Editor's note: Last issue we presented a Christian view of vegetarianism. This time we look at Buddhism and its perspectives on non-violence and vegetarianism. Look for an article on Jainism in the next issue. Come to our early 1998 Buddhist and Jain potlucks!
The key teachings of Buddhism can be reduced to what are popularly called the Four Noble Truths, or Four Truths Seen By Highly Realized Beings. These are:
1) The truth of suffering: as long as we are enslaved by our belief in superficial reality or Maya, nothing in our life will bring satisfaction.
2) The truth of the cause of suffering: the principle cause of suffering is ignorance that misperceives reality. Awareness of the ultimate reality (seeing the truth that exists beyond our egocentric projections) makes it impossible for delusions like anger and clinging attachment to arise and the process of negative Karma (immutable law of cause and effect) to be activated.
3) The truth of the cessation of suffering: because suffering has identifiable causes it can be stopped by stopping those causes.
4) The path to the cessation of suffering: there are Three Principal Paths to Enlightenment: renunciation of suffering and its causes (determination to be free), Bodhicitta (altruistic intention to awaken for the benefit of all), and the wisdom of realizing emptiness (ultimate truth). As in curing any ailment, first we must recognize that we have a problem (1st Truth), then we try to ascertain its causes (2nd Truth), and when we learn that it can be cured (3rd Truth), we seek to find and take the appropriate medicine or cure (4th Truth).
The Buddha invites us to recognize and relate to the suffering in the world as if it is that suffering is one's own. Although our natural instinct is to feel that we are independent and somehow the universe revolves around us, we in fact greatly depend on each other. This leads to one of the essential ingredients to the Buddhist recipe for happiness: dedicate your life to awakening to your full potential for joy, compassion, and wisdom, solely to be of the greatest benefit for others. If you want happiness, cherish others.
Two branches of Buddhism are the hinayana ("individual vehicle") and mahayana ("universal vehicle"). Both have similar goals, but different motivations. In hinayana practice, the motivation is for self-liberation through self-realization. Mahayana practice, on the other hand, stresses interdependence and the motivation for achieving enlightenment is to help yourself, as well as everybody else. Indo-Tibetan and Zen are the two Mahayana traditions.
The idea of interconnectedness or interdependence of humans to animals to plants to the environment, our minds to our bodies, etc., has a natural appeal to any thoughtful person. Ignoring that fact leads to further misery. To see, for example, that eating meat, or using a product produced by child labor, or exploding with anger does not stand alone but causes a ripple effect, acknowledges the power of interdependence.
We can't be completely nonviolent (insects and small animals may die in the process of harvesting food), but being a vegetarian is a good way to practice nonviolence and live in harmony with reality. Vegetarianism was not strictly taught by the Buddha since his order of monks and nuns begged for food, and it would not have been appropriate for them to be picky. Also, in some Buddhist countries such as Tibet where only potatoes and barley grow well (average altitude of 13,000 ft.), one would have starved or at least suffered from malnutrition without some animal food sources. However, the Dalai Lama has urged Buddhists everywhere to try to be vegetarians.
We also need to refrain from ingesting toxic intellectual food rife with anger, greed, pride, and selfishness, that is poisoning us and our society. The average diet in America consists of toxic substances that have created a societal crisis, such as crass materialism and blind consumerism, gratuitous violence in the media as well as real life, questionable or non-existent role models, lack of ideals, and on and on. Parents especially need to provide spiritual food to their children. For many, drugs and other self-destructive and escapist behavior seem to be the only solution when teachers and parents are spiritually barren.
The Buddhist answer to happiness and harmony does not depend on perfection of the "outer world". If the Earth were covered by thorns, the easiest way to protect your feet would be to buy a good pair of shoes, not to carpet the planet. The best protection for you and others is to engender a good heart, kindness, and compassion that cherishes others as well as ourselves. The actions that follow such a mind will naturally be virtuous and harmonious.
Buddhism has enjoyed a surge of popularity in western countries in recent years, perhaps because it appeals to the scientific mind of inquiry (the Buddha did not want people to believe what he said without first checking it out against their own experiences), has a sound psychological basis built on experiential methods (meditation being the main one) that work, and fills a spiritual void without being dogmatic or claiming exclusivity to truth. Buddhism is purely an invitation: try it and see what happens to your mind, and how it effects your everyday life. For over 2500 years, it has been a vital part of Asian culture; the tradition is alive and well today with many realized masters living and teaching in your back yard.
I invite you to come to visit the Kadampa Center for the Practice of Tibetan Buddhism, located in Raleigh right off of route 40. We are committed to transmitting the teachings of the Buddha through study and practice. If you would like directions or more information about our events and introductory classes, please call 859-3433 or visit our web page at www.kadampa-center.org/. We enjoyed this past spring's joint potluck with TVS, and are looking forward to another one on April 4th (1998).