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Buddhism in the News


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Earth Day, Buddhism and Vegetarianism.

Today is the day in America that we celebrate our beautiful and life-giving planet Earth which hosts us as guests. Yet we aren't often being very nice guests with our treatment of this very environment that keeps us alive and thriving. So on this Earth Day I would like to address the connection between vegetarianism and the environment. If you strongly disagree with vegetarianism and don't wish to hear how eating meat impacts or environment then you might want to avoid this post. This is a subject that I am passionate about and have mentioned often here. I am trying to do my part to help understand how our eating habits affect our well-being both physically, socially and spiritually.

The first precept in Buddhism encourages no killing and that can very much be applied to our diet. By switching to a vegetarian lifestyle we can greatly help save the environment in a big way.
Farm animals take up more water than vegetables/gains, taking nearly half of our water supply and 80% of our land. Animals raised for eating consume 90% of the soy, 80% of the corn crop and 70% of the grain. According to the Water Education Foundation, it takes 2,464 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef in California. This is the same amount of water you would use if you took a seven-minute shower every day for six entire months. In contrast, only 25 gallons of water are needed to produce one pound of wheat.

David Pimentel from Cornell University explained it this way, 40 calories of fossil fuel are needed to produce one calorie of protein from feedlot beef while only two calories of fossil fuel are needed to produce one calorie of protein from tofu. Adopting a vegan diet actually does more to reduce emissions than driving a hybrid car! Methane may be the most serious gas given off from livestock. In fact the meat industry is the number one source of methane throughout the world, releasing over 100 million tons a year. Methane is a gas that traps heat in the atmosphere and causes the earth’s temperature to rise. Noam Mohr in his report on global warming says,methane is 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.” The summery being that raising animals for food is much less efficient than the growing of crops.

In addition, clear cutting of our precious rainforest's to raise animal meat is devastating to the overall environment for many reasons: The rainforest's clean our air, provide medicinal products, maintain a large biodiversity and act as a heat regulator and water pump for the environment.

They release moisture into the atmosphere which returns to the ground as rain. When the forest is cleared, the water cycle is disrupted, temperatures increase, droughts become common, and eventually deserts may form. For example, the drought in the Sahelian belt (south of the Saharah Desert), has been attributed to deforestation in West Africa. Estimates suggest that tropical deforestation currently contributes at least 19% of greenhouse gas emissions. Tropical forests have been described as "the lungs of the Earth". However in mature primary forest, storage and release of carbon is in balance. Carbon-dioxide consumed during photosynthesis is equalled by that released when organic matter decays. A standing forest acts as a store or sink of carbon. On the other hand, when forests are burned or logged and the debris left to decay, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere.
Rainforest's and other forests also help reduce and prevent flooding, soaking up water like a sponge. Without those forests soil erosion increases which adds to a leaching of life giving minerals. In general, our trees are vital resources in reducing global warming and maintaining the fragile balance that enables sustainable life possible. The devastation of our forests directly contribute to increasing animals suffering by destroying their habitats within our forests they are driven to less sustaining land and eventually extinction. It isn't just our forests that suffer, our oceans are damaged by over-fishing, the destruction of plant life important to animal survival along rivers and water born diseases that threaten both human and animal life.

Vegetarianism is following the middle path because it makes it more possible to consume only what we need and reduce our negative impact on a planet which we share with so many other sentient beings. We humans arrogantly think too often that we are the center of this planet and that the environment is simply something to consume and fulfill our cravings.
However, we are learning the painful lesson as to just how fragile the life sustaining environment really is. A healthy environment maintains the balance of life that is crucial to all life on this planet and that balance is the Earth's version of the middle path. We cause great suffering when we veer off that environmental middle path.

Vegetarianism is a way to over-come our desires for less sustainable foods that aren't necessary to man's survival. In Buddhism we know the danger and suffering that awaits us when we over-indulge in our desires and our lust for meat is destroying our bodies and our very home. We are acting like parasites that suck all the life out of an organism and then move onto the next one but we are quickly running out of resources to sustain that type of living. It is quite possible that our rampant consumer economy and lifestyle choices could very well be our own down-fall, we are quite possibly slowly killing ourselves and many other innocents lives--those of the animals. See, animals do not over-consume their resources, they take only what is needed and should be examples for us in how to maintain sustainability. As we know, we are forever linked to the animals and so as they die off, so do we.

The Buddha was greatly impacted and connected with the environment as he spent much of his time in the forests and wilderness. In addition, he developed a peaceful relationship with animals throughout his life, even stopping a charging elephant with his peaceful presence and it was in a deer park that Buddha taught his first lessons. It is said that when Buddha meditated under the Bodhi tree that animals gathered all around him and didn't feel frightened by his presence.

Respecting animals is also vital to understanding the Buddhadharma because we have all undoubtedly been one in a past life and a cow that we might be responsible for killing to provide meat could have been our mother at one point. In addition, Right Livelihood advises us to not take jobs that create suffering such as a butcher of animals.

We can talk about the second precept too in not taking what is not given. An animal does not want to suffer and does not give up it's life without a fight, so in other words it is not "giving" itself to us. We are taking what is not given by killing animals. We humans constantly take from the environment and animals as if they belong to us and are simply there to serve us and our needs.

All of this being said, it is not required to be a vegetarian in Buddhism and in some areas of the world it is nearly impossible not to eat meat because of poor crop growing conditions. However, I think that if one must eat meat that they should do it with as much moderation as possible and with Right Intention. This means killing animals as humanely as possible and not doing it out of anger or unnecessarily such as sport hunting. It also means using every single bit of the animal to reduce waste and therefore the number of animals killed.

May we all find ways to help ease our Mother Earth's suffering.

~Peace to all beings~

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Al said...

Are you advocating being a vegan or being a vegetarian? It isn't clear.

They call him James Ure said...

Al: I advocate for both.

Al said...

I'm all for vegetarianism but I don't see a great argument Buddhist ethics necessarily requiring being a vegan. We aren't Jains, after all.

I'm not even sure being a vegetarian works in all circumstances. Even the Dalai Lama has been told to eat meat by his doctor because of his health.

They call him James Ure said...

Al: Yes, I do think that veganism can be a bit extreme. That is why I am a vegetarian. I don't think eating eggs causes much harm as long as you eat organic eggs from free-roaming chickens like we do.

I do agree that vegetarianism can be taken to extremes as well. That is why I discussed the part about living in areas where a vegetarian lifestyle is not possible. I think moderation is the main point if a person decides to eat meat.

I will say that I would eat meat in a circumstance such as if I was visiting a small village and that was all that had to offer me.

Right Intention would be eating the meat to honor the hosts and show them respect for their gift/offering.

However, if (as a non-meat eater) the intention was to use the chance as an opportunity to fulfill your carnivorous desires then it would be not the best intention in my mind.

Al said...

That is about the same as my take on things though we haven't entirely quit eating meat yet. We've decided to slowly work in that direction with the eventual goal of going to a non-meat diet. Part of it is health, part of it is environmental, and part of it is ethical.

George said...

Fantastic post. I've argued along similar lines -- though with a different approach.

Al said...

Yeah, perhaps, George, but my basic response to your post is "Angry vegans can kiss my large white ass."

Lecturing people like you're their daddy will get you nowhere. We're all adults and complaining about how people cannot justify something to you presupposes that they need to (or care to).

Less anger and more compassion might get your further. There is a reason there is the "angry vegan" stereotype after all that other people use for jokes and shorthand.

Annukka said...


Interesting post.

Being a Buddhist doesn't require you to be a vegetarian. I do also agree with Al that in some cases it is healthier not to be a vegetarian. I believe in organic farming though and try to buy all organic, starting from apples, and ending on chicken meat (which I eat rarely).

Anyway, peace to all you!

Anonymous said...

A post I am largely sympathetic with. Just to clarify one statement that is in itself correct but widely abused... Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide *when comparing the same amount*. Carbon Dioxide is by far the dominant cause of climate change (there is a lot more of it than methane) and any reductions in methane will only have a minor, but still worthwhile, effect.

They call him James Ure said...

Annuka: Yeah you're right, Buddhism doesn't require it and I mentioned that in the post to let people know that there is no commandment of sorts surrounding this issue.

However, I think based upon the teachings of Buddhism that it is recommended.

Anonymous: Thanks for the comment. Perhaps the levels aren't as stated in the post but as you say it does have an impact. So any way that we can reduce harm to our planet is worthwhile looking into.

Greenwoman said...

Hi James! That's a really lovely image you chose for your post. Its haunting and restful and full of ancient prayer energy. Thank you for sharing it.

Adam said...

James, a lovely post.

I have been thinking about going full veggie for a long time, not just for annimal welfare reasons but for ecological ones. Thank you for researching the issue and summing up what impact consuming meat has on our precious planet. I will let others know about this post and hopefully, we can enjoy veggie food together as we try to eat more responsibly.

Salima Hayek said...

WOW this is an in depth article. I've been vegetarian for years - not necessarily for the usual reasons.

Have you read "Zen and the Art of Pornography"? There's a whole "rant" or paragraph on the difficulty of practice with food in America (our lack of choices) - Kind of profounf for such a controversial book - I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

They call him James Ure said...

Green Woman: I have similar feelings about this picture too. I especially like how the tree is over-taking the man-made Buddha head. Showing that all things are impermanent as he taught.

Adam: Thank-you. Thanks for the compliments. I hope that others will be motivated to follow the vegetarian path.

Salima: That book sounds fascinating. I will check it out for sure. Unfortunately I have a long list of books to read first but I might just bump it up in the queue.

Danny Fisher said...

You're the man.

sunnyray said...

The presented connection between vegetarianism and caring for the wellbeing of our planet is extraordinary. Thanks for the presented facts; I was not aware how deep the consequences are.

They call him James Ure said...

Danny: Thanks brother. :)

Sunray: I'm so glad that my information was enlightening. There are so many ways that we can help our environment and ourselves at the same time.

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