Saturday, June 02, 2007

animal Zen

Someone found my blog while doing a Google search on the role of animals in Zen literature. I haven't written much on the subject, and am sorry to say I don't know much about it. When I traced my way back to the Google results page created by the mysterious searcher, I found a link to a review of a book by one of my favorite Zen authors, Robert Aitken roshi. The book is titled Zen Master Raven: Sayings and Doings of a Wise Bird. The review, by Dr. Michael Bathgate of Saint Xavier University, is quite educational, and the book now goes on my already-ponderous Amazon Wish List.

The most striking paragraph in the review says this:

...the central place of animals among the characters of the text provides a framework for reflecting on humanity's own animal nature. Even as the animals of Raven's community come together to practice and support one another, they remain animals, with the instincts of predator and prey intact. The compassionate ideal of the bodhisattva is at the center of Zen's Mahayana ethic, yet as animals, our biology is seldom compatible with our commitments--in Raven's own words, we "have this urge to prey on newborn lambs" (pp. 59, 63). Indeed, in an ethic that extends compassion towards blades of grass, even vegetarianism is revealed to be part and parcel of a brutish food chain. From this perspective, bushes and grasses, grains and fruits are also a kind of prey, which Raven suggests are distinguished from meat only by their inability to get away (p. 194). It is this fundamental incompatibility, between a radical ethic of compassion and an equally radical bestiality, that provides the experiential backdrop for Zen practice as a troubling pursuit of virtue as well as truth.

Over at Hwagye-sa, Zen master Hyeon Gak made the same point quite simply when he held up his glass of Coca Cola as if toasting us (yeah, he often drinks Coke during his dharma talks), and said, "I'm killing now." In other words, one aspect of this reality about which we need to be mindful is that Nature is red in tooth and claw, and we are all part of that cycle of production and consumption. Hyeon Gak's deadpan nonchalantness in uttering "I'm killing now" (the line got laughs) is, I think, part of the point he's trying to make. "Such is life," he's saying. "When is death not a part of it?"



  1. and yet, he's still a vegetarian, why?
    this is the fantastic hwadu of the bodhisattva path.

    "beings are numberless, i vow to save them all."

    you are not a buddhist, as you yourself say, and thus, to a buddhist, you might sometimes seem quite guilty of falling prey to existential extremes, privileging the "bestiality" (and all the concomitant gore that entails) over the "benevolence" that is equally inherent in life. i hope you don't confuse hyon-gak's quip as an endorsement of your emphasis on the beastliness in life.

    grains and fruits can not only not get away, they can't feel suffering. they can't feel suffering to an even greater degree of difference with animals than between the rabbits that can't feel suffering quite like human adults. to buddhists, such distinctions regarding suffering matter, greatly. to carnivorous philosophers who try to make snide points against their vegetarian counterparts, such distinctions are seen as arbitrary.

    that said, the point you seem to make about vegetarians being wise to not fall prey to self-satisfied feelings of purity is important. sadly, this self-satisfaction often seems to be a key ingredient in causing carnivores to be anti-vegetarian. this is quite lamentable, as carnivores seem to suffer from a much worse self-satisfaction, that they are "keeping it real," acting in accord with nature, while vegetarians are all cooky, deluded cranks. the sin of the illusion of purity is not nearly as detrimental to one's karma (and can be quite quickly extinguished) as the illusion that one's participation in the meat consumption machine is just part of a "grand scheme of natural life." the slavish taste for the flesh of sentient beings is a desire not easily eradicated, in this life or the next.

    mahayanist monastics may be the most relativist of buddhists, sometimes to an extreme, but even they hold precepts, and for very good reason. not eating meat is very high up on the list, and should never be taken lightly, no matter what type of pithy comments may be made during dharma sermons.

  2. T O'C,

    I don't see any mystery in Hyeon Gak's vegetarianism. He's only following his situation, just as the Dalai Lama is following his situation by eating meat.

    As a non-Buddhist, I tend to see the proscription against meat-eating as rooted more in superstition than in anything morally meaningful. As commenter Sperwer has pointed out on a few occasions, the proscription is an add-on to original Buddhism; I would further note that it isn't really followed seriously by the majority of practicing cradle Buddhists in the world, Korea included. That's quite telling.

    I wrote superficially on this issue here. One implied point in that post is that Jainism doesn't make excuses for eating veggies. Oh, yes-- the veggies suffer, too!




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