(Featured image: carving of the Buddha surrounded by animals in Borobudur, a 9th century Buddhist temple in Java, Indonesia. Credit Wolf Clifton – Animal People, Inc.)
Since writing an unpublished book on ahimsa, I have been doing some more recent research into scriptures. This is mainly addressed to my fellow Buddhists.
Why Does Animal Suffering Matter?
Pain and Stress
All vertebrate species and many invertebrate species can feel pain and stress. They have pain receptors (N-cells) and have opioids to – when necessary – block pain and stress. Pain is the most essential sense we have – without it most creatures would soon die, as they could not sense burning or damage and would not flee a threat. Worms for instance have pain receptors and produce opioids. Many creatures that we regard as “simple” have complex learning procedures that can make use of this ability to feel pain. I believe that all sensory abilities developed from this basic capacity for pain.
Animals are often imprisoned in cages for people to rear them for food. This can cause immense suffering. The creatures are then killed when at the time of greatest economic benefit to the farmer. Even in slaughterhouses which have stunning, it is rarely effective. I have spoken to workers from these places and I have seen films and read books about the subject. An animal does not die happy in a slaughterhouse.
I believe it is morally wrong to imprison an animal (or to take away its young, to de-beak it, etc.) to use it as food. I also believe it is wrong to kill an animal. Both these things are wrong.
Many welfare experts and farmers will tell you that animals feel no pain during confinement and during slaughter. They are wrong on both counts. If you eat meat you must at least look at videos like these to see what really happens:
Veganism is good for the planet, for the environment, and is healthy. This is true and not my boasting. Check out any vegan website like the Vegan Society’s one:
So, animals feel pain and they suffer and are killed by the billions for the food industry. The person who buys the “food” is just as guilty as the butcher or the slaughterhouse worker.
Morally, as Buddhists, we have three methods we can consider when we ask ourselves whether it is correct to eat animals.
Firstly, we can read and study scriptures. As someone who has spent many years of his life researching texts that are many centuries old, I know how inaccurate they can be. And as a writer who reads a lot of translations, I know how hard it is to get a translation to say things that are anywhere close to the original. I have seen different translations of the same Pali text by Pali experts and they can often be very dissimilar. Furthermore, Pali texts that the Buddha is supposed to have said were written down hundreds of years after he spoke the words. The Buddha himself is said to have told followers not to trust every word they hear or read.
Most of the Mahayana scriptures praise vegetarianism for all (including monks and nuns). However, most Mahayana practitioners still eat meat. In Tibet it had been argued that the poor soil did not allow crops to grow in enough quantity and variety to support a vegetarian life style. I would argue that “not killing” is the prime concern and someone should move to where they can find food that can be eaten without causing harm.
There once lived an enlightened Monk called Devadatta who lived a vegetarian life around the time of the Buddha’s parinirvana (passage into nirvana after death). However, many Pali texts later wrote of Devadatta as a cruel person, and decried his call for monks to be vegetarian. Devadatta is described as asking the Buddha to make it a requirement that all monks should be vegetarian. He also advocated a life in the forest for all monks. In the Pali scriptures the Buddha refuses. The stories that follow of Devadatta trying to kill the Buddha again and again are fantastical and hard to believe.
In the Udana volume 1 page 5, Devadatta is described by the Buddha as an arhat. An arhat is one who has the same degree of spiritual attainment as the Buddha but has (unlike the Buddha) obtained this with the help of a Buddha’s teaching. An arhat – I believe – is not able to go back to being someone who commits cruel deeds.
Devadatta is also praised in the Vinaya of the Sarvastvada, and in the Anguttaranikaya. In 400 AD, Fa-hsien travelled to India and described meeting followers of the path of Devadatta. The monks made offerings to the “three former Buddhas but not to Sakyamuni [the historical]Buddha.” Devadatta’s teachings lasted at least a thousand years. He must have had an important teaching to preserve.
In the Mahayana Sutra The Lotus of the True Law, the Buddha tells of how he had had in a previous life Devadatta as his spiritual teacher. Perhaps this tale should refer to the Buddha’s own lifetime and perhaps Devadatta was his Teacher then. The Sutra goes on to describe Devadatta in distant future times as becoming a great Teacher: a Tathagata.
All the texts acknowledge Devadatta as a powerful teacher with many devoted followers. Claims that he was a cruel person or betrayed the Buddha, and attempts to discredit vegetarianism by association with him, should be viewed as highly suspect.
See also: “A Condemned Saint: Devadatta”
Historically, terms like Buddha and enlightened were once used to describe various teachers of ahimsa, like the founder of the modern variant of the Jain religion, Mahavira. Mahavira was originally a follower of the teachings of Parsvanatha. There are still followers of Parsvanatha in India today. They are still vegetarians. There were numerous individuals claiming to know the path to enlightenment. There were also said to be other Buddhas before the historical Buddha.
Jains believe that the historical Buddha himself practiced penance according to the Jain way before taking his own path to enlightenment. And this seems likely.
The best book on ahimsa, the ideal of “harmlessness,” that I have read is out of print. It is Ahimsa: Non-violence in Indian Tradition (1976) by Unto Tahtinen. There I first learned that the Jains believe that their religion goes back to the Indus Civilisation of 3,000 B.C. There is some evidence to back this up.
I have heard Buddhist monks argue that it is a greater harm to offend someone by refusing the meat they have offered than it is for the animal to die (i.e. imprisoned for months and then slaughtered). Someone has no cause to feel offended by someone expressing their compassion. Also, if we only did things to please those we meet then we would join gangs and get in fights so as to not offend our pals. Buddhism is/was a middle path between the self-harm endured by a Jain monk or nun (this is done as part of a process of meditation and is not mere masochism) and the life of someone who can only run from one sensual pleasure to another. Living a Middle Path does not mean doing whatever causes the least upset to others, at the expense of animals’ lives (or one’s own health, for that matter. Many monks are overweight and suffer health problems like diabetes, issues which can be alleviated through a vegetarian diet).
I think it is not a waste of time to ask ourselves what we mean by saying we are a Buddhist. Each of us would have a slightly different answer. There are so many different groups that claim to be interpreting the Buddha’s message correctly.
When I was 16 and contemplating the meaning of life, I sat down one day and asked myself what I knew was undeniably true. My answer was that it is wrong to cause suffering (to me there has never been any differentiation between animals and humans). So I looked at the only two religions that I believed dealt with that question: Jainism and Buddhism. I was closer to the belief system of what is called Buddhism than Jainism. But although I have convinced myself of the truth of many Buddhist ideas, I still question whether a life to life rebirth really occurs. And whether Karma really happens.
I also still find many faults in the ideas of certain Buddhist monks with regards to members of minority religions, such as Hindus, Muslims, and Christians persecuted under Buddhist rule. For example, in Burma, Sri Lanka, and, historically, in Japan for centuries leading up to the Second World War. I also have problems with some Buddhist monks’ views on warfare. Indeed the Zen master Takuan Soho wrote about how best a sword master may fight. I do not believe that is what the principles of Buddhism were to be used for. I used to be a blue belt in Aikido and read a great deal about sword technique (and practised with a wooden sword). It was not something I felt comfortable with. I find no honour or morality in what the samurai did.
Also, Buddhism does not regard monks and nuns as being of equal status. Women have been forced into an inferior position in most Indian religions – but that does not make it right!
Despite the above, as an individual, Buddhism makes me think out my every act and thought and whether it harms another. In international terms, Buddhism is still a “relatively” peaceful religion.
I have a small “f” faith in many Buddhist texts but not a big “F” Faith. By that I mean that I have seen some truths to be enacted outside scriptures, but I do not believe that every word in the Pali Canon is true. I am not a fundamentalist.
A Monk or Nun who accepts meat knows that it comes from animal slaughter, but promotes the illusion that they do not know where it came from and who it was bought for, feigning karmic purity. If monks and nuns stopped eating animals, many millions of lives would be saved each year. Also, Buddhist lay people would be more likely to adopt a moral lifestyle and be vegetarian or vegan, influenced by such a good example.
I have witnessed a Theravada monk who would have preferred to be vegetarian being given meat and fish from people who had just bought these goods at the supermarket. The monk ate these foods saying he could not offend the giver. These dead animals were bought for the monk so that the giver would gain good merit.
I have seen Buddhist websites where Buddhist groups have argued against vegetarianism for monks and nuns. They have argued that Buddhists go vegetarian just to “show off”. This is a very strange argument, and is wrong.
Secondly, when it comes to the issue of whether or not to eat animals, we can try to improve our decision making by using meditation as part of our life.
I have tried as an adult to practise a Buddhist life. However, if I thought that the Buddha allowed meat eating for monks, nuns and laypeople (and I do not believe that he did) then I would not call myself a Buddhist. I still cannot truly accept a life to life rebirth. And I find Karma hard to believe. But I do practise meditation to try and liberate my mind.
Without somewhere quiet to practise meditation properly, I have concentrated on living life while trying to understand each moment’s thoughts and motivations. I have in the past mostly practised Theravada meditation. On Holy Island (near Arran) I experienced what I think is called, “Seeing the Buddha” while doing Tibetan meditation. This is known as “Satori” in Zen. And as “First Jhana” in Theravada. It is something you are not meant to speak about, but I hope I am saying this not to say I am a good person or to boast but merely to say I have made a commitment to Buddhism. This experience was unlike any other I have had. It was intense, lasted for hours, and had no sensuality to it. It was joy. I felt as if a rush of white light was entering from above my head and going through my body. Such experiences I am sure have only good after effects (very different from someone taking drugs).
I believe that Monks and Nuns speak truly when they speak of ever deeper states of meditation. But the big question is, “does this eventually lead to someone passing beyond life and death?”
For those of the Mahayana persuasion, they ultimately avoid Nirvana and instead go on the path towards being a Bodhisattva, a being who remains within the cycle of life and death out of compassion for others.
Guided by meditation, I have made a commitment to active ahimsa and have been arrested a few times for trying to save animals. My protests were non-violent and I hope showed no dislike of those I was protesting against. The protest should be for the animals, for the protester and for those protested against.
Thirdly, just because we are Buddhists does not mean that we cannot look at things from our own intrinsic sense of what is morally right or wrong. There is one thing that I know that I have no doubts about and that is: that it is morally wrong to eat animals (or bits of animals).
I genuinely do not understand why so many caring people eat other animals. The more I read about human motivation and psychology the more I believe that perhaps ordinary people can do horrible things (for what else is eating meat?). If Scotland was a mostly Jain country, I believe that the non-vegetarians would feel guilty about eating meat and stop. I talk to people who eat meat who cannot understand how anyone could not oppose slavery at the time it was legal. Yet meat eating is just another form of oppression, but one that is allowed and encouraged in most countries. People will never face being made to feel guilty for eating flesh. Exploited animals must rely on individuals looking at what they do and asking, “Is this morally right?” Not, “Can I get away with doing this?”
Thich Nhat Hanh, founder of the Plum Village tradition, is probably one of the best known Buddhist figures in the World. At his meditation retreats people eat a vegan diet.
The Dalai Lama seems to have expressed a lot of different opinions on vegetarianism and I cannot find consistency there. Most of his life he has eaten meat. I have mixed opinions about some of his teachings.
This is an interesting article about another of Tibetan Buddhism’s leaders, the Karmapa Lama, who promotes vegetarianism:
Here are some more interesting articles by the Group of Tibetan Buddhists who also have a community on Holy Isle (well worth visiting!):
An Aside about Buddhism
In December 2015, I read a review of the population census of Scotland. Numerically there are more Buddhists in Scotland than adherents of many other well known religions. Almost all of these people who call themselves Buddhists were born into another religion and have changed. In the future we may see this change to Buddhism accelerate. Firstly there will be these new Buddhists, whose children will probably become Buddhist. Also there will be those continually changing to Buddhism from other religions. Hopefully this will cause the Government and other bodies to pay more attention to Buddhism. Other religions tend to be able to lobby for themselves, but Buddhists in Scotland at the moment are a group of separated individuals. I think all Buddhists in Scotland should try to come together. Buddhists tend not to be pushy, but sometimes we can be too laid back.
This bit I read in a book about ten years ago but cannot remember the book. Sorry for not referencing it. The author said – as far as I can remember – that there were three types of religious belief:
- Religions of Faith where a Prophet tells others what God has told them. These words are written up in Holy books and cannot be argued about, as believers think they are the word of God.
- Philosophical systems which rely on logic. This seems quite good to me, but still people argue about which system is correct.
- Religions which involve cleansing the believer’s mind so they can look at things without bias. For instance, Buddhism asks believers to examine their emotions and thoughts and try to free themselves from delusions and desires. It is believed that it is impossible to see things clearly when one is riddled with delusions and sensual desires.
I think this is a good explanation of beliefs.
Having spent many years studying Buddhism and Jainism, my understanding of the relevant scriptures is that there are two types of Ahimsa, or “harmlessness,” that can be employed by adherents of either religion. In “non-active ahimsa”, the person tries not to harm any creature. They do not try to change others because their own actions may be rooted in ignorance and so cause more harm than good. This is a very sensible position and is my default position for deciding on day to day matters, e.g. what I say and what I do. One is not merely doing nothing. One is deciding after deliberation that it is best in this instance not to take any action that involves trying to change the views and perceptions of others. One is not just a passive observer. Mindful non-active ahimsa can change the person who is doing the deliberation.
A person who lives a life of “non-active ahimsa” is still questioning the actions that they take that affect others. For instance, they will use kind words that are useful. They will be vegetarian or vegan.
However, I think that after a lot of research into a particular area of concern – where animals or humans are being harmed – that you may take action. I call this, “active ahimsa”. Using “active ahimsa,” one tries to change oneself and also try to change “others”. “Others” can be the person or group engaged in wrongdoing. It could be those on the street who are watching the protest you are taking part in. As you are taking strong action, the onus is on you to be pretty sure that you are doing the right thing and saying the right thing. But you can never be certain that you are right in every case. And you must also re-evaluate – after doing an action – whether that action has been successful.
I should point out that Gandhi developed his own variant of protest that was distinct from traditional forms of ahimsa.
There are two main actions that I take in my life that I hope are correctly aimed at helping other beings. Firstly, I take part in protests and marches where I am pretty certain that I am doing the right thing and that the group I am with is doing the right thing. I am an animal rights and human rights activist.
The protest should be right for human and/or non-human animals, for the protester, and for those protested against. You want those you protest against to see that you are acting with truth and ahimsa and not trying to “show off”. Protest can influence – either way- those we protest against. And never risk an animal’s – or anyone’s – life at a protest.
The second type of action that I take is writing and performing multi-voice poetry.
Multi-Voice Poetry As Active Ahimsa
Knowledge is essential. Using a multi-voice poetic format tends to mean having to research an area that you will be writing about, such as child labour. You then make sure that you write with concern for all involved in the chosen subject area.
You can then (for example) create words that give both sides to a dispute. Hopefully, you will skilfully illustrate the moral correctness of one particular view point. But, in most cases, there is more than one viewpoint and you will bear this in mind. Give respect to every viewpoint no matter how blinkered you think it is.
Multi-voice poetry allows vocal effects to emphasise the arguments given in the poem. For instance, chaotic sounds where performers are talking over each other emphasise disharmony. Using more than one performer to present the audience with ideas that are in harmony can be supported by words that build up sympathetic rhythms when used at the same time.
The performers in a multi-voice poem usually bond very well with each other, as they each feel that they are part of a larger “truth”. When I have performed single voice poetry you sometimes get some competitiveness between poets. Not so with multi-voice.
So, I am asking people who read this to consider writing multi-voice poems with whatever group they are part of: drama, poetry, anti-racism groups, etc. When they perform the pieces they will be changing themselves and changing the audience. I have been writing and performing multi-voice poetry for ten years now. It works!
If you need help with setting out the poem, please contact me. I genuinely want to set up multi-voice groups around the world.
A Total Beginner’s Guide to Performing Multi-Voice
Firstly, don’t panic. It looks complicated but is all do-able. When doing first readings it helps to have an actor or poet look through the column of words that they are reading and underline in coloured pen any words/phrases they are speaking at the same time as other performers, and underline those actors’ lines too. (words spoken at the same time can also be printed in italic) Each actor reads down the page until they come to a bit with words and then they read them. So all bits of text at the same height on the page get read at the same time. It helps to print out the text double space.
Lots of dots on a line of text signify that words that another speaker are reading are not to be spoken by you. The gap is not meant to be exact and will be fine-tuned in rehearsal.
I have written and performed multi-voice for ten years and this is the simplest way to get the actor to understand the lines.
Multi-voice is much more than just interruptions in text, and so I don’t use slashes.
Basically, words and phrase can be spoken at the same time. The resulting joining of sounds creates a new sound that can vary greatly – anything from Chaotic to Melodic. This sound is used to amplify or reinforce an action or emotion the character is portraying at that time.
Each speaker must ensure that their own lines are not overwhelmed by that of the other speaker/s.
Multi-voice is excellent for having each speaker show different views of the same situation. As an example, when there are only two speakers, these voices can be used effectively in opposition to each other, this being emphasised with the speakers facing each other and using inflammatory language.
Subtle rhythms can be built up by the combinations of speakers’ words.
Multi-voice is not a gimmick. Audiences love the complexity and having to work to understand the words that are spoken – they listen harder.
Although people don’t normally speak in multi-voice, the technique is (in my opinion) as viable as Ballet or Opera. It adds another dimension to the poem. Anyone interested in multi-voice is welcome to contact me for more information.
How to Write a Particular Multi-Voice Poem
I will now take you through the writing process for my much-requested multi-voice poem, Peace. It is on my multi-voice site.
Firstly, I looked at various Wars around the World. I wanted to have two opposing voices shouting at each other. Both in favour of war. One is Hate and the other War.
I wanted a narrator’s voice to give the reasons for Peace. I also thought that simply saying the word Peace would be effective. There are accordingly four viewpoints (spoken by five actors in the film).
The two aggressive characters speak at the same time and disrupt one another’s words. And that is intentional. When they are not speaking I can let the other voices speak for Peace.
At the end of the poem, the performers appeal to the audience to say with them the word, Peace. I believe that words have power.
Please listen to the last poem in the video of Poems Against War part 2.
I am trying to start up multi-voice groups around the World. Please contact me if you are interested. And please look at the film links.
Some multi-voice work:
Chromatic Voices 2 performing Poems Against War live at Seeds of Thought:
I have several multi-voice websites, with the following addresses:
You can also find me on Facebook.
I believe there should be more dialogue between Jains and Buddhists. We have ahimsa in common.
Jain Prayer of Bliss for All:
May the entire universe be blissful;
May all beings be engaged in each other’s wellbeing;
May all weakness, sickness and faults vanish;
May everyone be healthy, peaceful, and blissful everywhere.