FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Let us agree that Buddhism is not vegetarianism. It is not "virtue" either, or "peace," or "gratitude," or any other word or concept. To identify it with anything at all is to reduce what in essence is illimitable. In fact, Buddhism isn't even Buddhism. But now let us leave the pure and safe world of negation and consider living practice.
Those of us living in the industrialized countries of North America, Europe, and Asia are blessed with a vast array of food choices. With such variety, who would choose to support the slaughter mills and the boundless misery involved in "factory farming" and other mass livestock-rearing industries? It may be those who fear that without meat or fish their health would suffer (the irony!); or those who are unaware of how the meat industry contributes to the misuse and waste of global resources. But for most carnivores, I suspect, eating animals is simply too pleasurable to give up. Whether it's simply the taste they're attached to, or associations from the past, or the image, it's too important to them.
Vegetarianism has its share of fussy and rigid purists and those of humorless moral zeal. When vegetarianism is not just a way of eating but a dogma to which we cling, and which gives rise to self-righteousness and judgmentalism, then it obstructs the Way.
To assert the obvious, that eating meat unnecessarily is a violation of the first precept (not to kill) and of our bodhisattvic vows to liberate all sentient beings, is not to make an absolute out of vegetarianism. Vegetarianism is not an essential part of Buddhism, and an attachment to it corrupts the freedom of our true nature. But one can also cling to the notion of "freedom," and that is an attachment that can cause a lot more harm to other sentient beings.
In practice, the issue of vegetarianism comes down to a question of need. If you need to eat flesh foods to sustain your life, or, in extreme cases, your health, do so with awareness and gratitude. But if you don't, why contribute to unnecessary suffering?
Abbot, Zen Center,
Rochester, New York
RIGHT TO CHOOSE
Your Spring Issue opens with two letters from the anti-choice forces seeking to co-opt the dharma into their camp.
First, a doctor argues for the infliction of prolonged suffering on the terminally ill by denying a human being's right to voluntarily end his own life—with the help if necessary of his physician, someone after all whom he employs to do his will, not to be his torturer. Nothing in the dharma forbids that. We are not adherents of the soul superstition nor do we believe in God, gods, or a deified nature that will decide for us in a "natural" way when the end has come.
Second, two anti-choicers from a university philosophy department boldly proclaim, "Buddhism is pro-life." Wrong. We respect life but oppose absolutisms. There is no living without killing. The operation of our immune systems takes lives by the millions every second. It is always a matter of making choices. In a world where the number one unsolved problem is population, objection to abortion means a vote in favor of war, famine, and pestilence.
The essence of Buddhism is the minimization of suffering through self-knowledge. That makes the dharma solidly pro-choice.
Los Angeles, California
Responding to Judith Crane and Jim Stone, whose letter ended with the flat assertion that "Buddhism is pro-life," I would say that, in my experience, it is all more complicated than that. Even if we grant that Buddhism tends to disapprove of abortion, this doesn't necessarily put Buddhism in the same camp as the American "Pro-life" movement. The "Pro-life" movement, grounded in a particular set of Christian ethics, tends to be absolutist, declarative, confrontational; most Buddhist ethics seem to be more situational, relativistic, and reconciliatory. Christian ethics are based on commandments; Buddhist ethics are based on precepts. Break the commandments and God will get you, down the line. Keep or break the precepts and it works out in your karma, but no one is keeping track, there is no punishment. Even when the Buddha "fought" for the end of animal sacrifices, he didn't blockade temples, assault priests and worshipers, or promote laws to rain down governmental punishment on transgressors.
Putting Buddhism in the position of being pro or con any ethical issue both creates duality and misses the chance to use the specific, personal experience as a teaching, and the teaching as a healing of the individual and the society.
I was on one of what you might call "the front lines" of the L.A. civil unrest, a resident of the neighborhood at the intersection of Western and Washington. Like Michael O'Keefe ("An Avalanche in L.A.," Vol II, No.3), I saw people of all colors looting what they didn't need, and in some cases what they did. As much as his statement unsettled me, I too must admit a gratefulness (but certainly not a love) for my experience. Among many lessons, it wasn't my fear of death that affected me, but the discovery of my profound fear of death at the hands of another. Compassion is hard to nurture in such circumstances; not because of hate from within, but because of hate driven by despair from without. For me, it was the first time I faced the possibility that I would not be given the opportunity to express my compassion before my potential aggressor ended my physical life. The realization that this possibility is deeply rooted in the psyches of people of different ethnicities, sexual preferences, and spiritual beliefs throughout the world overwhelms me. The lesson is twofold: 1) express compassion while you have the opportunity; 2) try to find your compassion before you're forced to walk in someone else's shoes.
I was pleased to read Christopher Queen's article on Dr. Ambedkar. I have often wondered why the New Buddhist Movement in India had not evoked a greater interest among American Buddhists, particularly since it incorporates a very clear and revolutionary social dimension. Why this should be so is a matter of some conjecture. Could it be that the extreme poverty, the socially degraded position, and the low profile of the Indian untouchables are unattractive to our socially engaged Buddhists?
Dr. Queen provides an excellent introduction to Dr. Ambedkar's work and the New Buddhist Movement up to the mass conversion ceremonies in Nagpur in 1956. Although Dr. Queen indicates that the movement is still alive and active, particularly in Maharashtra, he does not explore its subsequent development. Thirty-six years after the conversions, we find a bewildering array of political, social, educational, and religious organizations affiliated with Ambedkar's movement. I hope that this will be but one step toward a greater awareness of these developments in the land of the Buddha's enlightenment.
Newmarket, New Hampshire
I am really tired of reading about so-called Buddhists like Allen Ginsberg, who admits he has never meditated regularly or studied Buddhism, and Jack Kerouac, whose most striking characteristic was chronic (and eventually fatal) alcoholism, and Chogyam Trungpa, misogynist, sexual pervert, abuser of power, and fatal alcoholic.
These men are not Buddhists. They may represent what the populace you are pandering to thinks of as hip or cool. They do not represent Buddhism in any way, shape, or form. If every time you wanted to mention them you instead looked a little further and investigated someone or something more sincere in action and intent, you would have my respect.
Aki Sann Chay