A comment or question I often hear when a person I’m meeting for the first time finds out I’m a Buddhist is, “So you’re a vegetarian?”. Whether it’s prompted by the ‘Happy Buddha” listing on a Chinese restaurant menu that almost always indicated a vegetarian dish, or something else, the answer is the same. No, I’m not. I have, at times, been a vegetarian, a vegan, and a ‘pescatarian’ (eating fish, but no other animals). Before I knew I was a Buddhist, I also wore fur (I don’t expect to do that again this lifetime), and even now I still have some leather shoes, although I mostly buy vegan ones. This is my personal preference. I don’t impose it on anyone else, and others, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, may have stricter standards.

Is it an inconsistency, to profess having respect for all life and still eat meat? Can it be acceptable to eat some animals, but not others? To be a good Buddhist, must one also be vegetarian? These questions were put to the historic Buddha, Shakyamuni, who is said to have replied, “It is enough to kill the will to kill.” If this seems evasive or ambiguous, consider the reality of our existence; eventually, everybody gets eaten by something. We are all sometimes predators, other times prey. Having eliminated most of our natural predators, we are still subject to organisms we can’t even see without a microscope-bacteria, viruses, cancers-all of which possess life. Sometimes they are attacking us, other times they are merely present, yet we don’t hesitate to attempt their eradication. Similarly, insects are often destructive and annoying (that’s why we call them ‘bugs’, I suppose); is it evil to exterminate?

Buddhism doesn’t have commandments, so these are the kinds of decisions we have to make for ourselves, based on the wisdom we derive from our spiritual practice. The Buddhist concept of dependent origination explains that all beings and phenomena are inextricably linked and only exist in relation to each other. We do not exist apart from our environment, our environment does not exist without us, and everything is part of the system of cause and effect. If we choose the extreme path of self-abnegation, we might conclude that we have no more right to be alive than anyone else, and cease all efforts to survive. Or we could do the opposite and assert that our existence is more important than anything or anyone else, and claim the right to kill anyone or destroy anything that we deem detrimental to that goal. Which sounds a lot like that lower world known as animality (“Seeing the Elephant”), although humans can display behavior that’s a lot worse than what we attribute to the animal world; neither choice is ideal.

But Buddhism isn’t called the “Middle Way” for nothing, and it is possible to walk this way between those two extremes. The relationship between humans and animals is complex. One of the most pervasive and insidious delusions that plagues us is the tendency to look for the separateness of things rather than to see the connectedness of all things, including beings. It’s easier to look at exterior differences and proclaim anyone who doesn’t look like us (human or animal) the ‘other’, but to do so is to ignore and ultimately deny the Buddha nature that we all have in common. (This is the root of racism, bigotry, and speciesism.) While Buddhism is a humanistic religion, it also recognizes the Buddha quality in all life. When it comes to carrying out a Buddhist practice, humans have an edge, but because of the interconnectedness of all life, we maintain that edge only through our behavior toward the rest of our world. So while it may be acceptable to eat an animal to sustain your life (and in doing so, perhaps the animal gets a ‘karmic boost’), it is not acceptable to mindlessly or viciously destroy life, regardless of how lowly its form. If any behavior were enough to send a human back down the evolutionary ‘ladder’, that would be it!

Other questions arise regarding our relationship to animals. Some regard any ‘use’ of an animal as improper, since an animal cannot give its consent to being used. Others believe that as a higher life form, we have every right to do absolutely anything with or to any animal for any reason we deem fit. But what constitutes improper use, and what is a beneficial interspecies relationship? The ‘middle way’ is somewhere in between, and every human/animal relationship has its enlightened and deluded aspect. Scientific discoveries and medical advances that may have occurred from using animals as test subjects (fortunately we seem to be evolving beyond these methods) may seem a noble cause, but use of animals to test cleaning and cosmetic products is utterly deplorable. Raising animals to feed people may seem like a good, life-sustaining cause, but the dark side is industrial-scale ‘factory’ farming that’s detrimental to both animal and human life. (Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan are good sources for more on this subject.) There are many ways that the human/animal relationship can be mutually beneficial, more so than if we simply allowed all animals to be ‘wild’. Consider the chicken: some consider it evil to eat eggs, but not all eggs are fertilized. Chickens lay eggs regardless of whether or not a rooster is involved. The unfertilized eggs will never be chickens, so eating those eggs is not ‘eating their babies’. Unused, they will be eaten by some other animal (who may also eat the chickens), or left to rot. Though nowhere near as egregious as the mistreatment of factory-farmed animals, it can hardly be regarded as a noble cause.

We owe animals respect, especially if we are using them to our benefit. Once we domesticate a species, we create a new responsibility to care for it. To ignore or shrug off this responsibility is betrayal. This applies to animals we have used for testing, that we have exhibited, used for sport, used for food, or taken into our homes as pets. Because of their changed relationship with humans, it is not only ill advised but cruel to simply ‘release’ them, with the idea that they will be happier ‘running free’ with ‘their own kind’. We have in effect ‘hybridized’ them; their ‘own kind’ is other domesticated animals, and…well, us.

Prior to domestication, in the ‘survival of the fittest’ world, humans tended to regard animals as food only. The evolution of humans and the domestication of animals are inextricably intertwined. Some will argue that domesticating animals is cruel and unethical, period. Of course, a practice’s longevity does not guarantee its value, but over the thousands of years that the process has evolved, animals may have had more choice in the matter than might be supposed. A phrase in the Lotus Sutra, referring to humans, “Single-mindedly yearning to see the Buddha, they do not begrudge their lives”, might well apply to animals too. The ‘help’ might be voluntary, like rousing the family when the house is on fire, or involuntary, like being eaten. In “The Fourteen Slanders”, Nichiren states, “No matter if he is a demon or an animal, if someone proclaims even a single verse or phrase of the Lotus Sutra, you must respect him as you would the Buddha.” Although few animals possess the ability to speak ‘human’, there are countless examples of animals ‘humanizing’ humans. In “The Teaching, Practice, and Proof,” refers to priests distorting the teachings of Buddhism as [having] understanding…inferior to that of cattle or sheep”. By implication, animals must have some level of understanding, simply by being. There are species that will never be anything other than wild; do they “learn to fly”, like the swallow in the folk song “Dona, Dona”? Perhaps. Either way, our inability to domesticate them doesn’t lessen their right to exist in the world, nor does anything an animal does excuse abusive behavior on a human’s part.

If the mythical unicorn appeared on the horizon, one person might say, “Oh, what a beautiful, magical creature! I hope it’s not the only one”; another person might say, “Hey, I think I’ve got a saddle that’d fit it…is there a virgin around here to catch it?”. Yet another person would say, “Hmmm…never ate one of those before…looks delicious…” And, sadly, there would be someone who would wantonly shoot it or hack it to pieces for no good reason at all. Not everyone has killed “the will to kill”.

An animal’s life has intrinsic value; all species have a purpose. Respecting all life doesn’t mean that we can’t, say, kill illness-causing bacteria, or remove a cancerous tumor to save someone’s life, or work to eradicate polio, smallpox, cholera, etc., or smack the cockroach that strays into the kitchen. But we’ve also seen such attempts to control our environment carried too far, causing the occurrence of “superbugs” and other imbalances of the ecosystem. We can’t exist in sterility. Life can’t exist in sterility. That’s why it’s vital that we get past the “I’m human, you’re an animal” mentality, and the often accompanying indifference when a species becomes extinct. Just as we are diminished by the loss of human life, we are also diminished by the loss of animal life.

Besides, we are all animals…even if only some of us have thumbs.