Defining veganism: sometimes words matter

This was delicious.
This was delicious.

A lot of people, reading my previous two posts on defining veganism — including some people who commented on them — reacted by saying: “it’s all semantics.” Who cares about the precise definition of veganism? This will never matter.

Actually, yes, words do matter, and here’s a major case in point — the history of Buddhism. The first precept of Buddhism is expressed in various ways, often as “not to take life” or “not to kill any sentient creature.” The Detroit Zen Center gives the precept as “Do not harm, but cherish all life.” That is very close to a vegan commandment. In fact, if the first precept were rendered as “not to injure any sentient creature” (which one Buddhist writer, Barbara O’Brien, explicitly does), it would be a nearly exact replica of the vegan idea, thus predating Donald Watson by about 2500 years.

This first precept implies at least vegetarianism, if not outright veganism. The casual observer would assume that any self-respecting Buddhist would have to be vegan, or at least vegetarian. Surprisingly, many Buddhists (indeed probably most) are not vegetarian, including Buddhist teachers, in spite of the first precept.

So why isn’t Buddhism a vegan (or at least vegetarian) religion? Of course Buddhists and Buddhist teachers will respond in many different ways. They may respond that the Buddha was not vegetarian, that the Buddha ate meat and died after eating pork, or that the first precept is impossible to keep. But others will point to a Theravada teaching that the Buddha said that it was all right to eat meat from an animal not specifically killed for you.

Is it all right to eat an animal not specifically killed for you? What does this mean? It’s clearly an attempt to absolve the meat-eater from responsibility for the death of the animal that they are eating. It addresses the question of complicity, which is also a key concept for veganism.

Now, in some cases you really might not be responsible for the death of the animal; the cases of the homeless scavenging food from dumpsters, or scavenging roadkill, come to mind. But this sort of situation rarely happens; it’s usually much more straightforward. You go to the store or a restaurant, and you buy meat.

Some years ago I went to hear Stephen Batchelor talk about his book on Buddhism, and asked if he was vegetarian. He said that he wasn’t, and gave as his reason this alleged remark from the Buddha. This was part of the instruction that the Buddha gave to his monks. The monks, he explained, made a practice of going around begging for their food, and since beggars can’t be choosers, the Buddha advised them that they could accept meat donated to them. The one exception was if the monk had reason to suspect that the meat came from an animal specifically killed for them. That’s a pretty unlikely scenario, so in practice monks are going to accept meat given to them.

In turn, this instruction from the Buddha means that, in practice, no one is going to be vegetarian. Monks set the moral standard for the entire Buddhist community. If they aren’t vegetarian because the animal was not specifically killed for them, then laypeople aren’t going to be vegetarian either, and so there goes the first precept in a general round of mutual self-deception and hypocrisy.

In theory, the problem here is the question of the ambiguity of moral complicity. If you go out and kill an animal, there is no ambiguity. You did it. But if someone else kills the animal . . . well, that’s a completely different story! Then, we can make an exception! It’s all right to eat this animal, since you didn’t cause their death.

This “exception” is so convenient that I have doubts, on historical grounds, that the Buddha actually said this. It probably falls in the same category as the explanation that the Buddha was not vegetarian (highly unlikely, given the first precept). It was a rationalization added when some followers of the Buddha noted the obvious implications of the first precept but didn’t want to actually try to follow it. This exception is about complicity. Just as long as you did not personally kill the animal, or cause it to be killed on your behalf, then it’s all right to eat it. Thus, Batchelor argued that it was all right to eat meat purchased at the store, since it wasn’t killed for you.

Most vegetarians or vegans — and some Buddhists — would regard this as blatant hypocrisy. See Roshi Philip Kapleau’s outraged comments on this in To Cherish All Life, and Norm Phelps’ comments in The Great Compassion. If I buy meat in a store, I am obviously rewarding the person who killed the animal, and thus I am responsible for an animal’s death. In fact, as Peter Singer points out, buying meat in a store does cause an animal to be killed especially for you. It is not the animal that you eat that was killed especially for you, but the next animal that is killed when the slaughterhouse owners see that there is a demand for this product.

Meat-eating Buddhist teachers may respond that this is a semantic argument. Well, yes, it is. But sometimes, semantics matters in conveying our meaning. We have to use common sense, logic, and our heart. It is intuitively obvious that if one eats meat purchased in a store, one is violating the first precept.

This “semantic” distinction was critical to the history of Buddhism. Without the Buddhist community accepting this particular rule from the Buddha, and giving it a particular interpretation, a major religious tradition would have been vegetarian, and this potentially would have spread all over the world. How could anyone miss this?

Perhaps it would be unfair to expect ordinary Buddhists to be experts in logic, semantics, or their own tradition. But it is the responsibility of Buddhist teachers and Buddhist intellectuals to be aware of this, and they are responsible for the actions of their followers. Sometimes, words are a matter of life or death.

10 Replies to “Defining veganism: sometimes words matter”

  1. Thank you Keith, a really interesting and concise proposition. It is a sad fact that most Buddhists are amazed to learn that the Dalai Lama is not vegan, an unfortunate state for those who follow the ‘religion’, yet clearly worse for the animals. It was good to learn, in your previous blog ( that the American Vegan Society, give such an explicit definition. Such clarity is to be encouraged.

  2. Excellent observation. A similar distortion has probably occurred in Christianity, as you well know. Mormons have done their best to dilute Smith’s comments that one should eat meat only in times of famine. The apologists are also trying to show that John Wesley wasn’t an ethical vegetarian. The situation is very sad: folks just believe whatever they want.

    1. In early Christianity, the dispute over eating at the table of demons (I Corinthians 10) involves the issue of complicity in pagan and Jewish animal sacrifice. Paul thinks it is possible to eat meat offered to pagan idols without worshiping demons. For the early Jewish Christians, though, eating meat offered to pagan idols was eating at the table of demons. The apostolic decree (Acts 15:29) explicitly forbids this.

      So it’s not exactly the same, because it’s a question of complicity in pagan animal sacrifice rather than a question of complicity with killing the animal. Though, for the Jewish Christians, all killing of animals for food (including Jewish animal sacrifice) was the work of demons.

  3. Yes! If only Buddhists had followed the Buddha’s likely view; in any case, as in Christianity and its views as to whether Jesus was vegetarian or not, the vital thing, is surely to THINK FOR OURSELVES, regardless of what the leaders of “our” or any religion say! And then compassion and justice makes the choice obvious. I’ve been told I was a Buddhist and wonder whether I ate meat then!! Thank goodness I came across the vegetarian principle 45 yrs ago in THIS life! I thought all Buddhists were vegetarian, so it’s enlightening to read your interesting post. Thank you.

    1. Of course some Buddhists are vegetarians and vegans, even though most are not. Check out the Dharma Voices for Animals.

      In at least some traditions the Buddha’s last words were “be a light unto yourselves.” We need to think for ourselves and not necessarily believe the tradition, even our own tradition.

  4. Jainism, which is somewhat older than Buddhism, is rooted in Ahimsa or nonviolence. But the Sanskrit word, Ahimsa, first appeared in the Rig Veda, the first book of Hinduism. It is also the first of the five parts in the first of the eight steps of Ashtanga Yoga in Patanjali’s Yogasutra. And as you point out, it is the essence of the first precept of Buddhism.

    However, Jains who practiced Ahimsa, consumed dairy. So did the Hindus. And as you point out, the Buddhists ate animal foods, using a strange interpretation of Buddha’s words.

    But there may have been a physiological reason for this seemingly confusing interpretation of Ahimsa. In his 1931 speech to the London Vegetarians Union, Mahatma Gandhi gave us a clue as to why there was such confusion. He said that he tried to give up dairy repeatedly but was forced to consume it for health reasons. You can read the full text of his speech here:

    My interpretation is that in the past, people were strictly relying on locally grown foods. Then it was probably impossible to get all the minerals and nutrients that the human body needed without incorporating dairy or some animal foods. Locally, you get a limited, seasonal variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds, that is likely not diverse enough to supply all the essential nutrients. People had to rely on the cow who ate grass and other greens which contained these nutrients, processed that into milk and thereafter supplied these nutrients in edible form for humans.

    Nowadays, we have access to large varieties of plant foods from a much larger area of land than just our local neighborhood. And even in our local neighborhoods, we have climate-control technologies that allow us to grow a much larger variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds than what our ancestors could manage. Therefore, it has become physiologically feasible to lead an entirely plant-based lifestyle, while our ancestors probably couldn’t have managed it.

    Therefore, Veganism is just the modern embodiment of Ahimsa. Simply put, an Ahimsan/Vegan never deliberately hurts an innocent being unnecessarily.

  5. Words do matter if you want to identify yourself as belonging to a particular religion or movement.
    My actions are informed by my personal concepts of morality, ahimsa, and compassion, which cause me to avoid meat, dairy products, leather, wool, and so on. But I don’t call myself vegan because that to me suggests a level of perfection in my lifestyle which I do not believe I have achieved, and may not even be achievable for me. So I am satisfied to be a vegetarian who doesn’t eat dairy products, etc., etc. If I slip, it’s between my conscience in me, but I really do try to live by these ideals to the best of my ability.
    Others, knowing of my vegan diet, sometimes do call me vegan, but it is not a label I use for myself.

    1. Greetings, Marilyn, I’m the same. And in the same way, I never call myself a “Christian”, and I don’t like the term – because, let’s admit it, no-one(?) is able to live completely the life demonstrated by Jesus…

      1. Hi, Noelene,
        I prefer “follower of Jesus.”

        Part of my resistance to calling myself a vegan is also out of respect for those people who have achieved this. I believe many such people do exist, and vegan is the term for them. I am vegan enough to avoid honey a favorite candy, Good ‘n’ Plenty, after I learned it contained ground bugs. I don’t buy leather, but I have leather items I bought before, and I sometimes use them. I also gave some of them away. All this said, if I were starving, I’m pretty sure I’d eat anything.

        I guess my feelings about these issues would suggest that I do actually think words matter to me—very much. 🙂

        Thank you for your reply. I’m happy to know I am not alone in my thinking.

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