Burgers for Buddhists
Reflections on Animals, Religion,
By Gene Sager
After visiting a new Buddhist temple in San
Francisco, I scouted the neighborhood for a restaurant. A funky sign nearby
caught my eye: “Burgers for Buddhists.” I asked why all the burgers on the menu
were vegetarian; the chief cook/owner explained, saying, “Buddhists don’t eat
meat, period.” This sounded like an oversimplification, and I decided to revisit
and expand my research on this issue. Along the way, there have been lessons to
be learned about other religions as well.
Buddhism is the leading Asian religion in the
world today. It has spread effectively into more Asian countries than have
Hinduism and Taoism. And in Europe and the U.S., it has more non-Asian
adherents than the other Asian religions. Like all religions with long
histories, it has undergone many changes. The number and diversity of
Buddhist groups rival Protestant Christianity, and Buddhists disagree on
many individual and social issues. No surprise, then, that some Buddhists
are vegetarian and some are not.
Despite the diversity that develops in
religious traditions, there are common threads that are retained. Some
threads are distinct principles or virtues; others are themes, or what I
call “atmospheres.” The key virtue in Buddhism is compassion (karuna). It
is the fundamental value that runs deep and connects intimately with all the
other teachings. The Four Noble Truths focus on the relief of suffering, and
it is out of compassion that one pursues this relief. Buddhism calls for
compassion for “all sentient beings” – all beings who experience pleasure
and pain – i.e., humans and animals. We accrue good karma (good feeling or
contentment) by practicing compassion, and bad karma by failing to do so. If
we cause unnecessary suffering, then deep down we feel some form of inner turbulence or discontent.
Everyone is aware of
the Buddhist goal of inner calm, an atmosphere of tranquility that pervades
Buddhist culture from the Indian images of the founder to Japanese landscape
gardens. It was this peacefulness that attracted me to Buddhism when I lived
in Japan. I came to realize that the practice of compassion has gradually
increased my contentment and inner peace.
So, does this practice of
compassion call for a vegetarian diet? Food issues today necessarily involve
a range of interconnected aspects: treatment of livestock, use of natural
resources, environmental impacts, grazing, economics, efficiency, shortages/
Meat Production in the United States
In our culture, we have created a
double standard for treatment of animals, basically dividing animals into
two separate castes: pets and livestock. Supported by a huge pet products
industry, we are encouraged to give our pets the royal treatment. Special
toys, grooming, and “laser teeth cleaning” is just the beginning. The local
veterinary clinic near my home offers stem cell regeneration therapy for
arthritis. Livestock do not receive such treatment. The double standard is
in evidence in the concern or lack of concern shown to animals in vehicles.
In hot summer months, pet owners are chastised harshly if their animals are
left panting in a hot car. A suffering pet in a parking lot is a scandal. By
contrast, virtually no one pays attention to or complains about the transfer
of livestock. Cattle cars in trains or semis loaded with cattle are cramped
and the animals are vulnerable to extremes of heat or cold on the way to a
feedlot or slaughter house.
Media sources invite and play upon interest
in pets, as our local TV weather man regularly shows pictures of sad-eyed
dogs and makes appeals for adoption. Perhaps we are showing our compassion
for animals in this way? Clearly, our compassion does not extend to the
millions of animals on factory farms, however. Today, most meat production
involves extreme confinement of animals and grossly inhumane treatment –
treatment that we don’t see or care to see. Factory farming is now the norm
in North America and is reportedly growing rapidly in the U.K.
“The number and diversity of Buddhist
groups rival Protestant Christianity, and Buddhists disagree on many
individual and social issues. No surprise, then, that some Buddhists
are vegetarian and some are not.”
this form of industrial food production have called these confinement
centers “concentration camps,” and I am afraid the term is appropriate. The
animals are trapped in tiny cages or stalls (22” wide for veal calves) or
cramped in feedlots. Each animal is marked (branded) and tagged. Those thus
imprisoned are separated male from female and parents from offspring.
Natural biological and social instincts are denied. This torturous existence
ends when they are put to death. If this factual description seems harsh, it
is because our schizoid culture has ingrained us with a double standard and
kept us comfortably numb. Since industrial meat production is the large
scale operation of big corporations, its hallmark is “efficiency.”
Precisely, it is “economic efficiency” in contrast to “environmental
efficiency.” Industrial feedlots – Confined Animals Feeding Operations
(CAFOs) – are economically efficient. A cattle feedlot operation cuts costs
by keeping massive numbers of animals in one place and feeding them
subsidized grain (usually corn). Shipping of animals and feed is thus
centralized and economically efficient. The corporation maximizes profits.
As for the issue of environmental efficiency, cattle feedlotting is, by
all accounts, inefficient. From my own research on California “meat packing”
to the national studies by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the fact
becomes clear: The environmental cost of a hamburger is exorbitant. If we
ate the grains instead of feeding them to cattle to produce beef, we would
get ten times more protein per pound of grain. For every hundred calories of
grain we feed animals, we get only three calories of beef. In order to gain
this pittance of food value, we use vast amounts of natural resources –
fuels to cultivate grain fields, fuels and power to keep meat cold, water to
grow grains and hydrate cattle, and the sacrifice of forests to grow grain
A new marketing ploy for selling beef today comes under the name
“grassfed.” This is meat from cattle that have never been kept in feedlots.
Grassfed is touted as natural, humane, and environmentally friendly.
However, the problems with grassfed include the cruelty issues of
castration, branding, tagging, transport, and slaughter. Since grassfed
means more pasturing and ranging, the perennial problems of overgrazing are
exacerbated. Instead of feedlot issues, grassfed causes increased use of
land, erosion, water pollution (rivers and groundwater), and habitat loss.
Finally, pasturing and ranging often means growing hay to be cut, rolled,
and transported to the cattle in dry seasons or freezing conditions.
The evidence of the high environmental cost of meat production is
incontrovertible. Here are just two more results:
- The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has
found that meat production causes more greenhouse gases (hence global
warming) than either transportation or industry.
- A University of Chicago study shows that diet has even more
impact than the steps we usually think of first. We think of switching
to a hybrid car as a big step, but research shows that switching to a
no-animal-products diet is even bigger.
The issues of strain and stain on the environment lead directly to the
problem of shortages and hunger. National Geographic magazine has
raised this issue, urging us to consider how we will feed the nine billion
people the planet will house in but a few years. Shortage issues are not
ham-fistedly tacked on here. If food production is inefficient, world hunger
becomes a serious problem. This and all these issues are compassion issues –
cruel treatment of livestock, overuse of our resources, pollution, global
warming, and inefficiency. These are poor and uncaring ways to manage our
home – the household where we all live. A badly managed household harms all
Scripture as Guidance
Religious groups use scripture as a primary source for guidance
concerning diet and other moral issues. But thoughtful members of these
traditions confront multiple problems. In Buddhism, important scriptural
passages conflict with one another. A favorite passage used by Theravada
Buddhists (Nissaggiya Picittiyas, 5) teaches that meat eating is acceptable.
On the other hand, the Lankavatara Sutra, a text favored by Mahayana
Buddhists, promulgates an emphatic prohibition against eating meat.
The most difficult problem concerns the context or conditions in which
meat is produced. The time- honored scriptures do not refer to issues about
feedlots or hormones or antibiotics. A passage reading, “You may consume the
flesh of animals” would be quite different from a passage which might read,
“You may consume the flesh of animals who have been raised under cruel
conditions.” Scriptural passages without specific condition cannot give us
definite guidelines for action.
We are all familiar with the Biblical passage “Thou shalt not kill.” But
most of us have not looked into the history of views about how to apply the
commandment. Does it apply to killing humans only? Is killing in
self-defense permitted? Military action? Capital punishment? Buddhist
scripture includes the same rule against killing; it is called “The First
Precept” and the same interpretive problems arise.
A final difficulty in all religions involves the conflict between
scriptural passages which teach general virtues and passages which allow or
call for specific actions. If a holy book calls for protection of Nature as
a virtue but also seems to permit cutting of forests and mining, we are left
to our own devices as to how much of a footprint we should leave. A parallel
dilemma is the virtue of caring for creation and the allowance to eat meat.
Clearly we cannot find a solution to the issue of the ethics of meat
consumption by appeal to scripture alone. We have to employ our “worldly
knowledge” and apply it with what I call “spiritual savvy.” This is what I
offer here as a conclusion.
Compassion in Action
First, we need to mention two contemporary Buddhist leaders here because
of their prominence and special characteristics. The Dalai Lama recommends a
vegetarian diet out of compassion and for the conservation of the
environment. He himself eats a small amount of meat which he says his doctor
recommends for his unique metabolism; critics see this as medically
questionable, perhaps hypocritical. (Even middle of the road groups like the
American Dietetic Association state that a vegetarian diet is completely
satisfactory for health purposes.)
The other major Buddhist leader today is the Vietnamese Zen Master Thich
Nhat Hanh. He has consistently advocated what he calls “Engaged Buddhism.”
This means a Buddhist applies the teachings in everyday life, including
social and environmental issues. Thich Nhat Hanh is a vegetarian and
recommends the practice to others. His spirituality is always expressed in
action, never merely in thought or words. As a Zennist, he sees the unity of
opposites, so that the inner is in reality a part of the outer and the outer
is part of the inner.
At the end of the day, we have to wade through the currents pushing and
pulling at us: scriptural interpretation, cultural patterns, religious
traditions, denominational bias, treatment of livestock, and environmental
impacts. Leaders like a Dalai Lama or a saint may come and go, but the
challenge of everyday practice remains. For Buddhists, it is a matter of
showing compassion to all sentient beings – principles over personalities.
We must make our decisions in the context of the treatment of livestock
and the environmental impacts described above. This situation calls for a
clear and active response. Principles or virtues like faith, compassion, or
love should translate into action. If compassion is just a vague feeling or
a warm sentiment, it can hardly be called real. Compassion without works is
We must conclude, I believe, that the menu at the funky restaurant in San
Francisco is appropriate after all. I think that compassion calls for a
Gene Sager is Professor of Environmental Ethics at Palomar College in San Marcos, California
and a frequent contributor to Natural Life Magazine.