Problematic Vegetarians

One of the reasons why I only recently became vegetarian (and even now not 100% so) was the hypocrisy and inconsistency, even the fanaticism, I observed amongst quite a few vegetarians. This and the resistance it caused prevented me from seeing intelligent, thoughtful vegetarianism’s consistency with the Dhamma. Arthur Koestler once described something as being “as dull as dining with a vegetarian” and I know exactly what he meant. Listening to some vegetarians talk often gives one the impression that they are more concerned about mastication, digestive juices and bowel movements than they are about the lives of innocent animals.

In 1996 when I visited Hong Kong and Taiwan I stayed in many Chinese Mahayana monasteries. I was always welcomed with the greatest courtesy but inevitably the subject of diet would come up. As is fairly typical of vegetarians, many of my hosts were fixated on food and one of the few thing they knew about Theravada was that Theravadins are not vegetarian. When I was asked, and sooner or later I always was, “Are you vegetarian?” I would truthfully reply; “No I am not. But while here (Hong Kong or Taiwan) I am adhering to your discipline.” This answer was often followed by a long, usually polite but sometimes reproachful, lecture about how uncompassionate it is to eat meat.

While fingers were being wagged in my face I couldn’t help noticing that nearly all my hosts were dressed in silk robes and I happen to know that approximately 50 silk worms have to be boiled alive to make one square inch of silk. I also noticed that all the banners, hangings, etc. in the monasteries’ shrines were likewise of silk. One monk delivered his lecture to me while sitting on a throne, flanked by two of the biggest elephant tusks I have ever seen, each intricately and exquisitely carved with images of Kuan Yin and other bodhisattvas. Both these tusks were still creamy-white indicating that their original owner had only been slaughtered (probably illegally) a few years ago.

Another thing I noticed was the furniture in the temples. Running down the eastern side of Taiwan is a chain of very high mountains that are covered with thick forest made up of the most magnificent ancient trees. It has become the fashion in Taiwan to have furniture made out of these trees. A table may consist of a huge cross-section of a trunk a foot or more thick and the five or six chairs around it can be made out of cross-sections of smaller trunks or large branches. The attraction of this type of furniture is the often gnarled outer surface of the trunk slabs and the age-rings within them. I hardly need mention that this furniture is extremely expensive but as Taiwanese temples tend to be very wealthy, they usually have at least one or two sets of this furniture.

One incredibly lavish monastery I visited had five such sets in the visitor’s hall and one in the vestibule of each monk’s room. Another must-have I noticed in many temples is huge, twisted, gnarled tree trunks, sometimes including the roots, with Bodhidhamma, Kuan Yin or lohans carved into them. None of the enthusiastic vegetarian monks I met seemed particularly concerned about their role in decimating Taiwan’s ancient forests by having these beautiful but completely unnecessary and destructive luxuries. It seemed that eating meat was unforgivable but stripping the forests of their trees and having silk worms boiled alive was okay.

But by far the worst thing I saw in Taiwan was the attitude towards pets. The Taiwanese are busy absorbing Western middle-class values and tastes but like all new-comers they still haven’t got it quite right. Everyone seems to want a fluffy adorable puppy, kitten or bunny but they are not yet schooled in what to do with them once they get them. Three months later or when the animal has grown up and is no longer cute, they lose interest in it. This is particularly true of dogs who are often confined in tiny cages. Some of these caged dogs are put at front gates of peoples’ homes so they will bark when anyone comes. I recall looking down several streets and seeing one of these tiny cages at nearly every gate and hearing their occupants howling with boredom, barking incessantly and whimpering for attention.

As in Taiwanese homes, so too in Taiwanese monasteries. In one monastery I saw two adult Alsatians locked in a cage barely big enough for them to turn around and in the three weeks I was at this place they were never let out once. Worse still, the abbot of this temple, a rather formidable man, was well-known as an outspoken and crusading advocate of, you guessed it, strict vegetarianism – no milk, no eggs, no animal products at all. Both his Alsatians suffered from severe rickets. Being a vegan himself the abbot had refused to feed his pets meat or milk when they were puppies causing their legs to be all bowed and bent. Having said all this I should point out that generally I was impressed by the vigor of Buddhism in Taiwan and that the country has an active animal rights movement. My problem was only with the way some Taiwanese Buddhist practiced vegetarianism.

I’d have to say that some other vegetarians I have encountered suffer from a similar lopsidedness – a near obsession with meat and its consumption and little or no interest in any other kind of cruelty to animals or a carelessness towards the environment in which animals need to live. For many people, just abstaining from meat is enough – and from a thoughtful Buddhist perspective it is not enough. You could be a scrupulous vegetarian and at the same time be unkind and uncaring towards other beings. Vegetarianism is good, but if it does not go hand in hand with a compassionate regard for all human and animal life it’s just another food fad. So if you are going to be a vegetarian be an intelligent one.