Q. I have some questions regarding practice. Perhaps I could ask through your website, so hope that is ok – one is about vegetarianism, which is an issue close to my heart!
A. One of the great contentious issues in Buddhism! Before I give you my personal thoughts, let me first give you a couple of what I would consider as known facts. Devadatta (the cousin of the Buddha) told the Buddha there should be five more rules added to the fledgling code of conduct for bhikkhus. One of these five was that monks should no longer be permitted to eat meat or fish. The Buddha turned down this demand, stating monks should eat whatever is offered by the lay community. He said the only time they should refuse meat or fish from the laity was when it was killed for them; neither should they desire to kill for food themselves. The refusal of the Buddha to concede these demands led not only to the first schism in the sangha, but also led Devadatta, in his frustration at not being successful in starting his own sangha, to try to take the life of the Buddha. In the time since the Buddha, vegetarianism has never been a practice in the East except in the odd situation, usually inspired by an abbot or monastic teacher who wanted his place meat free. Even today, if you choose to go to any Buddhist country you will find meat and fish eating is a part of the daily diet of even the most ethical, devout and sincere Buddhists. It is important to understand that the Buddha stated quite clearly that there are only two instances (cited above)when you would be karmically involved with killing. In avoiding those two instances you are not violating the natural law of things, thereby confirming that the path of practice is not blocked. This dispels the astonishing myth held to by many (Western) Buddhists that you have to be vegetarian in order to practise the Dharma. This leads to another very important consideration – but one for another time – that the very basis of Dharma practice is about accepting things the way they are, rather than trying to shape the world to how you think it should be. This is one of the subtlest insights of the Buddha and his teachings, and sets Dharma practice apart from most other spiritual traditions. Having dealt with what would be considered factual points, this does leave much more to say. Personally, I have great respect for those who decide to be vegetarian and pursue what is seen by many as a deep ethical and social issue. This is such a strong issue for many that they would consider it inconceivable to try to practise and not be vegetarian. If there is such a strong feeling, then vegetarianism should be pursued, but remember to be careful to avoid the common trap of feeling spiritually superior to meat-eaters and parade yourself with your bright shiny moral badge. When this becomes the case, it can be just another possession reaffirming and reinforcing the sense of self. These days, with the tendency in the West to vegetarianism, you may well find teachers that have expectations of their students not to eat meat. If it is one of the conditions for joining a sangha, then you have to accept this and do your best to respect that expectation (along with maybe several others that you disagree with), considering it as part of your practice. But on the other hand, if you find a teacher that refuses to teach you the Dharma and help you with your struggle in samsara because you are partial to sausage rolls, then you may want to ponder the depth of his compassion.
Q. I was reading the forum and noticed in answer to a question about right livelihood you make the statement: If you practise the Dharma correctly all actions serve the Dharma. I found this statement really powerful – could you maybe say more about this and how to orientate oneself in this direction? How does one learn to live in this way?
A. We should not be deceived by appearances. Because someone is engaging themselves in, for example, Buddhist activities of various sorts, doesn't by definition mean they are practising the Dharma. Their motives to selflessly help others could be well down their list of priorities. Their primary motive could be promoting their own self-image through being respected, being well thought of. What they are doing could well be useful and beneficial to others, but in practice terms it will have a superficial impact on their transforming process, which is what Dharma practice is about. Indeed, they could be just pumping up their ego still further. In strict Dharma terms what you do on the outside (providing you observe the precepts) is of little consequence to the cultivation of the path. Of course some activities are more conducive to practice than others, but broadly speaking it doesn't matter what you are doing. To put a correct practice in place is the first priority. That correctness is centred on understanding the eightfold path, a path laid out to enable you to come back with mindfulness and awareness to whatever you are doing, and to stay centred. When you are centred there is no sense of a self, and it is here that selflessness has its centre. Whatever action you now do is non-karmic producing and deeply profound. Here you are not only honouring and serving the Dharma (indeed, you are the Dharma) for your own benefit but also honouring and serving the Dharma for others around you who are bound to be touched by your obvious selflessness, and inspiring them to practice. You learn to orientate to and live the Dharma by learning and putting into practice the eightfold path supported by going for refuge. This is the framework of the path (irrespective of the tradition or method you follow). You get your guidance from you teacher and from moderate study, all within the support of a sangha. It is a long and steady process that you surrender your life to in the spirit and determination of a full-time commitment.