Last weekend was the deadline for an essay contest held by the New York Times, which asked readers to answer in 600 words, “Why it’s ethical to eat meat.” I didn’t enter the contest, because I couldn’t articulate the reasons I thought it was possible for meat-eating to be ethical, though not necessarily… (Just that sentence alone underscores the murkiness of the topic to me.) Then it came to me. And it goes in theory with my Reason For Not Eating Out #50: To Do More Good.
Eating — anything — is an act of taking. By sustaining our lives we are taking life from plants, animals, people, or energy from the sun. And just by living, especially in modern civilization, we are constantly taking and demanding of nature and other human beings — to clothe ourselves, to type on a laptop, or to transport ourselves from place to place. When we die, we will be placed back into the earth to replenish it, but until then, life is a series of karmic spending.
Except when we do good. This can be planting a tree or something as simple as making someone else smile. Because the good circulates, and inspires others to do good as well. This is how we lift ourselves from the karmic debt we have accumulated. We may never reach a point of equilibrium — never do enough good to overcome the bad karma in our lives — but it is a necessary routine and helps us continue taking and demanding as we live.
I don’t eat meat very often, mostly because I know that I can satisfy myself without it and won’t have to carry the extra burdens of creating so much suffering, albeit inadvertently, for another creature as a consumer of meat. I ask myself, did I do enough good to justify a bit of meat today? Most of the times, I’d say no. Some people may believe that no measure of their actions can justify killing an animal, and they become vegetarians.
What is “doing good”? The concept has been embraced by most religions in some fashion or another, but according to Buddhism, is not defined by any strict rules. In my understanding, it essentially means putting out good vibes. It happens when we give of ourselves selflessly for the benefit of some good. Like taking care of an animal, or another person; taking care of plants or the land. It’s simply a show of love, kindness, and respect for all things. I believe there is a wealth of opportunity to both alleviate suffering and create more good in our food choices. You can choose meat from a more ethically sound producer that tries hard to do genuine good to its animals, the earth, its employees and its customers. You can also grow the plants or animals you eat with the utmost respect, or show another man, as the proverb goes, to fish. Try to accept that all beings, even those fish in the sea, may need to create suffering as a necessary part of being alive. But if we’re all in it together, trying harder to do good, the less suffering on us all will result.
So does this mean that if one donates to the Sierra Club for their whole life, they can eat as much meat as they want in good conscience? How great a donation does it take to enjoy a pork chop? Sadly, these markers do not exist. But good exists, all around, and even if it can’t be measured we can challenge ourselves to do more and more each day. To one who enjoys food as an utmost pleasure, it means being more cognizant of the ramifications of what I’m eating, and extra effort to bring about more good in doing so.
So as the Buddha preached in his Five Contemplations Before Eating, prepare food thoughtfully after you’ve stripped its life. Eat with gratitude and mindfulness, too. And herein, the opportunity: share the joys that you’re receiving with others as well. Make food that will make someone else’s day, not just yours, and without regard to any self-serving gain. If you can do this, with a giving heart and an accepting vision of the ways we all try to reduce suffering, then, maybe, you can eat meat in good, ethical conscience. Or maybe, you can simply eat, and live, in a better world.