(The Bodhisattva Precepts On Going Vegetarian & Releasing Lives)
How does one keep wishing
all beings to be well and happy
while eating many of them?
To answer the titled question, let us look at five interconnected Bodhisattva Precepts (菩萨戒) taught by Śākyamuni Buddha in the highly regarded Brahmā Net Sūtra (梵网经). Its 10 heavier and 48 lighter precepts are moral instructions for all who aspire to advance and perfect their compassion (along with wisdom) for the welfare of all beings, so as to attain Buddhahood like the Buddha did.
Buddhists are encouraged to avoid killing due to reasons stated in ‘The First [Heavier] Precept [Against] Killing: If [as] Buddhas’ [Bodhisattva] disciples, if personally to kill, if instructing others to kill… [of] all [sentient] beings with life, [they] should not be intentionally killed, as Bodhisattvas should give rise to, [and] always abide in the heart of loving-kindness and compassion, [with] the heart of filial piety, [using] skilful means to save and protect all sentient beings…’ (‘第一杀[重]戒：若佛子，若自杀，教人杀… 一切有命者，不得故杀，是菩萨应起常住慈悲心、孝顺心，方便救护一切众生…’)
Somewhat similar to the First Precept in the context of the basic Five Precepts observed by many beginner Buddhists, its rationale is emphasised here instead, while reminding us to constantly care for all beings, and to proactively seek ways to safeguard them. (The relation to filial piety will be explained later.)
Buddhists are also encouraged to at least reduce meat-eating, or ideally totally abstain from it, due to reasons stated in ‘The Third [Lighter] Precept [Against] Eating Meat: If [as] Buddhas’ [Bodhisattva] disciples, [of] intentionally eating meat, all [sentient] beings’ meat should not be eaten. Those who eat meat, sever the great loving-kindness and compassion of the seed of [their] Buddha-nature…’ (‘第三食肉[轻]戒：若佛子，故食肉，一切众生肉不得食。夫食肉者，断大慈悲佛性种子…’)
This precept is related to the First [Heavier] Precept above as the same heart of loving-kindness and compassion within our Buddha-nature (the pure potential to realise Buddhahood) will be weakened and disconnected from us if we neglect basic spiritual sensitivity in terms of concern for others’ lives. This occurs by ignoring that meat consumed by most consumers nowadays is inextricably tied to market forces of continual supply based upon their continual demand. We are after all not monastics in the Buddha’s ancient times, who ate only random alms delinked from any personal choices. Yes, meat comes from intentional killing, even if not done by us, but through our intentional paying for it. The more demand there is, the more killing there is. This can be equivalent to indirect ‘instructing others to kill’ in the First [Heavier] Precept.
Buddhists are at the same time encouraged to liberate trapped animals wisely, especially those who would otherwise be slaughtered for their meat (and other parts, such as leathers and furs). This is due to reasons in ‘The Twentieth [Lighter] Precept [Against] Not Practising Liberation [And] Saving [Of Sentient Beings]: If [as] Buddhas’ [Bodhisattva] disciples, with the heart of loving-kindness thus, practise the action of liberating [sentient] beings. All males are my fathers, [and] all females are my mothers, [from whom], life after life, there is no one I did not receive birth from. Thus, the six realms’ [sentient] beings [of hell-beings, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, asuras and gods] all are my fathers and mothers. And to kill and to eat them, is to kill [and to eat] my fathers and mothers… Thus, always practise liberating of [sentient] beings…’ (‘第二十不行放救[轻]戒：若佛子，以慈心故，行放生业。一切男子是我父，一切女人是我母，我生生无不从之受生，故六道众生皆是我父母。而杀而食者，即杀我父母… 故常行放生…’)
Present male beings could have been our mothers too, just as females beings our fathers. Indeed, as the Buddha also reminds us elsewhere, we have been reborn so many times in so many interconnected relationships already, that all beings have been our loving parents before, to whom we are heavily indebted. Therefore, as above, animal liberation is also an expression of the universally filial and grateful heart filled with loving-kindness and compassion for all beings, who are our very own parents. This also connects us more deeply with our Buddha-nature.
Although some rear and kill many animals for ‘religious’ sacrifice and consumption regularly (which happens to break all the precepts above and below), many Buddhists instead treasure the lifelong practice of proper animal liberation and vegetarianism, as they see the immeasurable value of sentient beings’ precious physical and spiritual lives. While vegetarianism (which ideally extends to veganism, as advised by the Buddha in the Śūraṅgama Sūtra [楞严经]) covered by the Third [Lighter] Precept urges passive liberation of animals from dining tables, animal liberation covered by the Twentieth [Lighter] Precept urges simultaneous active liberation of animals from slaughterhouses too. (Many who are against even proper animal liberation are also ongoing heavy meat-eaters, perhaps due to current weakness in both passive and active compassion.) As mere personal non-eating of meat does not lessen killing of animals for other meat-eaters, both vegetarianism and animal liberation are equally important as complementary practices for expressing compassion.
As taught by the Pure Land Tradition’s Eighth Patriarch Great Master Lianchi (净土宗八祖莲池大师), for ideal animal liberation, there should be ‘no fixed (kinds of) animals’ (不定物) saved, ‘no fixed places’ (不定地) where they are rescued from and freed, and ‘no fixed times’ (不定时) for doing so. This skilfully delinks supply of captive animals from any predictable demand for them, while ensuring the freed are not easily recaptured. Of course, non-native animals should not be freed into already closed ecosystems with low chances of survival, or it could break the First [Heavier] Precept.
To note too is ‘The Forty-Fifth [Lighter] Precept [Against] Not Transforming Sentient Beings: If [as] Buddhas’ [Bodhisattva] disciples… [they should] always give rise to the heart of great compassion… If seeing cows, horses, pigs, goats and all [other] animals, [they] should in their minds think and verbally say, “[As] you are animals, [you should] give rise to Bodhicitta [which is the aspiration for Buddhahood].”…’ (‘第四十五不化众生[轻]戒: 若佛子… 常起大悲心… 若见牛马猪羊一切畜生，应心念口言：”汝是畜生，发菩提心。”…’)
As such, animal liberation attempts to kickstart or restart animals’ spiritual lives, which in the long run are more important than their physical lives as they lead to ultimate liberation eventually. Otherwise to be slaughtered hours after purchase, saved animals mostly do live longer when freed well too. Verses on repentance, Threefold Refuge (in the Triple Gem, of Buddhas, Dharma and Saṅgha) and the name of ‘Amituofo’ (Amitābha Buddha) are also often chanted, respectively to help express repentance, commitment to the Triple Gem and create connection to Amituofo for the swiftest path to Buddhahood. This is concluded by dedication of merits for the welfare of all beings.
Also worth noting is ‘The Thirty-Second [Lighter] Precept [Against] Harming Sentient Beings: If [as] Buddhas’ [Bodhisattva] disciples… [they] raise [or breed] cats, foxes, pigs, dogs… [they] commit a light[er] defiled misgiving.’ (‘第三十二损害众生[轻]戒: 若佛子… 长养猫狸猪狗… 犯轻垢罪。’)
This is not against the adoption of injured and helpless animals, but the capture and breeding of animals, who might or might not be slaughtered later. Holding animals captive needlessly (e.g. in circuses and aquariums for exploitative entertainment) also counters animal liberation. Some of these animals might be fed with other animals’ meat and produce too, thus harming even more animals.
Favourtism of some kinds of animals over others is also speciesist attachment, opposite of equanimous compassion that the Buddha urges. While it is natural to wish to care for certain animals preferred, the challenge is to open our hearts of compassion ever wider, to embrace more and eventually all beings, to also care about the animals we care less for, who are fed to the animals we care more for, and even to ourselves. Note that it is long proven possible to help animals such as cats and dogs to adapt to nutritious vegan foods. (e.g. see http://vegancats.com/can.php)
What about the concern that animals might be eaten, or eat others, even if freed in fairly conducive environments? If this concern stems from wanting to minimise harm, perhaps most humans should first be captured and culled, as they already harm and overeat the most species of animals globally, even driving many to extinction? To catch and kill is surely senseless, as it inflicts harm, directly breaking the First [Heavier] and Twentieth [Lighter] Precepts above.
Meat production for human consumption is already severely endangering the welfare of all sentient beings on Earth, being a leading cause of the climate crisis. Even the average ‘animal-eating (carnivorous) animal’ eats only out of limited need, while many humans (who can easily become vegans) eat many animals out of unlimited greed. There would be no need to free any animals at all, if not to counter such growing greed. (The number of freed animals is comparatively very small.) It is indeed very difficult to stop humans from capturing, breeding, exploiting, killing and eating animals. Even the Buddha can at best encourage us to stop, with his compassionate teachings, such as these precepts. Aspiring Bodhisattvas should do their best in committing to and promoting them for the welfare of all.
Back to the freed animals… Death in nature is natural and eventual, even for us, while the original and pure intention of animal liberation is to offer genuine physical and spiritual hope best we can. Remember – if remaining trapped, they are condemned to be executed very soon, with no hope at all. Even we as humans in their positions would appreciate any hope given. May all beings be free from fear and pain. May all beings be well and happy.
How does one keep wishing
all beings to be well and happy
while feeding many with them?
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