Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Bad Buddhist vs. The First Precept

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life. — Thich Nhat Hanh

The horrifying live-fish-sushi video I posted last time (and again here, to the right) has really been weighing on me. It's telling me that it's time to get to work on the First Precept, quoted above.

The Five Precepts (five for laypeople; there are actually ten for monks) are sometimes compared to the Ten Commandments, but there's an important difference: they are not taken to be "revealed" or unquestionable, but rather they are the Buddha's summary of how to live in a way that promotes the greatest well being for oneself and all others. On the surface, it's a pretty straightforward list of dos and don'ts; but what it's really asking us to do is think through the most basic aspects of our daily lives, understand the effects our behavior has on the world around us, and choose the best thing to say or do.

This might sound obvious (which it is; again, the Buddha was eminently practical, more of a psychologist than a mystic). Even so, undertaking the Precepts is a lot harder than it seems. Thinking and choosing can be VERY INCONVENIENT sometimes.

For example, I take Omega 3 supplements made from fish oil, even though I'm otherwise a vegetarian. I made an exception for the supplements because I have ongoing problems with depression and anxiety, for which EPA, a component of Omega 3 fatty acids, is an effective treatment. EPA is not present in sufficient concentration in flax, borage, evening primrose or other plant sources; fish oil is the only form that works. I have taken many pharmaceutical medications and suffered severe side effects, whereas the fish oil has helped me without fucking me up.

But it is fucking up a lot of fish.

How do fish die? These days, most fish are flash-frozen soon after capture. This is more humane than letting them slowly suffocate, but even if the freezing happens "within minutes" that still means minutes of suffocation, of painfully starting to die. (And how "humane" can flash-freezing really be? Would you want it to happen to you?) What in this world could possibly be worth inflicting such torture? And on such a huge scale — thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of creatures every day.

I know that taking fish-oil supplements is a violation of the First Precept. Many living beings are suffering terribly because I pay to make it happen. I am directly subsidizing the animal-death industry.

So if I've known this all along, why haven't I quit yet?

I'm quite scared of giving up my fish-oil. It's been a huge improvement over the prescription drugs I used to take. It works pretty well and doesn't do any damage — which, if you've had any experience with brain meds, you'll appreciate is an AMAZING thing to be able to say. It's not just a luxury or temporary pleasure, like a salmon dinner. It's something that largely determines what every day of your life is going to feel like.

But the harsh fact is that there are side effects to fish-oil treatment: it causes tremendous physical suffering. Just not to me. All I've done is shift it onto someone else — millions of someone elses — and their suffering is far, far worse than anything I would have to endure if I gave up the supplements.

* * *

I wasn't sure how this post would end until right now. I wrote the following "final" paragraph a few hours ago:

"Yet, here I am, not giving up the fish-oil. I'm not giving it up. I want to and I know I should, but for now I'm just not. Which means I must think that ignoring (or causing) suffering and death is OK if it helps my life run more smoothly.

That's pretty disgusting. I think I get an "F" on the First Precept."

But I can't stand the disgustingness after all. I keep seeing that horrible video in my mind and thinking what a mystifying thing it is that humans can prioritize and de-prioritize as lightly as we do: my pleasure, your pain; my convenience, your suffering. It doesn't make a lot of difference whether the stakes are an effective medical treatment or a frivolous pleasure; the question ultimately is the same: Would I rather live in a world with X amount of cruelty in it, or X-plus-1?

Bad Buddhist opts out of being the plus-1. No more fish-oil. And any good karma I get for that decision, may it be passed on to the person who ordered that plate of living sushi; I think he or she is gonna need it. (The good karma, that is. Not the sushi. No one needs the sushi.)
click image to play, or download heredyingfish
I had to repost this — maybe to punish myself? I haven't actually watched it again. I'm pretty sure I'll never watch it again. Maybe you shouldn't watch it, either.

I can't quite point to why, but this image also grosses me out. It evokes the same sense of ordinary pleasures (like eating something good) becoming more enjoyable by association with someone else's suffering, or exploitation, or degradation. Or maybe the live-sushi video has just really, really screwed me up.

WTF? There's MORE of this out there? Yes, indeed there is. In fact, live sushi is a really hip, hot and happenin' thing. I'm feeling more enlightened by the minute.





  1. I was veggie for 12 years and got all sorts of unhealthy... so I started eating fish. So now I'm happy and healthy... and totally feeling your pain about compassion. SHIT!

    You're right and I know it, and yet I'm choosing my own needs and wants over another being who has had no choice.


    And I haven't even watched the sushi video.

  2. Do you think you can by your forsaking of physical comfort reduce the suffering of these beings?

    If you do not subsidize their murder, a legion of others will stand up to take your place. They will use the strength you have forsaken to outperform you.

    This will not help your cause. The fish are dead. Their suffering is ended. Better that you gain joy from them than guilt. Better you show gratitude towards their death than sorrow.

    How disgusting I find those who actually derive essential nutrition from another entity and yet deny that entity the dignity of being consumed. I should be greatly offended by a vegetarian worm who discarded my flesh after my death and never allowed me to become a flower. How haughty to go out of my way to assume that other nature feels differently, when all observation suggests that nature consumes itself readily and joyously in all forms.

    Life is suffering. Is death? Who is to say the dying fish suffers? Who is to say the fish *ever* suffers?

  3. You know, the buddha himself ate meat, and he did not forbid his followers, whether monks or lay people, from eating it. He merely said to express gratitude for their suffering.

  4. Well, he ate meat because thats what some people gave him as alms. So its never there for a monk to refuse what the lay people give so they have to accept it.

    My thoughts for being veggie, is that well im a veggie too and i get this feeling that none of the beings are killed for my existence. It could be hard for most of the people, but I disagree for what weaselcat said, because ever since ive being a vegetarian Ive never been sick, maybe its just that you need to have done good deeds in this life or any earlier life...

    What Doc says is true, the fish are already dead, but the more buyers = more killing, so buyers is the cause, killing is the effect. You know what im saying...

    Take a better advantage of this life being a human, think how many other creatures are there excluding us... Only humans can think, only them who can know about their mind, only they are the ones who can learn about it and who can also strengthen the mind, and reach the supreme state of existence.

    Dont waste your time on entertaining, because you dont even know when you will die. Be mindful, think about the present not the future or the past. Live with the five precepts that will grant you the environment to Meditate, and may you reach the end of samsara in this life.

    Peace all!

  5. Well, now, what about the ants in my kitchen???? Blasted things are everywhere, and yes, indeedy, I do take pleasure in getting rid of them!! I have to put my flax/seeds/nuts/fruits and veggies in a safe to keep those buggers out!

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