Vertumnus by Giuseppe Arcimbaldo (1527-1593)
To meat or not to meat… Is that the question?
(With apologies to Shakespeare!)
Even though the Buddha ate meat and the Dalai Lama has said that he eats meat, people generally assume that to be a Buddhist you also need to be a vegetarian. But this is a misunderstanding of one key aspect of the Buddhist approach to food and eating. Before I go on, if you would like to read a balanced and informed article about the Buddhist ethics of eating meat I highly recommend Bhante Sujato’s blog entry “Why Buddhists should be vegetarian”. Bhante is a well-respected Australian Theravadin monk who writes in down-to-earth way and the many many comments in response to his writing are also very interesting and shows that this is a really heated topic!
So I won’t go into the pros and cons of vegetarianism, instead I want to share with you what I learned this week whilst translating material about shojin-ryori (Japanese Buddhist cuisine) from a Japanese book written by a Shingon Buddhist priest from Mt Koya (where I was ordained). This follows on from my entry “Cooking up a Spiritual Storm”.
In shojin cooking, as well as the absence of meat, there are no ingredients that have a strong smell such as onions and garlic. From an aesthetic point of view, this is because those strong flavours overwhelm the delicacy of the cuisine. But there is also another reason that relates to spiritual practice. The word that is given as the opposite of shojin, is namagusa, which literally means “the rank smell of raw flesh” but also refers to any “bad smell”. It is also used in the same way in English when we are suspicious or disgusted, when we say “That’s fishy!” or “That stinks!”
Interestingly, this is the word that is also used to describe a Buddhist monk or nun who has broken their vows, so it also has the meaning of losing the way in one’s spiritual practice. In fact, the word namagusa appears in a very early Buddhist sacred text called the Nipata Sutta, which was written in response to asking the Buddha about whether to eat meat or not. However, the Buddha deflects the question and instead says that this concept of “stinking food” applies not only to what we put in our mouths but what we put in our minds and consequently display in our actions. If we fill our minds with harmful or malicious thoughts or unjust criticism and then speak badly of others, engage in lying or arrogant boasting or gossip – these thoughts and actions are like eating poison that harm not only those we denigrate but also ourselves.
So the discussion of what food we eat can be distracting to the real purpose of spiritual practice. If we continuously practice being mindful of what we are thinking and how our thoughts impact our actions, which in turn affect those around us, then we will also be mindful of how we nourish our bodies because if we look deeply into ourselves, ultimately we can find no separation between our mind and our body. In fact, in Japanese the word kokoro means mind and heart and feelings and thoughts (it also means warmth, love and compassion!) So if we focus on mindfulness in what we feed our minds, then what we feed our bodies will be a natural consequence of this awareness. This is the root meaning of namagusa.