The morality of food

I love this.  Mostly because it blurs the lines of traditional thinking and I’m a big fan of anything that creates curiosity and challenges any linear views  we may have of the world.  Plants are sentient species too!

In Zen, when we decide that we will formally be recognised as Buddhist, we take the precepts* (listed down the page).  The first of which is to refrain from taking life.   Any teacher worth their salt, and mine is (check out Daizan Roshi), will tell you that we take the precepts with the kind intention of keeping them, but also with the kind realisation that we’re likely to break them.  It’s not about sticking rigidly to rules and making yet ANOTHER stick with which to beat ourselves, it’s about holding an intention to be mindful in these regards and to do what feels to be the right thing.

Notice I use the verb ‘feel’ rather than ‘think’.

One of the gifts of a regular meditation and mindfulness practice is that we become more attuned to how our bodies feel moment by moment.  The body, 9 times out of 10, is a much more trustworthy barometer of The Right Next Action, than the slippery, justifying, argumentative, self serving thinking mind when it comes to ethical or moral decisions/choices, especially ethical or moral decisions that have some sort of potential pay off for us.  I’m not saying that the thinking mind isn’t useful, it is, we just need to know its place and stop placing the massive emphasis we do on it, culturally, in the West.

Trusting how we feel rather than what we think is a lifetime practice.  Sometimes my body is shouting and screaming at me not to go down a certain road, normally I feel it in my gut, but I zone it out and ignore it because the thinking mind has taken hold and is dangling all sorts of imaginary carrots (fantasy, desire, romanticism, looking ‘good’, appearing ‘spiritual’ etc) and I get lost in what I think rather than what I feel.  Welcome to the human race, Kim!  So any practice is an ongoing shift away from the incredibly compelling thinking mind and moving to a trust in the feeling body.  As I said, it takes a lifetime.

(I’ll post in a few days about what to do if you struggle to feel ANYTHING within, that was true for me, too, and still can be).

Back to plants.  We take the precepts knowing that we’ll likely break them.  A reminder of the first precept: to refrain from taking life.  As Daizan would say (I’m paraphrasing):

If we eat meat, we are ending life
If we eat fish, we are ending life
If we eat vegetables, we are ending the life of the plant
If we eat only nuts and seeds, we inhibit the ability of the plant that they were taken from to produce new life, thereby ending potential life
If we eat only fruit and vegetables that have fallen to the ground, we end the life of micro organisms that live on the fallen vegetation or any food stuffs for that matter
If we eat only a very narrow and specific diet, then we end up not giving our own bodies the nutrients they need, and so we end our own lives, over time.

So at any point on the scale, life is being taken, the thinking mind may start to say that one sort of life holds greater meaning than another.  Really? But that’s for another time…   Is this taking of life a reason to be sad?  I suppose it could be.

Or it could be your opportunity to give huge thanks and gratitude to whatever makes its way to you to be eaten.  Gratitude for the life that it is giving you, gratitude that we have choices in how to eat (if we do), gratitude to all the people involved in getting the food to you:
Who planted, cared for, harvested the food?
Who looked after the animals involved in your food, whether it’s meat or milk?
Can we be grateful for the sun shining, the rain falling, the earth turning – all of which are essential to our food production?
How many people and organisations were involved in getting the food to you?
How many families were fed on the back of the wages and profits made from the food?
Who built the roads, the vehicles, the aeroplanes, the shops that get our food to us?

You get my point, it’s a useful exercise in interconnectedness too!   The list goes on and on.

It might also mean that we take some responsibility for how our food is looked after before it reaches us and how it will look after us after we’ve eaten it, and those considerations might inform our buying decisions.  Some of us don’t have much choice in those regards but we all have a choice about using our intention and experiencing gratitude.

In Zen, we say that gratitude is the first step towards Enlightenment.  Regardless of your views on Enlightenment (it’s not what you think!) gratitude is a really worthwhile practice to undertake just for its own sake and being grateful for the life giving properties of our food and the sacrifices that are made to get it to us is an excellent way to start.

I love the video clip above with its sense of awe and celebration about the plants and slimes in our lives!  How amazing is this world we find ourselves in.

Thanks for listening 🙂

*The Buddhist Precepts as suggested by Zenways.

We are expected to refrain from:

  1. Taking life
  2. Stealing
  3. Lying
  4. Indulgence in abusive or inappropriate sexual behaviour
  5. Abuse of intoxicants
  6. Criticism of others
  7. Boasting of attainments and belittling others
  8. Being mean
  9. Harbouring anger
  10. Defaming one’s own or others’ teachers or spiritual paths


4 thoughts on “The morality of food

  1. If we eat vegetables we are not ending the life of the plant surely? I have runner beans for dinner yet the plant they came from grows strong and tall in the garden. There cannot be any comparison between this and the suffering and murder of an animal for meat.


    1. Hello 🙂 I think that the youtube video clip is pointing to the sea change in how we regard the suffering of plants. And root vegetables: carrots, potatoes, onions etc as well as cabbages, lettuces all have their lives ended. I think that runner beans fall into the nuts and seeds category (as they house seeds) and that when we eat them we have inhibited the plant’s ability to prosper and to disperse. Eating all the beans gives it no chance of dispersal. And as I said, it’s another conversation entirely as to whether the life of one thing is more important than the life of another. Also, if we are vegetarians there must be an acceptance that thousands (if not millions) of male chicks and male calves get put to death each year to give us hens and dairy cows. But I get your point. On the face of it, the animals would seem to suffer more and that’s also why I point to taking care about what has happened to our food before we buy it etc. I’m not condemning or condoning anyone 🙂 I’m simply emphasising there is a point of the scale for everything and the point that feels right is up to you. Either way, we might all consider what we eat and how we eat with a little more gratitude?
      Thank you for your comment.


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