“All beings fear danger, life is dear to all. When a person considers this, he does not kill or cause to kill.” (Dhammapada, 129.)
The first precept in Buddhism and the heart of the Dharma path is the practice of non-violence (ahimsa). It is the vow to not destroy, cause to be destroyed, or sanction the destruction of any living being. Through accepting this precept, we recognize our relationship to all life and realize that harming, or causing harm, to any living creature harms oneself.
Similarly, on the Buddhist path we practice to generate bodhicitta, or the mind of enlightenment that strives towards awakening, loving-kindness, and compassion for the benefit of all sentient beings. This is reflected in the familiar phrases: “May all beings be healthy. May all beings be peaceful and at ease. May all beings be safe. May all beings be happy. May all beings be free from suffering.”
In order to truly embody these qualities of mind and heart, fierce compassion is needed. It is needed to cut through our thick veils of ignorance, to courageously turn towards suffering, and to take compassionate action. It is needed to overcome our racism, our sexism, and our homophobia. It is also needed to overcome our speciesism.
Speciesism is what has us denying moral consideration to billions of sentient beings based solely on their species and not because they are any less conscious, less sensitive to pain, or less intelligent than our cats and dogs. Why is abuse of some animals wrong and other animals ok?
It is from this place of fierce compassion that I ask: How can we truly follow a path of nonviolence, compassion, and lovingkindness while still choosing to participate in a system that abuses and kills billions of sentient beings every year and is one of the largest contributors to climate change and the destruction of our planet?
Currently, we are responsible for an ongoing massacre of animals on a scale unequaled in the history of humankind. Every year, sixty billion land animals and a thousand billion marine animals are killed for our consumption. Every day, 160 million farm animals are transported to a slaughterhouse. In the United States, 99% of farm animals are reared on factory farms.
Factory farms are hell holes for animals. In most cases, these sensitive, intelligent, emotional individuals are confined for their entire lives, never see sunlight or the night sky, are forcibly impregnated over and over again, have their babies ripped from them, have their bodies mutilated through tail-docking and debeaking, and are killed when they are still children.
When we buy factory farmed animal products (meat, dairy, eggs), even though we may not be doing the dirty work ourselves, we are causing and sanctioning this unnecessary and avoidable abuse and killing of our fellow sentient beings. When we choose willful ignorance and turn a blind eye, we are complicit in this violence and the “big dark cloud of karma” that is rippling through our planet.
It is up to each of us to acknowledge our ignorance. To turn towards the suffering of animals with mindfulness and fierce compassion. To see through the “food” product in the store, on our plate, in our glass and back to the living, feeling being from whom it came, whose life depended on it, whose life was destroyed by it.
Often hearing philosophical arguments or reading statistics about animals suffering on factory farms isn’t enough to awaken our hearts. We have to bear witness to it; to see their pain, hear their cries, and let ourselves be touched.
Since factory farms and slaughterhouses are conveniently inaccessible (out of sight, out of mind), our next best option is to watch the footage of what happens to animals (eg. “Earthings,” “Cowspiracy”). I won’t lie, it is heartbreaking to behold. But just imagine how much worse it is for the animals going through it.
When we truly open our hearts to the horror of what these innocent, gentle creatures go through, it will likely trigger feelings of grief and anger. We know that, which is why we tend to turn away from it. However, this emotional energy is often a necessary catalyst for transformation and compassionate action.
Our hearts naturally want to be kind to animals. Think about times you have encountered baby birds or other animals in the wild, visited a petting zoo or sanctuary, spent time with animals other than your cat or dog. Was your inclination to harm them or was it to be gentle, kind, and curious? I imagine that for most of us, it’s the latter. This is who we truly are. This is our Buddha nature. It’s time we started living in alignment with that.
“In all actions, we have to explore how we can move toward a lifestyle that is more conscious, while changing habits that perpetuate harm” (Thanissara).
In order to reduce animal suffering and the destruction of our planet through animal agriculture, we need to eliminate, or at least drastically reduce, our consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy.
In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh: “We only need to be vegetarian and we can already save the earth. Being vegetarian here also means that we do not consume dairy and egg products of the meat industry. If we stop consuming, they will stop producing. Only collective awakening can create enough determination for action.”
Just like awakening itself, changing our diet is often a gradual process versus a sudden shift. That is ok. What can you do? Where can you start?
We owe it to our fellow sentient beings, to ourselves, to our beloved planet to awaken our hearts and choose compassion over cruelty with every bite. The time is now.
Links to more articles on the topic:
Nature Now, with Greta Thurnberg (5 minute video)
IMCW encourages all people to look consciously at their lifestyle choices, and to live in ways that do not cause harm to themselves or other beings. This includes considering dietary options that show compassion for sentient beings and the environment, while also acknowledging the unique needs of each person.