Sunday, October 24, 2010

Confessions of a Buddhist omnivore

In my last post I discussed one misconception* that people may have about practicing Buddhists- that they are all vegetarians. I am of course living proof that this is not the case, and as a Buddhist omnivore, am definitely not alone.

So why do I choose to partake in the flesh of animals? Well, an obvious reason is that, meat, when it is cooked and prepared well, is very tasty! Indeed Buddhists all over the world enjoy delicacies that have been in their cultures for many years, prepared from fish, chicken, eggs, lamb, goat, beef, and pork.

But I am sure that to any reader this is not a satisfying answer. After all, attachment to taste and delicious food are just grasping sensual desires, right?

To approach the topic more seriously, I have practical reasons for not being a strict vegetarian. However, let it be noted that I actually do love vegetarian food, which is what makes up the vast majority of my diet. If I eat meat at a restaurant, it will most likely be seafood or chicken, with the sparingly ordered beef taco, burger or steak. That being said, my Mom recently made a really good point. She also enjoys vegetarian food, but also is firm in her belief of eating a balanced diet. She has observed that in some cases, it might be better to order a lean, high quality, and very small cut of meat, than a huge 'vegetarian' pasta dish drowning in a creamy sauce laden with saturated fat. Sure, you can order such a dish with the sauce on the side, or get a pasta dish with plain pomodoro sauce, but then, why go out for dinner? It is a personal choice.

As for my upbringing, I grew up in a Christian household, and as I may have mentioned before, hold no animosity towards those traditions. Christmas and Easter are very special times of the year, where families get together and spend time with one another. Some of that time is spent sharing a wonderful meal, prepared with lots of love, care- and hard work! I believe it would be ungrateful to waste any food that had been so lovingly prepared just because it came from an animal.

Okay, so I have still continued to talk about eating, which, pardon me, is something I love to do, so get over it :) But I do have spiritual and intellectual reasons for being open to all kinds of food.

First of all, we can easily picture someone who must eat meat every day as very attached to sensual pleasures associated with eating. They are so attached to the food that if they were for some reason not able to have it, they might become upset or even angry. We would shake our heads and feel sorry for that person for having such a narrow view.

But I have a counter point to this argument- couldn't we replace the ravenous meat-eater with a sanctimonious vegetarian? Indeed, that type of person would be just as upset if their preferred food were also no longer available, and they would have compounded their suffering due to attachment with suffering due to aversion.

In short, the key is non-attachment and a Middle Way approach. I think from a sustainability standpoint, someone who chooses to be a vegetarian is doing something very beneficial. But if that person were to sneer and judge others for the food they eat, they negate any good they generate for our ecosystem by creating hostility at the dinner table. I am by no means equating or even comparing myself to a Buddhist monk or nun, but I do like to take a page from their playbook, in that they are grateful for any food that is given to them. Linguistically, the root of the word Bhikkhu and Bikkhuni (monk and nun) is 'to beg'. In exchange for nourishment through food, a traveling monk would help nourish the community around them through their teachings. Let's remember that food is special, and that we should just be grateful for being able to eat it. 

But speaking honestly from a spiritual development standpoint, I have only begun to quell my sensual desires for food. After all, if I were to truly live by a monk's rules, there would be no ordering a beautiful burger and salivating as I smelled the aroma of it cooking on a grill. But as we know, everything is impermanent. Be happy for the food you eat, and try to learn from the experience of each meal and the many sensations it generates. I eat mostly vegetarian food, but switch it up from time to time. I am open to the possibility that I could someday become a vegetarian, but also to the fact that everything is changing, and that we cannot control the world around us.

I hope this 'little' article was helpful. May all beings be happy!

*This is part of my little series of misconceptions that some people may have about Buddhism and Buddhists in general.

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