Difficult to Stomach: Religious Leaders on Meat-Eating and the Environment

Last week, 15 Buddhist leaders, including the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, the 17th Karmapa, and the King of Bhutan issued a Buddhist Climate Change Statement, calling on world leaders to completely phase out fossil fuels. The statement is the latest effort by the Global Buddhist Climate Change Collective, which was formed in September 2015 to facilitate a Buddhist contribution to COP21, the United Nations conference on climate change, happening in Paris from November 30 to December 11. The Buddhist leaders called on the global Buddhist community to:

….recognize both our dependence on one another as well as on the natural world. Together, humanity must act on the root causes of this environmental crisis, which is driven by our use of fossil fuels, unsustainable consumption patterns, lack of awareness, and lack of concern about the consequences of our actions.

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Thich Nhat Hanh, the 14th Dalai Lama and the 17th Karmapa

In September, Pope Francis also called for global action on climate change. In remarks to the largest gathering of world leaders in UN history — close to 200 prime ministers, presidents, and potentates — the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics blamed environmental degradation on “a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity” that causes untold suffering for the poor who “are cast off by society.”

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Faith-based and environmental activists in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, in the wake of the Pope’s encyclical on climate change.

However, for many animal rights activists, environmentalists, vegetarians and vegans, the statements by religious leaders, albeit welcome, come not only ‘too little too late’ but also reek of moral hypocrisy and double standards.

In 2014, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) approached Thich Nhat Hanh, to request a brief statement about climate change. Hanh responded:

We need to consume in such a way that keeps our compassion alive. And yet many of us consume in a way that is very violent. Forests are cut down to raise cattle for beef, or to grow grain for liquor, while millions in the world are dying of starvation. Reducing the amount of meat we eat and alcohol we consume by 50% is a true act of love for ourselves, for the Earth and for one another. Eating with compassion can already help transform the situation our planet is facing, and restore balance to ourselves and the Earth.

These comments still provoked outrage from some on social media, with comments such as:

One wouldn’t suggest reducing racism by 50%, so why is it OK to suggest it for specieism and murder?

Despite the professed emphasis on love and compassion, the majority of the world’s major religions in theory (as well as in practice – with the exception of Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism) all appear to advocate (or at least not forbid) the unnecessary killing and torturing animals for food. Also, the growing number of vegetarians refrain from eating meat more for reasons pertaining to improved health, a cleaner environment and a better world economy than for religious concerns. Even those whose vegetarianism is inspired by compassion are often driven more by a sense of conscience than by theological principle.

This lack of consistency in belief and action revealed itself personally to me when I spent several years in India (a country which is predominantly vegetarian for both religious and social reasons) and discovered a significant number of Tibetans (and some non-Tibetans) who called themselves Buddhists consuming meat daily. I once challenged a Tibetan Buddhist Geshe on the apparent contradiction of Tibetans taking great efforts not to kill an insect yet not taking the same attitude towards sentient beings in relation to their diet. His answer was unsatisfactory to say the least.

This was surprisingly the case even though several contemporary Tibetan Buddhist leaders such as the 17th Karmapa and Shabkar have taken a strong stance on eating animals and their produce, as not only being contrary to Buddhist doctrine but also damaging to the environment. The 14th Dalai Lama, who eats meat (on his doctor’s orders) has nonetheless also advocated that people should stop eating meat and if they cannot then they should at least reduce their consumption of it:

The best thing is to give up meat entirely. Sometimes one’s lifestyle and circumstances provide no alternative but to eat meat, and in these cases one should eat as little meat as possible. Tibetan monasteries and nunneries in south India became entirely vegetarian 15 years ago. Festivals and ceremonies in all Tibetan monasteries and nunneries should be completely vegetarian. When I was in Tibet, aged 13 or 14, my government officially banned meat from religious festivals and ceremonies.

It is interesting that even the Buddha himself prophesised in the Lankavatara Sutra, Chapter 8 that

There may be in time to come people who make foolish remarks about meat-eating, saying, “Meat is proper to eat, unobjectionable, and permitted by the Buddha.

In a recent BBC interview, four leading thinkers were asked whether or not one can justify killing animals for food. All four agreed it was morally questionable and inconsistent with beliefs about love and compassion for animals. Prof Jeff MacMahan (White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford) said:

You don’t have to think about humans in exactly the same way that you think about cows. But you’ve got to explain why you think it’s permissible to do to an animal what you think it would be impermissible to do to a human being. In the case of people their suffering matters, but their happiness also matters. The same should be true in the case of animals.

Despite the facts on the serious impact of animal agriculture on climate change, not only are many religious leaders and followers still in denial but so are the majority of the planet. A report published a few years ago stated that nearly half of all parents raising their children on a meat-free diet have experienced “hostility” over the decision from doctors, health visitors, teachers or relatives. Something I can personally attest to. The majority of food sold in restaurants contains meat and dairy. Vegan options in supermarkets are often more expensive or harder to find than non-vegan options. Some cultures might even regard refusing meat as a sign of madness.

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We will only see a positive change on animal rights, climate change and environmental destruction when religious leaders, schools, universities, health authorities, religious and political institutions ‘put their money where their mouth is’ and set the example on meat-eating both personally and collectively. Actions speak louder than words after all.

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