Tables Turned: Zen Master Seung Sahn on Vegetarianism

Zen Master Seung Sahn insisted pretty strongly on vegetarianism. He spoke about the suffering of predominantly meat-eating cultures, and the suffering that these cultures had visited on other cultures.

Yet he was not doctrinaire or absolutist. He did not keep this as an unbendable rule for the practitioner, and even some of his closest lay students themselves would occasionally eat meat, without falling out of disfavour with him. He was especially understanding of those whose health conditions caused them to need to relay on meat-eating as medicine, to help with strength issues or anemia.

He, himself, did not eat meat. At the end of his life, under the toxic burn of all sorts of cocktails of pharmaceuticals, the doctors urged him strongly to eat meat. He made the argument as difficult as possible for them.

Zen Master Seung Sahn’s argument was strongly tilted to encourage experience of the suffering from the point of view of the eaten animal. He also talked about the mothers of the animals, having their young ripped from them and raised separately. He was also aware of the mass industrialized farming of animals for food, and he felt this to be the great evil that we know it today. He may have also made the connection between industrialised animal-farming and the problem of global warming. He definitely spoke about the amounts of land given over to producing meat for rich countries, at a scale that denied foods to poorer countries.

He also spoke often about how the factory-scale killing of animals for food releases innumerable consciousnesses, and these consciousnesses then “return” to the world with a kind of retribution in the balance sheet. He spoke of it as, in some sense, the simple cause-and-effect mechanism of revenge-mind that causes animals to be reborn as human beings that then kill other human beings. He sometimes tied the mass killing of modern warfare as having grown in lock-step with the killing of animals on vaster scale since the Industrial Revolution: The cycle of killing, and retribution, and the return of slaughter, and then the intensification of this slaughter in the next generation of war, were all tied deeply together. He sometimes commented that the mass killings that began happening in American society in the 1970s as also tied to this endless cycle of karma being paid back, over and over and over again.

But he was very much like the Buddha, even on this issue: It is known that the Buddha himself was criticised by many of his own contemporaries (particularly members of the Jain movement, who maintained the most extreme practice of ahimsa known to humankind), because he did not insist absolutely on the practice of vegetarianism as a condition for discipleship. It is said that, of the nine recorded assassination attempts on the life of the Buddha, at least several of them were undertaken by Hindu co-believers who felt that he was not sufficiently “pure” in his understanding of the principles of ahimsa, and was therefore leading good people astray by not insisting on total abstention from meat. But the Buddha’s rule was not encouraging of meat-eating: He merely taught his followers to eat whatever was placed in their begging bowls, “without regard to conditions of color, or smell, or taste, or texture.” And that included meat: If it is given to you, or required for medicine, and given as an offering of medicine, do not refuse it on “principle.”

So, if one of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s students needed to eat meat, for some health conditions, he called it “special food” or “special eating”, sometimes even “special medicine” (which term also applied to psychedelic drugs, depending on the context). He did not encourage it, but he accepted the need in extreme cases. But he did not believe that people should take meat-eating to be so normal that they lived on it, every day. (Except for children: When asked, he did strongly urge that parents not raise their children meatless: I heard him counsel people to “first make child grow up strong,” but also meanwhile “give correct teaching to this child about suffering. Then, later, this child themselves decide is good.” He had faith in human nature to come to its own innate wisdom regarding desire and suffering — for self and other — if given the right information and freedom to make the right choices.)

This was the beauty of his teaching: it was deeply principled, yet guided by insight, not orthodoxy. He refused meat for years and years of his own diabetic condition, when the low-protein profile of “temple food” caused him to hear often from doctors chiding him to up his protein intake from animal sources. And yet, if a monk or nun had some anemia, and was recommended to eat meat, he would counsel the practitioner to accept the meat with gratitude, but to consume only for as long as was absolutely and minimally necessary.

He would have probably liked these two memes.

[ This is not meant to be an exhaustive presentation on the subject of Zen Master Seung Sahn and vegetarianism. More material will be added, from time to time, as it becomes known. ]

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