The fourth “step” on the Noble Eightfold Path is Right Action, also translated as Right Conduct. Right Conduct is defined as abstaining from that which would cause harm and/or suffering to others or yourself. There are some specifics we have to work with here. They are: abstaining from taking life, abstaining from stealing, and abstaining from sexual misconduct.
The first one seems simple. Don’t kill. Don’t take another’s life. Most of us don’t have to much of a hard time with that. However, it does say to abstain from taking life. So here we go with the whole eating meat thing. First of all, the Buddha was not a vegetarian. He ate meat. And he died of food poisoning (either from Mushrooms or bad pig meat). He begged for his food, and wouldn’t refuse any food that was freely given to him. He did however ask that no one kill an animal in his name, or to feed him. But if someone wanted to toss their leftovers in his begging bowl, he wasn’t going to turn them down. He didn’t want to add to the taking of life in this world, because he knew it added more suffering to the world. I’m sure those pigs and chickens just wanted to go about their day living, don’t you?
So what about now? Do you have to be a vegetarian to be a Buddhist? No. You don’t HAVE to do anything really in Buddhism. The Eightfold Path is not the 10 commandments people. There are no absolute laws handed down from some divine law giver. And for some people, they need meat to be healthy. I am married to a vegetarian, and I eat a 90% vegetarian diet. I’ll maybe eat meat once a week if we order out (which is rare) or sometimes I’ll have some bacon at home (there is no substitute for pig fat. sorry). Eventually though, I’d like to make it to 100%. I feel that supporting the meat industry is just leading to more and more suffering, senseless violence (not to mention all the enviromental impacts….) and isn’t really helping myself or the rest of the world out.
I suppose I went off on this tangent because all life in this world is sacred and important in Buddhism. That means mosquitos, your in-laws, deer, any form of life really. What about plants? No idea. Yeah, they’re alive. I suppose the main issue with food is the attachment that comes with it. Why are you eating it? What is the intention behind what you’re about to do? Is it to sustain and fulfill your life? Or are you eating those Swiss Cake Rolls because you’re depressed and bored? Why are you going to drink that home brew? Is it because you’re an alcoholic? Are you just trying to get drunk? Or are you going to drink and appreciate it, savoring every swallow, noticing the aftertaste, the bitterness, the aroma….
Ok, enough on that. Next is abstaining from stealing. Again, a lot of us don’t have too much trouble with this one. Don’t take what isn’t freely given. Seems pretty simple. The only tricky part is when you don’t steal from someone directly. Let’s say you’re at a party, and there’s a bunch of people there, and you see someone brought some home brews. They’re just sitting there on the table, waiting to be discovered and enjoyed. So you ask the host if they know who the brews belong to, but he doesn’t know. You ask everyone at the party, and no one seems to know. Hmm. Maybe the owner left! Score!! Not so fast. Didn’t we just say to abstain from that which isn’t freely given? Those brews don’t belong to you, nor were they freely given to you. If it isn’t yours, don’t take it, end of story.
The last part is abstaining from sexual misconduct. This usually entails not having sex with children, or with someone that is married, or is a relative, or animals, or outside of your own marriage. Again, pretty simple. This one is for the lay people. The monastics were all asked to abstain from sex alltogether. But the Buddha knew that family was very important, and that it was the central point from which society grew. And he knew that in order for family to prosper, someone was going to have to have sex.
The really bad thing about sex is the attachment that comes with it. It’s another one of those impermanent parts of life. The orgasm is a fleeting moment of premature enlightenment, and pretty much impossible to sustain. Sex for the pleasure of having sex leads to suffering. Because, who the hell wants to go from the pleasure of having sex, to not having sex? Sex when used as an expression of love, or a physical representation of emotion is another story altogether. It’s the ego-feeding pleasure-seeking type of sex that isn’t right conduct.
I can think of plenty of other things that could fall into right conduct, but I think you get the point. It’s especially important remember that the other “steps” in the eightfold path will always go with each other. It’s almost never really just about one. Because even when one abstains from sexual misconduct, it’s the intention behind the abstention that matters as well. Cheers.