I like meat. I like waking up in the morning to the sound and smell of sizzling bacon. I like the aroma that wafts out when an oven is opened and a leg of lamb cooked to perfection in it own juices is slowly lifted out. I like chomping on pork crackling and sinking my teeth into succulent pork belly. I like thick slices of roast beef served with roast potatoes and a rich gravy.
Or at least I used to like all these things. The ‘problem’ now is that it is very hard for me to mindfully eat a meat dish without thinking of the animal from which the flesh has been sliced and how it might have met its end. Similarly, how can I sit and send loving-kindness to ‘all sentient beings’ without bringing to mind the sixty billion land animals and a thousand billion marine animals that are killed every year for us to eat? Those figures, by the way, come from Matthieu Ricard’s A Plea for the Animals: The moral, philosophical and evolutionary imperative to treat all beings with compassion. I would definitely recommend this book. It’s informative, interesting and persuasive without being at all preachy.
Of course, our culture in general, and the meat industry in particular, is very good at ‘shielding’ us from the full horrors of industrial food production, and preventing us from making the connection between the food on our plate and the awful conditions in which the animals are raised, not to mention the screams, bellows, blood, and shit of the slaughterhouse. But ignoring all this shouldn’t really be an option for anyone following the Buddha-Dharma, it seems to me.
I am not a very good example, I have to admit. Although I gave up eating mammals quite a number of years ago, I continued to eat chickens, ducks and fish. My rationale was that our fellow mammals have highly developed central nervous systems not so different from ours. It therefore seems pretty certain that they not only feel the sensation of pain, but also experience the associated suffering in the same ways as we do. Also, I could not ignore the hypocrisy of lavishing care on my two cats while condemning to suffering and early death other mammals such as pigs, which by all accounts are relatively intelligent, playful and social animals when away from the factory farm. I wasn’t so sure about birds and fish, though.
However, before long I found I could not really ignore the suffering of the factory farmed chickens annually slaughtered in their billions, so poultry has had to go on the list of forbidden foods too. At present, I still sometimes throw a bit of tinned tuna into a stir fry, or I might choose a fish dish if I find myself in a restaurant with no vegetarian options, but it’s clearly time to take the next step to complete vegetarianism. Apart from anything else, I often have to walk past a row of seafood restaurants in front of which are all kinds of exotic marine creatures crammed into small tanks, waiting to be yanked out to thrash about as they slowly suffocate until put out of their misery by a blow to the head.
But I don’t want to become fanatical or self-righteous about it. People have a right to decide for themselves on whether to eat animals, though I do think it ought to be an informed decision. And if a dish I have been assured is vegetarian turns out to have a few bits of pig in it (as not infrequently happens in some restaurants in Hong Kong), I am not going to throw a tantrum. Nor will I embarrass a friend or relative by refusing to eat a meal that he or she has gone to the trouble of cooking for me, forgetting my dietary restrictions. After all, it is all about reducing suffering, not some notion of purity, and it is hard to see how suffering could be reduced by berating a waiter or upsetting a friend or relative over food that has already been prepared.
I was interested to read recently about the Roadkill movement. In the USA and Europe large numbers of animals are regularly killed by cars, and some people consume the meat of these animals. As the wikiHow entry on eating roadkill puts it: ”eating roadkill can be a great source of nourishment, as well as being a form of treating the killed animal with respect by using its meat, skin, and fur rather than leaving it to rot unceremoniously by the roadside.” I see no ethical problem with this, though I couldn’t imagine doing it myself.
One light on the horizon for people like me who still like the taste of meat is the development of cultured meat. This is meat grown in a cell culture within a laboratory instead of inside animals. It sounds a bit creepy, but apparently it is real meat, not in any way genetically modified, and produced in a way that doesn’t require the growth hormones and antibiotics that are pumped into factory farmed animals. And of course no animal suffering is involved. One company pioneering this that has received some attention is Memphis Meats (see the Washington Post, 2nd May, 2016). But their meat balls currently cost USD18,000 a pound, so I suppose it’ll be some time before I can enjoy bacon for breakfast again.