Challenging the Teaching of a Carnivorous Zen Master While Floating the Milk River in Canada


I recently returned from a 10-day/150-mile canoe trip on the Milk River in Alberta, Canada. By my count, the Milk was my fourteenth paddle adventure. What is my fascination with rivers? 

Rivers, I have learned, are the greatest teachers. On a river one learns, quite literally, to go with the flow of life. One sets a course and pushes water behind or back-paddles as necessary, but the river itself shows the way. Paddling upstream against the current is extremely difficult, at times impossible, and is generally not a good idea. Slowing down before entering a dangerous curve is strongly advised. These are good lessons to learn and skills to apply — not just on rivers, but on dry land too. 

The other thing about rivers is that they provide my favorite setting for contemplation, especially when the current is moderate and steady, as it was for much of our float of the Milk. We put in at Whiskey Gap, just four miles from the US border and 84 miles west of the town of Milk River itself. The river cuts through remote and open high prairie country where cattle graze in paradise, blissfully unaware of the gruesome fate at the slaughterhouse that awaits them. Paddling the Milk River then is a kind of meditation on life and death. 

We made our way past hundreds, if not thousands, of happy calves and cows, almost all of whom will be carved up for meat by the fall. I found myself wistfully singing:“I’d rather be a hammer than a nail, yes I would, if I could, I surely would." The cattle mooed along, no doubt more on key than I was.

I wondered about the ranchers and, somewhat to my surprise, found myself thinking of them not with moral outrage, but compassion. Maybe my Zen meditation practice has softened my heart more than I realize. 

On this trip, in addition to the Tao Te Ching, which I never fail to bring with me into the wilderness, I packed The Eight Gates of Zen by John Daido Loori, the revered former abbot of the Zen Mountain Monastery and founder of the Mountain and Rivers Order of Buddhist monks.  

I should mention here that I am an "informal student" at the monastery, by which I mean that I am a regular attendee of monastery retreats, though I have yet to make a formal commitment to Zen practice. I met Daido when he was a guest on a talk radio program I was co-hosting on WDST in Woodstock, NY, not far from the monastery in Mount Tremper. 

In the studio, Daido struck me as intensely serious, too serious for me. I had been interested in Zen since I first read Alan Watts in college, but Alan was entertaining, whereas Daido was all business. I felt intimidated by him and, odd as it may seem, that drew me to the monastery. I attended one of the last Introduction to Zen weekend retreats that Daido led before he died in 2009. I would have liked to talk to him about what I am about to get into here. 

One night in camp, I was reading Daido’s chapter on Zen liturgy, in which he writes: “Every time we receive a meal we consume life; we kill living things in order to sustain our own life.”

My immediate response: What if I have a bowl of fruit for lunch?  Am I taking life by eating apples, pears, and bananas? On a subtle level, I suppose. However, eating the fruits of trees that will continue to live is not analogous to eating a mammal. 

Daido continues: “Buddhism does not differentiate between higher and lower life forms – the cabbage is every bit as holy as a cow.”

Hindus might disagree. Please note: Lord Krishna is not depicted hugging a head of cabbage. Daido’s logic (or Buddhist logic, as the case may be) sounds like that of a carnivore in desperate such of search of a defense.

Assuming that a cabbage “is every bit as holy as a cow,” it does not follow that eating a cabbage is the moral equivalent of eating a cow. While Daido does not say that it is, neither does he make a meaningful differentiation between the two. Therefore, his teaching is incomplete. Call me unenlightened (I am!) and/or insensitive (I am too often!) but my heart does not ache when I consider the fate of a row of cabbages. Coleslaw is not ground chuck, or as Alan Watts reportedly put it when asked why he was a vegetarian, “Cows scream louder than carrots.” 

And yet, somehow Daido sums it up thusly: “Life is life and we must consume it in order to live.” 

Sure, “life is life," but butchering is not farming. Daido’s comment does not sound like Buddhist compassion to me. After all, one of the four great Bodhisatva vows is “sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them.” And yes, I know that some say that plants and even rocks are sentient beings, but that’s not relevant to the issue at hand. The cannibal chef and vegetarian chef both take life to prepare their supper, but at whose restaurant would you dine? 

We all consume life in one form or another to support our own lives and we must come to terms with that fact. But please, spare me the equivocating “life is life” superficiality, because it is a total dodge of the ethical issue of meat-eating. With all due respect to Daido, here is a revise of his inadequate “life is life and we must consume it to live” teaching:

"While life is life and we must consume it to live, better to eat a grape than a kangaroo burger." 

With that said, I find myself once again wistfully singing, “I’d rather be a sparrow than a snail, yes I would, if I could, I surely would.”

By the way, I would be remiss if I did not mention that although Daido “loved his steak,” (as someone who knew him recently told me) — the food served at Zen Mountain Monastery today is exclusively vegetarian with vegan options. Expressing gratitude and appreciation before each meal is an essential part of Zen practice. The meal gatha says “we eat to practice good,” however it is clearly understood that it is considerably more difficult to say that with a straight face while woofing down a double-bacon cheeseburger as opposed to a turnip. Even so, I have never heard from a word of encouragement from a Zen teacher to go vegetarian or eat less meat. 

Some confessions: I married a butcher’s daughter. (I know, it sounds like a horror movie, but it’s true.) While I have been a strict vegetarian for 40 years — I won’t even eat a beefsteak tomato. Still, I am not a vegan and I have caused suffering to animals for my own gastronomical satisfaction. I do not think of myself as morally superior to carnivores, though I confess to feeling an unspoken satisfaction when passing the plate of rump roast along when it comes my way at the holiday dinner table. I bristle at preachy vegetarians (even though I may be accused of being one by writing this), though bristle even more at carnivores who equate killing giraffes with eggplants. 

I can’t imagine that Daido would equate killing giraffes with eggplants, but then again, being an ignorant man, I can’t say that with any certainty. For what it’s worth, the traditional Sunday lunch served at the monastery is spaghetti with Daido’s favorite sauce, and the sauce is a traditional Italian pomodoro, minus the meatballs. Zen students are not served Daido’s favorite cut of meat.   

And now that I have made my main case, there is nothing left for me to do but wistfully sing (and please feel free to moo along): “I’d rather be a forest than a street, yes I would, if I only could, I surely would…”