Burgers for Buddhists

Reflections on Animals, Religion, and the Environment

By Gene Sager

After visiting a new Buddhist temple in San Francisco, I scouted the neighborhood for a restaurant. A funky sign nearby caught my eye: "Burgers for Buddhists." I asked why all the burgers on the menu were vegetarian; the chief cook/owner explained, saying, "Buddhists don't eat meat, period." This sounded like an oversimplification, and I decided to revisit and expand my research on this issue. Along the way, there have been lessons to be learned about other religions as well.

Buddhism is the leading Asian religion in the world today. It has spread effectively into more Asian countries than have Hinduism and Taoism. And in Europe and the U.S., it has more non-Asian adherents than the other Asian religions. Like all religions with long histories, it has undergone many changes. The number and diversity of Buddhist groups rival Protestant Christianity, and Buddhists disagree on many individual and social issues. It comes as no surprise, then, that some Buddhists are vegetarian and some are not.

Despite the diversity that develops in religious traditions, there are common threads that are retained. Some threads are distinct principles or virtues; others are themes, or what I call "atmospheres." The key virtue in Buddhism is compassion (karuna). It is the fundamental value that runs deep and connects intimately with all the other teachings. The Four Noble Truths focus on the relief of suffering, and it is out of compassion that one pursues this relief. Buddhism calls for compassion for "all sentient beings" — all beings who experience pleasure and pain — i.e., humans and other animals. We accrue good karma (good feeling or contentment) by practicing compassion, and bad karma by failing to do so. If we cause unnecessary suffering, then deep down we feel some form of inner turbulence or discontent.

Everyone is aware of the Buddhist goal of inner calm, an atmosphere of tranquility that pervades Buddhist culture from the Indian images of the founder to Japanese landscape gardens. It was this peacefulness that attracted me to Buddhism when I lived in Japan. I came to realize that the practice of compassion has gradually increased my contentment and inner peace. So, does this practice of compassion call for a vegetarian diet?

Scripture as a Source

Religious groups use scripture as a primary source for guidance concerning diet and other moral issues, but thoughtful members of these traditions confront multiple problems. In Buddhism, important scriptural passages conflict with one another. A favorite passage used by Theravada Buddhists (Nissaggiya Picittiyas, 5) teaches that meat eating is acceptable. On the other hand, the Lankavatara Sutra, a text favored by Mahayana Buddhists, promulgates an emphatic prohibition against eating meat.

The most difficult problem concerns the context or conditions in which meat is produced. The time-honored scriptures do not refer to issues about feedlots or hormones or antibiotics. A passage reading, "You may consume the flesh of animals" would be quite different from a passage which might read, "You may consume the flesh of animals who have been raised under cruel conditions." Scriptural passages without specific condition cannot give us definite guidelines for action.

A difficulty in all religions involves the conflict between scriptural passages that teach general virtues and passages that allow or call for specific actions. If the holy book calls for protection of nature as a virtue but also seems to permit cutting of forests and mining, we are left to our own devices as to how much of a footprint we should leave. A parallel dilemma is the virtue of caring for creation and the allowance to eat meat.

Clearly, we cannot find a solution to the issue of the ethics of meat consumption by appeal to scripture alone. We have to employ our worldly knowledge and apply it with what I call "spiritual savvy." This is what I offer here as a conclusion.

Compassion in Action

First, I must mention two contemporary Buddhist leaders because of their prominence and special characteristics. The Dalai Lama recommends a vegetarian diet out of compassion and for the conservation of the environment. He himself eats a small amount of meat, which he says his doctor recommends for his unique metabolism. The other major Buddhist leader today is the Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hahn. He has consistently advocated what he calls "Engaged Buddhism." This means a Buddhist applies the teachings in everyday life, including social and environmental issues. Thich Nhat Hahn is a vegetarian and recommends the practice to others. His spirituality is always expressed in action, never merely in thought or words. As a Zennist, he sees the unity of opposites, so that the inner is in reality a part of the outer and the outer is part of the inner.

At the end of the day, we have to wade through the currents pushing and pulling at us: scriptural interpretation, cultural patterns, religious traditions, denominational bias, treatment of livestock, and environmental impacts. Leaders like the Dalai Lama or a saint may come and go, but the challenge of everyday practice remains. For Buddhists, it is a matter of showing compassion to all sentient beings. Principles over personalities.

In the United States, we must make our decisions in the context of the treatment of livestock and environmental impacts. This situation calls for a clear and active response. Principles or virtues like faith, compassion or love should translate into action. If compassion is just a vague feeling or a warm sentiment, it can hardly be called real. Compassion without work is surely dead.

We must conclude, I believe, that the menu at the funky restaurant in San Francisco is appropriate after all. Compassion calls for a veggie burger.

Gene Sager enjoys writing about world religions and their environmental impact today. His favorite activities include moon watching and the ban-the-plastic-bag campaign. He says, "There's a good moon rising."