The book Eating Animals is brilliant. Jonathan Safran Foer has done the world a service. He is a best-selling novelist who has managed to write a book about factory farming that is readable — horrific, yes, but still readable. Even un-put-downable. He has looked at the question of eating animals from many angles — culture, community, history, politics, husbandry, morality, health etc. He has avoided black and white haranguing and reasonably discusses shades of gray so people can come to their own conclusions.
Those of you die-hard carnivores who don’t want to change your habits at all, don’t read any further, and don’t pick up this book. As 99% of USA meat is factory farmed, really knowing about factory farming forces you to change in some ways — and you may not want to change! The facts in this book, if digested, will lead most people (a) to become vegetarian or vegan, (b) to eat less meat, or (c) to be far more careful about choosing meat from animals that have not been tortured their entire lives or stewed in their own filth and stuffed with antibiotics, hormones etc. (If this book gets people into the habit of asking the store and restaurant owners where their meat or eggs actually come from, this will in itself have the power to improve animal welfare and human health). The alternative from digesting this book (as opposed to dismissing it) is that you won’t change but you will feel guilty, and that is not a useful state of mind according to Buddhism.
This article is more about me than about you. I can’t lecture anyone about vegetarianism (let alone veganism) — until some years ago I was an imperfect vegetarian, eating meat when I went to visit my family for holidays for example, thinking erroneously it was the best way to blend in, plus secretly digging the excuse … But I never felt that good about it. I love animals, and I could see that loving animals was somewhat contradictory to eating them! It sat uneasily with me. But hey, steak smelt so good, and I didn’t always have the will-power to ignore others tucking into it whilst I nibbled on the brussel sprouts.
Then I watched a nature program about animals in the Arctic. Like these programs always are, it was brutal. Kill or be killed. It dawned on me that — unlike every animal struggling every day in the wild — I have the choice, every day, not to eat meat. That is my good fortune. I don’t have to kill anyone in order to eat. And every time I exercise that choice, I create the karmic cause to have that choice again. Whereas if I deliberately allow animals to be killed for me so that I can eat them, am I not creating the cause to have less freedom to choose in the future? Every thought and action has consequences. Buddha said that with our thoughts we create our world. From a Buddhist understanding of rebirth (and depending on my motivation) could one even say that I might be creating the cause to be a powerless animal in future lives?
Even by omission, by ignoring the facts, I personally felt like I was buying into samsara, the cycle of impure life.
This all got me thinking, and later I visited a friend who happened to have a copy of Eating Animals on the table. I read it avidly over the next two days and then could think or talk of little else but the horror of factory farms, driving everyone around me mad. I even fancied I caught a glimpse of what it felt like for the local Germans finally seeing the concentration camps that had been invisible in full sight all along.
When Buddha Shakyamuni tried to help us improve our states of mind or our actions, he would explain the benefits of doing something positive and the faults of not. This way people could check these out for themselves, in their own experience, and come to a genuine intention that was all theirs. No one can force us to be good or kind or healthy. Everything depends upon our own intention.
So for myself I have a quick mental checklist of the benefits and faults of eating animals — a mixture of worldly and spiritual. Although my temptation to eat anyone with a face is now down to zero, this list has been helpful in helping me get here. Much of this is explained in the book Eating Animals, the rest in Buddha’s teachings on karma and rebirth.
Benefits of not eating animals
- I am more conscious to avoid harming animals
- I avoid the hypocrisy of saying I love animals and then eating them
- I’m healthier and slimmer
- I’m helping the planet
- I’m less likely to create the karmic causes to be tortured or eaten myself in the future
- I am trying to purify the karmic causes of taking an animal rebirth where it is eat or be eaten in samsara
- I’m increasing my empathy and compassion
Faults of eating animals
- The opposite of the above
This, or any similar checklist of your own, might work for reducing your factory farmed intake, one way or another. Ignorance is not bliss according to Buddhism. In fact, it is the complete opposite of bliss (which is indivisible with the wisdom realizing emptiness, more another time). So my feeling is that if we’re going to eat factory-farmed animals, we should at least do so with full possession of the facts. I don’t think we need to harangue others (sorry if I am haranguing you!) — in Buddhism we try to identify and get rid of our own faults, rather than dwell on the faults of others. But nor do we need to, as it says in one of my long-time favorite quotations from Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (who doesn’t eat meat):
“Act as if we are sleepwalking or let our habits dominate our behavior.”