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24 March 1999 Issue
Observing The First Precept

In 1982, after I had been 56 years a vegetarian, Dr E.W. Adikaram formed the
Sri Lanka Vegetarian Society and asked me to be one of its Patrons, the other
being himself. Till then I had been a vegetarian, first due to sheer upbringing and
later due to the gut feeling that it was not right, it was not fair, to participate in
the process of killing animals to feed ourselves. By my own life experience I
knew it was also not necessary - though at that time we did not have the
scientific support to vegetarianism that exists today.

At university I studied several languages one of which was Pali. As Pali was
the language of Theravada Buddhism, that led me to an indirect study of
Buddhist religious texts. Many of the canonical texts of Buddhism resonated
with my conscience and they were also intellectually satisfying; and so
gradually I began to give deep attention to what I read in those texts.

One of the things that struck me profoundly was that what the Buddha
offered was not a religion of routine and habit, but one which, in spite of its
extraordinary mix of simplicity and complexity, could also to a very great extent
be tested on the anvil of reason. The other thing that struck me equally strongly
was the indubitably ethical nature of the way of life that the Buddha commen-
ded. The universal attraction of a text like the Dhammapada - which is really a
good mirror of the simplicity and the complexity of Buddhism - lies largely in the
fact that it teaches a way of life that appeals to the deepest ethical sentiments of
the human species. And I would say that the ethics that one comes across in
such texts as the Dhammapada rests infinitely more on human compassion and
a feeling for justice and fairness than on any precepts.

Let me illustrate this by an example. We have all read the famous stanza which
says that we should understand others by our own reactions: we would then not
kill nor cause others to kill. There is no precept here. Rather, the Buddha here
points out the result of empathy: what happens when one has sensitivity. The
statement is a distillation of humane experience. It may be due to civilization, or
it may be the result of a distinctive trait of human psychology; whatever it is, the
fact is that unless you are hardened by the habits taught by a villainous
environment, you shrink from inflicting on others what you yourself do not wish
to suffer. After all, is this not the basis of all justice? Is this not why we insist on
fair play?

The Buddha continues to appeal to this aspect of human nature when, for
example he says that all beings are frightened by weapons that inflict pain, that
every one tries to escape from death. Why does he say every one? Does he
not appeal to the conscience of his audience when he says this? Don't think
that you are the only one who wishes to avoid pain and death. Every one does.
And as we learn from what he says about compassion, every one does not
mean human beings only. The universal kindness that the Buddha commends
is quite clearly based on his own deep realization of the fact that all beings are
capable of suffering and any sensitive person is prone by such realization to do
what he or she can to eliminate or minimize such suffering. The point then is
not whether we are mechanically going to obey a rule, but whether we can be
sensitive, whether we can have that osmotic quality of the heart through which
the pains and sufferings of others can seep into our own hearts. Sensitivity
means that their pains and sufferings are also our own. If we can be sensitive
in that way, it is not important whether we recite a precept or not. We will
instinctively and of necessity desist from what the precept teaches us to avoid.

Why then did the Buddha teach a code of conduct which we recognise as the
five precepts? In his own words the world is full of all kinds of persons. Some
have more ‘dust’ on their eyes than others do. It would be fair to say that he
tried to rub out some of that dust, though he knew that the full elimination of it
can only be by the persons concerned themselves. Evidently, he did this with
great passion and infinite hard work. The precepts perhaps should be seen as
his anguished appeal to the conscience of human beings to lead an ethical life.
In their utter simplicity, they represent almost all that is needed for a society to
groom itself to a life of orderliness and compassion.

And now let us consider what are the implications of the first of these precepts.
Actually the Buddha has not left any grey area where we have to grope in the
dark as to what these implications are - what he had in mind when he called on
us to take upon ourselves the discipline (sikkha) of refraining from killing. In the
Dhammika Sutta in particular - but everywhere in spirit - he says that not to kill
means three things: You do not do it yourself; you do not get others to do it;
and you do not encourage, condone or applaud, you do not aid and abet,
when others do it. What more does one need to prove that one cannot observe
this precept as long as one buys the flesh of animals slain for our consumption?
What encouragement does the meat industry need from us except that we eat
what they kill?

There are people who say that the first precept is negatively formulated, and
that this is intentionally done - to allow us room to eat animals that are killed by
others. Such people conveniently forget the positive corollary of the negatively
worded precept. Buddhism does not stop at teaching us not to kill. It also insists
that we protect and cherish all life. This is the teaching of loving kindness:
"May all beings be happy". Everybody says - at least all Buddhists do - that
Buddhism is a practical religion. If this practicality means that we can eat
animals, then we have to admit that in insisting at the same time on happiness
for all beings, it is being severely unpractical.

Actually Buddhism is practical. But the practicality lies elsewhere. It does not
ask us to attempt the impossible - like tying a cloth over your nose lest you
breathe in any invisible creatures, like refusing to walk lest you trample on tiny
creatures that abound everywhere. We do what we can. We do the utmost that
we can. That is all.

It is true that the Buddha did not lay down a rule for monks to be vegetarian.
That was because they at that time depended on alms given by others, many of
whom were not the Buddha’s followers. It was also not his style to be a spiritual
autocrat. But then, he laid down that right livelihood of lay people excludes the
sale of flesh. What does that mean? It means that if a community is totally
Buddhist, there cannot be any trade in animal products in that community and
therefore no consumption of flesh. Is that not sufficient as an argument for
Buddhist vegetarianism, if one needs an argument?

There is one other point that I wish to call attention to. As I said earlier, we are
not just being led by an arid wish to follow a rule, or even by a wish to gather
merit for ourselves, when we consciously make the decision not to have any-
thing to do with what killers of animals offer to us. We make that decision
realising what is actually happening in the brutal world in which we are fated to
live. In this world there are such things as animal farms. These factory farms
are a hideous outgrowth of modern industry. They follow all of the horrendous
evil that goes with the basic dictum of modern industry - greatest profit at least
cost. From that flows the most unconscionable features of the modern animal
farm: the techniques of "intensive confinement", denial of free movement and
all other traces of a natural life to animals so confined - which includes removal
of the young from contact with the mother, keeping them in total darkness for
long periods of time, filthy and overcrowded living conditions, over-feeding,
under-feeding, cutting their beaks and tails utterly merciless modes of
transportation and the final brutal act of the inevitable torturous slaughter.
Especially the slaughter of large animals - cattle, pigs, goats, sheep - is not a
job quickly done, like swatting a mosquito. It is an abominable long drawn-out
process that offends the moral conscience of all sensitive human beings.
Slow murder. Torture at its worst thinkable.

(Please don't take me amiss. I do not mean that we have to swat mosquitoes.
Or that killing smaller animals is all right. This is just an example to highlight the
greater brutality of the slaughter of large animals.)

The modern animal farm is unlike anything that was known in the world in which
the Buddha lived. Had he lived in the twentieth century, I can hardly doubt that
he would have made the first precept still more explicit and recommended
vegetarianism to his followers.

The Buddha, had he lived in the world today, would have certainly grasped the
tremendous ecological / environmental hazards to which the planet is exposed
by the life styles that are now gaining universal currency. In this context we
cannot fail to be struck by the fact that meat eating is one of the prime reasons
for a great deal of damage to the environment of planet earth. Not many people
realise that 33% of the world’s total harvest of grain (and 70% of the massive
US harvest) goes to feed livestock of the animal farms of the world. (This does
not include the free ranging cattle and goats and other animals in the peasant
economies of the world). It is said that the entire human population could be
adequately fed with just one quarter of the corn, soya etc. that are now being
used to feed livestock destined to the slaughter-house. And that means that
three quarters of the massive acreage devoted to cultivating this livestock-feed
can be diverted to forestry. That alone will reverse much of the environmental
degradation that the planet is currently going through, with all that it costs to
the quality of life of every species of its living beings. Awareness of this fact is
a compelling factor for millions of sensitive people of all faiths to renounce
meat eating and take to vegetarianism and veganism.

The modern vegetarian movement, which is vigorous and vitally active in many
parts of the world, is firmly anchored in an ethical foundation which takes into
account the right of animals to life and freedom - and kindly treatment at our
hands - as well as the duty of us all to protect the planet’s environment: so that
all forms of life will flourish as they did before the onset of the disastrous life
styles that are currently fashionable. If the Buddha were alive, he would have
certainly been one of the prime advocates of such an ethical way of life.

And as I see it, this is what the first precept is all about: an ethical way of life
that stands for the welfare and protection of all living beings upon this fragile
planet that is our common home.

Prof. Mahinda Palihawadana
President, Sri Lanka Vegetarian Society

Go on to Old Dogs Do Not Die
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