An interesting thing happened when I first announced this web site in an Internet newsgroup: some of the users reacted to the Temple's offer of vegetarian lunch to attendees. One user, perhaps in a cynical mood, questioned how much this would cost. The insinuation was that all this talk of pious Tao philosophy was but a front to rope in New Age devotees and milk business out of them.
Talk about jumping to conclusions! Naturally, the gentleman quieted down after learning that in fact the Temple had never charged a dime for anything. Nor would it ever do so in the future. In fact, I think many people would be surprised to learn that, unlike a typical church, there had never been routine donation collection at the Temple. People had to actively approach the pastors when they wished to make a contribution. Compared to this, many "mainstream" religious institutions in America looked like business establishments dealing in spiritual merchandise.
At this point the on-line discussion turned toward the practice of vegetarianism, and quickly the stormfront of a debate developed and swept through a message thread. Several users who enjoyed eating meat and wished to justify themselves took the first shot. "Vegetarians say they don't eat meat because they don't want to kill," they pointed out, "but eating plants is taking life too."
I found this point interesting and decided to bring it up in our Sunday discussion. Several members of the group, mostly young guys, who liked meat and hated getting lectured by their elders on the moral superiority of vegetarianism, reacted with strong agreement and loud cheers: "Yeah!" "That's right!"
Where Do You Stand?
Before we proceed further, I should describe the Temple's position and my own stance on the subject. While it's true that many Taoists are vegetarians, there is no stricture of any sort that you must become one to pursue the study of Tao. The Temple encourages vegetarianism but leaves the decision up to each individual.
I myself have not gone 100% meatless. But, having read up on the health benefits of consuming more vegetables and less meat, I have definitely cut back my intake drastically. I've lived on a reduced-meat diet for about three years now, and find it no hardship at all. If anything, I've lost my taste for many types of meat dishes.
Now if three years ago someone told me this would happen, I would probably laugh out loud. I mean, I enjoyed all kinds of food, meat included! There was no way I would ever give it up! Nevertheless, the truth is nowadays I have no craving at all for things I used to dig into with gusto. For instance, chicken is no longer appetizing. I used to look forward to barbecue chicken every week, but now the smell of it is oftentimes too strong for me, even repulsive!
Back to the Debate
Now the teenage boys were all flushed with excitement in their conviction that they had an invincible argument. I proceeded to pose several questions to the group. My purpose was to get the brain gears moving, not necessarily trying to convince anyone that eating meat was evil or anything like that.
You always kill or at very least maim an animal when you eat meat. Do you always kill a plant when you eat vegetable? Aren't fruits meant to be consumed by animals so that a plant would have the chance to spread its seeds far and wide?
Is there really no difference between animal life and plant life? Can little kids tell the difference between them? If so, why can't the supposedly more sophisticated grown-ups? Is this perhaps an example of intellectual sophistry, "proof" accomplished through twisting of words, logic, intended meanings, and truths?
Let's suppose it isn't. Let's suppose the idea has validity. So, at some fundamental level, life is life, there is no difference between plants and animals, therefore taking of plant life is no different than killing animals. "I'm a cellular omnivore," said one clever newsgroup user. "Plants are sort of very slow animals," added another. Let's see where that line of reasoning takes us.
Whatever difference there is between household pets and farm animals can't possibly compared to the difference between animals and plants. Therefore, if you really subscribe to the notion that eating animals is not morally different from eating plants, and you are intellectually honest with yourself, you would have to face the inevitable conclusion that eating dogs and cats is no different than eating beef or pork. Someone who enjoys prime steak would then have no right to criticize or look down upon someone else who prefers a steaming pot stew of dog meat.
One observation about this idea is that, in this country, the majority of the people do enjoy their steak and look down upon people (often Asians) who won't stick to just beef and pork. You still hear the occasional jokes about Chinese restaurants and disappearing neighborhood cats. Are these people hypocrites?
What about the difference between humans and animals? Again, not nearly as great as the difference between animals and plants. So where does the line of reasoning take us? Are we saying cannibalism is no different than, say, prime rib buffet?
An excellent point one of the newsgroup users made is that oftentimes we think eating meat is okay only because we have become so distant from the process of acquiring meat. We don't have to kill the animals ourselves. We don't have to do the skinning, the cleaning, or the butchering. We go to the nearest supermarket and the meat is prepared for us in a neat package. What would happen to the Thanksgiving dinner if we all had to catch our own turkey?
Paul McCartney and wife Linda had a turning point in their lives when they sat down to eat one day. An animal was butchered shortly before plates of steaming meat were placed in front of them. They put two and two together and made that horrifying connection: what they were about to eat was the flesh of an animal that was alive and minding its own business only half an hour ago!
Prior to that pivotal moment, the McCartneys were meat eaters and animal lovers, a paradox made possible only by the great distance the modern world places between ourselves and the actual process of obtaining meat for consumption.
Another equally compelling point that Honey (from our group) brought up was the impossibility of the vegetarian ideal. For instance, William Kuo was a total vegetarian, but what about the leather shoes on his feet? It wasn't like some animal shed its skin and didn't need it any more. No, an animal died to provide the leather.
Even if you're just talking about eating, sometimes even pure vegetarians consume animal products without realizing it. Good examples are gelatin and ice cream. Again, animals were killed to make these things.
A sensible vegetarian position, then, is one that does not veer toward extremism. Taoists subscribe to the notion of moderation, and that principle applies very well in this subject. Rather than to insist on the absolute avoidance of meat or other animal parts, vegetarian Taoists would find that it makes more sense to simply advocate the reduction of meat consumption.
I also think it's better if the primary motivation for an individual to reduce meat consumption stems purely from self-interest rather than some lofty, holier-than-thou morals. Eat more vegetarian food because it's better for your health - it will help you stick around longer so we can make the most of life - and besides, vegetables are simply delicious when properly prepared (meaning something more than tossing them for salad). Getting closer to vegetarianism makes a world of sense when you are looking out for number one.
And, if in the process, you discover that you no longer need to justify your occasional craving for meat with contrived arguments, that would be a nice little bonus.