The first precept is trundled out at varying intervals whenever comparison is made with other religions as an example of Buddhist 'compassion'. As a touchstone of our awareness of the existence of sentient beings other than ourselves it often salves quite a few Buddhist consciences. But for the majority of Buddhists in the West, especially in this country, does it really mean anything to them?
Judging by the number who tuck into 'meat and two veg', it means little, unless one accepts that the majority of the animal kingdom is further along the bodhisattva path than the people eating said animals. a have yet to hear any Buddhist ask when they tuck into their beef burger or Kentucky fried etc. "Did this animal die without fear, was it well cared for in its last moments?" Come to think of it, I have yet to hear any Buddhist meat eater ask whether the food (and money involved in raising them) used to feed animals raised for food could be better used. Yet the inefficiency of feeding food to animals to be consumed for food is well enough documented.
It is sometimes argued that everything has a life force and that a cabbage has its share of life force too. Whether a cabbage is a sentient being or not I don't know. But I note that the Buddha is recorded as having proscribed meat for bhikkhus if they knew that it had come from an animal killed especially for said hungry bhikkhu. (Presumably this applied to bhfkkhunis also, we seem to be very good at forgetting bhikkhunis ever existed...) This suggests to me that the Buddha at least saw some degree of difference between cabbages and cattle.
Okay, so it is not within everyone's reach to be a vegan and avoid all animal exploitation (though in fact very often the pesticides used to protect the plants vegans eat have been tested on animals. ditto many medicines...) Though like many things it may be more achievable than is thought. There are quite a few prisoners currently registered as Buddhists who, as part of their practice. have taken on a vegan diet. This Is an option open to all registered Buddhist prisoners. And as an expression of Intent it Is quite thought provoking to those with experience of the reality of prison cooking.
Some time ago an attempt was made to start a Buddhist Animal Rights Group (BARG), an effort which seemed to be ignored by the Buddhist community in this country. Mind you, given the almost total disinterest some groups have in the existence and welfare of other Buddhist groups - and this in their own country, it is not too surprising. After all, in our earlier Incarnation as a Buddhist Peace Fellowship, the most frequently heard remark was along the lines of, 'what's the point, all Buddhists are peaceful anyway.' If anyone knows what happened to BARG (does it still exist?), drop a line with the contact address to one of us via INDRA'S NET.
One of the implications of the disinterest seems to be that animals are in that form because they still haven't 'advanced', though no one ever seems to be clear about the nature of the advancement to come. It seems somehow also to be implied by some that beings not human beings makes them inferior spiritually. The stepping stone to seeing animals as inferior as regards rights seems one that is taken by too many Buddhists, in this and other countries. The other popular view seems to call on our old friend the Inherited 'karma' along the lines that as animals they couldn't help acquiring their present Incarnation and that a good dose of suffering will help them along. This may be true in essence but again, the stepping stone of helping someone reach advancement by eating them seems present in the thinking of some.
You might think I jest (and in bad taste too) but I have to tell you that there is nothing mentioned in this article that has not emerged in conversations with other Buddhists of more than one tradition and more than one nationality. So, the next time we go for refuge and intone (and how often this is done without mindfulness?) the first precept, maybe we should wonder a little more about how you intend to try to keep it. Could perhaps our practice could be stretched a little further for ALL sentient beings?
The address of the Vegan Society, if you are curious, is: 7 Battle Road, St. Leonards-on-Sea, Sussex TN37 7AA
Copy from Indra's Network, Journal of the UK Network of Engaged Buddhist.