November has arrived and another holiday season is fast approaching. Thanksgiving at the end of this month marks the beginning of a season of feasting, during which we will have frequent occasions to come together with family and friends to enjoy delicious food.
In some Buddhist temples led by monks and nuns who observe monastic precepts, or detailed rules for living in a monastery, keeping a vegetarian diet is encouraged to avoid causing suffering for animals that would be raised for food. I have visited Buddhist monasteries in China that have special ponds where live fish and crabs that have been purchased from the market can be released to live out their lives under the protection of the Sangha.
Outside of monasteries, it is common for lay Buddhists throughout the world to eat meat and fish.
The Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition that the San Mateo Buddhist Temple belongs to has been a predominantly lay Buddhist movement throughout its history. Our lay Buddhist heritage can be seen in the fact that it is common for our ministers to marry and raise families at the temple while serving the Sangha. This tradition goes back to Shinran, the twelfth century Japanese Buddhist priest who we look to as the founder of our Jodo Shinshu tradition. Our ministers follow Shinran’s example of not separating ourselves from the lay members of the Sangha, leading a similar lifestyle and sharing in the joys and challenges of family life. The fact that few members of our Sangha maintain a strict vegetarian diet reflects this long tradition of lay-oriented Buddhist practice.
That does not mean we are indifferent to the suffering of the animals whose lives we receive in our meals. In each moment, we are called to recognize the great hardship and suffering that immeasurable beings have undergone for our sake. One of the reasons that we treasure human life is that the precious lives of so many plants and animals have become part of us through the nourishing food we receive.
As human beings, the impact we have on the lives of other species is not limited only to the animals we eat. The fields that produce the fruits and vegetables we eat were first cleared and harvested generations ago with the help of farm animals like oxen and mules. These days, few people travel on horseback or in horse-drawn carriages. However, nearly every time I drive a car, I find myself slightly bowing my head in reverence for some animal on the side of the road whose life was cut short by traffic on the roads I travel. Many of the medicines that have seen me through my own times of illness, as well as the treatments that have enabled my loved ones to live longer, healthier lives, were tested on animals before they were approved for use by humans.
Taking all these circumstances into consideration, I realize that I am incapable of living without causing suffering to many different animals. With a deep feeling of repentance, I turn to the teachings of Shinran and find guidance in the following passage from the Tannisho (A Record in Lament of Divergences):
However much love and pity we may feel in our present lives, it is hard to save others as we wish; hence, such compassion remains unfulfilled. Only the saying of the nembutsu, then, is the mind of great compassion that is thoroughgoing.
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 663)
The nembutsu is the recitation of the words “Namo Amida Butsu,” which expresses both my profound awareness of the limitations of my ability to fulfill the practice true compassion on my own, as well as the joy I encounter by letting go of my ego and recognizing the boundless compassion of Amida Buddha that flows through my life.
As we observe this wonderful American tradition of Thanksgiving, let us do so with appreciation for the multitude of beings that have made it possible for us to live this human life where we hear the nembutsu and encounter the mind of great compassion.
Namo Amida Butsu