YOUTH IN FOCUS: I love animals and so I want to be a vegetarian. But my parents are strongly against it. They say eating meat is not the same as killing animals and so there is no bad karma. Also, they are worried that I will become weak and fall sick.
Animal lover, Bumthang
Well, as your parents are religious, I’ll give you the official Buddhist line about vegetarianism. At the time of the Buddha, monks used to beg for their food. They did not give advance notice to the house-holders who they would be visiting, and so the food offered them had already been prepared for the family to consume. That is to say, the meal was not organised with the monks in mind and so any meat in the food had not been killed specifically for them.
As it was considered important for people to gain merit and make a connection with the Buddha and his teachings, the monks accepted whatever they were offered without showing discrimination. Basically, whether the food was of high or low quality, tasty or bland or whether it contained or did not contain meat was not a consideration and everything was accepted with gratitude and eaten as sustenance. However, to uphold the purity of the offering, the monks were instructed to refuse food that contained the flesh of an animal, fish or bird that they had seen, heard or suspected had been killed specifically to make the offering. Although these rules were for the monks, they influenced lay Buddhists and so while killing was not accepted in the community, eating meat was.
Later, as Buddhism spread to East Asia, the monks no longer relied on begging for their sustenance, and instead they cultivated their own food and accepted provisions brought to the monastery by devotees. In such a situation, any meat received would definitely have contravened the rule of deliberately causing the death of an animal to make an offering. As a result, meat-eating was totally prohibited. In addition, the Buddhist texts that are used in East Asia contain specific rules that forbid the eating of meat. Therefore, Buddhists in Taiwan, China and such places are mostly vegetarian.
Where does this leave you? Well, if your aim is to prevent physical suffering and save lives, then giving up hamburgers for veggie burgers is definitely a practical way to lessen the number of animals slaughtered. Think about it. Even if we did not directly cause the death of the animal whose flesh we are eating, meat bought from a shop will definitely be replaced. In this way, we are perpetuating an industry of slaughter and suffering.
Still, we should not be self-righteous and consider that vegetarians are superior to meat-eaters, nor should we become fanatical about vegetarianism. Food is very much part of a country’s culture and so people who eat meat do so out of habit, not with the intention of harming other living beings.
In reality, if we really want to benefit animals or humans (don’t forget that we are also animals) on a profound level, our action should be rooted in bodhicitta. Sometimes people mistake bodhicitta as another word for compassion, but it is more than just being kind. It is actually the compassionate wish to attain enlightenment to benefit others. Ok, I know this sounds complicated and so I’ll try to explain it simply.
Basically, suffering is part of life. Whether a person is rich or poor, famous or unknown, they will at some time suffer the pain of sickness and death, the grief of loss due to change and also dissatisfaction due to expectations that cannot be met. The Buddha discovered this truth while meditating under the bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya. In addition to realising that life naturally contains suffering, he also understood that we can go beyond suffering. Basically, in the same way that a doctor prescribes medicine and a diet plan to help a sick person regain their health, the Buddha devised a path to enable people to abandon suffering and its causes. An essential ingredient of this path is bodhicitta. As an example, think of a burning house. Our aim is to quickly get to safety, but then we realise that the other inhabitants are also in danger and so we work to evacuate every living being before we ourselves jump to safety. This is the mind of bodhicitta, which is perhaps best expressed in this stanza by Shantideva:
For as long as space remains
And as long as sentient beings remain
Until then may I too remain
To dispel the suffering of all beings.
Definitely, becoming a vegetarian is a way to reduce suffering on the planet, but if you really want to help beings to completely abandon suffering and its causes, you should develop bodhicitta, generate wisdom and dedicate merit gained from compassionate acts.
In your case, you can do this by arousing the mind of bodhicitta before taking a meat-free meal or perhaps combine it with a vow to avoid meat at the beginning of each day. Later, as you consume the food you can consider how the vegetables grew through the combination of warmth from sunlight, moisture from rain and nutrition from soil. You can extend this logic and contemplate how everything in the universe is likewise composed of other factors and that actually nothing is solid and permanent. After completing the meal or at the end of the day, you can dedicate the merit: “I dedicate whatever virtue results from my actions to all sentient beings. May they be forever free of suffering and the causes of suffering.”
When we perform a benevolent act, it is like a drop or water. It is beneficial, but will soon dry up. On the other hand, if we add the drop to the ocean, it will increase and never disappear until the ocean runs dry. Likewise, merit that is dedicated to the ultimate happiness of all sentient beings is multiplied billions of times and remains until this aim is achieved. This webpage contains more detailed information of how to arouse bodhicitta and dedicate merit:
Regarding health, if you merely remove meat from your diet and eat the same food minus meat, you may become weak. To stay healthy, you need to ensure that your meals contain sufficient protein and include vitamin B12. In this respect, you can increase your consumption of nuts, seeds, soy products, cereal and dairy products. Eggs are also a good source of vitamin B12 and protein. Dishes like rajma dahl or those made with natural cheese and tofu are great to fulfill your daily requirements of proteins and vitamins. Also, include iron rich foods, such as dark green leafy vegetables and dried fruit in your diet. You don’t need to spend time worrying about these matters. If you eat fresh fruit, a variety of vegetables, grains/beans and some dairy products, you should be fine. I’ve been a veggie since my teens and I have never felt weak or suffered any diet-related illnesses.
Basically, there is no need to be concerned about your health. Also, if you infuse your wish to give up meat with the practice of bodhicitta, your religious-minded parents will be happy.
For your reference, here is Buddhist vegetarian resource website: