It was a Saturday morning and I was in Phnom Penh walking through the central market looking for some fruit to buy. I unknowingly soon found myself in the meat section. Even a blind person would know they were there. The stench was overpowering. Chickens with wet feathers and blank expressions sat in tiny cages, probably oblivious to what was soon to happen to them. The goats certainly knew. You could see it in their eyes. But there was nothing they could do and they just stood there, heads bowed, resigned to their fate. Meat hung on hooks, knives and cleavers lay on chopping blocks and everything was covered with blood and flies. For a nonhuman animal it would be a vision of hell. I walked on hoping to get to the fruit and vegetable section and a few minutes later found my way blocked by a large round basket that was placed right in the middle of the aisle. The basket was full of dead and plucked chickens and a man was crouching beside it doing something to the chickens with a hose while a young boy stood on the other side doing something with what looked like a gas cylinder. I stood there for a moment trying to take in the scene before me.
Then it dawned on me. The chickens were slightly putrid, in places their yellowish-white skin was going green or gray and the stench of decay wafted up into my nostrils. The man was sticking a needle attached to the hose into each chicken and as he did so the boy pumped the cylinder. In countries like Cambodia, when a butcher’s or fish monger’s wares have gone off, they sometimes pump them full of formalin to disguise the putrefaction so they can continue being sold. Of course this is illegal but in such countries the enforcement of health regulations are rather lax.
The association in my mind of food, the chicken, and the formalin, which as you probably know is used by undertakers to preserve human cadavers, revolted me so much that I turned away and actually vomited. A man behind one of the stalls saw this and most kindly offered me a glass of water so I could wash my mouth out. When I got back to the temple I was still feeling a bit nauseous but not so much that I could not eat and when the lunch bell rang I made my way to the dining hall.
As I sat at the table with all the dishes of food on it I immediately noticed that the main dish was, you guessed it, chicken. As soon as I saw this my stomach began to churn again and I had to rush from the hall. I didn’t vomit this time but my appetite had quite gone. Over the next few weeks my taste for meat, any meat, just went. It slowly returned but if the memory of the putrid formalin-dosed chickens was aroused I had to consciously suppress it or lose my appetite.
Three months later, on a quick trip to Australia, a Sri Lankan friend gave me some things to deliver to his brother back in Sri Lanka. One of these things was a book called Animal Liberation by Peter Singer.  I had never heard of this book and its title aroused no interest in me. One hot afternoon as I lay on my bed feeling rather bored and with nothing to read, I picked Singer’s book up thinking to just browse through it. As it happened, the parts I read interested me so much that I returned to the beginning and read the whole book in three sittings. I had been expecting it to take the usual vegetarian’s approach, calling meat ‘carrion’ or ‘rotten flesh,’ quoting the opinions of famous odd-ball vegetarians, giving long descriptions of how meat ferments in the bowels and claiming that a vegetarians’ poo smells better than a meat eaters’ poo. Instead, Singer argues for the kind treatment of animals (including by not eating them) soberly, objectively, logically and convincingly. Peter Singer is a professional philosopher and he writes like one. And incidentally, he has nothing to do with the extremist animal rights group Animal Liberation.
As I followed his arguments I found myself forced by the logic of them to agree with him. Over the next week or two I returned to parts of the book and reread them and finally decided that anyone who wants metta and karuna to be a more important part of their character would have to seriously consider being vegetarian. As a Buddhist I do wish to have metta and karuna dominant in my life and so I made the decision to abstain from eating meat.
Since that time I have cut my meat consumption by at least 95%. The force of long established habit, circumstance, or just the occasional desire for a juicy steak accounting for the other 5%. So my decision to become vegetarian was brought about by three things – a gradual awareness of the need for active and engaged (as opposed to passive) metta in the Buddhist life, an incident of visceral revulsion with meat, and then by the reasoning of a philosopher helping me see the implications in the Buddha’s words that I had not seen before. I could not honestly say that I am grateful to that Cambodian man with his putrefying chickens, but I am most grateful to Peter Singer.
- The book has recently been re-issued as Animal Liberation – The Definitive Classic of the Animal Liberation Movement, Harper 2009. [back]