


[1] The Dhammapada: The Path of Perfection, translated by Juan Mascaro,London, Penguin Books, 1973. Verse 130.

[2] The Lankavatara Sutra: A Mahayana Text, translated by D. T. Suzuki,New Delhi, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1999, pg. 217 (252)

[3] The Middle Length Discources of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjima Nikaya, translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, Boston, Wisdom Publications, 1995, pg. 474 (Jivaka Sutta, Majjima Nikaya, 55:5).  The words in brackets were added by the translators for the sake of intelligibility.  They do not occur in the original Pali, which is a more elliptical language than English.  The addition reflects the traditional understanding of this passage from antiquity forward.