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.]
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