By Contributor Pearce Fujiura
One of the first questions people ask me about Buddhism, and one of the topics becoming more and more of an issue in the American psyche, is a question regarding diet. Are all Buddhists vegans? Are they vegetarians? Do you eat meat? Why? The answer is no, not all Buddhists are vegans or vegetarians. I eat meat, and I enjoy it. But the last question “Why?” is a trickier one to answer. I will endeavor to explain this dietary and lifestyle decision and the exact role Buddhism plays in it.
Many Buddhist are vegetarian or vegan, and many of these individuals choose to abstain from eating meat because of reverence and respect for the reincarnated souls within the life that we share this earth with. Others still choose not to eat meat because they believe it perpetuates suffering in animals and people, or that it is bad to consume the negative energy of that creature’s death. These are very legitimate ideas, which I can understand completely. However, I have chosen a different path.
I believe there is nothing inherently negative about consuming meat. I see it as a natural part of our being. Our bodies are designed to consume many different types of foods and convert them into energy. We have developed teeth and metabolisms specifically designed to utilize meat along with fruits, vegetables and grains. Denying our bodies one form of fuel is denying ourselves a piece of our nature. A spider is not wicked for eating the fly, nor is there malice in the bear’s consumption of fish. In my interpretations of Buddhists teachings I have found it is important to understand and embrace the physiology of the body in order to understand one’s existence. It is counterproductive to my enlightenment to fight a part of my nature.
Before the Buddha achieved enlightenment he spent years denying his body nourishment of any kind, bringing himself to the extremes of starvation, attempting to remove the needs of his body from his mind. At this point the Buddha came to the realization that he needed to nourish his body to allow his mind to reach a state of tranquility necessary for complete understanding and enlightenment. Once he nourished his body, enlightenment became possible. In this story of the Buddha’s enlightenment, it explains how austerities can become a hindrance to enlightenment. Perhaps it is a bit extreme to consider a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle an austerity. However it is a lifestyle of denial, which I believe is in direct opposition to the lessons outlined in the story of Buddha’s enlightenment.
For the Buddhists who believe they should avoid consuming negative energy, I say this lifestyle may be folly. A fundamental element of Buddhism is the interconnectedness of all things alive, dead or inanimate. Avoidance of suffering is desperate and futile; our lives are equal parts birth and death, hallelujahs and holocausts, and everything in between. Separation from places, entities or events is merely a product of perception. With that in mind I say you can no more avoid the consumption of negative energy than you can avoid the inhalation of carbon dioxide. It is everywhere, effectively inseparable from our lives. The key is to accept its existence and thrive because of it instead of despite of it. When Mara (the Buddhist equivalent of the devil) confronted the Buddha under the Bodhi tree, Buddha did not ignore him or deny his existence. He accepted Mara’s presence and responded with peaceful resolve, weakening the perceived power of Mara over the world around him. No meal, person, or plot of land is completely devoid of negative energy, therefore our time as Buddhists should be spent trying to accept the existence or suffering whilst striving to rise above it.
While choosing what to eat may not seem like a profound religious decision to everyone, it can be a powerful tool in building spiritual resolve. I choose the life of a Buddhist omnivore purposefully; I wish to nourish my body and embrace my place in this world of suffering. With this action I intend to find a path of understanding that elevates beyond self, suffering and perception. With acceptance of the cycle of life, suffering, death and rebirth I can see beyond the transient powers they hold.