Max Becker-Pos wrote me a while back with the following:
You wrote that bit about Buddhism and Jainism and the sanctity of life. That got my juices flowing (no, not those juices, you sicko!), because I often ruminate about the same topic. I have a couple points to make:
1. Since you are the comparative expert when it comes to religion, please enlighten me on something. My understanding of Buddhism is that monks are vegetarian simply because they don't want to destroy the life of a reincarnated human in animal form. Am I wrong? Or do Buddhists (and what about Jains?) not eat meat simply because they have a deep reverence for life? Also, how do the Jains function when it comes to bacteria, and fungi, etc? And what if they accidentally roll over in their sleep and smush a cockroach?
2. I agree totally about the quandary of living in this world. If you exist, you have to kill, whether it be shitting E. coli bacteria out your ass into a toilet that you then sterlize with bleach, or eating a hamburger, or a slice o' that triple decker Pizza Hut pizza, or even a plant-based diet.
One thing that bothers me about the organization named PETA is that their criterion regarding what foods to eat seems to center on whether the thing being eaten can feel pain or not. PETA says we shouldn't eat animals because they suffer. But like you said, even an ant avoids the death rays of the magnifying glass of a little Grade 3 twerp named Kevin.
Just because sheep bleat and cows low when in pain, that doesn't mean that wheat, corn, and alfafa willingly offer themselves up for sacrifice. I eat meat, and I am grateful to the animal for its flesh.
I have two important thoughts on meat-eating. One, the animal should be taken good care of, up until the moment of slaughter. Two, we shouldn't waste meat ("Finish yo' hamburger, bitch/bastard!"). The thing that bothers me about PETA is they have this unscientific/subjective/whatever-you-wanna-call-it approach by which they simply ignore that which they cannot explain or perceive. It suits the smug members of PETA just fine to say that it's OK to eat plants. But just because we don't have the scientific instruments to see how plants "feel" doesn't mean we can write them off as insensate. (I don't want this to turn into a rant against PETA, as they have done some good things, such as lobby KFC to improve conditions for chickens.)
I'm going to invite Sperwer to tackle the first question in my comments section, as he knows more than I do about the history of the vegetarian ethic in Buddhism. Sperwer will probably point out (as he has for me in private) that a lot of the meat-related dietary rules followed by certain Buddhists are post hoc accretions to the Buddhist tradition and not necessarily attributable to the Buddha and his basic teaching. (Sperwer, please elaborate!)
I'll note that vegetarian monks don't view their vegetarianism as a way of not harming reincarnated humans. Most Buddhist vegetarians-- monastic and lay-- will say they act according to the dictates of ahimsa (nonviolence, no-killing), which reverences all life, but especially the life of sentient beings.
A technical note as well: anglophone Buddhists would prefer to use the term "rebirth" and not "reincarnation" to describe the cycle of personal existence. Reincarnation has a heavily Hindu semantic field, and a major part of that semantic field is the notion that there is a permanent, unchanging, fundamental self called an atman. In the Hindu way of thinking, this atman passes from body to body.
Buddhists deny that there is an atman. They espouse the doctrine of anatman (no-self, known as mu-a in Sino-Korean), and therefore view the continuity of personal traits from life to life not as the transmigration of a solid self from body to body, but as the momentum-fueled (i.e., karma-fueled) procession of aggregates that have a certain coherence and continuity, but possess no fundamental soldity, no true selfhood.
Think about it this way: you see a stream running past you. You can point to it and say, "Dude, that's a stream." You can walk away from it and come back to it a day later, point to it and say, "Dude, there's that stream again." But if you were to break the stream down into components and sub-components, you'd have a hard time isolating the stream-ness of the stream. You're not looking at the same water, nor is the composition of the streambed the same, nor are the banks quite the same, nor is the surrounding forest the same as it was yesterday. Every aspect of the stream and its context is in flux. You can come back to "that" stream because the stream-process has continuity. But is the stream permanent? Was it there a million years ago? Will it be there a million years from now? Not at all. The stream isn't a reified thing so much as it's a process. There's no solid "streamness" to the stream that transmigrates into other discrete phenomena, no invisible Something that leaps from the dying stream into, say, a boulder, to start a new existence.
Back to eating. Korean Buddhist monks also generally follow a dietary rule that stems more from Taoism than from Buddhism: avoidance of vegetables like garlic and onions, which supposedly make you randier and therefore less able to concentrate on practicing the dharma. Dr. Robert Buswell, in his book The Zen Monastic Experience, writes (p. 122):
[Korean monastery] side dishes are seasoned with a minimal number of spices, the most basic of which is salt. Because of Mahayana dietary restrictions, monks don't eat the garlic or onions that are so ubiquitous in the diets of ordinary Koreans. Those spices are presumed to be mild aphrodisiacs, something celibates can do without. To compensate for the blandness of the food, the kitchen staff replaces the garlic and onions with lots of red pepper (koch'u), along with red-pepper paste (koch'ujang), brown sesame (tûlkkae), and white sesame (kkae).
You asked about how Jains function in daily life. I don't know much about Jainism (a decent article on it can be found here), but my impression is that Jains, who practice an arguably stricter ethic of ahimsa than Buddhists, have a deep reverence for all life and even the energies of inanimate objects, all of which are "elementals" that can be harmed. As the Wikipedia article on Jainism says:
Jains believe that reality is made up of two eternal principles, jiva and ajiva. Jiva consists of an infinite number of identical spiritual units; ajiva (that is, non-jiva) is matter in all its forms and the conditions under which matter exists: time, space, and movement.
Both jiva and ajiva are eternal; they never came into existence for the first time and will never cease to exist. The whole world is made up of jivas trapped in ajiva; there are jivas in rocks, plants, insects, animals, human beings, spirits, et cetera.
Any contact whatsoever of the jiva with the ajiva causes the former to suffer. Thus the Jains believed that existence in this world inevitably means suffering. Neither social reform nor the reform of individuals themselves can ever stop suffering. In every human being, a jiva is trapped, and the jiva suffers because of its contact with ajiva. The only way to escape from suffering is for the jiva to completely escape from the human condition, from human existence.
A jiva is a bit like a spiritual monad, an elemental. Everything that can be counted as a "being" in some sense or other has a jiva. Note, too, the somewhat Gnostic matter/spirit dualism of the Jainist paradigm, including the idea that interaction between matter and spirit is somehow harmful or corruptive.
The way to moksha (release or liberation) is withdrawal from the world. Karma is the cause-and-effect mechanism by virtue of which all actions have inescapable consequences. Karma operates to keep the jiva chained in an unending series of lifetimes in which the jiva suffers to a greater or lesser extent. Thus the way of escape must involve an escape from karma, the destruction of all karma and the avoidance of new karma.
In other words, your actions must be geared toward doing as little damage as possible to the world. And there's more:
The Jain is expected to follow the principle of non-violence in all his/her thoughts, words and deeds. There are some Jains who wear masks over their mouths and noses to avoid any possibility of breathing in tiny insects.
It would seem the Jain must be in a state of constant mindfulness, but also in a state of constant apology, as every action generates some amount of disturbance and suffering.
As for your point (2), Max, I agree with you that there seems to be something amiss about the vegetarian ethic. Do plants suffer? I think it's possible, but I'll eat them, anyway. No matter what you do, you've got to eat, which means you have to kill, either indirectly through participation in society's infrastructure, or directly through an activity like hunting. The human tendency to anthropomorphize makes us feel that animals are somehow "closer" to us than plants. The cute dog or rabbit is more like a little person than a meal-- especially if it's a pet and you've given it a name! Plants have weird shapes and no recognizable facial features, and they don't usually scream when you dump them in boiling water, therefore they must be OK to eat.
You're also right to advocate good treatment for animals destined for the slaughter. Maybe it's a bit ironic to treat an animal well before we kill it, but on the assumption that animal nervous systems are better-developed than whatever perceptual apparatus (if any) can be found in plants, I'd agree that minimizing animal suffering is the moral thing to do. I wonder how we'll treat plants if/when we discover that they do suffer at our hands!