Friday, April 21, 2006

The Food Chain

When I was nine years old, my father retired from his job (due to multiple heart attacks) and moved the family from the suburbs of Los Angeles to a tiny rural town in Southern Oregon -- Williams, to be exact.

I went from being able to ride my bicycle to Magic Mountain to being 21 miles from the nearest Safeway. Williams had a small country store, three churches, one gas station/garage, a post office the size of a two-seat outhouse, one elementary school, and a Grange. There was a restaurant sometimes.

We had five acres of land. We bought cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and rabbits. We grew our own vegetables and fruit. The first time we had to kill one of the animals, my sister cried for hours. She had named them all. We had James the Rabbit for dinner that night.

Over the coming years, I got used to the butcher coming out to slaughter a cow, to seeing the body hanging from a tree limb as it bled out. I learned how to cut the head off a chicken and a rabbit, how to gut them, and how to pluck a chicken. I learned how to clean fish and milk cows.

I learned to love the creamy taste of slightly chilled milk on my cereal -- milk that I had squeezed from a cow's udders only hours before.

I helped plant the garden, pick the weeds, water it, and harvest the results. I learned to love fresh peas right out of the pod, to dread the earwigs I always found in corn husks, and that a mixture of blended grasshoppers and tabasco sauce would keep the grasshoppers out of our garden. I learned that blackberry vines were more effective than a ten foot fence for keeping deer out of the garden.

All of this seemed like the way things should be to my young mind. I saw my food grow up and die. I had a hand in putting meat on my plate. I stole my breakfast eggs from the hen who had tried to hide them from me. I learned to appreciate that there is a food chain and humans sit near the top.

So, years later, when I decided that Buddhism made more sense to me than any other religion I knew of, I dreaded the thought of becoming a vegetarian. But I did it for three years (not counting the occasional pepperoni). I gave in one day to the craving for a triple cheeseburger and never looked back.

I sometimes feel guilty that I eat meat, but it passes quickly. I tend to think that most food animals are fulfilling their role in life when they become my meal. I don't eat animals that I know to be intelligent (which means pigs), and I no longer hunt wild game. I have actually only killed a deer once, when I was thirteen.

My father took me bow hunting, and I shot a deer on my first try. But I missed the shoulder and gutted him. We followed the deer for five miles before it dropped. My father ended its suffering with a single bullet. I went on many hunting trips with friends after that, but I refused to hunt anymore.

I don't buy the argument that eating meat brings bad karma. I don't buy the idea that killing any life form, including insects, brings bad karma. Every time we wash our faces, we kill millions -- if not billions -- of organisms. With every step we take, we kill something. Every time I drive my car at night I kill hundreds of insects. Death is part of the deal on this planet.

Certainly, killing for fun or sport is bad karma. Killing higher life forms (this includes pigs in my warped world) brings bad karma. But cows, chickens, and fish are not higher life forms. They are dinner.

An article by Noa Jones in the new Shambhala Sun ("The Accidental Vegetarian") got me thinking about this. She looks at the issue from several angles and decides to be a vegetarian most of the time.

She mentions the Vajrayana doctrine of One Taste, the idea that samsara and nirvana are one in the same reality. Within this view there are no distinctions between good and bad, ethical and unethical, tasty and disgusting. She uses the "one taste" doctrine to justify a plate of bacon one morning but admits she has not reached the outlook of one taste in her life. She still felt guilty.

I certainly haven't reached one taste, but I don't feel any guilt when I devour a filet mignon or a New York strip steak. I can see the ethical motivation for Buddhists being vegetarian, but I can also feel the elevated buzz of my cells when I feed my body beef during a tough weight training cycle. Beef -- it does a body good.

Yet I know that beef in particular takes a heavy toll on the environment. I know about the forests being cleared in Central and South America. I know about the drain on aquifers. I know about the hormones and steroids. I try to buy natural beef when I can. I generally only eat beef once a week, at most.

So, I am a Buddhist, but I am not a vegetarian. I suspect that I am not alone. How do the rest of you feel about this issue? How do you justify eating meat if you do? If you are vegetarian, what does it mean to you to have made that choice? How do you get the needed protein in your diet? Do any of you even think about this issue?

Let's talk about this in the comments. Or, if you feel strongly about being a vegetarian, send me an article and I'll post it (reserving the right to edit, if needed).

[Steak dinner image.]


Anonymous said...

What a loaded issue! I've been vegan, vegetarian and, as I am now, carnivore, all for years at a time at different periods. I'm afraid I'll have to get kind of mystical to make my point here. Sorry.

Anyway, I do believe eating meat accumulates karma, because I can literally feel it in my body. I remember when I was vegan, the clarity of my senses, the lightness of my body ("transparency" is the word I want to use), the sharpness of my intuition: it was completely clear to me why so many religions insist upon vegetarianism. It really does make one more spiritually attuned, and difficult spiritual endeavors more doable (in the same way beef aids weight-lifting). I have no doubt I'd be a far, far better meditator now if I were vegetarian.

And then there is life in the real world. As a vegan--and a vegetarian--I was fragile (got sick easily), physically weak, had a mere fraction of the endurance I do now. Eating meat, I'm palpably more robust: I haven't been ill in eight years; I'm immensely strong; for years I haven't reached into my well of strength and found myself wanting. I feel that same surge of physical vitality when I eat beef. So I eat beef (and chicken, and fish, etc).

I basically decided that, during this phase of my life, while I'm demanding so much from my body, and my spiritual practice is secondary not primary over my life in the world, I'll eat meat. I have it in mind that this may one day change, though...

Kai in NYC

kathy said...

I have a question. you said: "Certainly, killing for fun or sport is bad karma. Killing higher life forms (this includes pigs in my warped world) brings bad karma. But cows, chickens, and fish are not higher life forms. They are dinner."

Why would you think a Pig is a higher life form than a Cow? Everything that breathes and lives is equal to you and i.

kathy said...

what is a higher life form? what does that mean?

WH said...

Hi Kathy,

I was expecting someone to say what you said.

First, I do not believe all life forms are created equal. A dog is more evolved than an lizard. A human is more evolved than a dog. In that line of thinking, a pig is more evolved than a cow. Much more.

More to the point, for me, having been around both animals I can say that there is very little going on in a cow brain. No sentience.

While on the other hand, a pig is more intelligent than a 5 year old human in some ways (as determined through intelligence tests). Moreover, pigs are sentient -- there is self-awareness and a unique consciousness inside those little heads.

Bottom line: Cows are little more than stimulus and response organisms. Pigs are intelligent. That's my criteria.

But on to your deeper question. I do not believe in the relativism of all life forms. That's a nice Green meme viewpoint, but it doesn't hold up upon further examination. See Ken Wilber's mean meme article for an explantion.

Let me try this from a Buddhist viewpoint.

At the level of ultimate reality, yes, every living creature is equal to you and me.

In fact, going further, the cow I eat may be the reincarnation of my racist uncle. Who knows? There is an approach in Buddhist meditation that asks us to see every being as our mother, which recognizes the possibility that through reincarnation any person may have been our mother at one point. Should that be extended to all living creatures?

Still, we live in the world of conditional reality. The truths that are givens in ultimate reality are only conditional here. I can't live my life in ultimate reality or I'll get hit by a bus crossing the street.

Within the viewpoint of ultimate reality, there can be no justification for consuming the flesh of another sentient creature. When I reach that level (which is doubtful if there really is bad kamra for eating meat), then I will make every effort to live by that "law."

I am also aware that in one taste, ultimate and conditional reality are one. There is no distinction between cow and pig, human and dog, ethical and unethical, and so on. Samsara and nirvana are the same reality. From this vantage point, am I going to suffer a lower reincarnation for eating meat?

For now, I am faced with keeping my body strong and vital for as long as possible (partly for vanity and ego (Red and Orange meme needs), but also because my job as a personal trainer depends on projecting an image of health and vitality). I have never seen a healthy and vital looking vegetarian. Thus, I will eat meat as much as needed and as little as possible.

I'm guessing this doesn't come across as an adequate defense, but it's where I am at this point in my journey.

Thanks for the comments.


kathy said...

Thanks for your response. I'm pretty sure i understand how you feel.

clarity said...


it's still early morning here, so pardon my head not beeing very clear yet, so just a few thoughts.
First, let me just say that I eat meat as well, while also being a buddhist of 12 years.
With this, however, I don't agree:

I don't buy the argument that eating meat brings bad karma. I don't buy the idea that killing any life form, including insects, brings bad karma.

The fact that we kill millions every day is a fact. It has nothing to do with not producing negative karma. Your logic here does not hold. Also, karma has a lot to do with intention, so while you might not be consciously intending to kill all those bugs, we do consciously decide to eat meat, or even kill it ourselves.
So, for me, I accept it - I live in a relative world, and I will always kill. And it will create karma, as long as "I" is present. No need to pretend otherwise, or twist the idea of karma around.
more later when I wake up! :)

Bill LaLonde said...

I'm glad to see in your cooments that you recognize the difference between absolute and relative reality, because when I saw One Taste used as a reason meat-eating is okay I literally cringed. I am neither for nor against *you* eating meat-- I don't know enough about you to make a moral judgement about your diet-- but I am very much against using the doctrine of One Taste in moral evaluation. It is precisely because One Taste is an absolute Truth that it can have no play whatsoever in determining a moral judgement; you need to weigh relative factors with your basic moral intuition. If one taste is used to justify meat-eating because all things are equal in the absolute, then it also justifies skinning kittens alive, stealing you neighbor's children and eating their brains, and sawing off your own legs and using them as Christmas Tree ornaments. I'm sorry for the graphic nature of the examples, but I really want to get accross the absolute uselessness of using One Taste as a moral indicator.

Candace said...

I also grew up in a rural community and became vegetarian at around age 12. I remember visiting a friend once when they were having her pet cow Lucy for dinner.

For me this is just an issue of compassion, I'm not particularly worried about my karma. I'm not under any illusions that if I don't eat them the animals will live out happy lives in pastures somewhere. I think less people eating animals means less factory farming and less suffering overall.

With all of that said I had a son intended to raise vegetarian but he is allergic to dairy. I'm not committed enough to my ideals to come up with a vegan + eggs toddler diet, so I'm cooking some meat. When he hopefully grows out of the allergy we will go back to being vegetarian.

I'm surprised at your assertion that you've never seen a healthy looking vegetarian. I'm certainly not a personal trainer, but I feel much more healthy when I'm not eating meat. I understood that at least one Mr. Universe was vegetarian? For protein I eat legumes, nuts, soy products, dairy and eggs. I eat a lot more whole grains, vegetables and fruits than most carnivores I know.

WH said...

Hi Clarity,

I would argue that each time I wash my hands or my face, I am intentionally killing millions of microbes. Certainly not the same thing as eating steak, but if intent is to be part of the equation (and it should) then we do intentionally kill on a regular basis with very little consciousness.

On the other hand, when I eat meat, I am very conscious that I am eating the flesh an animal.

So, as a meat eater, do you feel that you are accumulating negative karma? Do you feel, as Kai mentions, that the weight of eating meat in your body impacts your spiritual practice?


WH said...


Thanks for reading. The author of the article in Shambhala Sun was the one who tried to use One Taste as a justification, not me. I didn't buy the argument on her part, and I don't really think she did either.

When I was responding to Kathy, she was talking about absolute truths as though they are the same as relative truths, which I had to refute in that I don't believe that argument holds up.

Thanks for making your point.

Do you eat meat as a Buddhist? Do you think doing so accrues bad karma?


WH said...

Hi Canadce,

Thanks for the comment.

I don't want to push this point too hard, but choosing not to eat meat as an act of compassion (as a rejection of factory farms, etc)doesn't hold up when you admit to drinking milk and eating eggs, both of which inflict suffering on animals, maybe moreso if we see being locked into tiny stalls or cages as bringing more suffering than simply being killed.

As somewho has has studied nutrition in depth, I hope you are not using soy protein with your son. There are other options (rice, egg, and so on). Soy protein in young males poses some serious issues that are not clearly resolved in the research. At this point it seems like a huge risk that can be avoided.

As for healthy looking vegetarians, most get inadequate protein because they do not know how to combine the various sources of partial protein to create whole proteins. You eat eggs, soy, and milk (many veggies do not eat eggs and milk) so you have an edge.

The vegetraian Mr. Universe was Bill Pearl. He was 41 at the time. It was 1971. Bill uses milk and eggs, which are the best sources for quickly digested protein. Bill claims to have stopped using steroids 10 years before winning the title, but I am doubtful.

Anyway, he and the handful of other veggie bodybuilders are exceptions. No one in the sport today is not using steroids, so any protein in their diet will be used to build muscle. It's easy to look healthy when you're using illegal drugs that boost protein synthesis in the body.

So, I should say that I rarely, see a healthy looking vegetarian. Making absolute statements always gets me in trouble. :)

Thanks for stopping by.


Bill LaLonde said...

Well, I don't usually identify as a Buddhist, so much as Buddhist-influenced. But no, I'm actually a lacto-ovo-vegetarian. As far as bad karma from eating meat-- to me it depends on the individual. For myself, right now, yes I would accrue bad karma from eating meat. However I don't believe that it was bad karma when I did eat meat, or that it is when you eat meat. I believe that bad karma accrues from willfully going against right action, and right action is whatever leads to the greatest health of those involved-- and I mean health in an AQAL manner of speaking here. For myself, vegetarianism is right action because my experience has shown that, for me, 1) (UR) being vegetarianism results in greater energy levels and resistance to illness as well as a physical sense of well-being, 2) (UL) I choose to limit my injury to organisms of higher complexity as much as is practical, 3) (LR), I have easy access to vegetarian ingredients and am skilled in cooking them, and 4) (LL) the person I love and live with is also a vegetarian and finds similar benefits from my choices. For you, meat-eating may be right action for one of the same reason thats vegetarianism is right action for me: your physiology responds well to meat-eating. My point is, there are many different factors to consider when deciding which diet is the proper choice, and I don't believe it's correct for anyone to make a sweeping "one diet fits all" statement. Make sense?
I also wanted to throw in that I've been following your blog for some time now and I've found it very thoughtful and thought-provoking. Thank you for blogging and thank you for replying to me.

WH said...

Hi again Bill,

You just offered the single best and most well thought out defense of vegetarianism I have ever read.

I am an omnivore for many of the same reasons. (UR) I don't feel as strong or healthy when not eating meat at least a few times a week. I also feel spacey and unfocused without the grounding energy of meat. (UL) I try to avoid consuming higher life forms as much as my body will allow, while recognzing the psychological benefit I get from having meat in my diet. I do make an effort to consume only free range critters as a way to limit the amount of negative psychic energy I take in. (LR) It costs more to eat good meat that is free range, but my income allows for it. I happen to live in a town with many natural foods stores, so there is some competition in pricing. (LL) My girlfriend didn't eat meat when she met me. Before we started dating, she began to eat chicken again (partly at my influence). Now she eats red meat once a week, partly at the suggestion of her naturopath. We share the one red meat meal we each eat most weeks, partly as a treat (tastes so good), and partly as a ritual way to take time out of our crazy schedules to get grounded.

Thanks for reading IOC -- I'm glad you find the site interesting. I've added your blog to my feeds, so I hope to make time to catch up on what you've been doing.


Bill LaLonde said...

Thank you for the kind words.
Your analysis of your own situation seems right on to me, a perfect example of how being omnivorous can be the moral choice in one situation (yours) and vegetarianism in another (mine). Kudos :)

Anonymous said...

But karma is not right action or wrong action, it is simply "action." All that we do, in a completely impartial way (regardless of our intentions or ignorance) has consequences. The Buddha's notion of "right action" is conscious technique to help us relate constructively to what is an impersonal dynamic. So for good, or bad, or contingent reasons, we can (or not) meat; the karma accrues regardless.

Kai in NYC