There are cows here. Thousands of them, beef cattle, dressed in their finest for show and for auction, bathed, brushed and blown dry with the best of care. In the restaurant, you can eat steak. In all my years of Buddhist practice, retreats, early morning meditation, I have never come to terms with my need for meat. Mindfulness is my practice, yet it’s the juiciest Zen ko-an: why did the Buddhist’s steak taste so good?
I’m at the top stock show in the world. Cattle are shown here from around North America and probably beyond, and visitors come from all over the world. I’ve met many of them, from Australia and England, Russia and more. Cattle are big business. Sums too large for cash are exchanged for top bulls, applied genetics and even cloning are part of the breeding process too. These cows are the celebrities, not the potential steaks and roasts.
Somehow it seems like a cow has “Buddha-nature.” It is usually patient, kind, and gentle in spite of its size. It makes quiet, Om-like sounds, and when you look into its eyes there’s a kind of peace. Its coat is furry, even. I love vegetables, I have been a vegetarian for long periods of time. It seems like an easy choice. So why eat meat?
It goes back to an old Buddhist story, which I’ll recall in my own way. It’s a story about a monk, a cliff, and some tigers. A few of the tigers are chasing the monk. A few more are at the bottom of the cliff, but he doesn’t know that yet. He jumps off the cliff to escape the first, only to find the second ones. Fortunately, there’s a branch he can grab, and he does. Gradually, the branch tears out of the cliff. He notices that it holds a single, ripe strawberry. He plucks it and puts it in his mouth. How delicious!
My teacher emphasized that we are born into our cultures, even our religions. We can make some choices, but it’s not possible to transform ourselves completely. I will always be an American, a Christian, and yes, also a meat-eater. I could choose to act differently, and it might even be the “right thing to do.” Another Buddhist story talks about the absurdity of the labels “bad” and “good,” but there is frequently an emphasis on “right action.” What’s the difference?
When I eat a steak, I know that there is some suffering in it. I know that life is suffering, it’s a hard knot to untie. Just as I give thanks to the farmer for the vegetables I eat, I give thanks to the cow as well for its meat. It seems absurd. I think it would be vanity to decide that my entire culture and many others around the world are completely in the wrong. I mindfully eat, savor, and enjoy.
I can feel my place as a small part of the universe, and also containing the whole universe, Buddhist-style. It’s just like meditation, very real, very present. The food chain is a simple strand of that universe, even if the beef lobbyists aren’t thinking that way when they use it for clever slogans.
Some of my friends might call these ranchers visit the city during the stock show “evil meat people” or something like that. With their genetic science and their starry nights, table meat and the miracle of calves’ birth, and most of all their intense awareness of the cycle of birth and death, these ranchers have a bit of insight into the Dharma as well.
Since I grow more mindful, feel more a part of the universe, and am wrestled free from my mind’s wild habits by pondering the unsolvable puzzle of cows, I think that this food, for now, is something I will eat. Thanks to the cows, the ranchers, the farmers growing hay and the transport to my town. Thanks for the skillful preparation and the potent nourishment of my body. Om mani padme hum.