A JOURNEY OF MINDFUL EATING
Is eating animals consistent with Buddhist practice? I will eventually share with you my conclusions on that question. But before we get there, indulge me a little background. I started reading about Buddhism more than four decades ago. I gained some knowledge – some intellectual familiarity with Buddhist concepts – but I truly understood very little of what I had read.
Twenty-five years ago, at a time when I am sure I had never heard of mindful eating, I was slurping a bowl of Chinese hot and sour soup. For reasons I can’t now reconstruct, I decided it would be a fun exercise to think separately about each component of the soup. And so I imagined who had made the chicken broth, what pot they used, what pieces of the chicken had been boiled to make the broth, where the water had come from, who had grown the mushrooms, how long that took, and so on. I was surprised that it didn’t feel good to think about some of the ingredients. Particularly, I didn’t want to think about the little pieces of pork – how they had come from a pig that lived in a stockyard and was then killed and cut up and roasted before the little pork pieces found their way into my soup. After trying this little experiment a few more times, I came to what seemed the perfectly logical conclusion that if I had trouble thinking about what I was eating, perhaps I shouldn’t be eating it. That led rather quickly to my becoming a vegetarian, not on moral grounds, not because of anything I knowingly felt, but solely because it seemed the logical result.
For ten years I contentedly ate no meat – no beef, no pork, no lamb, no chicken and no fish. I also didn’t much think about the non-meat I did it. Then slowly over a period of a few years my intellectual commitment to vegetarianism eroded and meat (mostly chicken and fish) crept back into my diet.
Fast forward another decade or so to the point where I stopped reading about Buddhism, surrendered the intellectualism and began a Buddhist practice. Early in that practice I turned my attention to the first of the Five Precepts common to all Buddhist traditions – to abstain from killing. Unlike the Judeo-Christian commandments, the Precepts as I understand them are practice guidelines, not inviolate rules. An important consequence of this distinction is that we must each decide for ourselves how to incorporate the precept into our lives. Doing that involves considerable subtlety and nuance. For example, refraining from intentionally taking the life of another human being seems clear. But how does the precept apply to lives of non-humans and does it apply only to sentient beings or is the application wider?
By this time I had become very familiar with mindful eating, which became a regular part of my practice. This led to some serious meditation about how to apply the precept to abstain from killing to the food I consumed. Several things came out of that meditation. First, it seemed obvious that the guideline not to kill could not be confined just to people. I love my dog, Jack. I have no doubt at all that he is conscious and intelligent. He interacts in a meaningful way with his environment. He understands words spoken to him. He feels pain and knows joy. He is self-aware. I cannot claim the right to end his life, whether for food, for sport or otherwise. So, for me the precept against killing clearly applies to Jack.
What fundamental difference is there then between my dear Jack and a cow or a pig, a horse or a lion, a deer or a squirrel? To one degree or another, they each exhibit the qualities of consciousness and intelligence. I could not find a principled way to distinguish between animals that were on the no-kill list and those that could be killed. Ending a life is ending a life. And so it seemed that the precept against killing clearly had to apply to all mammals.
From mammals it wasn’t much of a step, at least for me, to birds and fishes and insects and everything else that breathed in and breathed out, had thoughts, formed intentions, had a nervous system and was born and died. I know there are variations in intelligence and the degree of self-awareness varies from species to species. But could I bring myself to kill based on those distinctions? Ants have mothers and fathers and siblings and children as much as humans do.
Ultimately, my mediations lead me to the truth that all creatures are beings, perhaps different from me, but no less a being than I. Applying the precept to abstain from killing, I could not take their life from them or be the cause of others doing so for my benefit. Applying this more deeply, I moved from creatures to plants, prompting many questions. When I tear a leaf of lettuce from the plant in my garden, do I cause it pain? Is the lettuce aware of its existence? Am I terminating the life of carrot when I pluck it from the ground? When I mow down the wheat in the field to harvest its seeds, am I killing it? In a sense, I think the answer to all of these questions is yes.
At this point, with my potential food supply dwindling rapidly, I sensed I was on the wrong track. I had retreated to intellectualizing and wasn’t experiencing. I was thinking but not seeing. It was time to breathe and reset. Mindful eating gave me a way to experience food. Perhaps that was the path.
Finding myself in an orchard, I had the experience of picking up an apple that was newly fallen on the ground and looking into it deeply. It was a precious gift from the apple tree – a fruit that had been offered to me. Taking a bite, I felt immense joy. I could taste the earth and the sun and the rain that was the apple. It was the most delicious thing I had ever put in my mouth. The experience of the apple felt nourishing and extraordinarily peaceful. I repeated the practice with other fruits and vegetables. Peaches were a delight. Like the apple, they were peaceful to eat – offered freely to me. Tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumber, eggplant, green beans – all wondrous gifts. Amazingly, after some practice, I could taste (or feel?) subtle differences based on how the food had been harvested. A tomato lovingly removed from the vine at the peak of ripeness was different from one tugged from the vine when green and gassed to change its color to red. And root vegetables – carrots, beets, potatoes, radishes, turnips – that had been tugged from the ground had a different feel. They were a little bit more course. There was an edge to them you didn’t get with the apple or the peach. It wasn’t much of a difference, but it was definitely there.
My journey of discovery continued with foods that had been processed to varying degrees. It seemed that processed foods carried the karma, if you will, of their processing. If I really paid attention and ate mindfully, I could taste the journey of the wheat, the water and the yeast that combined to make the loaf of bread, the machine that kneaded it and the fire that transformed it. The light processing of bread or ice cream felt fine, almost comforting. In contrast, something that was heavily processed and full of artificial ingredients and flavors felt remarkably different. For example, I could barely swallow imitation crabmeat. Little was left of the fish it was made from. What remained had been stripped of its original self and reformatted in shape and taste and scent and color. The machining was so apparent that it was literally distasteful.
Then came a steak cooked outside on the grill. There was something primordial about it. Dark and crispy on the outside; Red, soft and warm on the inside. Eating the first bite nostalgically, it had the pleasing flavor of good beef. But my first mindful bite was altogether different. I tasted the being whose life had been taken from it, the violence of its death, the letting of its blood, the ripping of its hide from its body, its evisceration, the cutting up of its body into large pieces, the large pieces cut into smaller ones, and the fire that charred the flesh that had now found its way into my mouth.
The experience of the steak was a revelation, particularly when contrasted with the experience of the newly fallen apple. The difference and the common thread were both incredibly clear to me. It was a question of violence. The apple was freely given, offered in fact. The steak was violently stolen. Eating the apple mindfully resulted in great joy. Eating the steak mindfully brought me literally to tears. If we can think about these two experiences of food as the opposite poles, there is of course a vast spectrum in between. Yes, picking a tomato involves some violence, but it’s pretty minimal and far outweighed by the joy. Plucking a beet from the ground and cutting off its leaves is a little violent, but not terribly so. Minimally processed foods felt, for me, on the mostly non-violent side of the scale and foods that were greatly processed were on the other end. The violence scale and my internal violence meter, applied during mindful eating, helps me understand and interpret the feelings I get from what I eat. Perhaps the violence (or lack of peace) even becomes an inherent part of what we consume.
I initially assumed that the violence meter would be consistent with a vegetarian diet. To a large degree that was true. But there were some surprising exceptions. For example, eggs and milk, although animal products, feel mostly non-violent to me. I attribute this to the fact, depending on the method of harvest, that these items are for the most part freely given, not violently taken. As a result, I feel content to consume them. On the other hand, meat substitutes like seitan and tempeh are generally so processed and manipulated that that they are hard for me to eat, even though they are vegan products. So, for me there is more to eating mindfully than blindly following a vegetarian diet.
Let me share a final example of how the violence meter produces unexpected results. I was invited to attend a dinner at the home of parents of a dear friend. Her father, then in his late seventies, had retired and spent long hours perfecting his meat smoking technique. The dinner was planned around smoked pork ribs. Filing my plate at the buffet, I took the salad and the potatoes and then hesitated for a moment at the platter of ribs. I honestly don’t know why, but I took two and sat at the table. I picked up a rib, set all preconceptions aside and paused for a moment. Then I took a bite and chewed the flesh as mindfully as I was able. To my great astonishment, I was flooded with the overwhelming love my friend’s father had lavished on these ribs over many hours.
Returning to the question I began with: is eating animals consistent with Buddhist practice? Buddha taught that the answer is generally no. However, there were exceptions. For example, monks accepting alms could (indeed, were required to) take meat if it was offered and had not been killed for them. Like all things, then, the answer to the question requires applying balance. The precept not to kill is guidance, it is not an iron-clad rule. The violence scale is a guide that helps me achieve that balance and determine what feels right to eat. Generally, I know ahead of time that animals feel too violent when I consume them mindfully and so I avoid doing so. Generally, I know that eating fruits and vegetables feels non-violent. Generally, I know that eating processed foods, regardless of whether they are plant or animal based, falls on the violent side of the scale and I avoid them. So, generally, eating animals is not consistent with my practice. But I cannot forget that things are not always what they appear. On one special day I learned the immeasurable lesson that the love of a father making a meal for his family transformed the food in a way I did not anticipate. How he worked that magic I do not pretend to know. But I will be forever grateful that I was privileged to share the experience and learn from the lesson.