Part Time Vegetarian

Monday July 19, 2010

Some fifteen years ago now, when I was in Indonesia, I was sitting on a tiny boat heading down the coast of a small island. The owner of the boat had thrown a line over the side which he was dragging behind the boat as it chugged southwards. Suddenly there was a tug on the line – a fish had bitten. It was a large fish, and it struggled like hell. And as I watched it struggle, I realised that I wanted to give up eating meat. It was as simple as that. When I wrote to my family to say I was coming home, I began with the words “Kill the fatted aubergine…” So began my life as a vegetarian.

My unease with the business of procuring flesh began much earlier. One summer, we went to stay with our relations in Scotland, and on one day – I must have been ten or eleven – we went fishing. I can remember sitting in a boat in the streaming rain as my cousin reeled in a fish and then killed it. I think I sobbed. This is not to say that I was an excessively sensitive child. I loved eating meat. But when brought face to face with the question of where the food I was eating came from, I was more uneasy.

More or less, since that time in Indonesia, I have been vegetarian. Not absolutely strict, but vegetarian all the same. But when I decided to come to China, I made the conscious choice that I would eat meat whilst I am here. Not, of course, all the time. In fact the way that it is more or less working out is that I am eating meat when I find myself a guest of other people, but when I order my own food, I try to avoid meat as much as possible. This is not quite as easy as back home. In the West, tofu and meat are like matter and anti-matter: it is as if, were they to be brought together on the same plate, they would automatically annihilate each other. In recognition of this fact, sensible restaurant owners and chefs avoid any mixing of the two in a single dish. But in China it is different. This evening, I ordered everyday home tofu (jiachang doufu 家常豆腐), but when it arrived it had strips of pork elegantly nestling amid the beany goodness.

How do I feel about this return to a meatier diet? From a lot of points of view, I simply prefer not to eat meat. But this is, as ever, a complex world in which there are all kinds of other things at stake. Given that I have neither the ability in Chinese nor the enthusiasm for enquiring about every last ingredient of what is placed before me, then it seems reasonable to order in good faith and to hope. Perhaps it could be said that I need more ethical rigour. But rigour is not the only thing in ethics, indeed I sometimes wonder if too much rigour is an unhelpful thing. Perhaps I need to be clearer about my principles, but my sense of ethics does not really work in terms of principles. I’m sure that when I return home at the end of the summer, I’ll revert to almost total vegetarianism. But for the time being, I have to say, that the jiachang doufu was pretty tasty…

# · flammschild

Your post reminds me of an interesting problem. According to some Pāli-sources, early followers of the Buddha were not supposed to live vegetarian. As they were living on alms they rather had to eat what came to the bowl, if they did not want to disappoint their donors.

But of course there were restrictions to the consummation of meat. In the Jīvakasutta (MN 55, engl. trans.: the Buddha makes clear that three conditions have to be met in order to eat meat: That the animal was killed especially for the Bhikkhu must a) not be seen (adiṭṭhaṃ), b) not be heared (asutaṃ) and c) not be suspected (aparisaṅkitaṃ) by the Bhikkhu.

But I wonder if somebody in our time could adopt this early Buddhist’s attitude in order to justify the ham on his sandwich. For sure this particular animal was not killed for any particular person at all, but for the consumer. Well, obviously the concept of a consumer is of doubtful ontological status. (Where does the consumer live?) But can I be sure, that I am in no way referred to by the term “consumer”? Maybe in a similar way that I am referred to by the term “the Germans”? (Does the plural make the difference here?)
And as long as I can’t answer the question whether “consumer” refers to me or not, must I suspect then that the animal, that this tasty ham comes from, was killed for me? (At least in a way?)

# · Zaidi Baraka

To name it is to possess it, and be possessed by it. We are all captives of our desires.

# · AnaVar

I don’t mind eating meat if I know that animal had a proper conditions to live in. I mostly buy a meat from a local farmer. However, I know that if everyone would do that, my farmer will soon have to use more industry and with more animals, they’ll also have less space.

# · Mathias

I think rigour and principles generally is unhelpful. We don’t need them to live life. I gave up calling myself a vegetarian about a year ago, having been eating no meat for almost 14 years, to me it seemed more like an ego thing to be “special” more than something that actually makes an ethical difference. I see no fault in eating meat as food. Although I still eat more vegetarian stuff than meat because I get a bit tired of it.

So in my view, your way of doing things seem healthy…

# · Anreal Perception

Sounds like an excellent way of engaging “ONE TASTE”.

If all is self, and self is empty … and furthermore, if all originates in the primordial purity of the mind … the question is “what is not pure?” “what is not RIGHT?”

when doing something out of personal choice rather than so-called ‘principles’ it is closer to the truth that ALL IS SELF … ethics become a very hazy human concept and in my opinion should be avoided completely … Though of course it all depends where on the ‘path’ we are. When walking the “lesser path” very strict rules about ‘ethics’ are necessary to stimulate compassion in people. When engaging Tantra, so-called ‘bad’ is transformed into ‘good’. However, when looking from “the view from which all other mountain peaks are visible” as in DZOGCHEN, there is no distinction between ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘pure and impure’.

Meat is not inherently bad, neither are people who eat it. Vegetables are not inherently good, neither are people who eat it. All of it is just the combination of the Five Lights, or to be more precise, SOUND, LIGHT and SENSATION.

“When all things turn to gold, nothing is more precious than anything else” that is the peak of ONE TASTE.

The first Buddha said “If you can remain aware for the time it takes an ant to walk from the tip of your nose to the bridge, it is worth more than a life time of accumulating merit (good deeds)”

Namkhai Norbu said: “When smoking your cigarette, just remain present and aware.”

Once you live in the NATURAL STATE OF THE MIND, everything you do is done with awareness, and rules of conduct fly out the window …

“Give up the disease of effort” and whatever you do, free from mental elaboration, is perfect, just as it is.

# · Bill

As I recall from my studies of Catholic theology, to be excessively scrupulous can be a sin of sorts. Certainly it does not constitute following the middle path for a Buddhist (or Buddish — thanks for that bit of terminology).

I believe I read that His Holiness eats meat when served, and that he enjoys it. I would sooner eat a nice steak myself than embarrass my hostess by refusing her efforts. The fact that I enjoy it is not an issue. It is a matter of interpersonal relationships. The same is true in other lands. We do what we can, but it is a greater ethical issue to insure that we do not offend.

# · Robert Ellis

I agree that “rigour is not the only thing in ethics”, and that principles such as vegetarianism and veganism need to be adapted to the conditions one finds oneself in. Nevertheless, I find the principle of vegetarianism (in my case, veganism) an extremely useful one. Firstly, adopting principles turns social expectation the other way – so that when one’s principles are known (assuming that they are respected) then people will assume that you are following them.

Secondly, it is often useful to stick one’s neck out and make a major nuisance of oneself. By doing this one raises awareness of the issue when it may not have existed before. The more vegans there are that make a fuss in restaurants, the more likely restaurants are to offer vegan options.

I think one also needs an incremental line of compromise on vegetarianism/ veganism, worked out in advance. Some kinds of compromise are better than others. Personally, I would much rather eat wild-caught fish or free-range eggs than either meat or dairy products. Meat and dairy products are virtually indistinguishable from a moral point of view, as the dairy industry and beef industries are interdependent and have similarly destructive environmental effects by taking up huge and unnecessary amounts of land, water, and energy.

As for the Chinese, I’m sure that if I was struggling to communicate in an alien cultural setting I would make similar compromises. However, it is the swelling Chinese and Indian middle classes that are mainly responsible for a huge rise in meat consumption at present, and this in turn makes a large contribution to the world food crisis, and the pricing of cereals out of the reach of the poorest, because they are being fed to animals. If there is anything you can do raise awareness of the effects of unnecessary meat-eating in China, it would be well worth doing!

# · Will

I think I agree entirely with this, Robert. But I’m not sure I’m ready to take on the rising Chinese middle classes just yet. India, I think, is a rather easier case, as there’s more cultural understanding of vegetarianism and even veganism.

It is sometimes, I think, good to be a major nuisance; but this is not really the role of a guest. Minor nuisances are a different matter, though…

# · Kathryn

It is a dilemma for us in this time when most of us live a life disconnected from where our food comes from, and, how it’s produced. Humans developed as omnivores, and, I think even the Great Apes eat meat at times (I could be misremembering this.)

For 2 reasons I am not vegetarian. First, I had a nutritionist (based on my blood type) and a medical intuitive tell me that I needed to eat more meat than I was eating at that time. And, neither of them told everyone this.

Second, the medical intuitive looked at me and told me that I don’t digest beans well. At that time, I was eating tofu twice a day for protein. That one statement explained why my gut was in turmoil. I now find that eating even a small amount of soy can start up the turmoil again. It would be hard to get enough protein if I can’t eat beans – or so I believe.

I would like to say that those of you who eat a lot of soy in its various forms might want to rethink this. There is evidence from a Harvard University study that suggests that soy can reduce sperm count. I have also read and been told that soy is actually very hard to digest, and, it is, in fact, one of the 8 major food allergens. A colonic therapist said that she had seen a lot of women whose guts had been screwed up by soy.

And, I would suggest that, women with a personal or family history of breast cancer, soy should not be a mainstay of a diet as it has a lot of concentrated phytoestrogens.

So, I try to buy organic and free range when I can afford it.

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