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. Continue reading “Defining veganism: sometimes words matter”

What is it with Buddhists and the First Precept?

The first precept of Buddhism is variously cited as “abstaining from taking life,” “not taking the life of any sentient creature,” or “not killing.” Buddhist groups seem to agree that the life which we are not to kill includes animals and even insects.  So the first precept clearly implies (at least) vegetarianism.

But while many Buddhists are vegetarian, many other Buddhists are not.  Many Buddhist teachers say that you don’t need to become vegetarian, and even claim that the Buddha was not vegetarian. Continue reading “What is it with Buddhists and the First Precept?”

Stephen Batchelor, the Historical Buddha, and Vegetarianism


Stephen Batchelor spoke at the Tattered Cover Bookstore on March 16 plugging his book, “Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist.” I was intrigued by his interest in the question of the “historical Buddha,” which has rarely been investigated. I asked him whether he (Batchelor) was a vegetarian, whether the historical Buddha was a vegetarian, and how this all related to the first precept (not to take the life of any sentient creature). Continue reading “Stephen Batchelor, the Historical Buddha, and Vegetarianism”

Buddhism and Heifer International

Tricycle-Jan-2008-cover[The Spring 2008 issue of Tricycle, the “independent voice of Buddhism,” published the following letter to the editor from Kate Lawrence]

To the editor:

I was glad to see “Gifts That Keep Giving,” encouraging readers to give gifts through compassionate charities, but shocked to see that Heifer International was included in the list.

As Buddhists, a donation through Heifer violates the First Precept about not killing. These animals and their offspring will be killed, and killed specifically at the request of the donor. Do we really want to celebrate the holidays by sending animals to slaughter? Even if the donated animal is kept for milk or egg production, there is still killing involved: the female animals’ unwanted male siblings have most likely been slaughtered sooner rather than later.

Buddha’s teaching considers animals to be sentient beings, yet to Heifer, Oxfam, and similar organizations they are simply commodities to be used. For example, rabbits are described in a Heifer brochure as “a great source of protein” instead of being recognized as intelligent beings worthy of respect. (I live with three house rabbits, so I’ve been able to observe firsthand what complex creatures they are.)

Secondly, farming animals is an inefficient, expensive, and environmentally destructive way of producing food. Non-native livestock are being introduced to fragile habitats, where grazing destroys the fertility of the land, and reduces the amount of farmland available to local people. Maneka Gandhi, former Indian minister for social welfare and animal protection, comments, “It is madness to send goats, cows, and chickens to areas where they will add to the problems of drought and desertification . . . Within two years the people who get goats have an even poorer lifestyle.” In addition, many recipients of gift animals are unable to feed them to maturity, much less feed and raise offspring.

We need to turn away from bloodshed and environmental degradation and spend our charitable dollars on more compassionate hunger relief. Give fruit trees ( or training in soybean production ( instead, or donate groceries to a local food bank.


Kate Lawrence

Note: Tricycle published a response from Heifer International which denied that their animals hurt the environment, were raised inhumanely, or were killed needlessly, but did not contest the point that contributing to their cause was a violation of the First Precept of Buddhism.