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Plants are Living Beings Too

(A reader posted a comment on a blog entry and it's a point that I've heard raised before. I thank her for bringing it up and giving me the opportunity to give a response to it.)

Comment: The Buddhist people don't believe in killing animals but you should always remember that plants are also living things.

Response: Yes, plants are living beings too. However, they do not have the levels of self awareness nor the nervous system that animals have. And it takes a lot more grass (corn on factory farms) to make a steak than it does to feed a human. 

The reality is that all animals in the cycle of rebirth have three choices: 1) eat animals, 2) eat plants, 3) don’t eat. 

Our very existence causes suffering to other beings, be the other being an animal or a plant. As vegetarians and vegans—Buddhist or otherwise—we do the best we can given the options we have. We try to cause the least suffering by eating plants and by eating only what we need to in order to stay healthy and by not wasting any food. 

Making this choice is not always easy. The new vegetarian/vegan needs to re-educate him- or herself. This includes reading labels on every food item they are considering. New recipes have to be found and some old favorites abandoned. Family members or friends may not agree with the person’s wish to become vegetarian/vegan. Family members or friends may feel uncomfortable, or even threatened. They may keep challenging or arguing with the vegetarian/vegan, about their decision. Eating away from home can be difficult when food choices for vegetarians, not to mention vegans, are limited and sometimes non-existent. 

Considering that many vegetarians/vegans encounter all the above obstacles (I had the good fortune to have the support of family and friends so did not run up against every obstacle), I’d say their efforts and commitment are admirable and worthy of support. 

People who choose to be vegetarian or vegan are trying to cause the least harm and suffering they can in an imperfect situation. 

It's not that they don't know that plants are also living beings. It’s just that option #3 above is not really a good option.


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Reader Comments (17)

Indeed, it can cause disagreement. It has led to separate meals being fixed. I finally decided the commitment was worth the daily hassle. At least this reduces the impact by half. I can only hope it sets an example to lead to change at a later date.
October 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSue K

Yes! The commitment and extra work are worth the effort. The best way to teach others is through our actions. And in the meantime we--and in this case many others as well--benefit.
October 11, 2010 | Registered CommenterVenerable Wuling
Dear Venerable Wuling,

I don't understand the point that is being conveyed from the following sentence in context to the topic that is being discussed in this blog: "And it takes a lot more grass (corn on factory farms) to make a steak than it does to feed a human.".

Please elaborate and explain what is meant from the statement.

Do you mean that the accumulated knowledge and conscious of all the grass that is used to make a steak is not near to the level of a human? This is the impression that I seem to have from the statement. Even so, in my opinion, I believe it is isn't quite right to say this statement as it somewhat disrespects all plantae life; because it portrays a sense of human superiority over all plantae life when in fact humans depend on plantae life to provide oxygen for us to survive.

I believe all life, including plantae, should have mutual respect for one another. Therefore it is isn't even right to say that humans have a higher conscious than a single grass. A single grass needs to put in effort to produce oxygen for us to breathe and therefore it should deserve our respect for it, and it is certainly disrespectful to say that our intellect and conscious is superior to that of the grass. Ultimately this statement can signify that we have asserted ourselves in a higher authority over all plant life and all life on Earth.

I believe a more humble statement is needed or that the statement be removed.

Thank you.
October 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVic
Dear Vic,

Thank you for your comments.

I have removed the word "consciousness" from the entry and focused on "self awareness" in the hope this will be more clear.

The statement ""And it takes a lot more grass (corn on factory farms) to make a steak than it does to feed a human" means that we need to grow and harvest more plants (rice or corn) to feed a cow to produce food for humans than it would if humans ate the plants themselves. Eating plants directly means less plants are destroyed. (And the less our environment is negatively impacted.)

Perhaps the following explanation from Chan Master Sheng Yen in Zen Wisdom will help. (The following are from the chapter on Sentient Beings.)

"Living beings can be classified according to four criteria of physical form.
First, there are beings with a simple cellular structure.
Second there are being having a nervous system comprised of living cells.
Third, there are beings with memory.
Fourth, there are beings capable of thought and reason.

The highest level of animals, including humans, includes all four characteristics....Finally, there are life forms that have only cells. Such organisms are not sentient. These are the plants...Plants...are life forms, but not having nervous systems, or the ability to feel pain, they are not sentient....
A sentient being with memory can recall, anticipate, and enhance its experiences of pain and pleasure. This means that the experiences of suffering and pleasure are not limited to physical responses."

“Plants are alive but they do not have nervous systems. They can react in certain ways and exhibit primitive behavior because they have cells, and chemical reactions take place in their bodies. But their reactions to the environment cannot be called sensation because sensation comes with a nervous system.” (Zen Wisdom, page 50)”

Many of us have heard that plants react to pain. The experiments of Dr. Masuro Emoto, written up in his Messages from Water, may shed some light on this. Essentially, water has the ability to react to language, to thoughts. Since plants contain a good amount of water, perhaps this is why plants are said to react to pain.

Bottom line, humans are not “superior” to plants. They are different. “Different” does not mean, imply, or condone disrespect.

A basic precept is to do no harm. But just by living we are doing harm. So we do the best we can and try to minimize the harm in everything we do. We cause the least pain and suffering to others. And we respect all beings, sentient and non-sentient.

As was said in another entry on this blog “This is the level [of teaching] in the Avatamsaka Sutra, which says, ‘Sentient and non-sentient beings all have the same Buddha-wisdom.’ Not only sentient beings—that is, animals—but plants and minerals can also attain Buddhahood. Therefore, we have to be sincere and respectful to people, to things, and to objects. This is the practice of Samantabhadra.” This quote is from my teacher Venerable Master Chin Kung. I strive to emulate his broadmindedness.
October 23, 2010 | Registered CommenterVenerable Wuling
Dear Ven. Wuling,

Thank you for your response to my first message. Your response has cleared up the question I raised and I have understood and I do agree with everything you have said in your response.

Thank you for taking the time in clearing my confusions.
December 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVic
Dear Vic,

I'm glad what I added was helpful and appreciate you expanding the conversation by raising a valid question.
December 3, 2010 | Registered CommenterVenerable Wuling
Ven Wu Ling

Do you really believe that vegetarians, i.e. those who consume dairy and eggs, and who possibly wear leather, wool, silk and fur, are succeeding in minimising pain and suffering to other sentient beings?
December 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLinda McKenzie
"As vegetarians and vegans—Buddhist or otherwise—we do the best we can given the options we have".

An addition to my previous question: Do you really think it's true that as vegetarians, "we do the best we can given the options we have"?
December 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLinda McKenzie

"We do the best we can" is said from the sense that everyone has different conditions, causes, and effects. For someone who has struggled to become a vegetarian but cannot give up eating meat all the time, eating less meat is good. For the vegan struggling to maintain a vegan diet but who is not doing so perfectly, then that person is doing the best they can at that moment.

We do not know what another's "options" are. What is easy for us to do may be extraordinarily difficult for another person to do.

We strive to "do the best we can"--which is different for everyone--and do not judge or criticize others because they are not doing all we are or all we hope they will do. We can encourage them and try to set a good example. When the time is right, hopefully others--and we--will be able to everything perfectly.
December 29, 2010 | Registered CommenterVenerable Wuling
Ven Wu Ling

I understand that we all have different conditions, causes and effects. Amongst these are our beliefs that influence what we value and what we do. If people believe that vegetarianism is morally better than meat-eating they may choose to become vegetarian.

What I am questioning is the basis of the belief that vegetarianism is a morally preferable choice to meat-eating. On what basis do you hold this belief? Is there, in fact, a point, ethically speaking, to people striving to become vegetarian at all?
December 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLinda McKenzie

The first precept (precepts being our standards for ethical living) is to not kill and to instead practice compassion. This is the basis for many Buddhists being vegetarian.
January 2, 2011 | Registered CommenterVenerable Wuling
Ven Wu Ling

Thank you for your reply. By the word “vegetarian” do you mean

“A person who excludes flesh from mammals, birds, and fish from their diet, but includes other products from mammals and birds; specifically, breast milk from cows and eggs from chickens”?

The word “vegetarian” was coined in the English language in the 19th century. Did the Pure Land masters advocate vegetarianism according to this definition? I understand that dairy products are not generally used in many Asian cultures, so I am wondering whether a “vegetarian” diet, or whatever diet was considered ethical by Pure Land masters, included dairy and eggs.

I understand that the basis for Buddhists becoming vegetarian is the First Precept of non-killing. What I am questioning is how the precept is satisfied by a vegetarian diet according to the above definition, since there is no difference, morally, between flesh and other animal products. Dairy and eggs involve torture and killing. All “dairy cows” end up in the same slaughterhouse as “beef cows”. The only difference is that “dairy cows” are kept alive longer to be exploited for milk before being killed for meat, so arguably they suffer more than “beef cows” due to the emotional and physical torture required to produce milk. All male calves of dairy cows are killed at birth or sent to veal crates. As you probably know, veal involves some of the most egregious cruelty of which humans are capable. Every time anyone consumes dairy, they are supporting the veal industry and the beef industry.

Similarly, the production of eggs, including “free range” involves suffering and death.

If we are serious about observing the First Precept in any meaningful way, it seems to me that it is necessary to be vegan, which involves avoiding all animal products, since all involve harm and killing. It's not about perfection of non-harm, since this is impossible, but simply involves doing our best in an imperfect situation by avoiding products which are easily avoidable and also totally unnecessary for out health or survival.

Although being vegan is easy, and has never been easier than it is now, if anyone feels that, for some reason, it’s not possible for them to go vegan immediately, they can adopt an incremental 1-2-3 plan and go vegan in stages according to a pace that is achievable for them. Please see this essay for the 1-2-3 plan for going vegan:

I believe that what's important is that we are always clear that the goal is veganism, no matter how long it takes us to get there, and not vegetarianism or pescatarianism or flexitarianism, or "happy meat" or an other practice which supports killing. Veganism is the only practice which reflects the principle of a total rejection of violence towards, and killing of, non-human animals. Vegetarianism may be better than meat-eating from a health perspective, but it has nothing to recommend it from an ethical perspective, to the extent that other animal products are retained or replace meat in the diet.

Vegetarianism as non-killing involves confused, misinformed or wishful thinking. There is no need to go vegetarian, or to promote vegetarianism, as a "step" towards veganism, since, to the extent that flesh is replaced by eggs and dairy foods in the diet, as vegetarians typically do, it achieves nothing in terms of minimisation of harm to animals, and arguably cause more harm than meat-eating. Moreover, there is no evidence that being vegetarian leads to being vegan. On the contrary, if people believe, and are led to believe, that they are discharging their moral responsibilities to non-human animals, and fulfilling the First Precept, by being vegetarian, it is very unlikely that they will ever go vegan.

If you disagree with my reasoning here, I would be interested to hear what you have to say. Any criticism of vegetarianism is intended only as a criticism of the practice as a meaningful moral alternative to meat-eating, and not as a criticism of individual vegetarians, who, like myself formerly for 28 years, may believe in good faith that they are fulfilling their minimum ethical responsibilities to non-humans.
January 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLinda

I'd say that definition is how most people would define vegetarianism.

In Chinese Buddhism, many vegetarians also did not eat eggs as in the past the eggs would have been fertile and thus eating them would have involved killing. Dairy products were rarely, if ever, found in traditional Chinese diets, so I have not seen any commentaries on this by ancient masters. Factory farming and its horrors is a modern invention so did not need to be addressed by them.

But by understanding the principles behind compassion, people today can extrapolate those principles and make wise, compassionate decisions.

I invite others who are interested to join this discussion.
January 3, 2011 | Registered CommenterVenerable Wuling
Ven Wuling

Thank you again. Based on what you say - that eggs and dairy were generally not part of the type of ethical diet followed by Chinese Buddhists traditionally, it does seem that what they were doing was much closer to a vegan diet than a vegetarian one. This makes complete sense to me as the Western-style "vegetarian" diet simply doesn't reflect the values of ahimsa and compassion. There is a vegan restaurant in the city where I live that is run by a Chinese Pure Land Buddhist couple. The food is excellent and I often wonder if this is more like the kind of diet that Pure Land Buddhists have traditionally eaten. (It's where I first found out about Pure Land Buddhism as they offer books by Master Chin Kung and others for free).

I feel that even the word, "vegetarian" is unfortunate as it belies the facts of what the diet really entails. The Vegetarian Society, founded in 1847, created the word "vegetarian" from the Latin "vegetus" meaning "lively". Understandably, most people falsely assume that the word has some connection with eating vegetables. However, if you look at any vegetarian cookbook, the recipes contain large amounts of eggs and cheese, and it's common that people who go vegetarian eat more of these foods, completely defeating any intentions towards a more ethical diet (or even a healthier diet).

I completely agree with you that it's important to base our diet, and actions in general, on a sound understanding of the *principle* of compassion, i.e. what the principle is intended to achieve, and not merely on a technical or legalistic observance of the precepts and teachings. In other words, we need to follow the "spirit of the law" and not merely the "letter of the law", and we need to apply ourselves honestly and earnestly to contemplating what the principle really demands of us in our present situation, and not fall into lazy, conformist thinking.

I feel that lacto-ovo-vegetarianism does not honour the true spirit of the principle of compassion as it involves simply turning a blind eye (once we are aware of the facts) to torture and killing, which is actually greater than in meat-eating.

The fact is that the animals continue to suffer and die because of our choice, even though we might feel better about ourselves for being a vegetarian rather than a meat-eater. But we have to ask ourselves: for whose benefit am I doing this? Is it for my own gratification in feeling good about myself that I am avoiding one product of cruelty, or is it for the animals who desperately need for us to stop bringing them into existence exclusively for the purpose of exploiting and killing them? If we are genuinely making a change for the animals, we will go vegan, immediately or incrementally. As long as we are buying any kind of animal products, as long as we are not vegan, we are directly subsidising the torture and killing of animals. It's as if we were saying to the corporate animal abusers "Keep doing it. I like it". As long as the demand is there and they can make a profit, they will definitely keep doing it.

The corporations are not specifically interested in abusing and killing animals; they are interested in only one thing – making a profit. They would just as happily make a profit from bananas or tofu if the public demanded these things. The factory farm and slaughterhouse workers have no special interest in abusing animals either. They are usually migrants and others who are desperate to earn a living and have no other option.

Those of us who create the demand by continuing to buy animal products, simply because we enjoy their taste or texture, are the true abusers.

It's very easy and very satisfying to go vegan. Vegan food is delicious and much better for your health, and better for the planet. But most important, it's the morally right thing to do.
January 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLinda
Alas, the truth is that we only care about ourselves and what we feel. We can see and feel empathy for the pain an animal goes through and this hurts us emotionally. BUT we do not SEE the pain a plant goes through when it is hurt. Who are we to judge the thresholds of sentience? Every cell in a plant is just as alive as the cells in our body, or that of an animals'. We are but swarms of cells acting in unison.
We are selfish to our core. Now let me go eat some butter chicken in peace.
February 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndy
January 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLinda McKenzie

Thank you for taking the time to spread awareness about intention versus outcome. I have learned much from your post. Perhaps you can take comfort from knowing that you have helped reduce suffering in other beings by sharing your knowledge in a manner that allows others to make informed choices and we all have gained wisdom.

Be well
April 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJake

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