Day 17: His Holiness on Vegetarianism

Day 17: His Holiness on Vegetarianism

Arya Kshema Spring Dharma Teachings:

17th Gyalwang Karmapa on The Life of the Eighth Karmapa Mikyö Dorje

March 13th, 2021

Following the opening prayers, His Holiness extended his warm greetings to all the teachers at the various monasteries, lamas, tulkus, students from the shedras, and,in particular, the nuns in the nunneries, as well as all of his male and female dharma friends who were watching the live webcast.

Continuing yesterday’s teaching, His Holiness went on to speak about the topic of whether it is appropriate to eat meat and the three ways in which meat is considered pure.

Buddha established rules and taught his monastic students that their food should not be too luxurious and that they should live off alms. Going for alms entailed the danger that faithful sponsors would kill animals for the sake of the Sangha. Henceforth, Buddha set up certain rules regarding eating meat that is pure in three ways, such as not allowing his students to eat meat from an animal that had been specifically killed for them. 

In Indian society at that time, the Buddha faced criticism for allowing his monastic students to eat meat. The criticism came from those who were vegetarian, such as the Jains, other non-Buddhists, and even from some of his own followers. And the main person making this dispute was Devadatta. 

Devadatta was the Buddha’s cousin, the son of his uncle Amritodana. Having joined the Buddhist monastic community, he later became competitive with the Buddha and eventually separated from the Sangha. He established his own monastic community and philosophical school, and even after he had passed away, his followers continued to uphold his tradition. During the 4th and 5th century, when the Chinese monks Faxian and Xuanzang went to India, Devadatta’s dharma tradition still existed. In their travel notes they wrote that in Devadatta’s tradition people went for refuge to the three Buddhas of the past Kanakamuni, Kashyapa and Krakucchamda, but not to Buddha Shakyamuni. That tradition was still present until the 8th century. 

While the Buddha was still in this world, Devadatta caused a schism in the Wheel of the Sangha, which means that the Buddhist monastics split into two fractions. Moreover, Devadatta drew blood from the Buddha’s body with malicious intent, which means he actually intended to murder the Buddha, which he tried to accomplish in different ways. He thus had committed one of the heinous acts – which lead to immediate karmic retribution. Hence, according to the Foundation Vehicle scriptures, as soon as Devadatta passed away, he was reborn in hell. However, according to the Mahayana Avatamsaka Sutra, there is a prophecy that Devadatta would awaken to buddhahood in the future. Some of the Mahayana sutras state that Devadatta appeared as the Buddha’s competitor in order to show the Buddha’s greatness, and that he was actually an emanation to show beings what would happen to them if they committed any of the heinous acts.  However, Devadatta suggested that the Buddha should instate five additional precepts, including a total prohibition on eating meat; the Buddha did not accept them and consequently the Buddhist monastic students split into two fractions. The majority followed Devadatta. 

Regarding the five austerities, there are different assertions according to the Vinaya tradition of the different schools. One can find clear descriptions of them in the Fifty Verses of the Vinaya in the Tibetan tradition as well as the great commentaries on the Vinaya. 

Although there are different ways in which the five austerities are listed, they all  include vegetarianism. While the Buddha was still on this Earth, he did not say to his monastic students that they should not eat any meat at all but that they should only eat meat which is pure in three ways. Devadatta, on the other hand, said that they should entirely refrain from eating meat and practice pure vegetarianism. 

Bhavaviveka in his Blaze of Reasoning and later masters, too, said that if one followed the Foundation Vehicle, one should eat meat, because by not doing so one might practice austerities in the same way as Devadatta had suggested. 

His Holiness then recalled a text on the Vinaya by Amalamitra and the Great Exposition, one of the root texts of the four philosophical schools [Great Exposition School, Sutra School, Mind Only School and Middle Way School]. What it basically says is that among the Buddha’s disciples, Mahakashyapa was the one with the greatest contentment and the greatest attainment. And the one who was the most careful about food and had the strongest conduct, was Bakula. The difference between the two was that Mahakashyapa would eat any alms, no matter whether they were good or bad, whereas when Bakula received better food, he would give it up and eat only the worse food. Later, the great masters of the Great Exposition School explained this in different ways. They gave the reason why Bakula would not eat the better food as this type of food would include meat or elaborate preparations. And if food included meat, then this entailed the killing of sentient beings, which is to say that they were made from the flesh and blood of animals. Out of his compassion, he would decline to eat those offerings. 

The question in this regard is: When Bakula went on alms round, did he accept those better food offerings and throw them away later or did he just not accept them in the first place? If he did not accept them, then he would have gone against the Buddha’s rules, according to which his monastic disciples were not supposed to make any choices when receiving alms. If, on the other hand, one would accept an offering but later throw it away, then there would be the fault of wasting it. 

So, what did Bakula do? Bakula is said to have had the divine eye and during alms round, he could - with his clairvoyance – see those donors with the worst alms and go straight to them. Therefore, he did not accumulate any fault for wasting food and so forth.  

Likewise, it says in the Angulimalasutra that Mahakashyapa dwelled in the twelve qualities of training and also had a pure vegetarian practice. When we look at different quotes, we can understand that during the time of the Buddha, many monastics had a vegetarian diet. For instance, the Sangha members from Brahmin families had for generations not eaten meat and thus were unable to eat it. His Holiness does not think that the Buddha ruled that those uncomfortable eating meat would have to eat meat. 

Devadatta established the rule of entirely abstaining from meat primarily because of his motivation. Devadatta, being the Buddha’s cousin, was proud and thought that he was his equal. Feeling very competitive towards him, he disputed the rule of the Buddha’s rule of  allowing meat that is pure in three ways. He thought to make an even better rule and out of pride and competitiveness established his own. Did he make them out of compassion for the animals? This is difficult to say. Devadatta thought that he would not allow his followers to eat meat in order to be regarded more highly by the people, as the eating of meat was considered to entail the harming of sentient beings. Thus, some of Devadatta’s motivation for giving up meat was mistaken and making this new rule was hardly done out of a great sense of compassion for animals.  

During the time of early Buddhism and the spreading of the eighteen philosophical schools, most Buddhists said that one should only eat meat that is pure in three ways. Later on, from the time when the Mahayana tradition flourished in India, especially during the period of the Great Parinirvana Sutra, the Travels to Lanka Sutra, the Sutra of Benefitting Angulimala, the Noble Cloud of Jewels Sutra, the Elephant Strength Sutra, the Great Cloud Sutra, and in particular the essence sutras that teach about buddha-nature — mention that eating even meat that is pure in the three ways is inappropriate. Thus, the teachings about practicing vegetarianism became prevalent.  

In Mahayana, we should think about all sentient beings as if they were our parents, and if you really think of them as your fathers and mothers, not just mouthing it but feeling it within your heart, then it would be really difficult to eat their flesh. Likewise, if we eat sentient beings’ flesh, then this would stain our minds and our minds would become more hardened and eventually, we would have less loving-kindness and compassion.  

Particularly in the essence sutras, it is taught that all sentient beings have buddha-nature and for this reason one should not eat their flesh. His Holiness the Karmapa suggested at that point that if one wished to read more about that topic, one might want to refer to the above mentioned Mahayana sutras. 

In Chinese, there is a sutra called The Omniscient Sage not Eating Meat out of Compassion. That means that during the time of Maitreya, compassion was primarily emphasized, and if monastics at that time ate meat, they would incur a defeat and lose their vows. That is a prophecy that the Buddha is said to have made.                                 

In the Mahayana tradition, most sutras that prohibit the eating of meat were taught during the Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma. Maitreya is the one who teaches buddha-nature and who wrote treatises such as The Sublime Continuum.

When we look at the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the reason eating meat that is pure in three ways was permitted was in order to become vegetarian in stages instead of doing it immediately. It is not a rule saying that one should eat meat. Whether it is a historical fact that people actually practiced accordingly, is difficult to say. However, followers of the Foundation Vehicle Schools would not accept that, according to the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, one should not eat meat after the Buddha’s passing away, because it was a Mahayana sutra.   

In Questions and Answers with Jangdak Namgyal Draksang, (a king in Tibet, particularly learned in the astrology of Kalachakra; an emanation of Pema Karpo, or White Lotus.), Lord Gendun Drup states that in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, monastics were not allowed to eat meat after the Buddha’s passing into Nirvana and that the sutra was primarily meant for Mahayana monastics. 

According to the Mahayana, meat was prohibited out of compassion at that time. The counter-argument is that farming itself kills many sentient beings such as insects. In the Angulimala Sutra  Manjushri, puts this argument to the Buddha: As many people maintain you should not eat meat because it harms sentient beings, then surely one should also not be allowed to plough fields.  And one should also not be allowed to use water for cooking  because it would harm sentient beings. Buddha replied that this is a worldly way of thinking. If this were to be the case, then -  lay people need to engage in farming in order to produce food – without them, no one would not be able to achieve buddhahood. There are living beings in the ground, in the water and in the air. It  would be impossible to avoid incurring a misdeed and harming sentient beings. 

One thing to consider in this context, His Holiness stressed, is the fact that for the sake of meat, sentient beings are specifically killed, whereas insects are not killed intentionally when ploughing fields; this difference needs to be understood.  Thinking too narrowly, we would not be allowed to do anything and could not actually put that into practice.

In brief, in the Mahayana the emphasis lies on love and compassion for sentient beings, and in the respective Mahayana sutras, the eating of meat is prohibited, because of which most monastics in Mahayana countries became vegetarians. 

For example in China, the practice of vegetarianism began about 500 years after Buddhism spread to China. Before that, monastics practiced vegetarianism if they wished, they did not necessarily have to give up meat. Subsequently, there was a great movement to give up meat and the person who was leading that movement was the Emperor Wu of Liang, who lived in the 6th century (502-549 CE). He had great faith in Buddhism, went forth as a monastic three times and spent a lot of time reading Buddhist scriptures. When he was reading the Mahayana sutras, he saw many of those statements that emphasize abstaining from eating meat out of love and compassion for sentient beings. This influenced him greatly and he established rules that prohibited the sacrifice of meat in temples and medicine made from animal products. Moreover, he used the Mahayana sutras as a basis for writing a letter that said that monastics should not eat meat. He also specifically invited 198 male and female monastics to come to the palace in order to discuss the issue of whether, according to the Mahayana, eating meat was appropriate. The emperor had prepared over fifty questions and asked the upholders of the Vinaya to respond. Because of him, vegetarianism spread greatly throughout the country and among the monastics.

In Tibet, some people argue that vegetarianism is a Chinese Buddhist practice not a Tibetan one. However, vegetarianism in Tibet is not something new. Generally, problems of geography and altitude and lack of technology have made it very difficult to give up meat and grow vegetables in Tibet. The primary practice among monastics was to eat meat which was pure in three ways. 

Later on, after many generations and years had passed, the rules grew lax, and people started to eat any meat that was available. Monasteries had slaughterhouses or ordered animals to be killed. Thus, there were many situations that were inappropriate and contradictory to the Vinaya. That was the main reason why many great beings, such as Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen, Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo, Shabgar Tsogdruk Rangdrol,, Nyala Pema Dundul, Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen,  the 14th Dalai Lama, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok and others gave up eating meat and spoke out in favor of a vegetarian diet . 

Now, in the 21st century, most monasteries in and outside Tibet have stopped serving meat in their community kitchens, many members of the Sangha have become vegetarians, and there are different vegetarian movements in Tibetan society.                

Of course, people have different opinions in this regard and many issues need to be researched. In any case, His Holiness thinks that vegetarians criticizing meat eaters and meat eaters speaking badly about vegetarians, even getting into disputes, is not good. Thus, if we practice vegetarianism but our motivation is not wholesome, we become just like Devadatta whose act of giving up meat became a non-Dharmic action. We should be careful about our motivation!

After the break, His Holiness continued by speaking about the innumerable Kagyu forefathers who gave a good example, such as Milarepa. The collected works, tell how he was at Nyanang Belly Cave with Rechungpa, who would not listen to his advice. Rechungpa had thoughts of the eight worldly dharmas, and when Milarepa told him to give them up, Rechungpa argued that the Dharma texts say that if one has given up his homeland, which he already had done, one would have accomplished half of the Dharma practice. Milarepa replied that these were just words and did not have much benefit; he gave him many instructions but they did not help Rechungpa very much.

One day, Milarepa and Rechungpa went to a market in the Nyanang valley in order to beg for food. The market was primarily butchers so there were stacks of meat, piles of animals’ heads, blood, animals to be killed and so forth. In the centre was a butcher. One way to slaughter animals is to suffocate them, the Karmapa explained. Another method id to slit their bellies open and sever the artery to the heart. While the butcher attempting to slaughter a sheep using the latter method, the animal escaped, running around with its intestines hanging out. It ran to Milarepa for protection, and died right there. Milarepa felt such great compassion that he wept. He immediately did transference of consciousness for the sheep, placing it onto the bodhisattava path. Out of his great compassion he sang this song: 

E MA! Sentient beings of samsara,
Look to the path of liberation.
Alas! These here with such negativity—such a shame!
Ignorant of karma in this human birth with leisures,
How devastating is this killing of beings!
How regrettable to have such self-delusion!
How shameful, indeed, to kill one’s parents!
What’s to be done with this stacking of killed flesh?
What to do with all this pooling of blood?
Eating meat, however hungry one is;
Such confused perception, thinking anything;
Such negativity without any compassion;
Delusive ignorance that’s obscured everything;
What can be done with such cultivation of negativity?
Giving torment however they please;
Such wickedness of those who act this way;
How shameful! Oh, such sadness and heartache!
So busy with negativity in all that they do,
Later, they won’t remember a single moment.
When I see such people, I fear for them.
I think of those with such negative conduct, and I am disturbed.
Rechungpa, doesn’t it make you think of the sublime dharma?
If it does, then give rise to sadness and disillusionment.
If you meditate, go to mountain retreats.
If you contemplate, contemplate the guru’s kindness.
If you escape something, escape from the root of nonvirtue.
If you let go of something, let go of mundane deeds.
If you keep something, keep your promise to practice.
If you understand, then bring your life to the dharma.

Essentially, His Holiness commented, the song is telling us to look at all sentient beings with compassion. We have to stop fooling ourselves. We need to realise these are our parent sentient beings that are dying. People eat meat with no compunction at all.

His Holiness shared that he had found this song very helpful personally.

After Rechungpa had seen that sheep dying in the market, he felt some world-weariness and the wish for liberation. He told Milarepa that now he would really give up the eight worldly dharmas, give up wicked food and stay in the mountains.                                

There were many people at the butchers’ market who felt faith and who gave them many offerings; but as the offerings were mainly meat, Milarepa and Rechungpa did not accept them and subsequently went to Lachi.

When we think about the Kagyu forefather Gampopa and his students, such as Pakmodrukpa and his disciples, many Kagyu forefathers practiced vegetarianism.  Likewise, in the Karma Kamtsang tradition, from the 4th Karmapa Rolpai Dorje up until the 10th Karmapa Choeying Dorje, there was a strict rule against eating meat, in the Garchen and also in the Kamtsang monasteries. Vegetarians were considered very highly and praised.

 The non-sectarian master the First Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye wrote:

For me, the weight of offerings is definitely a large burden, but by the kindness of the teachings of the Great Sage, and in particular because of encountering this Secret Mantra Vajrayana, my root vows and samaya are unbroken. There is no way not to violate the secondary ones, but it is illogical to think the methods of confession are unimportant. Though there is no hope of totally purity, it is possible to achieve a mere human body, and I have prayed that at that time I be reborn in a land where it is not necessary to eat meat. 

He made confessions again and again. Having no hopes to be born in a pure land, he nevertheless thought it possible to achieve a human body, and he made aspirations to be born in a place where it would not be necessary to eat meat.  There are many such examples, His Holiness commented. 

During the Buddha's time, monastics practiced exactly as had been taught in the Vinaya, as they had all the facilities needed to do this. But these days the monastic way of life has changed greatly from how it was during the time of the Buddha. Other than in a few Theravada countries or countries of the Southern Transmission, in Tibetan Buddhism and the traditions of the Northern Transmission,  the tradition of daily alms rounds ceased a long time ago. Meals are prepared in the monasteries for the Sangha. Consequently, a lot of provisions need to be bought and stored as well, and if a monastery needed to buy a large amount of meat for the monastics, it would be difficult to say whether it was pure in the three ways or not. 

During the time of the Buddha, however, when the monastics went on alms round, they would just take what had been offered to them and they had no control over it. When we buy food for the Sangha these days, it is under our control; we have the choice. 

In the past, when the monks and nuns in the monasteries ate meat, butchers’ shops were opened near that monastery and when the monastics stopped eating meat, the butchers’ shops would close quickly. Thus, the lifestyle of the monastics at the Buddha’s time and now has hugely changed, and we need to understand this.

His Holiness then shared that when he was a young nomad, he really liked meat. Once a year, Chinese butchers would come and slaughter the animals. Yet, when His Holiness saw the animals being suffocated, because they did not die immediately sweat broke out all over their bodies, he would scream and jump up and down. So later, when they were going to butcher the animals, they knew to take him somewhere else, away from the scene.  When the meat was cooked and served, he would eat it because it was the custom to do so; not only did he eat it, His Holiness admitted, he enjoyed it. Tshurpu monastery, His Holiness went on to share, had delicious dried meat. And when he got to India, he thought that Indian meat had not much flavor. In Tibet, he never ate goat, yet in India he was served goat meat a few times. 

His Holiness explained that his attitude changed after he saw a video in which animals were slaughtered. It was no longer possible for him to eat meat, and he made the decision to give it up entirely. He realised that in this lifetime he is in the position where he does not need to take the life of another sentient being in order to live. As there is no guarantee that this state will continue into future lifetimes, His Holiness made the aspiration that he would never be born in a body where he needs to take the lives of other sentient beings, and composed a verse which said. If we think of the sufferings of sentient beings under the sky, then I do not want to separate them from my life, and I need to give up eating meat. 

He did not intend to encourage people to eat a vegetarian diet and thought it best for people to decide for themselves rather than telling them to do so. Then, in Bodhgaya, on the last day of the Kagyu Monlam in 2004, a vegetarian group asked His Holiness to speak about the importance of a vegetarian diet and encourage people to give up meat. In his talk, the Karmapa advised that the best option was to give up meat entirely for life. Alternatively, if that is not possible, try not to eat meat at least once a week, or at the very least, once a month. He stressed the importance of showing some interest in giving up meat. His Holiness did not think that many people would be keen to follow his advice, yet after he had spoken on the subject, half of the people attending the Monlam raised their hands, wanting to give up meat for the rest of their lives. 

Reaction to His Holiness’ vegetarianism was mixed. He was told that to give up eating meat would damage his health, because he was from a country where the consumption of meat is widespread. Others argued that being the Karmapa, he would make an important connection with those living beings whose meat he consumed, and that he would be able to guide all those sentient beings to the pure land of Sukhavati or another good rebirth.  His Holiness wryly commented that as he was not even able to guide himself to a pure realm, how could he possibly bring anybody else there?

It has been at least ten years now, His Holiness continued, that he has been eating an entirely vegetarian diet. And when it comes to the difference to eating meat versus a vegetarian diet, His Holiness stated that due to a vegetarian diet, his compassion and empathy for other sentient beings has grown and that he has more feelings for the suffering of sentient beings. Eating meat, one would generally not really think about how that affects those living beings whose meat one is consuming. 

There is a Tibetan saying: The compassionate eat meat and those with samaya drink alcohol. It reflects the idea that eating the meat of an animal and reciting the mantras of the buddhas as well as making aspirations for them, would benefit those sentient beings. There are texts that describe how to recite mantras and the names of the buddhas when eating meat. However, Drukpa Kunley said that it is best not to eat meat and that it is difficult to eat meat compassionately. His Holiness then shared a story about Drukpa Kunley:                                                                                      

At one time, Drukpa Kunley went to a region in which there was a great drought, the crops did not grow properly and the people there had a difficult time because of a great famine. One family—father, mother and son— had a really difficult time as they had nothing to eat. The parents initially thought that as they were already quite old, if one of them were to die, their son could eat their flesh and be able to live a little longer. The son, however, could not bear the thought of either of his parents dying, so he decided it would be better to die himself so that his parents had his flesh to eat. Finally, the son committed suicide and left a note which said that he had died so that his parents would not need to die of hunger, and urged his parents to eat his meat, otherwise there would be no point in his death. Thus, the parents had no choice but to eat their son’s flesh. While they were eating, the flesh was tasteless and they wept continuously.

Making the connection to the Mahayana tradition, His Holiness stated that there are no sentient beings that have not been your mother. Thus, one has to think of all sentient beings as one’s father and mother. If we think in this way, it becomes impossible to eat one’s father’s or mother’s flesh, even in the most desperate of situations. And even if there were no other choice, how could there be any taste to it? Tears would flow down our cheeks. We might claim to eat compassionately, but where is our compassion? We might initially say a short prayer, but then immediately we start wolfing down the food, without any feeling or restraint. 

On the other hand, it is not necessarily true to say that someone lacks compassion on the grounds that they eat meat. There are in fact many great beings who eat meat and we certainly cannot say that they lack compassion. Sometimes, we take those great beings as a model when it comes to eating meat, but our actions are not the same as those great beings. We cannot know what qualities of abandonment and realization great beings have. We are not at their level yet so we cannot take them as a model for our own actions, it would just not be the same. The saying “the compassionate eat meat” may sound good, but in fact it is not easy to both feel compassion and eat meat.

Giving up meat does not need to depend on Buddhist texts or logic. Even ordinary people who do not practice the Dharma become vegetarian; they do not need quotes from scripture and can give up meat easily. To illustrate this, His Holiness jokingly said: “If you need to go to the bathroom, do you need any scriptures and logic to prove that you need to go to the bathroom? You don’t!”   If an ordinary person thinks well, they understand why they should practice vegetarianism. On You Tube, for example, we can find videos in which little children aged four or five state they do not eat meat. When they understand that animals need to be killed in order to produce meat, they refuse to eat it. However, nowadays, because the meat is wrapped up and sold in supermarkets, many children do not realise that meat comes from killing animals. But if they learn that animals were killed to produce the meat, most children will not eat it. His Holiness pointed out that if we need to use scriptures and logic as proof to make us do something that ordinary beings can easily understand, it is actually a bit of a disgrace. 

His Holiness then explained that there are basically two types of people who do not eat meat: those who refrain from eating meat for their own sake, and those who give it up for the sake of other living beings and the environment.

In general, Buddhism is often associated with loving-kindness, compassion, non-violence and peace. That is the impression most people have of Buddhism or Buddhists. If, as a Buddhist, one eats a lot of meat, then people may wonder what is going on. We need to know what others’ opinions are and not merely focus on our own thoughts and habits. Particularly, in the Mahayana tradition, the primary work is to liberate all beings from suffering and bring them to happiness which shows in the aspirations that we make, such as, “May all sentient beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering …” Harming sentient beings for food is in contradiction with those aspirations and is something we really need to think about, His Holiness stressed. To eat meat or not is nothing complicated or profound like the concept of emptiness or selflessness; anybody can easily understand it. 

Going back to the topic of meat that is pure in three ways, His Holiness explained that if we look at the Vinaya, there are specific reasons given why meat should be pure in three ways. Rice, on the other hand, is never mentioned. A piece of meat and a cup of rice are very different. When it comes to eating meat, the way we usually think is that we ourselves have not killed the animal, nor do we think that we ordered someone else to kill that animal for our sake. At that point, His Holiness emphasized that apart from not doing any misdeed ourselves, we also need to consider others who commit misdeeds and think about what we can do for them. 

The impact of eating meat on living beings and the environment

His Holiness used statistics and information he had gleaned from various sources.

He first mentioned the Oxford University website www. Our World in Data in which data collected from 1968-2018 is summarized. The data shows that during a period of fifty years from 1968 to 2018, the world production of livestock tripled. In 2018, just one single year, there were 346 million tons of livestock production, that is, for the purpose of meat. That includes 69 billion chickens, 1.5 billion pigs, 574 million sheep, 479 million goats, and 302 million cattle. 

If we explain those totals differently, if we count only the livestock slaughtered in the year 2018 and do not consider fish and seafood, the number of animals slaughtered was ten times greater than the total human population in the world. 

In a single day in the entire world, a minimum of 190 million animals are slaughtered. At least 4.1 million pigs are slaughtered. At least 1.57 million sheep are killed, most of which are killed as lambs less than a year old, and some before they even reach two months. 1.3 million goats are slaughtered. As goats are primarily raised for milk production, billy goats are slaughtered as soon as they are born. Similarly, 1 million cattle are slaughtered every day. 

According to the website www.cowspiracy.coma total of 6 million animals are slaughtered for human consumption every hour. 

This is just livestock, not counting seafood and fish. According to the World Economic Forum, in 2016, the total world production of seafood was 155 million tons. This does not include ‘by-catch”, fish that are caught and thrown back into the sea, and it does not include molluscs and shellfish.

Food wastage 

If one thinks that all the tens of millions of animals slaughtered were used properly and destined for human consumption, then that is a childish way of thinking. In actual fact, how many animals die meaninglessly? According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2015 annual report, 1/3 of the total world food production is spoiled or wasted. Within that, 1/5 of all meat is wasted.

This, His Holiness commented, was just to give a summary of how many animals are being slaughtered. 

The cruelty of animal husbandry 

His Holiness added that we also need to take into consideration how all those animals are being raised and cared for before being slaughtered, when and how they are killed. These are all terrifying thoughts, their suffering is hard to describe and we may not even dare to talk about it. We might assume that these animals are well-looked after before being slaughtered, that they are well-fed, can roam around freely like in Tibet and so forth, and think that they have some freedom; however, this is not the way it is for the majority. If we could actually see with our own eyes how those animals are being raised and slaughtered, His Holiness is convinced, we would then not dare to eat meat or meat would have no flavor.

The environmental impact

Water: Moreover, His Holiness stressed that it is also very important to think about the impact that meat production has on our environment. For example, in the entire world, almost 345 trillion liters of water are used for livestock production in the entire the world. The entire human population uses 8.6 trillion liters of water for household use. So the amount of water used for livestock would provide drinking water for the entire human population for forty years. 

To produce one pound of beef requires 11,000 liters of water. To explain that from another angle, it requires 3550 liters of water to produce the beef for one hamburger. That is the amount of water it takes for one person to shower daily for half a year. 

1/3 of the drinkable water on the Earth is used for livestock. Every day, all the humans on the Earth drink 25.6 billion liters of water, but the water drunk by all the cattle kept on the Earth is 250 billion liters. Thus, the total amount of water drunk by cattle is more than nine times the total amount drunk by humans. Each day, the human population of Earth combined eat 9.5 billion kilos of food, but just the cattle on the Earth eat 61 billion kilos of animal feed, so more than 6 times as much as humans. 

Land useOver half of the entire Earth’s available land is used for livestock. 

In brief, livestock is the primary destroyer of wildlife, the source of the depletion of oceans, water pollution, and the destruction of biodiversity. 

WasteA feedlot with 2500 cattle produces as much waste as a city with a population of 410,000 people. In the US, the amount of waste from livestock is 130 times as much as the waste produced by humans. The waste produced by livestock in the US alone is probably 52,600 kilos per minute. That is the weight of 35 cars.

Food Inequality: There are many children in the world who do not have enough food and are malnourished. These children live in countries where most of the food is fed to the animals, which in turn are used to supply rich western countries. 

Greenhouse Gases: When we look at the data from the World Environmental Organization, we have greenhouse gases around the world, causing global warming. 18% of the greenhouse gas emissions come from animal agriculture and livestock. These are more greenhouse gases than those that are produced by all the cars, airplanes, trucks, trains, boats, and other forms of transportation in the world. Thus, there is a lot of environmental destruction caused by livestock production. 

Concluding today’s teachings, His Holiness made these final remarks: 

There are many different reasons for giving up meat and becoming vegetarian. Whether or not you have faith in the Dharma, there is a lot to think about when looking at the actual situation in the world. However, you have to be very skillful about giving up meat and practice vegetarianism. You have to look at your own physical health and need to practice in a way that matches your health. To give up meat and become a vegetarian should be something that you want to do and decide for yourself; to think that the Buddha or the guru said you should become a vegetarian and follow that tradition without really wanting to, is not the way to go about it, because you should see the reasons and the purpose to give up meat for yourself and really wish to do so. 

The crux of the matter is that a lot of people are really attached to the taste of meat, because of which they think they cannot give it up. In the Vinaya, it is primarily about giving up attachment, while in the Mahayana there is the danger of harming sentient beings out of one’s attachment to the taste of meat, thus it is prohibited.    

In general, giving up meat is good. Whether one is able to give it up, depends on one’s health, environment and so forth. One should practice in accordance with one’s situation. Also, giving up meat and becoming attached to that, is not good either. Giving up meat for the sake of protecting other sentient beings is something we should do, but there is no reason to become conceited about it. Nor should we look down on or disparage others who have not given up meat, as there lies the danger of turning towards the austerities as proclaimed by Devadatta, who wanted to diminish the Buddha, and had a mistaken motivation. Likewise, those who are not able to give up meat should not disparage those who follow a vegetarian diet and get into arguments. We should not only consider the way we think about things but also take others’ viewpoints into consideration.


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2021.03.13 Day 17: His Holiness on Vegetarianism