I think it’s very important to have these sorts of questions asked. Thank you for being the one to do this right now! We need reminders that challenge us to look at our comfort zones and how they relate to our Practise and understanding about what the Buddha said too.
So I am assuming this is the heart of what you’re asking? Please do correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you’re asking us to set aside our personal beliefs and preferences and see what the EBTs say. I can see that @Pasanna has provided some textual references already - some of which are contained in the essay she has provided a link to.
I value what the EBTs say enormously. However I feel we cannot divorce such questions from our personal lives. The precepts, the 8 Fold Path and so much of what is in the EBTs themselves are a direct challenge to how we have viewed and lived our personal lives for a very, very long time.
For me this all comes back to the deep “personal-ness” of Buddhist spiritual Practice.
Some people I know have chosen to go beyond Vegetarianism and become Vegan. Partly for health reasons. But partly because they’re animal lovers and have done research into how animals are treated before they’re killed for meat in some places, or how they are treated even in dairy farms. There are horror stories. Such stories have caused some people to become Vegan. This is of course, perfectly fine.
If you view it as an act of generosity to be vegetarian/vegan and you find ways of ensuring you have metta for your body and support it using other sources of nutrition…then that’s fine.
If you view this matter in a larger context, developing some equanimity around the mess that is the world, and seek to minimise your intake of meat as a means of contributing to the minimising of harm to other beings, that’s fine too.
If, like one of my relatives, your very specific health issues demand that you consume meat, but you do not kill it and you also seek to acquire it as ethically as possible, that’s fine.
If you know your conditioning around eating and pleasure is too strong, at least you’re being honest and that’s also fine. Perhaps you even take it a step further and do some research so that you acquire you meat from sources that showed gratitude towards the animal, from the moment of it’s birth to it’s death. I believe that at least some ancient indiginous cultures had an attitude of respect towards what they hunted and even asked for forgiveness; further they didn’t eat meat in excess. I know there are some movements among meat-eaters that seek to provide a loving, kind life to the animal prior to a swift execution by someone who did not personally know the animal. (Personally I don’t know how they can do this…it seems like the betrayal of a loved one to me…but perhaps it’s better than some of the horrors some beings have to go through prior to their death.) Such movements are, aside from whatever ethical basis there might be, I think, very much based in the value of meat, not just for health but for pleasure and so you have people comparing the flavours within the meat of an animal who lived happily and an animal that lived unhappily. While there is something repulsive, perverse and dishonest in this - for me - at least there is the minimisation of harm for the animal - though I don’t believe you could live with this sort of betrayal if you believed that animals had a sense of self or even soul or saw them as a being like yourself. Such an action, for me with my Buddhist views which have informed how I interact with other beings, would poison my own heart. I hold the Buddha’s conditioning directly responsible for my viewing my little cats as people trapped in cat bodies!!
If you see the value in vegetarianism/veganism as movements that reduces harm to other beings and to the wider environment and you want to increase their ethical influence, that’s also fine.
If you’ve understood the value of a plant based diet as something that supports you and the planet in the best possible way, then that’s fine too.
Personally, I’ve tried all manner of diets, including that last one (which is brilliant and still greatly informs how I live) and now find that the most important thing is that I continue to be open to new perspectives and to reducing the harm for myself and other beings in the best way that I can right now. It’s not about finding an idealised “I should be doing this…” Rather it’s about starting with self-kindness, self-honesty and being open…and seeing where this leads me.
If you know in your heart whether something feels wrong for you to do and you refrain from doing it, that’s the most important thing. For me it’s about knowing where the line is for me personally and honouring that. But often, for most of us, this line is very, very far away from the first precept. Because the breaking of the first precept involves emotional and psychological states that have the power to make our Practice difficult to develop and will surely present a grave hindrance that will need to be acknowledged and forgiven and let go of; all of which can only be done with the cultivation of a great deal of wisdom and peace; both of which really only manifest when our virtue is very good… It wouldn’t be impossible, it would be very possible, but it would be harder, to return to the centre of our hearts with ease.
Such emotional/psychological harm is not caused by the act of eating meat. Reducing or eliminating meat from our diet is worthwhile and can surely reduce the harm to the other beings and the environment to some degree. And making people aware of these things is also likely to reduce such harm. But these things do not equate to the first precept. The act of putting another version of the 4 elements in our mouth that has gone through all manner of transformation prior to it landing on our fork, is not the same as killing another being. Surely that’s very obvious.
However, the greater sense of ease we would feel in at least reducing our consumption of meat, at least within the boundaries of that which comes out of our own kitchen, is surely something that is good for our hearts and minds to reflect upon. I imagine those of us who are or have been vegetarian/vegan know how much happiness is produced when we reflect upon the fact that we are not contributing to an industry that is essentially one that provides other human beings with Wrong Livelihood, is centred on mass murder for profit and is a major contributor to environmental damage of various kinds; it’s worth noting that these last two aspects would not have been so pronounced and impactful in the Buddha’s time.
Right now in my life it’s a lot simpler, for example, I know that I cannot (not do not, I just cannot bring myself to do it - this is my personal line) buy raw meat. This knowledge gives me a sense of ease. It might not for you…but that is fine. We give very personal meanings to these things. But this is a reflection that makes me feel happy, knowing I’m contributing to at least the minimisation of harm. I’m hesitant to share this personal example actually, as I don’t want to make it sound like I’m trying to force this choice on anyone else… Because I really do value the fact that we all make our own choices and must be free to do so within the bounds of at least relatively reasonable social laws.
The first precept safeguards our own hearts. This is its primary purpose and I think this is often misunderstood: we safeguard our own hearts by choosing not to kill another living being with our own hands. That choice guards our own minds from devasting consequences and the growth of habits/characters that would make our Buddhist spiritual goals even further out of reach.
In keeping the first precept we make the sphere of our own being, a place that is free of fear and harm; a place we want to be in because instead it’s safe and kind; when we want to be in it, we can be present, we can watch our breath with ease for longer…the rest as they say… Of course, the more we extend it, the more we cultivate it’s positives - in a way that is meaningful for us, personally, the more likely it is that we get to experience the pleasant present as something normal to our everyday being.
The first precept is both deeply personal and universal. It is the most basic principle of non-harm. But it is also not absolute. I once heard Ajahn Brahm refer to the precepts as red traffic lights. To paraphrase him, he said, if someone was in the back of the car having a heart attack and there was a red traffic light ahead, it would be quite okay to look both ways and go through that light. However, I believe such instances within the course of a lifetime should ideally be extremely rare and carefully thought through. The removal of a hornets nest in a school, the taking of antibiotics and a few other examples to do with specific medical cases come to mind here.
The universality of this precept means that we should recognise in our own hearts the value of keeping it. Yes we can influence others to keep it but if we decide how it should be kept by others and to what extent we want others to extend it or cultivate its positive opposites, then we are taking away other people’s power to make these decisions for themselves, to look into their own hearts, to become skilled at these things themselves; we stop them from walking their own path to kindness and peace and wisdom, because their motivation for their actions comes from our control, projecting of guilt or manipulation or even (more positively) from the wisdom we gained from our own path - but not from their inner path. Their ability to go inward, to make this Path their own, is weakened. Thus we end up causing harm, where we were actually seeking to reduce it!
Basically, the first precept is very specific. But that doesn’t mean it’s not pointing us in a more broader direction. Both it’s specific keeping and how we take up it’s greater call, are deeply personal choices that we have to make for ourselves.
Finally, more and more I value the voices of Vegans and Vegetarians in this world. The mass horrors that go on, mostly unnoticed by the general population, are well…I’m left speechless here… We need these voices, these questions. I need them. They prompt me on my own personal journey to being the best I can be, to understanding myself, my place. But I have learned, as the rain of such challenging voices have fallen into my life, that it is also valuable to stop forcing, to let go of guilt, to understand the bigger picture, to have forgiveness and gratitude as well. When we’re crippled by guilt or are functioning through a sense of being forced by ourselves or others, we cannot be honest with ourselves and some how kindness becomes harder to dwell in and to offer.
With metta and thanks again for this important question and Topic.