Simply by existing we harm countless sentient beings

Sep 3, 2020

We vegans and vegetarians tend to have tunnel-vision when it comes to harming or not harming sentient beings. We’re convinced that merely by not eating creatures that we’re not causing the death of sentient beings. Not true!

For sure, the meat and fishing and dairy industry kills and harms billions of sentient beings – not to mention the terrible harm done the planet! – but it’s naïve, even arrogant, to forget about the billions of beings slaughtered and harmed when we grow rice, wheat, vegetables and the rest.

In an online article in 2013 by Professor Mike Archer in Australia I read that in wheat producing towns, “on average every five years they have a mouse plague. And these mice get killed in the millions and millions, mass-slaughtered in horrible ways” in order to produce wheat. And who is the wheat for? Some to feed the cows for the meat-eaters but most for us holy vegans and vegetarians! He said they’re so cute, these field mice. They even sing love songs to each other!

This has to be commonplace the world over. I don’t think I have ever met a vegan or vegetarian who even acknowledges this. Oh, it can’t be helped, we probably think. But if they were killed for our dinner there’d be outrage!

There’s not a fraction of logic to prove that the animal that is killed for us to eat suffers any more than that animal that’s killed to make way for the wheat.

I’d always wondered how many creatures die when we drive cars. I Googled it and sure enough someone had done the research. In 2018 a Dutch biologist found that just in the Netherlands, for example, nearly one trillion insects are killed by cars every six months – and that’s accounting for those found just on the number plates!

In this scenario, we even see the creatures smattered on our windscreen, but I suppose because they’re so tiny, it’s hard to feel much empathy. And, again, because we don’t kill them to eat, we see them as the inexorable collateral damage of our ordinary lives.

And what about the creatures that so offend us, such as the cockroaches and ants and rats? We think it’s noble to kill them because they’re vermin.

We’re so arbitrary in our compassion, so limited!

The bigger picture is explained so clearly in Buddhism. This world we live in is pervaded by sentient beings. Our body is a walking zoo! We breathe them in. Just by walking, we destroy so many. We can’t even exist without harming them.

For Buddhism, all these creatures are real living beings, mind-possessors, who want to be happy, who don’t want to suffer, who’ve had countless lives, including as humans, and who possess the potential to become buddhas. We’ve been insects and cockroaches too!

We assume, too, that the fishing and meat industry is driven by supply and demand, so that if we order less, less beings would be killed. I remember one year in Maine, where there are lots of lobsters, there were ten times more lobsters than normal. Nobody ordered them! Those beings turned up in the waters of Maine due to their karma. In fact, the state government had to spend millions to market them so they could get them off their hands.

In other words, animals have the karma to be killed and people have the karma to kill. It’s an interdependent scenario. When the fisherman goes to the river with his strong intention to kill based on his past karma, the fish are there lining up with their little mouths open because they had the karma to be killed by him.

So, if sentient suffer no matter what we do, what’s the solution? Given that it’s the nature of samsara – fraught with suffering – all we can do, each one of us, is become more and more conscious, more aware, and do everything we can, each moment, to not harm living beings.

So there are two things to consider. The first, most urgent thing to do is to stop killing for our own sake, to protect our own karma. This is the first level of practice: avoid harming sentient beings. Why? Because, Buddha says, by harming sentient beings we create the karma to be harmed in the future and to continue to harm. We need to be super conscious of this, driven by intelligent self-respect. This is what renunciation means: no way do I want future suffering, so I must stop causing it. This powerful intention might not stop countless beings from suffering, but at least we’re programming our mind in the right direction.

Then we have to stop killing and harming for the sake of the sentient beings. Motivation is everything. First, renunciation, which protects us, then compassion. To stop eating meat or cheese merely for health – that’s not virtue; that’s samsara!

The best way to protect ourselves, then, is to live in vows of no killing, no stealing, no lying, etc. etc. Twenty-four hours a day that we’re keeping them, we’re dropping precious non-harming seeds into our mindstream – and we need bucketloads of non-killing seeds, for example, just to get another human birth. And it ensures that next life we’ll have no thought to kill and we will not get killed.

But this is also brilliant for the sentient beings. Every second, we do our best, based on compassion, to be aware of them, to try not to harm them. Living in vows protects us but it also protects them. As Lama Zopa says, all the rats and roaches will have a party – because we’ll leave them in peace!

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