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Ethics and right livelihood

Ethics and right livelihood

  • A letter from a student whose parents work in the cattle industry
  • The difference in views between other religions and Buddhism
  • How to be skillful in handling the difference in views

To continue on with our discussion of ethics somebody wrote in and said,

This discussion really hits home for me. My parents are cattle farmers and they raise cattle to sell and be butchered. They don’t make lots of money doing it, they just support themselves. They also kill animals themselves for their own personal consumption, such as cows, sheep, rabbits, chickens, ducks, fish, and so forth. They’ve probably killed hundreds of animals in their lives so far, or have had a direct involvement in them being killed. As a child they taught me how to kill animals as well, when I was as young as six years old. However, this would be my own negative karma, to be born among “barbarians,” so I have come to understand this. I remember stirring a bowl of blood to make blood sausage. It absolutely horrifies me now. But I find it very hard to watch, and to go for suppers, knowing what they do. I have tried to explain to them, but they believe that they are doing nothing wrong. They’ve heard a bit about Buddhism and they say, “It’s too much,” and they don’t want to change their lives. I feel like I should be doing something, but I don’t know what. I keep thinking about it a lot. A person can only say so much before it ends in them never speaking to me again. What are your thoughts or advice to this?

[sigh] Whew. Difficult situation. But I’ll bet you a lot of people have this kind of thing, because there are many families that work in this industry of raising cattle, and butchering them. All the people who go out fishing and bring back seafood and kill it, and so forth. Or people who sell live seafood. Restaurants that have live seafood. I mean, this is… There are a lot of people doing this.

There’s a real big difference in views here. According to Christianity the animals (and so forth) were put here for human beings to enjoy. Killing them to eat them is not considered anything wrong.

I remember, many years ago, when I lived in France we were close to some Catholic sisters. I remember one time we went and spent a couple of days at their place. On the first day there we were about to sit down and there was a bug, or a spider, some kind of insect running around, and one of the nuns just dashed up to go smash it. And I dashed up to try and stop her. I can’t remember whether I did or not, but it provoked a whole discussion about what Christianity says about animals and killing them versus what Buddhism says, and there’s a huge difference.

I don’t know whether her [the writer’s] parents are Christian or not, because this same thing happens in Judaism, Islam, most other religions eat meat. Hindus, some eat meat, but many are vegetarian. Many Hindus are. And of course the Jains are vegetarian. But for many people, they just have this view, or even they aren’t religious they grow up in a country where this is just normally accepted practice. Like her parents, they make their living that way. They’re not trying to be millionaires through it.

One place I taught, there was a whole family, many members of the family, coming to teachings, and they were in the cattle business. And they quite liked Buddhism. I was wondering how that fit with them, I never really asked them.

There are just different views on this. Like she noted, she tried to explain to her parents, the way we look at things, that all living beings that have consciousness experience pain and pleasure just like we do. We can tell that animals have pain and pleasure, they want to be happy, they don’t want to suffer, so not to kill them, to let them live. But the parents just say, “This is too much.” Kind of, “What are you talking about?” And she’s very right, you can say this, but then if people reject what you’re saying if you keep saying it and keep saying it it destroys the relationship. It’s not that if you keep saying it and keep saying it they’ll eventually listen.

This is what I was talking about last time, if people are open to dialogue versus people who aren’t open to dialogue, and we have to assess that. If somebody’s not open to dialogue, the more you harp on it the more they turn against you. And we can see that that’s also how we respond when people harp on us about something. We just totally shut them out. So in those kinds of situations you just have to accept that they’re like that, as much as it pains you, and make prayers for them to have a good rebirth and to come, in the future, to understand… To gain a deeper understanding of ethical conduct regarding this. But there’s not a whole lot you can do.

If you go there you can say, “I don’t want to eat meat, don’t cook any meat for me, but I’ll have the other food you eat.” And be vegetarian. But what can you do aside from make prayers, and reinforce in one’s own mind that we’re not going to do that.

When I lived in Seattle near Green Lake i used to take walks around there, and sometimes there were people fishing there. And it was so painful for me to see that. But I knew I couldn’t go up to them and say, “You know, you shouldn’t fish, you’re killing living beings.” I mean, that wouldn’t do any good. It would just cause a ruckus. So I did “taking and giving” meditation, and I tried to generate compassion for the fisher-people and for the fish. And then really said, “I am not going to do this.”

There’s no reason for us to be proud and look down on other people, because any change of circumstances or change of mind, and we could wind up doing something. So it’s really important to keep reaffirming in ourselves that we don’t want to take the lives of any living being.

Any comments?

Audience: What I think, too, is that I found as I started to become vegetarian there’s definitely a craving that happens in the mind and body towards flesh. I was raised around roasted chicken and turkey at Thanksgiving, and there’s a particular sort of craving that can arise. i found that, even if I became vegetarian, there were certain situations that reminded me of special holidays, and situations. If I would indulge in fish or turkey or something like that because it had a memory attached to it. I had a lot of imputed on certain types of foods attached to a holiday. There’s a craving.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): You’re talking about a craving. Is if physical or mental, or both?

Audience: I think it’s both

VTC: You think it’s both. That when you try to become vegetarian a certain craving for meat that’s left over, some may just be physical because you’re habituated to eat it. And then mental if you associate it with certain holidays and family functions, and everybody being together in a good environment, and the family, special holidays, and there may be all those kinds of memories. And you found that you would eat meat on those occasions because it was really difficult to detach yourself both from the tasty longing as well as the mental longing.

For me, the mental longing went away very quickly, because I wasn’t *trying* to become a vegetarian. I became a vegetarian before I became a Buddhist. I was traveling around Europe with some friends and we were camping, and we had gotten sausage. We came back and we were cooking it to eat together. So they put it on my plate and I cut into it all this blood came out, because it was blood sausage. And I was just like “ahhhh, ughhh” you know? At that point it really hit me that I’m eating somebody’s body. And I just said, “I can’t do this.” Yeah, the mental part went away quite quickly. It seemed quite, really gross.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: You’re finding that in your case, becoming vegetarian… That’s not the situation she’s [who wrote the letter] talking about here, we’ve kind of gotten on a different topic. But anyway, that you just said to people, “I’m not going to eat meat.” You didn’t tell them what to do, because telling people what to do, when we’re all a bunch of individuals, usually produces the exact opposite thing. But she found that over time then they started cooking vegetarian, and the last time they were saying how good the vegetarian food was. Sometimes being an example, without saying things, is what gets people thinking.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: It does happen to some of us that our family is very critical, and when you say you think it’s cruel, they feel like you’re criticizing them personally. But, you just have to say, from my perspective it’s like this, and then no judgment involved, and let people think.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Getting more on the topic here is, when you’re living with people that you care about, and you see them doing incredible negative karma. In this case [the letter] it was the killing of animals. In somebody else’s case maybe you see your family engaging in an illegal business. Or doing a legal business but embezzling the money from it. Or people you care about…. Or sleeping with somebody else outside of the marriage. People you care about, who are your friends, or your family, and you see them creating a lot of negative karma, and how difficult that is. You may try and say something to people, and sometimes people are receptive and they’ll think about it, because something’s gnawing at them inside. And sometimes people will just flat out say, “Mind your own business. This is my own life and this is my own choice, and I’m not doing anything wrong, stop being puritanical,” and blah blah blah, and get into a big thing about blaming you. And the thing at that time is you don’t take the blame personally, but you just realize this person has a certain way of thinking, and they’re not open to any new ideas at this moment. We just have to accept that, even though it’s incredibly painful for us to watch that.

But can you imagine what the buddhas and bodhisattvas go through looking at us? We create negative karma and say, “Oh, that doesn’t matter, that’s not so bad,” and things like that, even though they try and help us and correct our behavior, and we’re totally shut down and won’t listen. So it is difficult.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Now that’s something skillful. Isn’t it? She has some friends who visit some other people who do organic farming, and some of what the friends do is cattle raising. But the people who visit don’t help them in the cattle raising, they help them in growing grains, and as a result they’re increasing grains has taken off, so hopefully what’s happening with meat has gone down.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Very good. That’s quite skillful. It takes longer. Because we like to go in and just tell somebody to do something and have them follow our instructions. It doesn’t work that way.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.