Why being vegetarian is not enough as a Buddhist practitioner

As Buddhists, we acknowledge the existence of three realms: formless, form, and desire. As human beings we belong to the latter – the desire realm – which comprises six realms again. From highest rebirth to lowest: gods and demigods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts or spirits, and hell beings. Our perfect human rebirth includes the eight freedoms and ten endowments; what we choose to do next is up to us.

It is known that we should use this precious life to practise the profound and holy mahayana dharma. Mahayana, as in great vehicle, signifies working for the benefit of all living beings, wishing for their swift attainment of enlightenment. These sentient beings within the desire realm are made up of four realms we cannot perceive (gods and demigods, hungry ghosts, and hell beings), and two with whom we share our daily interactions (humans and animals).

If we both wish and venture for their happiness and freedom from suffering, why is it that of a realm we can perceive we cause unnecessary cruelty, suffering, and violence towards animals?

Egg-laying hen with her baby chick in front of Tibetan Buddhist temple or stupa

Perhaps it is the unseen that makes our ignorance all that much easier to justify, and turn a blind eye towards. We can easily dedicate our merit to all beings attaining enlightenment when we feel we do not play a part in their suffering; when we try to rationalise their pain as something separate from our having caused it, reducing their death to an argument of “intent”. The animal realm almost becomes that of the hungry ghost or hell realms. We dedicate that they “have happiness and all causes of happiness” and yet we rise from our meditation cushion, and just metres away, in our kitchen serve the very source of their suffering. That is, their flesh and bodily secretions, the result of needless cruelty, fear and terror, rape, and eventual murder. Ostensibly, we understand the graduated path, and within it, the law of cause and effect. Karma. We begin to justify karma by ascribing it to the emptiness of inherent existence. However, emptiness is oneness with dependent arising; we cannot separate the chain of causality from the end product.

Why Buddhists become vegetarian

Oftentimes, in seeing this intrinsic cruelty, and wishing to play no part in the murder of mother sentient beings, Buddhists (and non-Buddhists alike) will adopt a vegetarian diet. What does this entail? For the person who has made the decision, they will no longer consume the flesh of beings raised in animal agriculture. This means, no more consumption of “meat”.

This unfortunate term completely separates his or her life from the plastic-wrapped flesh that ends up on supermarket shelves or a small shred of the carcass in the butcher’s window. A product we often complain is becoming “too expensive”, may not even finish in its entirety – discarding their body in a bin, or which will ultimately end up flushed away down the sewerage system. A moment of transitory taste pleasure for what would have been years of their life; the result of torture raised purely for our attachment to taste. What value do we place on their life? What monetary value would you designate your own?

The vegetarian believes they are no longer a participant in this suffering, no longer physically eating meat – be that of a dog, cat, horse, cow, pig, chicken, goat, sheep, fish or the other limitless animals that comprise the farmed or exotic animal agribusiness. Lord Buddha said not to eat meat, so they believe this to be in following his advice. Of the ten non-virtues, we are almost certainly most familiar with that of the body: do not kill. This is emphasised strongly throughout the dharma, for the karmic repercussions are that of a seed that ripens with exponential effect similar to the cause.

One does not kill with an altruistic heart, the act is motivated by anger – a delusion. Similarly, to ask another being to kill for you – to take a life on your behalf – is equivalent to that of double the non-virtue. As such, it is understandable to believe that abstaining from consuming animal flesh is a logical step in practising bodhichitta. How can we wish for all beings to be free from suffering when we are paying for that very suffering?

Examining the Five Precepts

However, in considering the five precepts – no killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, nor intoxication – we must learn that the remaining animal products consumed by vegetarians result directly in these vows being broken. Through ignorance, at a worldly level, we may have yet to understand or be exposed to the reality of dairy and egg production. We may have believed that the animals are not harmed, and that “meat” is the extent of cruelty for these mother sentient beings. The reality is that this is not the case: the dairy and egg industries are the meat industry. They are oneness in violence.

1. Killing

Let us examine the five precepts. The dairy industry may position itself as that of “contented cows” and green pastures or sunny meadows, with the mother and her child standing happily side-by-side. But like all practices within samsara, this is just an illusion. 

A male calf cannot produce milk, so he is designated nothing more than a “waste product” to an industry driven by a need for profit, and from a consumer that desires the lactations of another species when they themselves were weaned from their own mother’s breast as a baby. Whether born male or female, the mother and her baby are separated. These mother sentient beings, who we pray and dedicate our merit towards, are torn from their children, who they would form an unbreakable bond within a matter of minutes. The male will either be murdered immediately – by means of a bolt gun or blunt trauma to his head – then added to the pile of corpses who once were his brothers, or kept for a few weeks to become “veal”. 

Again, the separation of their sentience from the label of product strengthens our ignorance and excuses for cruelty. What of the female calves? She will meet the same fate as her mother. However, the dairy industry cannot take everyone, so she too may be murdered at birth. 

The egg industry mirrors that of dairy: male chicks are gassed whereby they will asphyxiate; or thrown onto conveyor belts with their brothers, ground alive, a process known as maceration. This living hell occurs purely because they were born into the “wrong sex”. Which is to say, a sex we couldn’t commodify. The surplus of female chicks will take over their mother’s role, and like dairy, be murdered when of no more use.

2. Sexual misconduct

A woman cannot lactate unless she is pregnant. This is the case amongst us all – human and non-human. A cow does not produce milk unless she, too, is pregnant. No cow in the dairy industry is producing milk of their own accord. She is raped, through artificial insemination, while someone holds her anus and cervix open and inserts bull’s semen into her, against her will. The area in which she is tied is often referred to as a “rape rack”, as if some clever wordplay on the inherent violence and dominion we have over this mother being. 

How is any of this in line with our vow not to engage in sexual misconduct? To purchase and consume dairy products is not just an act of complacency, it perpetuates this very industry. 

After her pregnancy, when she would usually bond with her baby, they will instead be ripped apart as she bellows after them with heartbreak and confusion. Her baby son to be murdered, her daughter to endure this very fate, and she as mother to endure this process indefinitely. That is, until she too is of “no more use” and will be sent to the slaughterhouse as well. She could have lived at least 20 years, but on average dairy cows will be culled at six years old. All this for some milk or butter in your tea? 

The egg industry is no different. Where a wild chicken may once have laid ten eggs per year, she is now forced to produce over 350 eggs annually. The equivalent of a menstrual cycle, this is like human women being forced to menstruate every day of the year her entire life. If only she were to live that long, for the egg-laying hen will have her life cut short too. Leeched of calcium, bones breaking, discarded as “waste” once more. She could have lived ten years, but egg-laying hens are often killed at 18 months.

3. Stealing and 4. Lying

We steal these bodily secretions from sentient beings, believing them to be “ours”. They are not commodities, not resources, not ours. We steal the milk that was for her calf from the mother cow, separating these sentient beings, causing immense pain and grief as she bellows for her baby, all the while wishing for mother beings to have happiness and freedom from suffering. 

We steal her baby, we steal his mother, we sentence them to a terrifying death, all so that we may have a drop of milk that was never ours to begin with. 

We steal her eggs, causing her body to become frail, unable to stand. She is surrounded by others just like her, unable to breathe, dying. We steal these lives, condemning her sons to be gassed or ground alive, all because he doesn’t produce anything we can steal. 

We steal their lives. Needlessly. All the while lying to ourselves. The industry lies, enabling us to uphold beliefs that can never be true. 

You cannot take the life of someone who does not wish to die. There is no “humane” way to murder someone who wishes to live. We lie to justify these practices, and make excuses for our consumption of a product we do not even need. Because at the end of the day it is attachment that drives these purchases.

5. Intoxication

The remaining precept, of intoxication, can be applied to this very statement. People are intoxicated by attachment. The transitory pleasure that you may experience by consuming the bodies of these animals, or the recipes that comprise the unrecognisable “ingredients” resulting from their torture, does not justify their lives being taken. 

The average lifespan of a cow is 20 years. Chickens, ten years. What is to speak of the billions of land animals and trillion sea animals killed each year, needlessly? They are murdered mere months into their lives because of our intoxication. Through attachment we are driven to seek out the unrecognisable product from the shelf, thus ensuring there will be another to replace it. 

You alone have not done the killing. Someone else has abused and murdered a terrified animal. Their anger in that moment and karma increasing, leaving them too with trauma, violence, and a seed that has been planted and will ripen in future. How can someone be asked to take the life of another being? How can we force another being to murder for us, every single day, for our taste gratification? 

One cannot leave the mental agitation that accompanies their bloodied uniform at the door. Hatred grows in their hearts, fear in the animals’ as they so desperately try to flee the final moments of their hell-realm rebirth. Anger, attachment, and ignorance drive this very process. We must not play a part in this living hell. 

Once you have been exposed to this reality, and can no longer feign ignorance, what will you do? It is a cruel complacency to stop at vegetarianism.

The Four Immeasurables

If we are to recite the Four Immeasurables from the heart we must realise that becoming vegan is the moral imperative. The wish for all beings to have happiness and its causes, be free from suffering and its causes, never be parted from the bliss of nirvana liberation, and to abide in equanimity free from attachment and aversion – must take into consideration farmed animals. It is an act of hypocrisy to wish for their attainment of enlightenment and yet pay for their life and death of torture. 

There is nothing about veganism that contradicts Buddhism. On the path to enlightenment, living vegan is just another step we take. It is a logical step, and in considering pramana – logic and debate – it is the only step that acts in accordance with bodhichitta. As Conqueror Maitreya said, “Bodhichitta means, for the sake of others, wishing to attain complete perfect enlightenment.” For the sake of others. 

Buddhists, with tathagatagarbha – the intrinsic Buddha nature within us all – will compassionately carry a lost insect outside, ensuring they are not killed by another’s anger or aversion. Westerners are appalled to learn of the Yulin Dog Meat Festival. What is the difference between a dog, pig, cow, chicken and countless others? 

The only difference is our perception. It is by mere designation and labelling. In emptiness there is no difference. We must extend this innate compassion to farmed animals. There is no reason to consume their flesh or bodily secretions, nor to participate in entertainment, clothing, cosmetics, science or research which exploits these beings and results in their suffering.

Veganism is the Middle Way

Shantideva said that “Whatever joy there is in this world all comes from desiring others to be happy”. A wonderful statement, but one that we should recall continues: “Whatever suffering there is in this world all comes from desiring oneself to be happy.” At a worldly level, no-one who is eating animal products is doing so against their will. It is not through reluctance that you partake in consuming animal flesh or secretions; it is purely attachment through which you seek the taste. Great masters like Tilopa could transform the corpse of a fish back into a living sentient being, but we as worldly beings cannot do this. We must not fool ourselves through ignorance and attachment into thinking that we have not played a part. She, he, they wished to live. They wished for their baby, their mother, father, sister, brother, to live. It is their right as sentient beings – with minds and consciousness – to be treated with equanimity. 

Vegetarianism is just another denomination for us and them: the facelessness of dairy and egg production ensures that you may not pay for the slaughter of one type of cow or chicken, but their relatives will ultimately be sent to their death for your greed. It positions itself as some sort of middle ground between vegan and carnist, but a vegetarian diet is oneness with carnism.

Veganism is the true middle way, not an extreme. It is not carnism, it is not breatharianism or another reductionist philosophy, it is the moral imperative. It is a mere extension of the bodhichitta you already cultivate.

Living vegan is the immediate action you can take, right at this moment.

It is not complicated, but logical: in recognising animals’ intrinsic worth as sentient beings, we recognise that they are not food and never have been. It is not idealistic to believe that one cannot live vegan, especially as Buddhists. We are mahayana practitioners, and believe enlightenment is possible, not just for ourselves but for all sentient beings. We are working towards the attainment of the union of no more learning for the benefit of all sentient beings. This enlightened state can be attained in three countless great aeons, 16 lifetimes, or if very fortunate, this very life. What is to say of the compassionate heart driven by the belief and knowledge that all animals are equal and one day too will be buddhas?

Our interconnectivity

The network of interdependence is infinite. We must acknowledge that by no longer participating in animal agriculture we would enable tremendous benefit for countless beings.

The farmed animals themselves would no longer be bred into existence to be brutally murdered; slaughterhouse workers would not be creating heavy negative karmas nor living with trauma, able to renounce their violent past like Angulimala; land would stop being cleared and habitat destruction exponentially decreased, allowing native species to repopulate their environment; we would reverse the climate crisis, a benefit for all in Jambudvipa; water pollution and environmental devastation ceased, enabling nagas to abide once more; children would not be subject to realising the “food” they have been fed is actually the beautiful creatures for whom they have great love; we would eradicate almost all diseases – both zoonotic and the chronic diseases related to our degenerative diet of excess, thus freeing immense space in hospitals to make room for the sick; feed millions of people, starved of the grain that is currently being fed to the animals who have been slaughtered…

Strengthening our bodhichitta, the interconnected web is exponential. It is not idealistic to say that a kinder world would result, why else would we be working towards all beings’ attainment of enlightenment?

The Four Generosities

Through the four generosities, we offer dharma teachings, material goods, great love, and fearlessness. Our teachings must align with our actions on and off the cushion. To teach loving-kindness we have to ensure that kindness includes the very beings we have disregarded for so long. Material offerings must not contradict our understanding of bodhichitta. It would be misguided generosity to offer flesh and secretions to another being, however good our “intention”, when it perpetuates a cycle of torture for someone else. Our great love must extend to farmed animals; our fearlessness for the rescue of these mother beings from their suffering.

It is an act of fearlessness, of liberation, to no longer participate in these systems of violence and cruelty. It begins with us. With you. Rescuing living beings from danger is not just that stray insect, they are the beings just out of sight, on properties and slaughterhouse trucks. Be brave. For them: cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, goats, fish and so on.

They were not just mother beings of a previous life. She was not just your mother in a previous life. She is a mother, to another sentient being whose happiness and love we take so cruelly. It is not enough to say we need better “welfare” standards, nor to focus on single-issue campaigns. It is not the way in which they die, it is that they die at all. All beings are suffering, needlessly. You always have the choice, to stop, to end the cycle of violence and cruelty. They do not. Your karma is not set in stone.

Like water droplets on a rock

If you feel that one person cannot make a difference, look to Asanga as inspiration. In his 12 year retreat, he witnessed the bird’s wing wear away at the cave, and water droplets wear at the rock. I alone may amount to nothing more than a drop in the ocean, but what is an ocean but a multitude of drops?

We must abolish the system entirely, together, as Buddhists. There is no need to eat animals and their bodily secretions, so how can we participate in their abuse? To see the horror and violence is to no longer plead ignorance.

Apply a mirror to our two realms with those unseen four. They mirror our rebirths: the life and death of a farmed animal is like that of a hell being, their starved state as they await their inevitable slaughter like a hungry ghost. We, having good fortune, should recognise their worth, not waste our merit on frivolous greed and attachment, seeking taste pleasure and paying for animal abuse. Burning up good fortune, all the while convincing ourselves that it is all “intent”. We are like the god realms, turning a blind eye to the resultant effect similar to the cause. But we are not blind any longer.

What will you do?

Ultimately, it is not a compassionate act to not abuse animals. It is their right, as fellow sentient beings, to not be treated as commodities, resources, products. To not enslave, rape, torture, or murder another being is not an act of compassion or kindness. It is a basic right. If we value all beings, if we wish for their happiness and freedom from suffering, for their equanimity, we recognise that it is their sentience alone that gives them this right.

Their sentience makes them equal. We as Buddhists are driven by compassionate method and wisdom. And it is with these two “wings” by which we must act. Our quadrant of family, friends, enemies and strangers is an infinite network of interconnectivity. It must extend to include all beings. At the centre of that quadrant is you. Change begins with you.

What will you do?

© Taradical Compassion 2024

Taradical Compassion comprises dharma thoughts and expressions, original artwork, motion visualisations and meditations on the lam.rim (the graduated path to enlightenment) with great emphasis on the need for compassion and bodhichitta for our fellow sentient beings.

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Footer animals on Home page (calf and chicken)

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