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Although I’ve been a vegetarian for most of my life—I am 72 years old—there have been a few lapses.
These have occurred mostly because of a failure to recover from damaged nerves. To resolve the problem, I ate fish—which worked.
The most dramatic occasion occurred when I was in my late 20s and a severe backache persisted for six months. I finally broke down and ate one kilo of fish per day for a week. The backache was mostly gone in three days, substantially relieved the first day, and disappeared completely in a week. I then resumed my vegetarian diet without the backache returning.
I called my cousin in San Francisco, who’s an osteopath and a lifelong vegetarian, and told him of my experience. He said, “That’s the way it is sometimes—no matter how well you mind your dietary needs, on occasion a meat protein may be the only solution. I have seen it many times in my practice.”
Fortunately, over the years, I have only had to resort to meat a handful of times. But I must say it has worked miracles when I needed it.
One of the few things I know the Buddha said regarding food is: “take food as medicine.” As far as meat goes, during one of the Dalai Lama’s recent teachings, he quoted from Bhavaviveka’s Essence of the Middle Way, where it states that it is wrong to refuse meat if it is offered graciously to you, and that a beggar can eat meat. Aside from later commentaries on the Buddha’s teaching, little is said about eating meat that I am aware of.
Buddhism is a “commentarial tradition” and later commentaries carry considerable weight in Buddhist institutions. These commentaries offer three levels of meat eating, none of which are as good as maintaining a vegetarian diet. But I think it is worth mentioning because of the fact that these “loopholes” are used as frequently as possible by both monastics and lay Buddhist vegetarians. I cannot help but wonder if this points to an actual need for meat, occasionally, in a vegetarian diet.
While living for a year in a Himalayan Buddhist monastery, I noticed that the monks, nuns, and laypeople were all vegetarians who occasionally became meat-eating vegetarians. They grew all their own food, raised their own cattle, and even a few yaks. Every month or two, the smell of meat was in the air and everyone was excited. I found it really strange, at first, seeing these vegetarians brewing meat stew in huge pots and the atmosphere in the monastery in an elevated state. Upon inquiring, I found out that one of their cows had fallen off a cliff and died, thus making it “okay” to have meat on the menu.
Of course, this led me to further inquire on what other occasions meat was permissible.
The abbot of the Serlo Monastery in Nepal, the late venerable Sangye Tenzin Lama, said that three simple rules govern the level of meat-eating sin.
1. Meat that was not killed.
2. Meat that you didn’t see being killed.
3. Meat that you killed.
A more traditional list is found in the Majjhima Nikaya I,369: “1. you haven’t seen it being killed, 2. you haven’t heard its cries while being killed, and 3. it hasn’t been killed for you.” (Thank you Dharma Master Heng Shun for pointing this passage out.)
In addition, the Shurangam Sutra, spoken by the Buddha, offers a list of five levels of meat eating:
1. Flesh of an animal that I did not see killed.
2. Flesh of an animal that I did not hear killed.
3. Flesh of an animal that I am sure was not killed for my sake.
4. Flesh of an animal that died by itself.
5. Flesh that is the leavings of an animal after birds have scavenged.
The most sin-free meat is, of course, number one. During my year at the monastery, I witnessed several varieties of this. Cows are not sure-footed like yaks, which, though three times bigger, are as sure-footed as goats—they never fall. But unfortunately, cows occasionally lose their footing while grazing on steep trails along cliffs and fall off. This meat does not go to waste, I can assure you.
I also saw a cow that was attacked and killed by a bear, who very generously left much of the animal for the monks. Meat killed by another animal is also okay and occurred as frequently as cliff-side falls. I never saw the monks eat an animal that died naturally, but see no reason why this could not be included on the menu.
The second degree of meat eating was the eating of meat you didn’t see being killed and know it wasn’t killed specifically for you. Since the monastery was vegetarian, this category of meat eating didn’t exist. But, when on occasion I accompanied a monk to get provisions, I found that he delighted in eating the meat offered by small inns along the trail.
I never saw an animal killed at the monastery during my year there. So, violating number three was also not an option.
For myself, and a small portion of the monastics, none of the three options were as pure as eating vegetarian, and we didn’t join in on occasions when meat was on the menu.
When I reflect today on that year in the monastery, I can’t help but wonder if the vegetarian monks who so relished meat actually needed it in the true sense of the word. In the mountains, months can pass eating little more than grains and potatoes, occasional fruit, and a tiny amount of daily vegetables. They certainly don’t have the options a city-dwelling vegetarian has today to garner nutrition from superfoods, organic fruit, vegetables, nuts, and so forth. In fact, it is admirable to see how committed they are to vegetarianism given their circumstances. Those of us living in the West are privileged compared to many vegetarians living in harsher circumstances.
However privileged, there may be times, as in my own case, and as my cousin said, when a meat protein might be necessary. I think each person should realize the importance of not clinging too tenaciously to vegetarianism, especially on occasions when his or her body is pointing toward an animal protein.
There may be times in any vegetarian’s life when they find it necessary to let go of the “good or bad” of diet and view it from a purely medicinal viewpoint. Clinging to anything is never healthy, whether it be diet, meditation, or yoga.
I believe true vegetarianism is not violated by eating medicinal meat, although hopefully, those occasions are rare. But let us not think that doing so violates the vegetarian spirit.