Going Zenetarian: The More Mindful Alternative to Vegetarianism

By Paul Thomas Zenki

Telling yourself “Don’t ever do that” isn’t mindfulness…

Did you know, the Buddha wasn’t a vegetarian? Well, it’s true.

The early Buddhists, including Siddhartha Gautama himself, were mendicants, eating whatever people gave them. In fact, one of the few biographical details credited by most historians about the Buddha is that he died at age 80 after eating “soft pork”. (Since living to 100 would have been more fitting for an enlightened being, and the Buddha’s symptoms were rather inglorious, resembling those of mesenteric infarction, it’s unlikely these particular details of his death were fabricated.)

Still, many Buddhists, including Zen Buddhists, stick to a vegetarian or vegan diet so as to observe the first precept, to avoid killing. And while this is a noble impulse, it can actually be a stumbling block for cultivating mindfulness.

One of the most common teachings regarding the Buddhists precepts is that to rigidly follow them is to violate them. Why is this?

Well, quite simply, it’s because blindly following rules is not mindfulness. That, and the fact that life has a way of putting us into situations where keeping one precept requires us to violate another. The classic example, of course, is hiding Jews from Nazis — to avoid causing their deaths, one is required to lie. Fortunately for most of us, our dilemmas tend to be more of the “Do these pants make me look fat?” variety, but situations pitting one virtue against another are just unavoidable.

While there’s nothing wrong with vegetarianism per se, being rigid about it can lead to problems. As noted by Harvard Health Watch, “unless you follow recommended guidelines on nutrition, fat consumption, and weight control, becoming a vegetarian won’t necessarily be good for you.” Which means that sticking to a no-meat diet even when you can’t get all the nutrients you need from what’s at hand can be unhealthy, making you a burden to yourself and others.

Identifying strongly as a strict vegetarian or vegan can also lead unconsciously to an attitude of self-righteousness, of judging others negatively because they are not living the way we feel is the right way to live. I mean, of course the stereotype of vegans as holier-than-thou nags is just that, a stereotype — but let’s face it, it didn’t exactly fall out of a clear blue sky. Once we’ve decided that vegetarianism is the way to go, it can be hard not to walk into this trap, thereby violating the sixth and seventh precepts, to avoid disparaging others and aggrandizing oneself, even in thought.

And finally, it can lead to denial of our true nature. The fact of the matter is, we are animals who are evolved to eat other animals. That’s why going vegan takes effort and attention to avoid nutritional deficiencies. The point of mindfulness practice is to see ourselves and the world as accurately as possible, whether we would rather they be that way or not. In theory, perfect mindfulness would result in not being disgusted by anything. Yet strict veganism can give rise to a sense of disgust at this fact of our biology, which is a form of rejection of reality and of self.

And please, whatever you do, don’t choose a vegetarian diet for pets who are not natural vegetarians. Especially cats, who are obligate carnivores. If you can’t bring yourself to buy meat for animals who naturally eat it, don’t become their caretaker. (Yeah, I got preachy there, but animals can’t speak for themselves.)

That pig was dead when I got here

So what are we to do if we want to avoid killing and cruelty in our diets, while at the same time dodging the pitfalls of arrogance and denial? The Zen solution is rather simple:

  • As long as it is healthy to do so, don’t buy or request foods for yourself which require cruelty or unnecessary killing.
  • If you can’t keep vegetarian and stay healthy in your current situation, make concessions so that you don’t become unhealthy and thereby become a burden to others. And seek ways to change your situation.
  • When you’re a guest, eat whatever is served and be grateful for it.
  • Share the benefits of a vegetarian diet with others when you perceive that it may be helpful. Otherwise, shut your pie hole. What is important is the consequence of our action, not being right or righteous.

As an example, one situation when it is ethically preferable not to avoid eating meat would be this: You visit friends around midday, you have not yet eaten, and they are about to have lunch. They say, “We’re finishing off these leftover ham sandwiches from the party last night and we’re going to toss out what we don’t eat — would you care for one?”

If you like ham, eat the damn sandwich! Why? Because if you don’t, food will go to waste unnecessarily. And after all, that pig is dead no matter what you do. Refusing to eat the sandwich will not subtract the pig’s death from history. In this situation, there is simply no virtue in refusing.

But even in situations when food will not go to waste if you refuse meat, there still is no virtue in doing so if refusing won’t actually avoid any death or suffering. Of course, if you don’t care to eat meat and there are other options, by all means eat what you like. But not in order to follow some rule or because you feel like it makes you a better person.

In short, we should think about the outcomes of our choices, not our own egos. That is mindful eating.

Four people at a restaurant table, three eating burgers and fries, one eating roasted vegetables and bread.
Photo by StockSnap (altered)

I have to confess, when I think about my own behavior when I first went vegetarian in my early twenties, it sometimes makes me cringe. Because I could be a real pain in the ass.

I became a burden to my family and friends when I visited, as they felt obliged to go out of their way to serve “something Paul can eat” or limit themselves to restaurants where I would have lots of choices. That was selfish of me.

After all, not eating meat was my choice, not theirs. I really had no right to impose upon them. Had I been compassionate and mindful, I would have eaten what was on the table, and gone to whatever restaurant everyone else wanted to go to and take my chances. So if you’re reading, folks, I apologize.

Now don’t get me wrong. I actually do recommend a plant-based diet. Mine also includes shrimp, mussels, and oysters because, quite frankly, I don’t believe these creatures are sentient. Maybe I’m wrong, but my understanding of neuroscience leads me to conclude that these animals have no conscious experience. And in this life, all we can do is go by our best guesses based on the information we have. We won’t be right all the time, but that’s just the way of things.

The point is, we should think about what we eat. Before every meal, I recite a version of a common gatha: The earth, the sun, and the labor of others brings me this food. May I be mindful of where it comes from. May my character and my practice make me worthy of it. May I enjoy it without greed. To sustain life, to practice the way, I receive this food.

It helps to focus my mind on what I am doing and how that connects with the world around me. And it helps to make me aware when I am eating indulgently rather than mindfully.

If you are interested in a more mindful diet, but you’re not too keen on going full-bore vegetarian, try going zenetarian by observing the four guidelines above. In my opinion, as one who has tried both, the zenetarian diet is more conducive to awareness.

If you’re already vegetarian, but you suspect that your diet may be causing health issues or leading you into self-righteousness or mindless rule-following, you might want to give zenetarianism a try. In fact, I would humbly propose that if you’re resistant to the idea because you think eating meat in any situation is beneath you or is somehow disgusting, you might want to reflect on your motivations and the unintended consequences of your choices.

And hey, if you decide it’s not your thing, you can always ditch it for something else.

Bon appétit, que aproveche, enjoy… and peace….

Header graphic by Annalise Batista

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Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.