Friday, January 13, 2006


For forty five years the Buddha rambled on foot over the northern part of India, telling about his awakening experience to anyone who would listen. According to legend, on his eightieth year he ate some tainted meat and became ill. Three months later he was dead.
     This may explain why some Buddhists choose to be vegetarians. However, few Zen masters advocate vegetarianism, even though they may practice it themselves.
     Vegetarianism is not a requisite for Buddhists of any sect. What is emphasized across Buddhism is a respect for life, which implies not killing living things.
Of course, even vegetarians are instrumental in the death of living things. They rip heads of lettuce out of their beds, they slaughter carrots before chomping on them.
This is one of life’s inconsistencies that we must live with.
We need nourishment to live. Some yogis claim to subsist on water and air, but few individuals are that disciplined, or enlightened, or ingenious.
     So we eat once-living vegetables, and we eat once-living meat or else we don’t eat meat.
If you feel better—mentally and physically—without meat in your diet, don’t eat meat. Just do not let this eat-or-not-eat get in the way of seeing into your true nature. Enjoy what ever kind of food you like, without allowing food to become an attachment.
     Not killing living things is basically a fine idea, but in today’s world we have to be practical. Few people, especially in the United States, need to hunt to put food on the table. Most of those who do hunt do it for the thrill of stalking, and killing.
Buying a steak at the supermarket is easier and cheaper than perching up in a tree for hours on a freezing day with a gun in your hand and your bladder begging to be relieved.
Most of you may be repulsed with the idea of shooting a deer or wringing the neck of a chicken, and you probably never have to do it. There are plenty of supermarkets.
     But if a mosquito lands on your arm, will you whack it flat?
     Again, the key is to be practical. Use common sense. Let your conscience be your guide.
     Perhaps the most exacting form of respect for life is practiced by members of the East Indian, non-Hindu sect of Jainism. The word is pronounced, g-i-n as in gin. I like to say Jains were the Indians who taught English Colonials how to make today’s favorite British drink, gin and tonic, but I’m probably too fanciful minded.
     Jains carry their respect and honor for life to an extent some people might call extreme. Even today, the most serious practitioners of Jainism walk very slowly, watching their every step so they will not tread on a worm or an ant. They also wear a gauze scarf around their nose and mouth to keep from inhaling gnats.
     When I trekked in Nepal I lived four weeks on rice, lentils, and wild greens. It was a nutritious diet, though a little monotonous. One day we passed through a small settlement where several scrawny chickens were running around. We asked our trekking cook if he could acquire a couple of the birds for dinner. He said he probably could, and he would prepare them for a meal, but—being a Buddhist—he could not kill them. So one of the Newar porters chased down the birds and dispatched them.
The Newar people are a distinct ethnic group in Nepal. They practice both Hinduism and Buddhism, and they do eat meat. The Newar inhabitation of the Kathmandu valley is so ancient it extends beyond recorded history into the realm of legend.

To get back to my story, Ang, the cook, put the chickens into a pot and boiled them for a couple of hours with rice and lentils. And we ate them. They were stringy, but they were a welcome change of diet.
     So what’s the point of this story?
The point is, be practical. Keep the peace within yourself.
     The Buddha did not say not to eat meat. He didn’t say to eat meat. He did say to respect all life. And that throws the sometimes perplexing decision directly on you and on me, which is where it belongs anyway.
     We must be our own masters.
     As the Buddha lay dying, his last words, according to legend, were:      
     “Everything is transitory. Nothing endures.
“Death is the end of the physical body. But the true Buddha is not a human body; it is enlightenment.     
“Throughout the wonderful years of my life I have withheld nothing from my teachings. There is no secret teaching. There is no hidden meaning.      
“The point of all my teachings is to control your own mind. Be the master of your own mind.
“Rely on yourselves. Do not depend on anyone else.”


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